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Does God’s gender matter?

Still Small Voice is a collection of 18 interviews with clergy and scholars tackling 18 questions about God, published during the month of Elul, a time of Jewish reflection and accountability. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

I have always thought of God as male. That’s no eureka, considering the language in our liturgy, Torah and commentaries—God is “King,”“Father,” “He,” “Him,” “His.”

My mother, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, was raised in a fairly observant home in 1950s Queens, and later became one of the early advocates of more egalitarian Jewish practice and leadership (and a co-founder of Ms. Magazine). When she challenges me as to why I’m so sure God is male, I admit I don’t respond well. I’m good with my God as is. That may be lazy or retrograde on my part, but it’s hard to change one’s mental picture of the divine.

But Mom did have a point when she suggested I ask clergy how — or if —they talk about God’s gender, as part of this series for which I have spent months asking 18 Jewish thinkers about God.

Rabbi David Ingber told me he was interested in tackling this question when I approached him for an interview. His approach to God’s gender widened the lens to suggest that God appears not as exclusively male or female, but as both and neither. God tells us to look for the divine in everyone and everything.

I often say, “I knew Rabbi David Ingber when,” because years before he founded his immensely popular spiritual community, Romemu, in Manhattan, he played ice hockey in a league with my brother, who accidentally broke the future rabbi’s nose with a puck.

Every time I interview Ingber for a story, he manages to brush the cobwebs off an ancient verse, but this time he stumps me. At least at first. The text he sends before our interview, (I ask each teacher to choose one) is a midrash, or rabbinic commentary, from the 6th century, in which a sage known as Rab Kahana analyzes the First Commandment: “I am the Lord, your God.”

Kahana suggests that when God asserts, “I am the Lord,” it’s to clarify not only that God is one, but God is all. We should not assume the Lord takes one shape or is found in just one place.

Ingber builds on Kahana’s analysis: if the Lord our God has multiple iterations, the Lord is therefore not one gender at all times.

It’s not because of some feminist principle that Ingber seems to suggest this, though he’s known for an egalitarian approach to traditional observance. Instead, Ingber says that asking whether God is male or female is the wrong question. God takes any form you need God to take. And the midrash gives us permission to find — or feel — God in whatever form speaks to us.

I relate to that idea. I’ve experienced a sense of God showing up in myriad interactions, and sometimes not in a person at all, but in a place, a gathering, an instant.

Our conversation is below, edited for clarity and length. To read other interviews in this series, click here. Send (gentle) feedback to [email protected]

‘God is the elephant in the room’
David Ingber

Image by Angelie Zaslavsky

Rabbi David Ingber: Even though God is in every synagogue service or ritual event in Jewish life, God is the elephant in the room. We come at God as a given, but we try to sidestep God in a way — by talking about values or morality or whatever it is. The God question is one that Christians or Muslims are more comfortable having a conversation about.

Abigail Pogrebin: In your 20 years as a rabbi, don’t people ask you about God all the time?

DI: I think that people mostly avoid the question. And for good reason. Jewish history has been both a testimony to the deep impact of God — and the God idea — on the Jewish people, but also a testimony to the unrelenting trauma of believing in a God who disappoints you over and over again.

I think that we all have a kind of ‘Post Traumatic God Disorder’ — or PTGD — and that’s the reason why I love this 6th Century text: because it allows a kind of opening up of a limiting belief or construct.

AP: And that ‘limiting construct’ for God is what many Jews absorbed in childhood — God as a male, all-powerful, often-punishing, unrelatable king in the heavens or something like that?

DI: Yes. One of the ways to heal Post-Traumatic God Disorder is to ask a fundamental question: What is God and how do I know that? Where did I learn that? How am I going to maybe think about this differently? Why didn’t I think about it differently before?

AP: And if a cautionary voice in our heads tells us we’re straying too far off the reservation to think about God as anything but the most conventional imagery?

DI: Here is an ancient, authentic, subversive, powerful traditional text that explores and also explodes the idea of whether or not we ever really know who or what God might be. It says God can be so many things you never thought of. This is the excerpt:

Because the Holy One appeared to Israel at the Red Sea as a mighty man waging war, and appeared to them at Sinai as a teacher who teaches the day’s lesson and then, again and again, goes over with his pupils what they have been taught, and appeared to them in the days of Daniel as an elder teaching Torah, and in the days of Solomon appeared to them as a young man, the Holy One said to Israel: Come to no false conclusions because you see Me in many guises, for I am God who was with you at the Red Sea and I am God who is with you at Sinai: I am Adonai your God.

The fact is, R. Hiyya bar Abba said, that God appeared to them in a guise appropriate to each and every place and time.

AP: You see me in many guises….

DI: Exactly. My teacher, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — one of the greatest theologians of 20th-century American Jewish life — would often say that we human beings have a paucity of root metaphors when we think about God.

‘What’s the root metaphor for God?’

AP: Root metaphors?

DI: Essentially that there’s no way for us to talk about God without borrowing metaphors from some of our own experience. Even when we try our best to do without any image of God whatsoever, we’ll still use a borrowed metaphor from human language, like ‘nothingness.’

We’re constantly using human language to describe God or no God. And so the question is: What’s the root metaphor for God? When we say ‘God is King,’ that’s a difficult root metaphor for many of us because we don’t have the experience any longer of what royalty feels like.

AP: What other metaphors have you seen people apply to the divine?

DI: God as CEO. God as sibling. God as mother; it’s not literally that God is a mother, but it’s figuratively borrowed in order to give us some experience that we might draw from. On Friday nights we call God yedid nefesh — beloved of my soul. God as dear friend.

The tables were turned on Still Small Voice’s Abigail Pogrebin this past week. Listen to Yehuda Kurtzer interview her about the series, her beliefs and more on his podcast here.

AP: So this text encourages us to see God wearing many hats.

DI: Or faces. It actually invites us to imagine even more ways that we might relate to what God is, what God’s gender might be.

This beautiful text says, ‘Don’t come to any false conclusions about me. I am the same one who was at the sea and the same one that was at Sinai.’

‘Will the real God please stand up?’

AP: Let’s backtrack to the reason for this midrash in the first place. How does it explain the First Commandment?

DI: Why would the first thing God tell the people of Israel be, I am the Lord your God? There must be a hidden reason. The rabbis are imagining a God who is really concerned that the people not be confused by the polymorphic nature of God. Will the real God please stand up?

So this text is decidedly trying to say, ‘I appear in multiple places, in different ways, but they’re all me.’ God is saying, ‘You can see me as your aunt or uncle, your father or mother. You can see me as a God who at one time feels like a stern disciplinarian and another time feels as a loving, compassionate comforter. All of these faces are legitimate expressions of who I am.’

AP: What do you say when your congregants can’t find a metaphor that brings God closer?

DI: I have sat with people who say, ‘Listen, I didn’t have a good father. So when I think of God-the-Father, all I can think about are the Torah images of God being stern, aloof, distant and cold. So how do I import a new root metaphor, a new image for me?’ Everyone has their roadblocks.

AP: How did you get over one of yours?

DI: For many years I worked with shifting God’s gender around. I felt like it was yoga for my soul. The same way that when I’m doing a yoga posture, I’m brought to the edge of my muscle’s capacity to strain and stretch, I felt that my theological muscles were strained for me to relate to God as a woman and mother.

AP: Why was it important for you to push yourself to see God as another gender?

DI: I began to explore all kinds of assumptions and feelings I have because of relating to God as a man all of these years. When I shifted the gender, I also shifted my experience of what God could feel like for me.

AP: I think for many people, they want the bottom line: does God exist or not, is God a being or not, male or female? This text says that’s a fool’s errand; there’s a mutability to God.

DI: That’s a beautiful word for it.

AP: And you’re suggesting that our spirituality might expand if we didn’t try to pin God down.

DI: If the only God that you allow is one of these faces, then you will be frustrated by reality. And in some way you will say, “I’m not going to find God in that face.” We’re trying to expand people’s capacity to have theological uncertainty for the sake of a more mature relationship to reality.

‘I feel that God’s with me all the time’

AP: Can you apply this to the pandemic we’re living through right now? If someone feels that God is not appearing, is there a way that you say, ‘Look again’?

DI: Sure. You know that song, “Looking for love in all the wrong places. Looking for love in all the wrong faces”? I believe that can be applied to looking for God in all the right places, looking for God in all of the faces.

There’s an invitation now to see God where you might not have looked. If the midrash were being written today, it would be something like this: “Because God appeared as the healthcare worker, because God appeared as the patient and also the doctor.”

You might think that all of those are different faces, but it’s just God saying, “It’s me. I come in the form — the partzuf (divine visage) — of the one who suffers and the one who is healing. I am with the one who is alone and scared. I am with the one who is at great risk, showing up.”

I feel that God’s with me all the time. Even in the most horrific moments, I feel that God is with me. And I think that’s a gift that no one should be deprived of because of a really bad teacher or a really limited vocabulary for God.

Abigail Pogrebin, a freelance journalist, author, and public speaker, is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter. @apogrebin. Rabbi David Ingber is Founder and Senior Rabbi of Romemu.

Mosaic of rabbis

Image by Angelie Zaslavsky

Still Small Voice: 18 Questions About God is a special project for the month of Elul, a traditional period of reflection and accountability. Click here to read the next interview in the series, and here to browse the collection.


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