Saturday, April 13, 2024

How OJ Simpson changed the male-only way I talk, think and pray about God OJ's violence toward his wife convinced me to pursue a more gender-balanced liturgy RNS

How OJ Simpson changed the male-only way I talk, think and pray about God

OJ's violence toward his wife convinced me to pursue a more gender-balanced liturgy

(RNS) — People who are too young to remember the O.J. Simpson ordeal 30 years ago cannot imagine how transfixed America was and may not appreciate how much it changed American culture in so many ways in how we think about race, celebrity status and the law.

It also changed how I thought about God — and how I prayed. Simpson’s abusive treatment of his wife, Nicole, (the domestic violencepreceding the murder has never been in dispute) coincided with the time when I decided to stop assigning God exclusively male pronouns and pursue a more gender-balanced liturgy. Men, I decided, are brutes — why worship an all-powerful being bound in brutishness, even if the gender “He” was just a metaphor?

The trend toward gender neutrality in prayer had already begun by the time we reached the mid ’90s. It was awkward at first, those fumbling attempts to please everyone by inventing the pronoun “S/he” when referring to God, or the clumsy shifting from second person to third person to avoid she/he altogether, 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. 

Nor, as a monotheist, could I bring myself to use plural pronouns, even though a key Hebrew term for God (Elohim) is in the plural. For me, God could not be “they/them.”

The Simpson trial, along with Anita Hill’s travails, and later Monica Lewinsky’s ordeal, intensified a war between the sexes that had already been inflamed by the ’60s feminist revolution and re-inflamed by the counterrevolution of the Reagan era. Now, what had once simply been a matter of feminist politics became a question of conscience, particularly for clergy. I could not preach healing and discourage domestic violence if I then turned around and supported a liturgy that seemed to endorse male dominance.

If I chose to drive home the message that the Jewish God cannot be tied to any gender exclusively, I thought that, in some small way, it would help breach the chasm separating the sexes. At the very least it would encourage mistreated women in my community to seek help from their rabbi and find solace in their God.

By 1994, gender neutrality was becoming the norm for progressive Jewish movements. The new Reconstructionist and Reform prayer books were most sensitive to the matter, and the Conservative movement was heading that way, too.

The shift in God language wasn’t just about sex roles. It was partly about language itself. English and Hebrew have about as much in common as latkes and chicken soup, and it is virtually impossible to convey the texture of Judaism accurately in any language but Hebrew. Until recently, most American Jews had a grasp of at least some basic Hebrew, or at least some Yiddish terms that carried with them the essence of the Hebrew original.

The Hebrew speaker knows that the pronouns for “he” and “she” are closely related. In Torah scrolls the feminine pronoun even appears often in the masculine form, to the great frustration of even the most expert Torah chanter. 

There is, I daresay, a fluidity to how the Torah handles gender, and in that sense gender-neutral language in English 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 surfed through scores of different concepts of God to find the ones that resonated best. We need to free ourselves from language in our search for the sacred.

We also needed, in the Simpson era, to free ourselves from a muscular, macho Godhead, the kind we saw in those 1950s Hollywood biblical epics, who was increasingly lacking in resonance in a more feminized age. We needed to cultivate kindness, not brute force, in how we communicated religious values.

I take very seriously each word of every prayer that I utter, especially when it comes to God. If children grow up believing that God is primarily male, how does that affect them? If their Jewish heroes 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 Jewish prayerbooks project that impression in the Morning Blessings, where men thank God “for not having made me a woman,” and women say, “… who has made me according to God’s will.” There are commentaries explaining this discrepancy in ways that satisfy many Jews. But the attitudes engendered by a He-God and patriarchal liturgy have potentially devastating implications.

Obviously, O.J. Simpson wasn’t driven to violence toward women by reciting  Jewish prayers. But had he grown up in a world where religion didn’t reinforce stereotypes of dominant, omnipotent males and the inferior female beings subdued for their pleasure, to the point that even God could be seen only as male, the world might have been a different place for Nicole Brown Simpson. 

(Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut, and the author of “Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi” and “Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism That Takes the Holocaust Seriously.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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