The Feminist Critique of God Language

A survey of Jewish feminist challenges and responses to traditionally male language for God.

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Metaphors for God that might once have been compelling despite, or because of, their political resonance not only have lost their immediacy and power, but have become morally suspect and disturbing. Especially those images of God drawn from political and family life have changed in their associations and meanings with changes in and new perspectives on the family and political order. Once images become socially, politically, or morally inadequate, however, they are also religiously inadequate. Instead of pointing to and evoking the reality of God, they block the possibility of religious experience. (Plaskow, pp. 135-136)

Plaskow's conclusion bears on the broad assumptions of the entire study of the Jewish God. All our metaphors for God are designed to facilitate our experience of God, to reveal God, to open our eyes. They work like a pair of spectacles. A student once suggested the analogy of The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy has to don a pair of spectacles in order to see the city of Oz. Sometimes, however, after a change in cultural conditions, instead of revealing, the metaphors blind. That can apply across the board. Some have suggested, for example, that the metaphor of God as King or Sovereign that pervades the High Holiday liturgy no longer works for people who don't live under a monarchy.

That's precisely the complaint of Jewish feminists. They reject both metaphors, the king metaphor because of its hierarchical associations, and the paternal metaphor because it excludes their distinctive female experience. The world has changed, and so must our divine images. The entire issue is still very much a work in progress. Prayer books from the more liberal wings of the religious community have incorporated the less radical process of substituting gender‑neutral God language. More radically feminist prayer books have replaced the male metaphors with feminine ones.

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Dr. Neil Gillman

Dr. Neil Gillman is Aaron Rabinowitz and Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.