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Some time this year the Reform movement will issue its new High Holy Day prayerbook, for the first time putting between hard covers a major liturgical work incorporating “gender-sensitive” language. Gender sensitivity is the rubric that for two decades has been used to purge Reform worship of masculine imagery and symbolism and to replace it, gradually, with sexually neutral or (in some cases) explicitly feminine language. This process has not been limited to changing phrases like “God of our fathers” to “God of our ancestors” in the English translation, or even to adding the Hebrew imoteinu, “our mothers” (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah), where previously only avoteinu, “our fathers” (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), were mentioned. More significantly, Reform liturgists have been altering the God-language of the prayerbook—a course of action with enormous, though largely unexamined, theological implications, not only for the Reform movement but for all of American Judaism.

The new High Holy Day prayerbook, Gates of Repentance, is actually a revised version of the 1978 Reform makhzor of the same name. (I have seen an advance copy, showing all the blue-pencil markings.) As with the various paperbound services produced by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in recent years, most of the changes in God-language are in the English translation—a fact attributable more to caution than religious conviction. (A rabbi prominent in liturgy revisions told me that changes in the Hebrew will be slower in coming, since “Some people seem to think the Hebrew is more sacrosanct.”)

Thus, Adonai (Lord) is usually rendered as “Eternal One,” occasionally as “God,” or sometimes is simply left untranslated in the English section; Melech (King) yields most often to “Sovereign”; Avinu (Our Father) gives way in translation to “Source,” “Our Maker,” “Our Creator,” or “Our Parent.” Third-person pronouns referring to God are eliminated by translating them into the second person or by recasting sentences into the passive voice. (Even prior to the written changes, many rabbis have been “editing” the old prayerbooks, replacing every “He” or “His” with a repetition of “God”—e.g., God saw that God’s work was good and so God rested from God’s work.)

For the most part Gates of Repentance employs gender-neutral rather than feminine language. Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King), one of the most venerable and beloved formulations of the Jewish liturgy, is left untranslated in the main text—though an alternative prayer is offered to the Shekhinah, the divine spirit, which is traditionally regarded as feminine. The use of explicitly feminine imagery is actually carried further in the CCAR’s booklet for S’lichot services, Gates of Forgiveness (1993). That service alters both the Hebrew and the English of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer to yield Avinu Imeinu (Our Father, Our Mother). Masculine imagery is tolerated, but only (it seems) when it is immediately counterbalanced by feminine language. Later in the same book, balance is abandoned for outright feminization: the Shekhinah is invoked as a “Mothering Presence” and “Mother present in all”; a blessing begins, Barucha At . . . Blessed are you (feminine) instead of the traditional Baruch Atah (masculine).

Gender neutrality is regarded by the CCAR’s Liturgy Committee as a transitional style. In five or six years the CCAR plans to revamp Gates of Prayer—the Reform siddur for Sabbath, weekdays, and festivals—employing a good deal of explicit feminine imagery. It remains to be seen whether this means “Father,” “Lord,” and “King”—expunged from all the most recent liturgies—will be allowed to come back into prayerbooks for gender balance.

To Jews in other movements, the liturgical changes in Reform must seem just another instance of Reform’s ultraliberal heresy and mishegoss that imitates trends in the secular world and liberal churches. Yet Reform innovation is often an advance indicator of developments in the other branches of Judaism. The Conservative movement, which followed Reform on the ordination of women and has adopted much of Reform’s liberal political agenda, has already made some concessions to gender sensitivity in its current prayerbook, and Conservative rabbis are now discussing the possibility of using demasculinized God-language. Orthodoxy is relatively immune to liturgical ferment, but not absolutely so. Increasingly, one finds Orthodox women breaking out of traditional religious roles—undertaking intensive Talmudic studies, forming women’s prayer groups, and davening publicly on commuter trains and in airports. As some Orthodox women explore a feminized God-language within the limits of tradition, nondenominational women’s minyans venture beyond. Whether the new God-language becomes a source of further division within American Judaism or the basis of a new theological consensus, its assumptions and arguments need to be evaluated more carefully—starting with the Reform case.

The idea behind gender sensitivity is that religious teaching and liturgy should reflect the religious equality of women—as full partners in the covenant and as creatures equally made b’tselem elohim, “in the image of God.” Many women say they feel excluded by a theological and liturgical vocabulary that is overwhelmingly masculine: they can neither relate to nor find any self-reflection in the awesome, patriarchal God-figure who relies so heavily on power, fear, rules, and hierarchy. To include women in the religious life of the Jewish community, they argue, God must be re-imaged in a way that incorporates the feminine aspects of the divine nature.

Liturgical reformers contend that such reimaging is easily accommodated within a traditional Jewish framework. After all, it is argued, the sages insisted that God has no body and is beyond the categories of male and female, incorporating both but limited by neither. The ancient rabbis were aware that God is eyn sof—unknowable, unfathomable, indescribable—and they regarded all God-language as approximate and figurative. Even in the Bible itself, as well as in mystical texts and other writings, feminine imagery is occasionally employed to describe God. The dominant imagery is masculine, the revisers claim, only because women have been powerless and marginalized throughout Jewish history; their voices have been silenced by men who have had all the power and who, idolatrously, projected onto God their own male image. This male-centered social construction of God has been a perennial instrument of oppression against women, and serves, even today, to define women as inferior and radically “other”—religiously, culturally, and politically. If Judaism is to survive and flourish, it cannot afford to alienate half of its members with outdated sexist language and conceptualizations.

The question arises, then: Is there any reason, in the face of such potent challenges, to insist on the continued pervasiveness of masculine God imagery? In fact, there is good reason for both women and men to refrain from embracing the new feminized liturgies. God-language is loaded (to borrow Marx’s famous phrase about commodities) with “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” such that seemingly innocent revisions change the religious substance of Judaism in unexpected and undesired ways.

One may readily concede that all God-language is in some sense figurative, that human language and understanding are unable to grasp the Ultimate. However, it does not follow that all figurative language is therefore equal in approximating the mystery of the divine. Though we never penetrate to the inner reality of God, we do encounter Him in certain relationships that are humanly describable, however imperfectly. To address God as Father or Lord or King does not identify the sex or describe the essential being of God so much as it defines certain relationships between Him and us. While the God we pray to is beyond male or female, He has chosen to disclose Himself in distinctly masculine ways that are structured into the meanings of the Torah and the prayerbook, and cannot therefore simply be altered at will.

For God’s divine parenthood, neither mother nor father is an entirely satisfactory metaphor. Children have a genetic link to their natural mothers and fathers, whereas God’s parenthood involves no genetic connection and no role for sex or procreation. Nevertheless, parenthood is a necessary metaphor for God’s relation to humankind: it expresses the sense of personal care and solicitude that the words Creator and Maker fail to capture. Because generic parenthood is a meaningless concept—we have no sense or experience of a generic parent—we are stuck with the alternatives of mother and father.

There can be little doubt that, for Judaism, divine parenthood is better symbolized by fatherhood than motherhood, or at least that fatherhood is far less problematic than motherhood. In Genesis, God—like a father—generates outside of Himself. In the creation myth of feminine deities, however, everything emerges from the womb of the Mother God, conveying a sense that the world is an emanation or extension of the divine, and therefore divinized, as in pantheism. But at the very center of Jewish monotheism is the denial of a divinized nature: Nature is good, because God has made it so, but nature is not divine, and human beings are not made of godstuff.

The moral and theological implications of the Mother God and “birth metaphor” have been cogently described by Rabbi Paula Reimers in her essay “Feminism, Judaism, and God the Mother” (Conservative Judaism, Fall 1993). If “the universe and its processes are ‘birthed’ by the deity,” Rabbi Reimers argues, then nature and its cycles are “held to be an expression of the divine will.” In such a cosmology, good and evil lose all meaning, everything being good in its proper time. Suffering and death no less than flourishing and life are to be regarded as “necessary stations on the great wheel of existence.” In a “birthed” universe, moreover, “human beings are not qualitatively different from anything else that exists. They share in the divine essence, as children of the goddess, but only to the same extent that everything else does. Human life objectively is no more or less significant than the life of animals or plants. . . . Human free will is dissolved in the face of the determinism of nature.” Human beings need follow no moral standard other than to accept and submit “to the divine rhythm of existence, of which they are a part.”

Rabbi Reimers contrasts the “inherent pantheism of goddess religion, rooted in the birth metaphor,” with Jewish monotheism, which “is rooted in the creation metaphor of Genesis.” In Judaism, nature and humanity emerge not as part of an undifferentiated birth of the universe, but through discrete acts of creation in which all things are appointed a place in the hierarchy of the world. Good and evil, right and wrong, are known not by reference to nature’s processes, impulses, and vitalities, but through the words and commandments of a transcendent God. Because God is not identified with the cycles of natural recurrence but with unique revelations and mighty acts—especially the Covenant—time is given meaning by progressive development, and history is imbued with direction and purpose. Human beings are not permitted to view themselves or their impulses as divine; they are to understand themselves, rather, as creatures made “in the image and likeness of God,” with a dignity and worth above the rest of nature, and with free will to act according to transcendent laws concerning good and evil.

The Father-God metaphor, then, while revealing certain limits and imperfections of human language and understanding, provides a better symbolization than motherhood of the sense of distance in the divine-human relationship and is less likely therefore to invite a pantheistic cosmology. As Rabbi Reimers explains, “Those who want to use God/She language want to affirm womanhood and the feminine aspect of the deity. They do this by emphasizing that which most clearly distinguishes the female experience from the male. A male or female deity can create through speech or through action, but the metaphor for creation which is uniquely feminine is birth. Once God is called female, then, the metaphor of birth and the identification of the deity with nature and its processes become inevitable.” Her last point is not a matter of mere conjecture or speculation: in ancient times female deities were in fact seen as having given birth to the world, with nature-worship following almost invariably. Today, too, feminist theology regularly falls back upon the birth metaphor, and, not surprisingly, often lapses into a pantheistic worldview as well (often under the guise of “deep ecology”).

In sum, according to Rabbi Reimers, “the composers and compilers of those [biblical and rabbinic] texts knew that the deity could be understood as female; many of the peoples among whom they lived worshipped goddesses—(and, she might have added, their societies were male-dominated all the same). “Our ancient teachers” used masculine language for God not so much as an expression of chauvinism as a means to prevent the “introduction of alien theological ideas into the heart of monotheistic religion.”

Even beyond the creation story, the divine-human relationship is in crucial respects paternal rather than maternal or generically parental. Maternal care arises more or less naturally, and mother love tends to be unconditional. Fatherhood, by contrast, is largely a socially constructed phenomenon, and it is far more conditional and hierarchical than motherhood—demanding obedience, threatening punishment, and setting standards in return for love and approval. In families without fathers or strong male authority figures, order tends to break down, particularly among the male children, who become wild and predatory.

The God of Israel introduces Himself into history as a kind of adoptive parent, in particular as a father figure who steps in to bring order to a chaotic and violent world. At times He exhibits the gratuitous love and tender care associated with femininity and motherhood—but more often our broken, unredeemed world calls forth from Him a specifically paternal form of authority, implemented over and against His human children, especially His sons. While women, in their own fashion, may sin as much as men, it is the pride and willfulness and violence of men that most radically disrupts the world’s peace and order. Feminist reformers may have no trouble in recognizing this fact, but they seem not to notice that breaking the arrogance and power of men requires a God who is, among other things, the Judge of Nations, the Lord of Hosts, the “King of glory . . . mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8).

Feminist critics and modern liturgy revisers often assume that God’s awesome patriarchal aspect is merely an idolatrous projection of the male image, which it can be and sometimes is. At the same time, God’s lordship is the only plausible check on the predatory tendencies of wicked men and nations, from Pharaoh to Haman to Hitler. The feminist argument that traditional God-language stresses power, fear, rules, and hierarchy is essentially correct; but it misses the point that these things are required for the good of women as well as men. It is precisely His capacity as a warrior-judge that enables Him to be a God of justice who frees the captive and releases the oppressed, who answers the cries of the poor, the widows, the fatherless. “King” and “Lord” are the most convincing symbolizations for this aspect of divine action.

Reimagings that magnify characteristically feminine traits undermine the plausibility of God’s ultimate power to overcome evil. Such undermining can be seen, for instance, in the celebrated fantasy of Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig (Reform Judaism , Fall 1992), which depicts God as a graying, late-middle-aged woman.

She moves more slowly now. She cannot stand erect. Her hair is thinning. Her face is lined. Her smile no longer innocent. Her voice is scratchy. Her eyes tire. Sometimes she has to strain to hear. Yet, she remembers everything. On Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the day on which she gave us birth, God sits down at her kitchen table, opens the Book of Memories, and begins turning the pages; and God remembers.

God kvels over the achievements of her children, but laments their waywardness. “They rarely visit me,” she sighs. However, if we did visit her, “God would usher us into her kitchen, seat us at her table, pour two cups of tea.” Then, after listening to us spill out our troubles for a while, “finally, she touches her finger to her lips and says, ‘Sha. Be still. Shhh.’”Later on, “God holds our face in her two hands and whispers, ‘Do not be afraid, . . . I gave birth to you, I carried you. I will hold you still. Grow old with me.’”

Rabbi Wenig’s God wonders why her children don’t visit her, but she shouldn’t be surprised. Though kind and gentle, she is totally ineffectual in the things the world needs most from God. There is scarcely a hint of transcendence about her. She dispenses tea and sympathy but doesn’t deliver justice with a mighty hand. She offers to hold hands and grow old together, but not to heal the sick, lift up the fallen, and resurrect the dead (or, as Reform liturgy fatuously puts it, “give life to all”).

It might also be said of this God that she is as thoroughly idolatrous a projection of the modern female self as one can imagine. No Jewish man, certainly no modern or liberal Jewish man, could possibly get away with a comparable self-deification. To the extent that Jewish men have too closely identified God’s characteristically masculine actions with their own sex, at least they have recognized that God means to judge them, and not, as feminist reimagers propose, simply to succor and adore and vindicate them.

Another famous feminist reimaging—by Rabbi Rebecca Alpert (Reform Judaism,Winter 1991)—is more vital than Rabbi Wenig’s God, but no less self-deifying.

The experience of praying with Siddur Nashim [a prayerbook coauthored by Naomi Janowitz and Rabbi Wenig] . . . transformed my relationship with God. For the first time, I understood what it meant to be made in God’s image. To think of God as a woman like myself, to see Her as both powerful and nurturing, to see Her imaged with a woman’s body, with womb, with breasts—this was an experience of ultimate significance. Was this the relationship that men have had with God for all these millennia? How wonderful to gain access to those feelings and perceptions. 

The Reform movement is probably not ready for such bold feminist reimagings in its mainstream liturgies. There has been some experimentation with alternating references to God as Father and Mother, and more is planned. This device, however, has certain drawbacks. It implies, perhaps even more dramatically than a lone Mother God, a pantheistic worldview (i.e., the universe as product of divine copulation), or else a sexually protean deity, a hermaphrodite, or dualistic godhead.

For now these bizarre and unseemly images are avoided by emphasizing language that is scrupulously gender-neutral; but this only causes theological distortion of a different kind. The constant repetition of “Eternal One” as a substitute for Lord (Adonai) not only de-genders God, it radically depersonalizes and sedates Him. The Jewish God is, in a certain sense, eternal, in that He is everlasting. But the word “eternity” is problematic in the context of biblical Hebrew; it is really a philosopher’s term, implying a kind of timeless essence, unchanging and inactive, frozen in isolated splendor. Such a God is perhaps relevant to a sterile religion of abstract ethics, but It provides little aid or comfort to the sick, the oppressed, and the bereaved. The God of the Bible and traditional prayerbook is personal and active. Moreover, He is caring . For all the severity of His patriarchy and hierarchy, the old biblical God is more caring and approachable than the vapid, comfortless entity now being forced on Reform congregants. Their “Eternal One” represents not so much a re-imaging as a de-imaging of God.

Can it be that Jewish women really prefer this abstract deity to the venerable “Lord” of their ancestors? Has feminism driven women to such resentment against all things masculine that it is impossible for them to imagine a benevolent Father or King? It is far from obvious that the traditional God is necessarily alien or alienating to most women. There is, however, a strain of feminism that is hostile toward any notion of distinctive masculine traits or social roles, and its influence within the Reform movement has persuaded—or intimidated—the rabbis to blot out all masculine God-language and imagery from the prayerbook. The result at this stage is not a full-fledged Mother God—which, by feminist lights, is the true way to make religion more accessible to women—but a compromise deity that is inaccessible to both women and men.

This genderless God also represents a profound betrayal of the Torah narrative. We can no more make the God of the Bible into a generic parent or sovereign than we can make King Lear into a mother/queen or Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, into a father/king. Father and king are aspects of Lear that are structured into his story (as Gertrude’s femininity is structured into Hamlet). If we can respect this integrity in works of secular literature, we should want to respect it even more faithfully in the Torah. For to change the sex of a character is no longer to have the same story.

Which brings us, finally, to the most important point of all in understanding what is at stake in the issue of God-language: namely, reverence for the Torah, for its integrity, and for its role as an aytz chaim—“a tree of life” (to borrow a phrase from the prayerbook). The most simple and compelling reason to reject gender-reimaging is that God, though not a man or a male, has used masculine terms in making His self-disclosure to humanity. Our words for God are controlled by the word of God.

The notion of “God’s word” will of course be understood differently by Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews, but it must be maintained in some sense by any movement that claims to be authentically Jewish. Orthodoxy understands the Bible in relatively fixed ways, and it holds that the received Torah is a perfect transcription of that which was written by God’s own finger. Liberal Judaism holds that the Bible cannot always be understood according to the tradition’s fixed or literal readings, and that, moreover, it is a document touched in many respects by the limitations and frailties of human nature. But this ability to criticize, while creative up to a point, must have some limits. Even liberal Judaism must maintain that the Torah is still substantially a work of transcendent truth, the inspired word of God. Otherwise the Torah becomes merely a record of all the influences that have conditioned Judaism, and it is no longer an aytz chaim. And if it is not a tree of life, why cling to it?

The movement to revise the liturgy along feminist lines—which stresses above all else the Torah as the ideological rationalization of an oppressive patriarchy—is not an expression of liberal Judaism but of radical deconstruction. The Fatherhood, Kingship, and Lordship of God are central and pervasive elements of Jewish tradition. The masculine character of much of God’s revelation is not only structured into the story of the Torah, it is repeatedly and unambiguously affirmed. Even in the handful of biblical passages (so eagerly seized on by feminists) where the God-imagery is maternal, the verb forms remain masculine. God’s predominantly masculine character may be textured so as to account for the feminine—which is also contained in the divine—but it cannot be repealed. To allow such a radical move is to concede that there is no limit on the relativizing and deconstructing of Jewish texts and teaching. It is to grant, in effect, a license for the repeal of any Torah precept at all—the oneness of God, the Ten Commandments . . . anything. Feminist-inspired liturgy is not the extension but rather the extinction of liberal Judaism. It does not continue the tradition of reforming an old religion so much as set the stage for the creation of a new one.

Many people who support the new gender-sensitive liturgies no doubt believe themselves to be continuing a tradition of critical reflection and religious reform going back to the great rabbinic sages. In fact, though, the current liturgy revision betrays not only traditional rabbinic method but also modern liberal—and especially feminist—emphasis on “process.” Classic rabbinic decisions were reached after extensive debates, in which all sides of an issue were given full expression and review. The current Reform rabbinate simply decided to repeal the God-language of several millennia with nothing more in mind than applying a rather wooden understanding of the principle of sexual equality. Having received a mandate from the CCAR’s Executive Board, the Liturgy Committee undertook extensive discussions on how to implement the changes, but never deliberated on the wisdom or rightness of such change.

In short, there was no rabbinic debate, no invitation of opposing views, no dialectical give and take, no formal statement or explanation from the Liturgy Committee to the Reform laity, or even to the Reform rabbinate at large. Some form of consultation with the laity and rabbinate is planned for several years down the road, when the next generation of highly feminized liturgies are composed. But by then there will be very little opportunity to make changes; feminine God-language will be a fait accompli.

The Reform conceit, of course, is that liberal Judaism is the most authentic expression of Torah living because, like our father Jacob, we liberals do not slavishly accept tradition but instead wrestle with things human and divine. This view may have had a measure of truth many years ago; today, however, the wrestling match increasingly resembles the “professional” wrestling seen on television: little morality plays between caricatures of good and evil, with the result fixed in advance.

The whole process of liturgy revision may be legally and formally in accord with the institutional requirements and mandates of the CCAR. But it lacks the openness to reason and deliberation normally associated with the word “liberal.” Indeed, there is a hierarchical, top-down quality to the process that contradicts the frequently heard feminist demand for open process. And there is a certain irony in having the new liturgies advertise themselves as “sensitive” and “inclusive” when, in their content and method of introduction, they rather rudely exclude those Reform Jews who want greater stability and respect for tradition in the movement. Tradition, according to one nostrum, has a vote but not a veto in Reform decision making; now, it seems, tradition is disenfranchised while feminism has all the votes plus an absolute veto.

The introduction of feminized liturgies also reveals the Reform movement’s continuing recklessness toward the principle of Clal Yisrael—the larger unity of the Jewish people. That sense of unity is now under heavy, almost unbearable, stress. In fairness, there is probably nothing the Reform movement can do that would soften the Orthodox rabbis’ implacable hostility toward all non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism (the Conservatives actually receive most of the Orthodox scorn—Reform being beneath contempt in Orthodox eyes). Yet, if the situation cannot now be improved, the Reform movement should at least be at pains not to make things worse. Though the divisions within Judaism show no sign of healing at present, wholly unexpected possibilities may arise in the future. If Reform continues to move farther and farther from a traditional Jewish theological worldview—if it continues (in effect) to show contempt for Torah and deference to political correctness–it forecloses future possibilities of cooperation and reconciliation. It will probably divide its own house as well.

The Reform movement has made some legitimate prayerbook changes in the past, but that precedent should not be used to rationalize the latest wave of radical innovation. A movement perpetually tempted by secular fashion needs liturgical continuity as a vital link to our ancestors and as well as to Clal Yisrael. In his book Understanding Jewish Prayer (1972), the late Jakob Petuchowski, one of Reform’s greatest teachers, spoke of Jewish practice as—a source of obligation—even in instances where the purely human origin of a given practice is clearly recognized and admitted, and where no claim of a direct divine revelation is being made.”

For community prayer to be community prayer, there will have to be certain features which represent a recognizable constant, linking one worship experience to another. . . . That is why Jewish community prayer would cease to be Jewish community prayer if today’s worship service were to be something totally and entirely different from yesterday’s worship service, or last week’s, or last year’s, or that of a hundred years or two thousand years ago. Similarly, the Jew who travels from Bombay to Chicago must find some elements, known to him from Bombay, in the Chicago service. 

Gender-sensitive prayerbooks may still retain “some elements” in common with traditional Jewish liturgy—but not enough. Their adoption by the Reform movement will lend credence to the frequent charge that Reform is not “real Judaism.”

One does not want to be apocalyptic at this stage of the game. The editors of the new Gates of Repentance do appear to have hedged their bets somewhat by holding off on the most radical feminist revisions. If the new book sells poorly, maybe that will provide the Reform rabbinate with a much needed reality check. On the other hand, if the book sells well, then the Liturgy Committee will follow through on its plan to push the envelope further, to introduce more explicit Mother-God imagery along the lines proposed by Rabbis Wenig and Alpert.

If we can get through this slightly mad period without embracing the new feminine God, perhaps we will be able to give more serious attention to women’s legitimate grievances with the tradition. Women are different from men in the way they think and feel and understand—a point on which feminism, modern psychology, and traditional religion now seem to agree. Jewish prayer and ritual should address those different faculties and tendencies more than it has in the past. This purpose is not well served, however, by the current liturgical trend, which seeks to eradicate ancient truths and images, thus enshrining female resentment and male guilt and abdication. Women and men, both, have to find ways of dealing with this strange God of the Bible and prayerbook. Though we approach God with our many differences (not least the difference between men and women), we have in common the need for joy and consolation and forgiveness through prayer. In order to find these things, however, we must know that when we open our siddur, we are praying not to an idol of our own imagining but to the God of the Torah—that our prayer might be a tree of life to us. 

Matthew Berke is Managing Editor of First Things. He belongs to a Reform congregation.