God has been having a busy couple of days.
“God told me I was a feminist when he gave me three daughters,” Andrew Cuomo announced this week in a bid to retain his position as New York Governor over challenger Cynthia Nixon.
Then, late Thursday night Ariana Grande released the song “God Is A Woman,” the third single for her upcoming album “Sweetener.”
“You! You love it how I move you” she sings, “You love it how I touch you…My one, when all is said and done/You’ll believe God is a woman.” It’s already topping charts and being called the song of the summer.
Both Cuomo, a politician, and Grande, a pop star, present a vision of God that is alternative to recent tradition: God as a benevolent feminist mentor, and God as the ultimate source of sensual pleasure.
And both prophets speak their visions, above all, for their own aggrandizement. Cuomo positions himself as a man who straddles tradition and the cutting edge, a governor for all seasons and all paternal figures, while Grande positions herself as the creamy foam on the breaching third wave of feminism — a sex symbol who derives her power from the pleasure she can give to men, the warm-bodied incarnation of female empowerment with a kind of celestial supremacy.
To paraphrase my mom paraphrasing the musical “Hamilton” paraphrasing George Washington: “These men take God’s name and they rake it through the mud! God’s name’s been through a lot, God can take it.”
Neither the third-term hopeful nor the pop-princess do anything terribly wrong by God — certainly nothing outside of the proud tradition of politicians and artists as theologians.
But they do give us a good opportunity to discuss the belief Grande posits her lovers will hold after a night in her company — that God is a woman.
Several instances in the Scriptures suggest a female form of God. The prophets Isaiah and Hosea describe God as a mother, a woman giving birth, and as a mother bear. Kabbalists developed the idea of a female aspect of God, the Shekhina, in the Zohar. But the common consensus is that God is gender-less — or in more radical circles, gender-queer. Evidence comes as early as Genesis 1: “And God created man in his image, in the image of god he created him; male and female He created them.”
This is an English grammar teacher’s nightmare, but a gentle parsing suggests that if men and women are both in the image of God, then God’s image must contain both.
So God has both male and female, or maybe a blend of both that is neither. Sounds fair enough.
But Rabbis, scholars, and the Torah don’t treat God that way. The so-called “feminine” aspect of God might have its day from time to time in drashes and writings; mostly it is shunted aside by the cruder force of language. Both Hebrew and English are limited by gender, and so almost everywhere in the Tanach, and in prayer, and in scholarship, God is referred to by male pronouns.
If you’re a truly religious or spiritual person you should find it blasphemous to refer to God as a male — this brings God down to human levels. Why should God be diminished just because language is limited? And why should generation after generation grow up believing that the supreme force who created and controls the world is male? Children internalize God’s maleness long before they can understand nuanced adult beliefs about God’s non-binary gender. The tacit confirmation by every prayer, every line of Torah, every Rabbi’s sermon, that God is a “he” builds and rebuilds a world where men are supreme, women are secondary, and nobody is in between. It is one of the mightiest and simplest tools of the patriarchy.
It’s bad for humans. It’s bad for God. It’s lazy. And it’s not holy.
Moreover, God’s role in the Torah is abundantly feminine. It is that of creator, maker, nurturer, punisher, the one who “raises” the Israelites up, gives to them again and again without thanks, comforts them, terrifies them, protects them, shelters them, provides for them, instructs them, and shows them the way.
God, the Torah makes clear again and again is not a woman — but God is a mother.
The answer to dismantling patriarchy is not raising up a matriarchy in its place. But building our understanding of, as Ariana Grande puts it, “God [as] a woman,” will help counterbalance almost every human’s internalized beliefs that our creator is a man, a father, a guy in the sky with a beard.
God is our mother, our father, our parent. While language is inherently lacking, God is limitless. The abilities we have to see each other are blinkered and binary, but God can see us as infinite. God calls on us fettered, ignorant humans, to see eternity in each other. So it can’t hurt, as Grande sings it, if, “When all is said and done you’ll believe God is a woman.”
Jenny Singer is the deputy lifestyle editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny