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God and gender - Definition

This entry contains a discussion of how monotheistic religions deal with God and gender, and how modern feminism has influenced the theology of many religions.

Monotheists hold a belief in one God as a fundamental religious principle.

  • In Christianity, God is thought to be a trinity in which there are three persons that are united in a single unit. The three persons of the Trinity are The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Two of these persons are described using explicitly male terms (“father” and “son”).
  • In Hinduism, according to Advaita interpretation, e.g., monism, the Ultimate Reality is genderless. Advaita, nevertheless, holds that God can be with form, Saguna Brahman and with whatever attribute, (e.g., a female God) a devotee conceives. In traditional Hindu monotheistic faiths, Shaivism, and Vaishnavism, God is viewed as male while His Power (i.e., energy) or Shakti is personified as female. However, the view of gender is limiting because gender is really used as a way for the embodied human devotee to visualize God. Both Shaivites and Vaishnavites recognize that God is ultimately "nirankar" or without form and trancends form and no form. For example, while Vishnu is commonly portrayed with human features, Swami Tapasyananda, in his book, Bhakti Schools of Vedanta, reminds readers that Vishnu pervades everything and is not anthropomorphic. He has no particular material form but can manifest in any form, and is a center of all force, power, will, auspiciousness, goodness, beauty, grace, responsiveness, etc.

Accordingly, Shiva and Vishnu, are worshipped in an abstract form, i.e., without gender, as a linga and saligrama, respectively. Notably, God and His energy are inseparable. One analogy holds that fire is God while the actual heat is Shakti, personified as Devi, or God as the Divine Mother.

  • Polytheists (also: "pagans") generally believe in multiple gods, some of whom are male, and some of whom are female; female polytheistic deities are known as goddesses.
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Biblical views of God

In the first book of the Bible, , God states "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness....And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." Exactly what Genesis means by the word "image" is not clear, but there is an analogy being made between God and humans.

In some ways this passage is anthropomorphic; it is attributing human characteristics to God. However, less recognized is that the viewpoint of the Israelite biblical writers was theomorphic: humans are seen as having Godly characteristics.

The Hebrew Bible often refers to God as a father. Likewise, in the Hebrew Bible there are no references to God as a mother. For example, note the tortuous language in Isaiah that refers to Israel as feminine while avoiding directly describing God as feminine.

For thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream: then shall ye suck, ye shall be borne upon [her] sides, and be dandled upon [her] knees.
"As one whom his mother comforts, so I (God) will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem." (Isaiah 66:12-13)

The Biblical Hebrew word for spirit is ruwach, meaning wind, breath, inspiration; the noun is grammatically feminine. In the "Odes of Solomon'; the oldest surviving Christian hymnal, the word for "Holy Spirit" is grammatically female. The Greek word for spirit, 'pneuma', has neutral grammatical gender. The Holy Spirit is translated in masculine terms only in languages such as Latin and English.

Jewish views of God and gender

In regards to translating Hebrew names of God into English, most Orthodox Jews and many Conservative Jews hold that it is wrong to use English female pronouns for God; their reason is not because God is of the male gender, but because doing so among English speakers tends to draw attention to God as having gender. Another reason is that the Hebrew Bible usually uses names of God that are grammatically masculine.

Among many Reconstructionist Jews and Reform Jews there has been an increasing tendency to stress feminine characteristics of God. In these communities God is sometimes spoken of as a "She". Classical Hebrew names for God such as HaKadosh Baruch Hu ("The Holy One, praised be He") are being rewritten in both Hebrew and English as HaKadosha Barucha He ("The Holy One, praised be She"). Those in Reform Judaism who hold more closely to traditional Jewish belief (as well as most Conservative Jews and nearly all Orthodox Jews) hold that this rewriting of Hebrew names for God is both a theological and linguistic error; it presupposes the belief that grammatical gender implies sexual gender, which it does not. As such, people who make these translations imply that other Jews worship a male God, which they do not.

Some Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis have experimented with incorporating explicit anthropomorphic characteristics into their prayers. Reform Rabbi Rebecca Alpert (Reform Judaism, Winter 1991) writes about a feminist siddur (Jewish prayerbook) she used:

The experience of praying with Siddur Nashim ... transformed my relationship with God. For the first time, I understood what it meant to be made in God's image. To think of God as a woman like myself, to see Her as both powerful and nurturing, to see Her imaged with a woman's body, with womb, with breasts-this was an experience of ultimate significance. Was this the relationship that men have had with God for all these millennia? How wonderful to gain access to those feelings and perceptions.

Most Jews reject this theology as unacceptable, as well as being wrong in its description of what other Jews believe. Many believe that Jewish theology forbids one to think of God as male; male Jews never felt close to God by imagining God as having male sexual genitalia or using such language in their prayers.

While primary male sexual characteristics are typically absent from Jewish descriptions of God, secondary male sexual characteristics are common. A number of Jewish prayers (piyuttim, religious poems) incorporate allegorical male images of God, such as a description of the beard of God Shir Hakavod, "The Hymm of Glory", and similar poetic imagery in the midrash "Song of the Seas Rabbah". Traditional meforshim (rabbinic commentators) hold that this is valid imagery, but purely metaphorical, and warn readers not to imagine that this describes God as being male.

Some traditional Jewish prayers refer to God as Avinu Malkeinu, "Our Father, Our King". Feminine forms of this phrase "Our Mother, Our Queen" have traditionally never been used in Jewish prayers. There is no a priori reason why such terminology is not used, but most Jews today do not use this terminology, as (rightly or wrongly) they see these terms as being associated with polytheism.

Neopagan views of God and gender

Some Neopagan traditions, such as Wicca, believe in both male and female Deities. A few (especially Dianic Wicca) see the Divine as entirely feminine, and call her the Goddess.

Neopagan duo-theistic philosophies tend to emphasise on the God and Goddess' (or Lord and Lady's) genders as being analogous of a concept similar to that of the oriental Yin and yang; ie, two complementary opposites. However, the concepts should not be confused. While many Oriental philosophies (including 'yin and yang') explicitly give weakness femininity and strength masculinity, this is unacceptable to many feminists.

As the Goddess is held to be the Mother of all life she is considered to be the awareness of, if not actually, all matter (note: the word matter comes from a word for 'mother'). Opposing the Goddess' material stability, the God is the awareness, or indeed the very passage, of time. Matter (or material energies) without time wouldn't do anything, and time without matter is obsolete.

Some use these facts to charge that paganism, neopaganism, or both are sexist. First, some critics say that by creating what critics call an artificial hierarchy neopaganism ignores and denigrates traditional religion's veneration of women. This view is especially popular among those who venerate the Virgin Mary or Fatima Zahra. Second, others argue that Goddess worship is explicitly matriarchal and risks marginalizing men as they believe women were marginalized in the past. Third, some believe that misunderstanding these philosophies have allowed people to believe that either matter or time are superior to the other. Fourth, others agree that Goddess worship is matriarchal and sexist, and welcome the fact. See entries on female supremacy and matriarchy.

Other forms of Neopaganism also highlight femininity. German National-Socialism explicitly referred to Germany as The Motherland, in contrast to the traditional “Fatherland

Christian views of God and gender

In Christianity, one person of God, the Son, is believed to have become incarnate as a human male. Most Christians believe that the other two persons, the Father and the Holy Spirit, have never been incarnated. The Father, strongly associated with the deity in the Old Testament, is often pictured as a male in traditional Christian artwork. In Western Christianity, the Holy Spririt has been referred to using male pronouns and, in languages with grammatical noun gender, the masculine grammatical gender.

Some Christians today, especially those inspired by feminism, do not consider this tradition to be binding. These Christians claim that the first century church worshiped the Holy Spirit as a female deity. Though there is no archaeological evidence for this claim, numerous passages in the Nag Hamadi scrolls as well as the use of the feminine gender noun when speaking of the Holy Spirit in Hebrew and Greek are often cited as evidence for this belief. For these reasons some Christians feel that it is important to speak of the Holy Spirit, especially in the role of Comforter and Reconciler, with a feminine pronoun.

Another argument is that the functions of the Holy Spirit as characterized in Biblical texts are often those which have been associated with women: consolation, inspiration, emotional warmth, and birth of the spirit. Others dispute this. Some claim that assigning the Holy Spirit gender in accord with its role is a subconscious endorsement of stereotypical gender roles. Others argue that it is Mary who gave birth to God, making the Holy Spirit analogous to a male.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that God is male but not a man. That is, he is of the male gender but not the male sex. It states:

In no way is God in man's image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the differences between the sexes. But the respective "perfections" of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother (-15; ; -) and those of a father (; Jer. 3:4-20) and husband (Jer. 3:6-19)."
By calling God "Father," the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that He is at the same time goodness and loving care for all His children. God's parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood ; ), which emphasizes God's immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, ... [CCC 239]

As viewed by many Latter Day Saint sects (Mormonism), both God the Father and Jesus are thought to have distinct, perfect male bodies of flesh and bones. The Holy Spirit, is thought to have a body composed of "spirit matter", and is generally considered to be male. In addition, many Latter Day Saints believe in a distinct Heavenly Mother, who is thought to have a perfect, physical female body, although she is rarely worshipped. Because of these materialistic and polytheistic views by some Latter Day Saint sects, some Christians disavow Mormonism as a form of Christianity, a view Latter Day Saints adamantly reject. See Godhead (Mormonism); Mormonism and Christianity.

The Greek pronoun (αὐτός) translated "Him" in John 14, speaking of the Holy Spirit, refers to self in all persons: him, her, it. Otherwise the New Testament refers to the Spirit (πνεῦμα) with grammatical neuter. "Him" in John 14 is a pronoun without gender.

Translating the names of God into English

There are a number of ways that one can translate the names of God into English from Hebrew. The Tetragrammaton is composed of the Hebrew letters Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh. (If your web-browser supports a Hebrew font it is written thus: יהוה). In English the tetragrammaton is usually written as YHVH. It is usually translated as "Lord" or "LORD" (in small capitals). A gender-neutral translation of this is "Sovereign".

The Hebrew word "Adonai" is translated as "Lord" or "My Lord". A gender-neutral translation of this is "Sovereign". The Hebrew names "Elohim", "El", "Shaddai",and "Yah" are usually translated as "God". "Elyon" translates as "Most High".

There are a number of compound names for God. "YHVH Tzevaot" is translated as "Lord of Hosts"; a gender-neutral translation is "Sovereign of Hosts". YHVH Elohe tzevaot would be "Lord God of Hosts". Among non-Orthodox Jews, there is a growing tendency to avoid translation-created gender problems, and to simultaneously reclaim the vocabulary of Hebrew itself, by not translating these names in English prayers.

An example of a traditional translation is: "The earth belongs to the Lord, and all it contains; the world and its inhabitants." (Psalm 24)

An alternative translation is: "The earth belongs to Adonai, and all it contains; the world and its inhabitants."

Shekhinah is Hebrew for the immanent presence of God; this name of God appears in some traditional Jewish prayers. Within Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) the Shekhinah represents the feminine aspect of God's essence; other terms represent the male aspect of God.

See also Names of God

Third person pronouns: He, She or It?

Many prayers use one or more of the names for God many times within the same paragraph. The first time it appears a proper name is used, while further instances use a third person pronoun. English speakers usually use masculine or feminine third person pronouns to refer to people, and the third person pronoun "it" to refer to non-people. Traditionally, in both Jewish and Christian cultures, the third-person pronoun "He" has been used to refer to God in English translations. Functionally, even in non-religious contexts, English speakers have generally used the word "he" as a substitute for a gender-neutral third person pronoun. While grammatically male, the word "he" is often functionally used in a non-male sense.

In all languages with grammatical gender, the grammatical gender of words often has little or no relation to biological or sexual gender. With regard to the pronouns employed in speaking of the Holy Spirit, in Indo-European languages (and some other languages as well), the masculine pronoun can be used in either a masculine or a gender-indefinite sense, while the feminine pronoun is always feminine.

In English, it is improper to speak of a person with the neuter pronoun "it". Since the Bible teaches that God is in many ways like a person, English speakers have avoided using "It", and instead used "He". Further, all Christians that believe in the Trinity by definition believe in the Three Persons that are One God. Thus many say referring to God as “It” not only is improper, but heretical.

The idea of God being an "It" rather than a "he" or "she" does have some support in Jewish, Christian and Islamic medieval thought, much of which was based on Neo-Aristotelian philosophy. Some medieval philosophers of all three of these religions took great pains to make clear that God was in no way like a person, and that all apparently physical descriptions of God were only poetic metaphors. Given their description of God as a process, or as a prime-mover, or as an ultimate source of reality, the reference to God as "It" could well be justifiable.

Mankind and Humankind

Translations of the Bible and prayerbooks traditionally have used words such as: man, men, his, mankind, brotherhood, etc., In their historical usage these words in most places have always meant human, human beings, his and hers, humankind, peoplehood, etc. For a number of reasons women are frequently left out of both the mental structures and the social structures of many cultures. Some believe that the usage of these words when speaking of all people, and not men only, contributes to this condition, which they perceive as an injustice. As such, many liberal religious Jews and Christians now translate works in a more gender-neutral fashion.

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible tries to correct this by changing words like "man" to "person", and "brothers" to "brothers and sisters", in all cases where the text is not referring to specific individuals but to people in general, or to a group of people that is most likely comprised of both men and women. In keeping with this approach, the NRSV does not change the traditional male pronouns that refer to God.

A recent translation known as Today's New International Version (TNIV - sometimes referred to derisively as "The Neutered International Version") has attempted to make politically-correct references to gender by replacing gender-indefinite uses of singular masculine pronouns with plural pronouns (e.g., "he" becomes "they"), a practice which is becoming prevalent in spoken English. This is much criticized because, in addition to being improper grammar, it sometimes destroys the meaning of certain verses where it is significant that the pronoun is singular.

However, the continued usage of words such as Father, men, mankind, brotherhood, etc., has been increasingly called into question by some readers who believe these words destroy the Bible's original prose style. Convsersely, traditionalists believe the use of gender-neutral turns itself is an aberration from the original books

New translation solutions

Most modern-day readers of English Bible translations are not familiar with Hebrew; they read the translations literally, through the view of modern feminist thought, and thus sometimes read the text as if it were describing a male God. Many readers feel removed from the text, as they either do not want to worship a male God, or they also want to worship a female God as well as a male God.

While this problem does not exist if one prays in the original Hebrew (or Arabic, Aramaic, etc.), many prayer-book editors in the non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism, and in liberal denominations of Christianity, have become sensitive to this issue. Several solutions have been proposed:

  • Keeping the standard translation, which uses the term "He", and using commentary to explain the issue more fully. This is the approach used by Orthodox Judaism and most branches of Christianity.
  • Translating God as "It". For theological reasons, this has been rejected by all branches of Judaism and of Christianity. But, see above for a discussion of why it could be considered legitimate.
  • Translating God as both "He" and "She". A few experimental prayerbooks by Reconstructionist Jewish feminists have tried alternating "he" and "she" within the same prayerbook, and sometimes even within the same prayer. This approach has failed to win widespread approval; critics object to it for many reasons, one of which is that this gives the appearance of dualism or goddess worship. [Are there any Christian uses of this?]
  • Rewriting all prayers in the second person, only using the term "You". A few experimental prayerbooks by Reconstructionist Jewish feminists have tried this, but this approach has failed to win widespread approval. [Are there any Christian uses of this?]
  • Gender-neutral translation involves rewriting prayers to remove all third-person pronouns; sometimes this involves changing sentence and paragraph structure. This approach has been adopted by the editors of all new Reform and Reconstructionist prayerbooks. Some liberal Protestant Christians also have rewritten prayerbooks in this way. Conservative Judaism has rejected this approach because there are many cases where no such changes are possible without totally rewriting the sentence, thereby moving the English far from the Hebrew structure. [Usage of gender-neutral pronouns?]
  • Gender-sensitive translation. This approach is a modified form of the above. In this approach, one rewrites most sentences to remove third-person pronouns, but occasionally the pronoun "he" is allowed in order to preserve readability and the original sentence structure. This is the approach taken by Conservative Judaism. [Are there any Christian uses of this?]

(It should be noted that some critics object to this terminology. Particularly for those who believe feminist interpretation is misogynist (see above), terms such as “gender-neutral” and “gender-sensitive” can be offensive. Critics charge that these terms imply traditional interpretations are not sensitive to women. Nevertheless, in the lack of acceptable alternatives these phrases are used in this article.)

Over the last twenty years many Jewish prayerbooks have been rewritten to be gender-neutral (Reform, Reconstructionist Judaism) or gender-sensitive (Conservative). Examples are shown in the following translations of Psalm 24. The following is a traditional translation excerpted from Siddur Sim Shalom, a Conservative siddur. (Ed. Jules Harlow)

A Psalm of David.
The earth belongs to the Lord, and all it contains; the world and its inhabitants.
He founded it upon the seas, and set it firm upon flowing waters.
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may rise in His sanctuary?
One who has a clean hand and a pure heart, who has not used God's name in false oaths, who has not sworn deceitfully.
he shall receive a blessing from the God of his deliverance.

A modern gender-sensitive translation of Psalm 24 now appears in the revised editions of Siddur Sim Shalom.

A Psalm of David.
The earth and its grandeur belong to Adonai; the world and its inhabitants.
God founded it upon the seas, and set it firm upon flowing waters.
Who may ascend the mountain of Adonai? Who may rise in God's sanctuary?
One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not used God's name in false oaths, who has not sworn deceitfully.
shall receive a blessing from Adonai, a just reward from the God of deliverance.

Criticism of feminine reconstructions of theology

Grammatically, most of the Hebrew names for God are masculine; a few are grammatically feminine; the grammatical form of words has no biological or literal significance. Many modern readers of the Bible, especially those influenced by 20th century feminism, often misread English translations of the Bible as literal translations of the Hebrew text; this leads to errors of understanding, as for grammatical reasons literal translations are not always possible. English does not have grammatical gender in nouns, but it does have grammatical gender in pronouns. In contrast, all Hebrew nouns have grammatical gender.

For example, the Hebrew words "yom tov" and "shavua tov" are grammatically male, and are translated as "day" and "week"; the Hebrew phrase "shanah tovah" ("Have a good year") is grammatically feminine. Both religious and non-religious Bible readers conversant in Hebrew should not imagine that days and weeks are conceived of by Jews as being male, and that years are thought of as female. However, when it comes to translating Biblical names of God this is precisely the idea that exists among many modern day English speakers. The reader often assumes that the Hebrew text is referring to a male God (which it does not). In response, some feminists have attempted to construct a female-God image, or feminine way of speaking about God, to rebut the male-God image that they perceive.

Others claim the above argument is incorrect. Many say the society in which the Bible is written was patriarchal, and that the use of male words for God would have been expected. In the places where female gender is used, the word is mophologically archaic (see Elohim).

An argument for using female symbols for God arises from the practical effects of God-language on the readers. Imagery for God helps us understand the world. The way a faith community talks about God indicates what it considers the highest good, the profoundest truth. This language, in turn, molds the community's behavior, as well as its members' self-understanding. The fact that Jews and Christians ordinarily speak about God in the image of a male ruler can be problematic. For feminist theology, the difficulty does not lie with the male metaphors. Men as well as women are created in the image of God. The problem lies in the fact that the specific male images reflect a patriarchal arrangement of the world, casting God into the mold of an omnipotent, even if benevolent, monarch. God's maternal relation to the world is eclipsed.

Likewise, a similar argument arises for using male symbols for God. God is all powerful and the judge of the universe. Though numerous women in the Bible have strong roles, the various society systems described are patriarchal. Some believe using language to mask these facts leads to a “watered-down” creed and a loss of faith.

Hindu views of God and Gender

In Hinduism, Brahman or God is viewed as essentially without personal attributes or Nirguna Brahman. Only when God is personified with attributes, Saguna Brahman is God viewed as with male gender such as Vishnu or Shiva. God's Power or energy is personified as female or Shakti. However, God and God's energy are indivisible, unitary, and the same. The analogy is that fire represents God and the actual heat Shakti. A hymn that describes the 1000 names of Shakti or Devi is the famous Lalitha sahasranama.

See also: God, Feminism

External links

Bibliography

Elliot N. Dorff Male and Female God Created Them: Equality with Distinction, University Papers, University of Judaism, Los Angeles, 1984, pp. 13-23.

Paula Reimers Feminism, Judaism, and God the Mother, Fall 1993, Conservative Judaism

Jules Harlow Feminist Linguistics and Jewish Liturgy Conservative Judaism Vol.XLIX(2) Winter 1997, p.3-25.

Matthew Berke God and Gender in Judaism in First Things, June 1996
God and Gender in Judaism (http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9606/berke.html)

Bible Translation and the Gender of God, S. T. Kimbrough, Jr. Theology Today, Vol.46, No. 2, July 1989
Bible Translation and the Gender of God (http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jul1989/v46-2-tabletalk.htm)

The Incomprehensibility of God and the Image of God Male and Female, Elizabeth Johnson, Theological Studies, Vol.45, no.3, 1984, pp.441-465.
The Incomprehensibility of God and the Image of God Male and Female (http://www.womenpriests.org/classic/johnson3.htm)

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