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.”