Friday, April 12, 2024

In This Moment: How O.J. Simpson changed the way I talk about God


The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored

by Jessica and Jonathan Bradley in honor

of their son, Grant, becoming a Bar Mitzvah.

In This Moment

I had the honor of co-leading last night's Interfaith Seder at UConn,

organzied by the United Jewish Federation of Stamford, New Canaan, and Darien (UJF), the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut,

and the Stamford Mayor’s Multicultural Council (MMC)

and attended by a wonderfully diverse crowd,

which provided a needed re-set for our community.

The End is Near...

Next week's will be the final issue of "In This Moment" delivered to the TBE email list.


How O.J. Simpson changed the way I talk about God

People who did not live through the O.J. Simpson ordeal cannot imagine how transfixed America was. 

It changed us 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 violence preceding 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 - so why should I 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. But 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 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. 

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 reinflamed by the counterrevolution of the Reagan era. But 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 imply - and 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 matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, were finding their way into the central prayer of the service (the Amidah) right next to their famous spouses, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, even in Conservative texts, and that was a major change. The chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary came out strongly in favor of including the matriarchs in worship at that Conservative institution, something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. My own synagogue’s ritual committee approved that change in 1994 after studying the question for many months.

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 matzah brei, 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.

So, a generation or two ago, a synagogue-goer could read the High Holidays prayer "Avinu Malkenu" (“Our Father Our King”) and have some understanding that the Hebrew word avinu 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 the letter vav into a yod, the former becomes the latter. In a real sense, calligraphy mirrors biology, conveying the near-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. 

There is, I daresay, a fluidity to how the Torah handles gender.

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 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.

But the big reason a change needed to happen in the Simpson era was that a muscular, macho Godhead, the kind we saw in those 1950’s Hollywood biblical epics, was losing resonance in an increasingly feminized age. Conservative commentator Dennis Prager made the plausible claim that a male metaphor for God was beneficial because of our society's desperate need for compassionate male role models. While I disagree with his conclusion, I’ve always agreed with his premise, that the example we set and the lesson we teach "in here," within the spiritual life of a religious institution, will go far to determine how people live their lives "out there," in the world. We need to cultivate compassionate role models, male and female, and it all starts at the top – with God.

For that reason, 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 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 God’s will." There are excellent traditional 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 his daily recital of these blessings or other Jewish prayers. But had he grown up in a world where religion didn’t reenforce stereotypes of dominant, omnipotent males and the inferior female beings they subdue for their pleasure, to the point that even God could be seen only as male, the world would have been a different place for Nicole Brown Simpson. 

And Anita Hill too.

Simpson’s public life was over when his violence toward women unmasked him. But at that time, Clarence Thomas’s was just beginning. And for women, largely due to his efforts, the world is not yet a gentler place.  The aggression toward women that was in the news then is exploding once again now, with abortion rulings bringing us back to the Stone Age, in Florida, Arizona and in Clarence Thomas’s patriarchal, patriarchal-God-obsessed workspace too. 

How fitting that over the coming days, the mistreatment of women will come into focus in yet another trial-of-the-century, this one involving a man who thinks that not only is God all-male, but that he’s Him. Their styles differ – Simpson always on the run, Trump always stalling for time – but for both, it was their treatment of women that ultimately has brought them to the gates of justice.

If there is justice in the universe, O.J. will be greeted in the world to come – likely a brief stopover as he runs to make his connecting flight – by a gender-neutral God surrounded by Nicole Brown on God’s right hand and Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the left. Both have unfinished business. Nicole will be taking care of hers as we speak. And Ruth, whose death undid so much of the gender battles she won throughout her life?

She can’t wait for November.

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