Blessed are [Male] You: Gendering God in Jewish Text

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך הועלם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וציונו להדליק נר של שבת

Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel shabbat.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the World, who made us holy through mitzvot [commandments] and commanded us to light the shabbat candles.

Every Friday night, just before sundown, Jews kindle two flames, recite this prayer, and greet shabbat: the day of rest. I’ve known this prayer since before I can remember. I knew each of these words before I started school, before I could read, before I knew what a noun or verb was, before I had any concept of gender beyond “boy” and “girl.”

As I grew up, I started school, learned how to read, became a language geek, and expanded my understanding of gender and its role in religion. During my Bat Mitzvah, I referred to God as a “she,” which garnered many a congregational chuckle. What I didn’t know then was that, although it was possible for me to change the way that I thought about God, the Hebrew prayers I was reciting referenced a decidedly male God.

Hebrew is a gendered language. Unlike English, which boasts a huge number of gender-neutral nouns and, with the exception of third person, gender-neutral verb conjugations, Hebrew spits gender in nearly its every utterance. The ten commandments are addressed to men. God is grammatically masculine. Mitzvot (commandments) are grammatically feminine. Even today, a modern Hebrew-speaking GPS has to be set for a male or female driver.

As you might imagine, the issues with this are manifold. Let’s take a look at the shabbat candles’ prayer. The translation above is rendered as gender-neutral, which is easy to do with English. However, a literal translation of the Hebrew goes something more like this:

[Male] Blessed are [male] You, Adonai our God, King of the [male] World, who [male] made us holy through His [female] commandments, and [male] commanded us to light the shabbat [female] candles.

In other words, the prayer that I learned in preschool maps perfectly onto one traditional Jewish conception of God — that of a father and king who makes a covenant with a Jewish man (Abraham) that he is to transmit forward to his sons. The Torah largely reflects this conception. While there are references in scripture to what some read as a female presence of divinity, most of the time in Torah, God is decidedly written as a guy.

Maybe this conception of a male God used to work for the Jewish people writ large, or maybe it was always troublesome. Certainly throughout history Jewish scholars, particularly mystics, have sought to discover (or rediscover) non-male elements of divinity. (If mysticism is your thing, check out the sefirot) There are, in addition to the biblical patriarchs, several important matriarchs, but none has as much screen time as the men in her life.

In any case, while this conception of a male God continues to work for many of today’s Jews, a large number also believe in the divine feminine. More still believe in a God who cannot possibly map onto human concepts of gender. In English, these evolving conceptions of God are fairly easy to incorporate. Replacing “he” with “God” or another genderless term to address the divine can make translations of prayers fit multiple understandings of the divine. However, the original Hebrew is more difficult to alter.

There are a number of siddurim (prayerbooks) with gender-neutral English translations and traditional, masculine-oriented Hebrew texts. There are also a growing number of alternative prayers like this one that eschew male God language in both languages. While the former has gained common acceptance in the liberal Jewish world, many Jews are more resistant to alterations of the Hebrew.

Some feel that, as Hebrew is considered the holy language, it should not be altered. Others who might be theoretically comfortable altering the Hebrew do not possess the Hebrew skill necessary to switch from the traditional version to something new. Having to focus upon each word instead of just having a prayer come naturally, from a lifetime of practice, can disrupt the flow and make prayer seem more an academic exercise than a spiritual one. Others still find it easiest to internally uncouple God from gender while still reciting the traditional masculine words. For a long time, I found myself in that category, but I’m beginning to explore a little more as I become closer and closer (God willing) to taking on the title of rabbi.

So, in that endeavor, here is what the shabbat candle prayer looks like in the feminine:

ברוכה את יי אלהינו מלכת הועלם אשר קדשתנו במצותיה וציותנו להדליק נר של שבת

Barucha at adonai, eloheinu malkat haolam, asher kidshatnu b’mitzvoteha v’tzivatnu l’hadlik ner shel shabbat.

[Female] Blessed are [female] You, Adonai our God, Queen of the World, who [female] made us holy through Her commandments, and [female] commanded us to light the shabbat candles.

The changes to the prayer are small but they taste strange on my lips. And how could they not? They are competing with at least 25 years of Friday nights marked by slightly different words. So what do I choose to do? What do we all choose to do? Maybe to say the traditional prayer, maybe to say the feminine, maybe to say both, maybe to come up with a new translation altogether. What’s most important to me is that all of these options be there for all of us Jews–  male and female, cis and trans, conforming and nonconforming. May we all feel welcome, whatever our pronouns of choice (both self-referential and God-referential) to pray.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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One thought on “Blessed are [Male] You: Gendering God in Jewish Text

  1. Thank you for this very thoughtful essay. I think you captured very well the challenge of finding language that describes G-d in non-gendered (or at least not patriarchal) terms, and yet does not sound foreign and strange on our tongues. I like to revisit the English translations while I’m praying, substituting words lie “ruler” for “king.” It’s not a perfect or comprehensive solution, but it helps me shape in my head the conception of a deity who is beyond the human gender binary.

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