God Language and Liturgy

Jewish feminists imagine and address God in a multiplicity of ways, both innovative and traditional.

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Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma (17/325), January 9, 1987.

Feminist prayer: it began as a "women's issue." God was always a male, and that didn't seem right--or should I say accurate?--to those of us who weren't. After all, we too had been told that we were created in God's image. When we raised this objection, the defenders of the tradition explained that He wasn't really a "he," and chided us for our literal‑mindedness. Still, they steadfastly refused to pray to God as female, even once in a while.

So we started experimenting on our own. Instead of barukh atah adonay (blessed are you, Lord) Jewish women in various places began saying b'rukhah at shekhinah (blessed are you, Shekhinah [associated with God's feminine presence]). Almost immediately the reaction rang out (from those same defenders of the faith): "B'rukhah at? Do you mean 'goddess'? This is paganism!" But, we protested, Shekhinah is a good Jewish word, a traditional Jewish name for Divinity. Yes, they agreed, Shekhinah was kosher, so long as we remembered that she wasn't really God, she was just an aspect of Him. The real God was Adonai. We seemed to be taking the name for God too seriously, as though it were as legitimate as theirs. Or as though theirs was only a name--a metaphor, that is--just like ours, as though they didn't really mean "he" when they said "He", as though they believed what they were telling us when they warned against literal‑mindedness.

Knowing, Discovering, Unknowing

That was the first stage, and I wish we could say that it was over. But, although feminist Jews have gone beyond merely substituting female counterparts for the male images in our prayers, we still find ourselves in the often annoying position of having to explain why it is necessary to change the prayers at all. Meanwhile, on our own, when our energy is not drained from explaining and defending what we are doing, we have been delving into the deeper issues that have arisen out of our initial concerns. For example, in objecting to God the King, we found that God the Queen was not a satisfactory alternative. Because, we discovered, Divinity means more to us than a principle of transcendent rule; even power can be imagined as something other than "power‑over." So instead we began to talk about empowerment, about Divinity as that which enables us to be our individual selves, and as that which bonds us when we unite as a community.

And more than this: as we have been talking, meeting, praying together, feminist Jews have come to realize that we are many, even as we are part of the One. Our diversity characterizes us as much as anything else, and that is why it is so hard for us to choose a single set of words to represent us, so hard for any one of us to speak for all of us--as articles such as this one sometimes seem to do. What do feminist Jews think about prayer? Almost everything you can think of. And so our prayers, our God‑language, must be diverse enough to include and affirm us all. In this sense, perhaps the most crucial feminist insight into prayer‑talk has been the realization that one name does not equal one Divinity. The monotheistic vi­sion can only be realized through a multiplicity of names and images, a diversity broad enough to in­clude, and thus unite, all of creation.

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Marcia Falk

Marcia Falk is a poet, translator, and Judaic scholar. She is the author of The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival.