Monotheism and the Problem of God’s Pronouns

Will the Hebrew language allow us to call Him, Her?

From And When the Angel Showed Him the Names of Those Whom Love of God Had Blest, 1916, Edmund Joseph Sullivan. Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo.

From And When the Angel Showed Him the Names of Those Whom Love of God Had Blest, 1916, Edmund Joseph Sullivan. Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo.

March 23 2023
About Philologos

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

Back in the early sixties of the last century, when the first manned space flights were underway, a joke made the rounds. An astronaut returns to earth after a week in space and faces a press conference. He smoothly answers questions about the flight, his thoughts and feelings in the course of it, how he passed the time, the view of Earth from above, and so on, until a reporter asks, “Could you please tell us whether, having been so close to heaven, you managed to catch a glimpse of God?”

The astronaut reddens. He squirms in his seat. He coughs. “Yes,” he says at last. “As a matter of fact, I did.”

A hush falls over the room. “And what was He like?” the reporter asks eagerly.

“Well,” says the astronaut. “It’s . . . umm, . . . ahh . . . you see. . . .” He clears his throat. “She’s amazing!”

The joke seemed very funny at the time precisely because of its outrageousness. Not that religiously thoughtful people back then couldn’t have told you that an all-powerful God who ruled the universe couldn’t have a sex in the ordinary sense of the word. Religiously thoughtful people have always known that—or at least they have known it since the Middle Ages. If you doubt that, read medieval philosophers like Maimonides, Aquinas, Averroes, and Avicenna. But your average American church or synagogue-goer in the early 1960s (mosque-goers were hard to find in those days) wasn’t a philosopher. He or she thought of God as a He because that’s how God has always been represented by monotheistic tradition—by the Hebrew Bible, by the New Testament, by the Quran, by the prayers, literature, and iconography of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Who could blame our astronaut for fearing to meet with incredulity if he broke the news that this wasn’t so?

Today, after six decades of a still ongoing sexual revolution that insists on our rethinking everything that has traditionally been thought about gender, including its place in our conception of God, the astronaut joke seems stale. So for that matter does an article, written by the Wall Street Journal religion correspondent Francis X. Rocca, on “Must God Have a Gender in Our Prayers?” that appeared in that paper on March 11. Who among readers of the Journal (a sophisticated crowd by any standard) doesn’t know by now that it is not only politically incorrect to refer to God exclusively as “He,” it is also theologically naïve?

Naïve or not, however, the problem in talking about the God of monotheism is that we don’t seem to have a better alternative—at least not in languages like Hebrew or English, where there are separate words (and in Hebrew, separate verbal inflections) for “he” and “she.” (For Hungarians or Turks, who have only one pronoun and set of verbs for both sexes, the problem doesn’t exist.) When Isaiah, for example, says “K’ro’eh edro yir’eh,” which the King James Bible accurately translates as “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd,” what other choices do we have? “He or She shall feed Their flock like a shepherd?” “He shall feed Her flock like a shepherd?” “It shall feed Its flock like a shepherd?” Each of these makes us cringe. It is not necessarily sexist to decide that, if all the alternatives are bad, we might as well stick with the one we’re used to.

It’s true, as Mr. Rocca observes, that there is one other possibility, which is to avoid pronouns for God altogether—something, he writes, that “some progressive Catholics have taken upon themselves . . . by replacing masculine pronouns with simple repetition of the word ‘God’ in their prescribed responses to the priest.” This only works, however, when the repetitions don’t come too closely too often. “God shall feed God’s flock like a shepherd” can perhaps be gotten away with. “God shall feed God’s flock like a shepherd; God shall gather the lambs with God’s arm and carry them in God’s bosom,” as the rest of the verse goes, cannot be. It cries out for the pronoun that is missing.

But let’s face it. The problem isn’t just one of pronouns. It is one of monotheism itself. In polytheistic religions, there is no need to decide whether is God is male, female, neither, or both, because there are male gods and female gods and the distinction between them is clear: Zeus is male, Athena is female, and there isn’t any he/she confusion. Men and women under polytheism can feel that this part of themselves has its divine reflection in this god and that part in that god, or project their human natures and emotions onto the god that expresses them best. Different gods have different functions, character traits, and personalities, and one can turn for succor or inspiration to whichever seems most appropriate for the situation.

This is not the case with monotheism, in which all that is divine is incorporated in a single being who is expected to be internally consistent and non-self-contradictory. The God of the Bible, of course, has changing emotions and can be pleased or displeased, loving or wrathful, forgiving or vengeful, compassionate or cruel—and later Jewish tradition took cognizance of this seeming inconsistency in His nature and dealt with it in various ways. Many medieval Jewish philosophers, for example, understood the different emotions attributed to God by the Bible as mere figures of speech. This is an understanding echoed poetically in the 12th-century Shir ha-Kavod, the “Song of Glory,” sung in most Orthodox congregations at the end of the Sabbath morning prayer, which has such lines as (in Jonathan Sacks’s rhymed and somewhat stilted translation in the Koren siddur):

By the hand of the Your prophets, through Your servants’ mystery,

You gave a glimpse of Your wondrous majesty.

They depicted You, though not as You are,

But as you do: Your acts, Your power

They represented You in many visions;

Through them all You are one without divisions.

They saw You, now old, then young,

Your head with gray, with black hair hung.

Age on the day of judgment, yet on the day of war,

A young warrior with mighty hands they saw.

The Shir ha-Kavod does not speak of God being envisioned as female. But in the kabbalistic literature of the Middle Ages, God does have a female side. We find it in the concept of the Sh’khinah, God’s indwelling presence in the world that is always spoken of in feminine terms, and in the two s’firot or Divine Emanations of Binah (intelligence) and Malkhut (kingship), both also conceived of as feminine in their receptive and procreative nature. Indeed, in some ways, as scholars have noted, Kabbalah represents a return of the long suppressed, a revival of polytheistic motifs that Judaism had always fought against, within the framework of a monotheistic faith. Instead of many gods we now have one God with many aspects, some male, some female, which interact with each other dynamically. Their harmonious union is sometimes pictured in patently sexual terms, as in the half-Aramaic, half-Hebrew  T’filat ha-Yiḥud or “Prayer of Unification” said before the performance of core commandments like the putting on of t’fillin: “[Let my act be] for the sake of the Unification of the Holy One Blessed Be He with His Sh’khinah [l’shem yiḥud kudsha brikh hu u-skhintey].”

Traditionally a male prerogative in Judaism, the putting on of t’fillin is now often practiced by religious Jewish feminists, and the T’filat ha-Yiḥud would seem ideal for their purposes. Yet they, too, cannot escape the problem of language, for immediately afterwards they must say, “Blessed art Thou O Lord of the Universe who has commanded us to put on t’fillin”—and the “Thou” of this Hebrew prayer, atah, is masculine, as opposed to at, the pronoun’s feminine form. In Kabbalah, too, God is ultimately depicted as male with a female side to Him. The Hebrew language simply gives Him—gives us—no real choice.

We would have one if we had female gods and goddesses rather than a single part-male, part-female God. Polytheism has its advantages.