Thursday, December 29, 1994

Shift Toward Neutrality In War Between Sexes

The Jewish Week, December 29, 1994


Perhaps the most universal trend seeping across the non-Orthodox world in recent years has been the shift toward gender neutrality in prayer. It was most awkward at first -- those fumbling attempts to please everyone by inventing the pronoun "S/he" when referring to God, or the clumsy shifting from third person to second person, to the replacement of "mankind" with the more generic "humankind." I had my greatest difficulty with the term "brotherhood of man."

"Siblinghood of humanity" just didn't cut it.

But now gender neutrality has become more accepted, even expected. The new Reconstructionist and Reform siddurim are most sensitive to the matter, and the Conservative movement is heading that way, too. The matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, are finding their way into the Amidah right next to their famous spouses, even in Conservative texts, and that's a major change. Not long ago, none other than the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary came out strongly in favor of including the matriarchs in worship at that Conservative institution. This would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

Why has such a significant shift suddenly become so widely accepted? I think there are two major reasons.

First is the matter of language. English and Hebrew have about as much in common as Chanukah and matzah brei, and it is virtually impossible to convey the texture of Judaism accurately to the non-Hebrew speaker. Until recently, most American Jews had a grasp of at least the embers of some basic Hebrew, or at least some Yiddish that carried with it the essence of the original.

So, a generation ago, a synagogue-goer could read the prayer "Avinu Malkenu" and have some understanding that the Hebrew word av doesn't just mean "father," it also means "ancestor," and that in Hebrew the masculine form is generic. The Hebrew speaker knows that the pronouns for "he" and "she" are so closely related that simply by slicing a vav into a yod, the former becomes the latter. In a real sense, calligraphy mirrors biology, conveying the identical makeup of the sexes. Fittingly, in Torah scrolls the feminine pronoun often appears in the masculine form, with a vav instead of the expected yod, to the great frustration of even the most expert Torah reader.

Gender neutrality serves the purpose of restoring some of the delicious ambiguity of the original, enabling us to dig deeper into our souls to discover new metaphors for divinity. Our sages were never constrained by the gender biases of the King James translation as they siddur-surfed through scores of different concepts of God to find the ones that resonated best. We need to free ourselves, in any language, in our search for the sacred.

More important than the language factor is the impact of a masculine God on society around us. In a recent essay, Dennis Prager claims that a male metaphor for God is beneficial because of our society's desperate need for compassionate male role models. While I disagree with some of his conclusions, I agree with his major premise: The example we set and the lesson we teach "in here," within the spiritual life of the synagogue, will go far to determine how people live their lives "out there," in the world.

For that reason, I take very seriously each word of every prayer that is uttered, especially when it comes to God. If children grow up believing that God is primarily male, how does that affect them? If their Jewish role models in the siddur are almost exclusively male, what is to become of girls starved for positive female role models? Does Jewish prayer encourage boys to feel inherently superior and girls to submit to the will of male authority?

Traditional prayerbooks project that impression in the morning blessings, where men thank God "for not having made me a women," and women say, "...who has made me according to His will." There are excellent traditional commentaries explaining this discrepancy in ways that satisfy many Jews. But for those from a non-Orthodox background, at least, the attitudes engendered by a He-God and patriarchal liturgy have potentially devastating implications.

A war between the sexes is being fought in this country, and the O.J. Simpson and Anita Hill episodes are only two of its most visible eruptions. What was once a matter of feminist politics is now, I believe, a question of conscience for those who shape thought, especially teachers and clergy. I cannot preach healing and discourage domestic violence if I then turn around and support a liturgy that seems to imply male dominance. But if I drive home the message that the Jewish God cannot be tied to any gender, perhaps that will help, in some small way, to breach the chasm that separates the sexes. At the very least it will encourage the abused wives of my community to seek help from their rabbi and find solace in their God.

If God is in the details, so are the ways in which we project Jewish values. I've been told that a synagogue's attitude toward children is best gauged by whether it has a changing table in the women's room, and its attitude toward women is seen by whether a changing table can be found in the men's room. My synagogue has installed its changing table in a more gender-neutral location -- the baby-sitting room. In the light of recent events, congregations need to be dwelling on such details.

The differences between the sexes will always be there. Thankfully. But until we realize that God is neither in one nor the other but in the sum of the parts, in relationship, the struggle will continue. But some day, God willing, we'll be whole.

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