My family wasn’t religious, but it didn’t take me long to learn that everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, referred to God as male. Even though the Torah tells us that God has no face or form, in prayer books, Bibles, sermons, and in conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses who occasionally rang our doorbell, God was always “He” — a pronoun that proclaimed that God, like everyone else, was defined by our system of binary gender. Even atheists referred to the God they didn’t believe in with pronouns that implied that God, though non-existent, nonetheless was male: “What evidence do you have that He exists?” they’d ask, or, if they were particularly pugnacious, “If God can do anything, can He create a weight that He cannot lift?”
To some extent, the habit of referring to God as male made sense to me. Apart from me, binary gender was (and still is) everywhere. In my family, in my neighborhood, at school, in books, and on TV, everyone was either male or female — and it was assumed that anyone in a position of power, as God was supposed to be, was male. As a transgender child terrified that others might discover I wasn’t the boy I was pretending to be, I knew that to have a place in this world, everyone, even God, had to accept being seen as one or the other.
But even so, I found the gendering of God confusing. I was seen as male because I was born in a physically male body. God had never been born and, as everyone seemed to agree, didn’t have a body. That gave me a sense of kinship, of closeness, with God. God was the only other person I knew who didn’t fit binary gender categories. Like me, hidden inside my male exterior, God didn’t have a body to make God visible. And like me, the real me who identified as female, God’s lack of a body seemed to make it very hard for others to know that God was there.
For most of my life, I kept my ideas about God as hidden as my transgender identity. But once I began living as myself — that is, as someone who identifies as female despite my male birth and upbringing — I found that when I wrote or spoke about my journey as a transgender person, I often ended up talking about my relationship with God. When I received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, I decided to write a book, The Soul of the Stranger, about how being transgender had shaped my understanding of God. Because I was writing about the Torah and not just my personal experience, I had to confront questions I had until then avoided, like: Does the Torah portray God as male?
What I found is that, aside from its use of male pronouns (and in Hebrew, male verb forms), the Torah does not consistently portray God as male; in fact, God usually isn’t gendered at all. For example, the second verse of Genesis portrays God as a “spirit hovering [or “sweeping”] over the water.” No gender there, or in any of God’s other actions during the creation of the universe. In the next chapter, God forms a man, Adam, from earth, and a woman, Eve, from Adam’s flesh, but neither those actions, nor God’s interactions with Eve and Adam, identify God as male. If anything, creating life is generally associated with women, not men. Before God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, God sews garments for them and clothes them, hardly stereotypically male behavior. In fact, nowhere in Genesis is God portrayed as male, except for the beginning of chapter eighteen, where the Torah tells us that when God appears, Abraham sees three men. But there’s no reason to think the Torah here is telling us that God is male. In fact, it tells us that Abraham doesn’t recognize God in this form, even though Abraham has always recognized God before.
Other books of the Torah do refer to God in terms of male roles, such as king, or father, or man or warrior. But these are descriptions of God’s relationships with human beings, not portrayals of God. And those male metaphors share space, and sometimes even verses, with female and non-gendered terms for God — as when God is called a “rock” by Moses, or, by Isaiah, “my strength and my song.” For me, Isaiah conclusively answers the question of whether the Torah portrays God as male in two verses in chapter forty-two. After referring to God as a male warrior in verse thirteen, the next verse portrays God as saying, “now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.”
When we look past the pronouns to the many ways the Torah portrays God, it’s clear that the Torah not only does not tell us God is male, but summons us to recognize that God is not defined, and cannot be defined, in terms of human gender.
Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. She is a Fulbright Scholar and author of seven books including Through the Door of Life, a National Jewish Book Award finalist, and six poetry collections.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Dr. Joy Ladin is a professor of English and holds the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College. She received her PhD at Princeton, MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and BA from Sarah Lawrence College. A nationally recognized speaker on gender and Jewish identity she has spoken around the country and has been featured on a number of NPR programs most notably, “On Being with Krista Tippett.”