Why is God “He”?…ask the Rabbi

June 14, 2016 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple has an answer to this tricky question.


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Why do we call God “He”?

A. Despite our post-feminist age, a crucial question remains: the Gender of God.

It is axiomatic that He has no physical form, and anthropomorphisms (applying human terminology to Him) are metaphors. So why do we call Him “He, Him, His” and maintain masculine metaphors?

There are three options; all inadequate:
* Use neutral language, but this seems to remove personness from God.

* Use feminine language, but: a. this merely reverses the axiom; b. male language may be better at denoting power and dynamism; and c. female language suggests reproductive capacity, which does not apply to God.

* Use joint terminology, but this is cumbersome and creates a new dualism.

Though in theory language has no inherent “politics of sex” and the symbols of monotheism are not automatically masculine, the pragmatic fact is that maleness is the common human and theological norm.

This emphasis on maleness cannot be defended on the basis of the Bible, where the God imagery is sometimes female, e.g. God as mother (Ezek. 16), midwife/nurse (Isa. 42:15), and birthing mother (Isa. 42:14, 66:12-13).

The oscillation of male/female God imagery reflects a tension between two dimensions of God – far/near, stern/kindly, etc.

Raphael Patai acknowledges this but separates male and female deities, arguing that until c. 586 BCE, polytheism included female deities, e.g. the “asherah” (sacred tree or pole), representing the consort of a national (male) deity and symbolising motherhood and fertility.

However, the female dimension in the Bible is not necessarily sexual/orgiastic but maternal, since the Torah opposes sacred prostitution (Deut. 23:17-18) but lauds motherhood. We should also note the use of the feminine in Wisdom Literature (“chochmah”, etc.).

The Talmud speaks of “Shechinah” (a feminine word) as a term for God even though He has no inherent gender. However, in Kabbalah, “Shechinah” has a feminine sense as “God’s daughter”, suggesting that our sins separate God and His daughter and our task is to reunite them.

This is a different question to God-language, in relation to which three points can be made:
* no adequate phraseology has yet been developed to recognise God’s lack of gender

* liturgical language is inherently conservative and prefers to retain masculine terms for God

* there is no real motivation  to change our God-language (and Rav Moshe Feinstein warns us against doing things merely to make a statement).


Q. Why are German Jews called Yekkes?

A. Here are several theories:
1. In Eretz Yisra’el in the 1930s, it was only the German Jewish immigrants who insisted on dressing properly with jackets (“jacket” = Jacke).

2. In Eastern Europe, men wore long kaftans; only the German Jews wore short jackets.

3. The name is the initials of “yehudei kasheh havanah”, people who don’t understand quickly.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.


2 Responses to “Why is God “He”?…ask the Rabbi”
  1. Debbie Scholem says:

    Liat has said everything so well however here’s my tuppence worth. Rabbi, with the greatest respect you are male and will stay be male and you cannot possibly know how it feels to be a female Jew. The de-gendering texts used in the Progressive/Reform movement are wonderfully inclusive and sit well with the congregants beliefs and prayers. Please don’t assume you know how Jews feel just because you belong to the ‘Orthodox’ club of Judaism.

  2. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    Dear Rabbi Apple,
    I would suggest to you that there is no reason why ‘female language’ should be restricted in description to ‘reproductive capacity’, or thought of in opposites, such as near/far and kindly/stern. Both women and men are capable of being kindly and stern, soft or tough, emotionally strong, resilient … Neither should such total emphasis be placed on the ‘maternal’, as important as that is, both to mothers and the survival of their children. There is more to a woman than her capacity to bear children and her maternal instincts and actions in that regard. Just as there is more to a man than being a father. There are so many facets to a person, so much capacity of all kinds.

    What makes you think that ‘male language’ is better at denoting ‘power and dynamism’? I would like to understand what you mean by that. Because I have here in my library many works of literature, some written in female language that is both powerful and dynamic. By that I mean the language expressed by a female, and surely that is the only female language there is. Let us not consider female language as being that assigned to the female by a male – that is male language speaking. And how does male language better denote power and dynamism?

    You say it’s a pragmatic fact that maleness is the common human and theological norm. I can accept the latter, because in the main the theological interpretations are made by men. But, maleness as the common human norm?! What is that supposed to mean? Women make up approximately 50% of the human species, so what sort of human norm are we talking about here? Language is actually riddled with the politics of sex, and that of course is dictated by who is writing it or speaking it. We call God ‘He’ and use male metaphors because by and large liturgical writings have been from the pen of man and oratories from the mouths of men. Personally, I don’t mind particularly if He is attributed to God, because to me God is so far removed from the notion and/or reality of man (universally meant), that it’s not an allocation of significance. We are in the image of God, a far cry from the divine – and there’s no reason why females and males alike can’t speak or write of God in imagery that’s powerful and dynamic – this is not the God given right of men alone, nor are men so special to language that they alone have the capacity to do so.

    It’s a good subject for discussion, but can we please consider the female aspect of it with more acuity and depth, thereby exposing the fullness of being woman. The fullness of woman, and of man, each complementing the other. It will be a day to celebrate when women can choose to practise Judaism as they might wish, instead of being paternalistically patted on the head and told they ‘are not obligated to do so’. That is also male language.

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