In my early 20s, I began having a certain kind of experience that was so intense, remarkable and strange—call them mystical encounters or whatever other label you’d prefer—that I found myself calling into question what was, by that point, a long-held and deeply entrenched atheism.
What was true then remains true for me now: my understanding and relationship with the Divine is completely inextricable from my experience of the Divine. This, philosophically, puts me in the camp known as “phenomenology”—I don’t believe we can talk about God without talking about our own personal experiences of God. Otherwise, what are we talking about? What are we trying to say?
And yet, of course, we need to understand how limiting each of our experiences of God are. An experience of some aspect of the Divine, filtered through our feeble and limited human perceptions, is by its very nature going to be insufficient. In the Torah (Exodus 33), Moshe begged God to show him God’s glory, to reveal Godself in fullness, not shrouded by pillars of smoke or fire. In this, the most intimate exchange in the Bible, God acquiesced to his ardent servant’s demands—but only to a degree. “You will not be able to see My face; for no human shall see Me and live,” (Ex. 33:20) Moshe is told. Rather, God will shield Moshe until after the Divine Presence has passed by him.
Even Judaism’s greatest prophet experiences the Divine with a hand over his eyes, protected from a blinding light he was not capable of understanding, let alone surviving. He can hope to perceive, at most, traces of God’s presence, the imprints of the effulgence left behind, lingering in the air, before disappearing. That’s all any of us have, really. Not the opportunity to behold God’s glory in its full splendor, but rather just the chance to catch a few traces, the moment that they began to vanish.
My experiences of God have taken many different forms over the years—and, as such, my understandings have, as well. Of course we all make sense of the traces we’ve been lucky enough to glimpse; we try to derive from them what we can, even if we receive contradictory information from them, even if we have difficulty squaring them with our faculties of reason. There’s no pithy quote, no single story, that can succinctly summarize the One who is, necessarily, greater and more expansive than the human attempting to understand. How do we describe that which transcends language? And yet, who would we be if we experienced moments in which the veil was, however briefly, lifted for us and we didn’t try to learn from them?
As such, I want to suggest that it’s an important, even laudable thing to talk of a theology rife with contradictions. Those who want to tie God up in a neat, coherent package—and who believe that their package, by virtue of being consistent, is also true– are, in my opinion, overreaching. I speak of God in terms that are contradictory and complex, messy and unclear—I embrace the fact that not everything might add up by our reckoning. I believe this messiness is a fair and even possibly quite good thing.
So how does this impact our language choices? Many feminists over the last 30 or 40 years have had much to say about the androcentric—even phallocentric—terms in which Judaism traditionally describes God, and in many cases they’ve suggested alternative language or terms that might provide a breath of fresh air. They‘ve envisioned an alternative to a Judaism in which God is an angry male figure paralleling oppressive male authority. We’ve seen the rise of the Shechinah, considered generally to be the feminine aspect of the Divine; we’ve seen feminine language used in blessings; we’ve seen a bounty of new rituals spring up; and feminist-flavored renditions of existing rituals. We’ve seen critiques of the hierarchy in traditional Judaism and a renewed insistence that God is not necessarily “other.” All this, of course, also opened the door for queer and transgender theologies and totally reworked the existing playing field of theological inquiry.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this was a necessary process, one that enabled women and feminists of all genders to reclaim Judaism on our terms, to refashion it into something that addressed our needs, our lives, our ways of thinking. This new approach allowed many people to see the Divine in a new way, and to bring many people into Judaism and Jewish life who had previously been marginalized, or even shunted off the margins entirely.
And yet, I’d like to suggest that the time has come to stop thinking about language and God. I’d like to suggest that the last forty years of work have been a valuable and necessary detoxification process, and that it’s time to stop worrying about our metaphors for God, lest we become so tangled up in them that they become our experience of God entirely.
Do Names Matter?
In religion, symbology is inescapable. The Divine, and the human relationship with the Divine, is vast, complex, and beyond language. There’s no way to explain God in direct words. Rather, as a way of pointing at and expanding our notion of ultimate existence, linguistic symbols create a kind of shorthand. Jewish theologian Neil Gillman puts it thusly: “We borrow aspects of familiar human experience to express a complex set of truths about a reality that transcends everyday experience.”[i] How could it be any other way? We use what we have.
This, of course, explains why there’s so much anthropomorphism in our sacred texts and liturgy to begin with. Jewish rabbinic texts tell us that “the Torah speaks in the language of humans,”[ii]; in other words, language is a tool to help us access the One that defies human description. That’s all language is—a tool. Our job, is to not get too hung up on the words themselves.
When, during the High Holiday prayers, we beseech “Avinu Malkeinu,” “Our Father, our King,” to whom are we calling? Do we really believe God is our parent (stern, loving, or both)? Do we truly relate to God as a king (benevolent, exacting, or both)? Certainly, the phrase can evoke the sort of patriarchal domination that sends many feminists reeling. But it can also evoke the feeling of a small child looking to a parent for comfort and safety,;, a feeling of submission to a greater force and liberation from self-importance; or a yearning for justice in the world. How these symbols and myths manage to be so powerful and lasting is that they both name something just outside the grasp of articulation, and that they are porous enough to name several things at once. Maimonides is adamant that anyone who takes literally either the emotional or physical description of God in the liturgy is committing idolatry. The words of the liturgy are not literal but meant to name something just outside the grasp of articulation—the perfect unity, the transcendent power, the infinite expansiveness—that reflects our own feelings of smallness in comparison. Kabbalists might say that God’s true nature contains both aspects of lovingkindness and justice—so these metaphors of father and king express something fundamental to the Divine nature. More rationalist theologians might say that God’s nature transcends even those categories, but that this familiar metaphor helps to articulate our relationship to this mighty expansiveness, that it helps us situate ourselves in prayer and thus find God.
Of course, some may ask, why do we have to accept that God is father and king and not also (or, instead,) mother and queen? Why, if language does not matter, should we use the old tropes rather than finding new ones that feel more relevant to us, today? First of all, I think that by focusing too much on the metaphors and the gender of said metaphors is missing the point. The words are merely a starting point, the place we’re meant to transcend in a hurry. The traditional metaphors are usable, and newer metaphors are also useable—we can open ourselves up to find depth and meaning in all of them, to be sure. But by working too hard in our attempts to measure the precise nature of the false clothes in which we dress the Divine, we lose the goal beyond the horizion.
I think that we’re ready to develop a feminist understanding of the traditional liturgy that begins and ends with the presumption that the words are, in a way, incidental, that focuses on finding new ways to understand the treasures that we already possess. It’s not that I don’t think that there’s room to introduce changes—I certainly prefer to dispense with the blessing to God for having not made (the male petitioner) a woman, or the one that praises the Divine for having not made me a gentile. And when I serve as shaliach tzibbur, when I lead the congregation in prayer, I make sure to add the names of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel alongside those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But I understand this addition as a purely symbolic gesture, a way of signaling to myself, to God, and to all those gathered, that women are part of the story. For me, these words are useful, but dangerous if we get too caught up in them as the starting or ending point in any conversation with or about God. Some argue that our metaphors for the Divine are necessarily tied to our experience of God, that the one creates the other. This may certainly be true to some extent; for me, however, the question is, do we allow those metaphors to bind us to a certain way of encountering God, or do we allow for the messy complexity of the human encounter with the Holy One? Do we allow room for contradiction, for the possibility that our experiences of the Divine might include new information that challenges the easy, comfortable assumptions we used when we created these metaphors in the first place? A theology of contradiction doesn’t presume the experiences we have when we enter into conversation with God; worrying too much about language and metaphors can keep us from being open to surprises that belie whatever we thought we might be setting up. God should surprise us. Who are we to think that we know everything? God should challenge us, and challenge us again, cause us to rethink and rework our assumptions about life, other people, the world, ourselves and God Godself. If we’re so tied to the idea that God is, necessarily, a compassionate, loving mother-figure or a peacemaker or some other thing, we’re going to miss vital information that God sends us that might contradict our neat little labels. We have to learn to become less attached to our metaphors, so we can meet the God who dwells outside of them. The magic often happens when we allow the porousnsess of texts we find challenging to open themselves to us. When we embrace their complexity, when we make room for contradiction, we may find ourselves able to hold more than we thought, able to embrace an understanding of the Divine that doesn’t line up as conveniently as we might hope.
Because I believe that rituals operate simultaneously on innumerable planes, and that they may serve our needs in different ways now than they have in the past, and because religious practice is a form of Divine service–for all these reasons, if I come across some aspect of my religious tradition that I don’t like, I tend to begin with curiosity. What is this ritual (or rule, or snippet of liturgy) about? What did it do, how did it function, originally? What are some of the core ideas underlying it? How did it get to its current incarnation? How have people understood it in different times and places? The prayer praising God for the resurrection of the dead may have been written as a literal description of the Messianic era, but its underlying message about the cyclical nature of life and death is powerful and porous enough to hold both the ancient notion and my own musings about the cycles of existence. The language of the liturgy reveals a truth big enough to hold thousands of years of prayer, and has survived precisely because its wisdom transcends the particulars of time and place.
After the righteous work of naming what’s problematic with the traditional gendering of God and Judaism, perhaps we can begin to let go of so much discussion about God’s gender and to give God the space to contradict everything we once thought true. And as we learn to do this with God, as we learn to embrace the porous messiness of the transcendent Divine, we may find our own ideas about the gender of people on the ground become less fixed as well, that who we are, one with the other, becomes more open to holy contradiction and sweet, sweet surprise.
The rabbinic aphorisms of Pirke Avot remind us that with Torah, we must “turn it, and turn it over again, for everything is in it.”[iv] Metaphors are prisms that we can turn and turn and turn again, and the light and the color refracts and reflects, brightly, into our hearts, each time a different color.
But God is bigger than our metaphors, and we desecrate the Divine Name when we forget that.
A version of this essay will be published in the April issue of Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.
[i] Gillman, Neil. Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew. Philadelphia: JPS 1990. P. 81
[ii] Sifrei Bamidbar, Parshat Shelach, Piska 6, and elsewhere in Rabbinic texts.
[iii] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah Ch.1 and the first third of Guide for the Perplexed, ad nauseum.
[iv] Pirke Avot 5:25
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