Open most siddurim or chumashim and you would be forgiven for seeing G-d as a male character in a dramatic novel. Besides the anthropomorphic descriptions of G*d having an outstretched arm or an eye or a nose, you will also see G!d translated as ‘He’. ‘He did this’ and ‘He heard that’ and ‘we pray to Him’. Hold on, how did G-d become a man?
The first problem is translation. Hebrew to English in this case. When you translate you have to make choices given the language you are translating from and the one you are translating to. No two languages are identical and every translation is interpretation, requiring the translator to make choices in how best to render a word or phrase. The Hebrew descriptions of G*d are masculine and so most translators would render G!d as male in the translation. Let’s look at how that works in English.
The word G-d itself has no gender in English, because in English most nouns do not automatically have a gender. There are some that do, like ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, but, compared to other languages out there, English is pretty gender-neutral.
As Philologos writes in the online magazine Mosaic, “On a scale of 1-to-5, with 1 denoting languages that make no gender distinctions at all and 5 denoting those that make a maximum of them, English might be ranked as a 2. The only thing that keeps it from being a 1 (as are, for example, Turkish, Hungarian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese) is its pronouns. A flight attendant must be either he or she. You can’t say, “I tried getting the flight attendant’s attention, but it didn’t see me,” as you can in Turkish. In fact, that’s all you can say in Turkish, in which the pronoun o means ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘it’ and is the only one applicable to such situations.” Incidentally, Philologos doesn’t know it, but Xhosa and Zulu also only have gender-neutral pronouns, and as my wife is Hungarian, I know that Hungarian works the same way.
In the 60s and 70s the Western World started to become attuned to gender in language and English solved some of the gender bias problems through changing terms like policeman into police officer and chairman became chairperson. But it’s a bit harder when it comes to pronouns. You don’t want to speak about a person as an ‘it’. It reduces them to an object. How much more so would you not want to refer to the Creator of the Universe as ‘It’, even with a capital ‘I’. Those who are gender-sensitive in English resort to ‘they’, as in ‘The rabbi lowered the Talmud with a smile — they had found the answer at last.’ Was the rabbi a man or a woman? In fact, ‘They’ might be a better option for G!d as the most generic biblical term for Him/Her is Elohim, which does happen to be plural! But it would still be confusing to render (for example) Gen 2.2 as, “And on the seventh day God finished Their work which They had made; and They rested on the seventh day from all Their work which They had made.”
So is the answer to continue to default to masculine then? Well, if you pay attention to the first verse that addresses gender in the Torah, you might be shocked to read that it says, [my translation] “And G*d created the human in G-d’s own image, G!d created it in G-d’s image; male and female G*d created them.” (Gen. 1:27) Besides my awkward attempts to dodge the pronouns, the most striking conclusion from this verse is that human beings were created in G!d’s image and they were both male and female. In other words, the first creature was not male or female but contained both, or as Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman in B’reishit Rabbah 8.1 put it, “At the time that the Holy One of Blessing created Adam, G-d created Adam as an Androgynos.” That’s the words of a 2000 year-old midrashic text!
And if humans were created in the Divine Image, and contained (at least) both genders, then surely their Creator can’t be male! In fact, it is somewhat idolatrous to even think of G-d as an Old Man with a beard up on a cloud somewhere, and yet that is the perception that remains today, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Rather than G*d creating us in Her image, we have created G-d in ours. Because of course, those scribes, rabbis and priests who wrote our formative texts were all men.
So what do we do about it? We can point the finger at Hebrew as the problem. You see in Hebrew everything has a gender. A table is masculine but a sofa is feminine. And any adjectives or verbs related to those nouns have to agree in gender too. So there really is no way to get around it. Recent attempts to introduce non-binary language into Hebrew have really only been adopted in tiny niches in liberal university communities, and it will take a long time, if ever, before it becomes normal.
But here’s a thought — maybe the genderedness of Hebrew is actually not the problem but part of the solution. You see, if tables and sofas have gender (and they clearly don’t — is a table a man?), then perhaps we can understand Hebrew gender not as a signal of anything except language and how it functions. In fact, to return to the examples given in the Philologos article, and take things to their extreme, Shad, a breast is masculine and Beitzim, testicles are feminine! That leaves us to conclude either that Hebrew is gender queer, or that gender in Hebrew is completely arbitrary and to be ignored when translating.
What is clear is that a masculine noun doesn’t make G@d into a man any more than it makes a table into a man. So why does the world continue to do so? The answer is that it will until we change it. And the change starts with you. So when you next find yourself referring to G*d — whether you are davening, translating or talking about the deity you believe in or don’t believe in — can you stretch yourself to take out the old man with the beard and talk about the One and Only Creator of the Universe without reducing G@d to a male-constructed idol.