Gender in Textual Imagery



   
    April 2000 Passover Edition            
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Visions of the Divine
Gender in Textual Imagery

By Esther Shkop

Much has been made of male dominance in Judaism which, it is argued, is rooted in the Biblical and liturgical conception of God in masculine images. Indeed, when Jewish sources wish to represent God as the ultimate force, that power is represented in the metaphor of Gibor (hero) and Ish Milhama (man of war). When the representation is meant to be as indicate that God is the source of righteous judgement, He is depicted as Shofet (judge); when as a benign yet stern father, God is described as Avinu Shebashamayim, (our Father in Heaven). These images are undoubtedly masculine - they are meant to be.

However, in essence, God is above all gender, as Maimonides' fourth principle of faith states, "The Creator...is not physical and is not affected by physical phenomenon." [source of citation?] The descriptive references, then, are for our benefit in allowing us to relate to the Divine. Undoubtedly, women can and should certainly relate to God as envisaged in masculine imagery. However, if the imagery used in Judaic texts were solely masculine, one might be led to believe that there is a uniquely masculine approach to Judaism's conception of God. Judaic theology would thus foster a closer affinity with the world of men than that of women. Indeed, some contemporary women feel disconnected from their heritage, convinced as they are that it simply does not speak to them as women.

In truth, though, masculine imagery represents only one portion of God-references in Jewish texts. The Tanakh (the Five Books of the Bible, along with the books of the Prophets and the Writings, together referred to as the Old Testament by non-Jewish sources) is, in fact, replete with feminine imagery - and it is used not only in the depiction of Zion, the Nation, the Land, the Torah, and Wisdom, but also in the depiction of the Creator.

 

THE IMAGE OF GOD

 

The image of God embodied in the creation of the human form was imprinted on both the male and female aspects of the original androgynous being. Genesis 1:27 relates that God created the first being, Ha-Adam, "in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them." The great commentator known as the Malbim (in his work Ayelet HaShahar, Chapter 31) states that the whole concept of Ha-Adam -- the first being created in the image of God - wherever it is used in Biblical and Talmudic writings, denotes both male and female. Only later, does the Bible describe the separation of the male and female, and the formation of Adam and Eve. Henceforth, the Divine image is as intrinsic in the man as it is in the woman, and, indeed, in the absence of either man or woman, there is no complete image of God.

 

EL RAHUM, MERCIFUL GOD

 

When describing the unconditional love that cannot, will not, be extinguished by betrayal and abandonment, Moses evokes the image of maternal compassion, as El rahum (Merciful God), "who will not fail thee, neither destroy thee" (Deuteronomy 4:31). The great 19th century commentator Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch illuminated the fact that the concept of rahum (mercy) is rooted in the noun rehem (womb). The Jewish conception of compassion and love is grounded in the essentially feminine image of the womb, which holds, nurtures and protects the fetus - be it perfect or malformed, pretty or ugly, worthy or undeserving.

Inspired by the words of the Torah, the Prophet Isaiah adds more drama and depth to the maternal imagery. He renders God as the loving mother of Israel who can never forget the child She bore and suckled, who then asks incredulously:

Can a woman forget her babe,

Cease loving the son of her belly?

Indeed, these may forget,

But I will never forget you. (49:15)

In a similar vein, Isaiah presents God as the source of life and peace. With a graphic personification of a nursing mother, he portrays the great metaphor of God's comfort:

I stretch out to her like a river of peace,

Like a stream flowing with the honor of the nations

And you may suckle.

You will be carried on the side,

And played with on the knees.

As one whose mother comforts him

So I will comfort you;

And you will be comforted in Jerusalem. (66:12-13)

 

Often in his prophecies of comfort, Isaiah presents God in woman-to-woman dialogue with the collective of Israel, Zion, who is complaining about her long years of suffering. , God soothes the despairing Zion like a sympathetic midwife, explaining that her pains are but the travails that precede birth, asking rhetorically:

Will I bring you to the breaking point, and not bring forth?
If I am the deliverer (midwife), will I stop (the birth)...?! (66:9)

 

The maternal imagery of God can be found throughout Psalms, which is the primary source of Jewish liturgy. This is quite explicit in Psalm 22 (written by King David about four centuries before Isaiah), in which the poetry transposes the babe's reliance on the mother's breast with its reliance on God:

For You are the one that drew me out of the belly,

The One that secured me on my mother's breasts;

Upon You I have been cast from the womb,

From my mother's belly You have been my God (verses 10-11)

This image of God's relation to the Jewish People as that of the non-judgmental, unconditionally loving mother flowers in the poetic renditions of the later Prophets. In his description of the exodus from Egypt and the birth of Israel a nation, Ezekiel employs the concept of God as a high-soaring eagle who takes note of Israel, depicted as an unwanted, abandoned female infant wallowing in blood (16:6). The hovering Presence, resolute that the infant will indeed live, is contrasted to the parents and midwives that had rejected her. While they had cast her off, still attached to the afterbirth, God embraces, washes and swaddles the baby girl.

The deliciousness with which Ezekiel describes the dressing and adorning of the growing babe sheds a new and warm light on the rituals with which mothers bestow gentle affection on their children. There is no more intimate and tender act of giving than that of a woman when she cleanses her baby and dresses it in pretty clothes. To be able to adore a baby despite its filth, to coo and sweet-talk a child while wiping its bottom, to wash and anoint its skin, and then cover it with embroidered swaddling probably does more for building a child's self-esteem than we can ever know. That God ascribes to Himself-Herself such loving, albeit mundane acts, speaks more to the value of what has been called "women's work" than all the exhortations of modern literature.

 

IMAGERY OF FEMALE STRENGTH

 

Lest it seem that the use of the feminine metaphor is limited to depiction of nurturance and tender motherhood, the prophet Isaiah confounds our prejudices. Not only does the woman personify the collective of the Jewish People in its relation to God, but the prophet directly envisions God as a woman of strength.

Isaiah describes, in the third person, the vengeance of God against our enemies:

As a mighty man (kegibor) He will go out, like a man of war He will stir up jealousy, He will blare, even scream, as He overcomes His enemies (42:13)

 

However, in the development of that same prophetic vision, the voice moves to the first person, as God speaks of long-simmering fury. The Ish Milhama, the Man of War, undergoes a metamorphoses and emerges in the strength and cries of a birthing woman in the throes of labor:

I have forever held my peace,

I have hushed and refrained Myself;

Now like a birthing woman, I will cry out,

Panting and gasping at once (42:14)

The Malbim, in his commentary Hazon Yeshayahu, differentiates between asham, which refers to rapid, panting exhalations, and ashaf, which refers to gasping inhalations. In what might be the first description of the Lamaze method, the prophet transforms the allegorical meaning inherent in the image of the birthing woman. She is no longer seen as a victim of forces she cannot control; instead she is rendered as the symbol of strength, of creative force. Interestingly, the Hebrword Hayil (tas valor and force, as in Eshet Chayil - Woman of Valor, Gibor Chayil - Heroic Warrior) which connotes labor contractions is the root of the Hebrew words for Military Forces and Soldier.

 

THE DIVINE NAME

 

In English translations of Judaic texts, the Divinity is referred to as "God", "O Lord", or "Hashem" (literally, "the name"). Yet we must realize that God does have a name, the famous Tetragrammaton, or four-lettered name of Hashem - which is made up of the letters yud-heh and vav-heh. The ineffable name of Hashem is a contraction of the Hebrew verb, to be, in past, present and future, and is therefore often translated as The Eternal. However, in the Hebraic source this name is written as a feminine noun - and signifies the aspect of rachamim, which, as indicated earlier, is quintessentially feminine. Thus every blessing and prayer we say, every evocation of the Eternal Presence [Kabbalistically called the "Shechina" ] is in fact an evocation of the feminine concept - the unconditional love of the Creator.

Moreover, this feminine four-lettered name of Hashem is used throughout the Torah and all of our liturgy to suggest Hashgaha Pratit. Hashgaha Pratit , commonly translated in English as Divine Providence, follows each person like a shadow, protecting and guiding each human being, and according infinite value to each individual. Its presence is invisible, but it is the One with which we commune - for it is with us at all times. This concept is unlike the concept of Elokim, which is written as a plural masculine noun, and signifies the forces and multiple powers manifest in Nature - visible though uncontrollable, relentless and impersonal.

 

CONCLUSION

One can only be impressed by the majestic beauty and profound emotion which Jewish sources, especially in the Prophets, conjure through the use of feminine imagery. The numerous and various strong feminine images more than balance the masculine ones. While we must remember that the Divine is beyond form and gender, human language by necessity conceives even the most Abstract in visual images. The multiplicity of feminine images alongside the masculine, and the context in which one or the other is used requires close study and (often mystical) understanding. Careful analysis of the Hebraic texts will reveal that religious experiences and the immediacy of God are to be found in the world of women no less than in that of men. It would be a tragedy - and a travesty - to "castrate" the language, for it would then remove God from the experiential milieus of both men and women, rendering us mortals mute, unable to commune with or communicate about our Creator.

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Dr. Esther Shkop is Dean of the Blitstein Institute of Hebrew Theological College, and Associate Professor of Bible. She has a Ph.D. in Public Policy Analysis, a Masters in Biblical Studies and a B.A. in English Lit and Philosophy.

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from the April 2000 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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