Hello, Mother; Hello, Father
by Larry Kaufman
The Torah portion Haazinu is read this year on Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Haazinu means give ear, or listen (just in case you didn’t listen hard enough on Rosh Hashanah?). If you keep track of such things, you’ll recall that I recently blogged about Parashat Reeh, which means See. Now Moses goes back to his more frequent admonition to Hear, choosing the fancy word Haazinu instead of the more prosaic shma, possibly to alert us that, for the first time since the Song at the Sea, he is about to speak in poetry.
I also recently blogged about the difficulties both Hebrew and English create by lacking pronouns for situations where the reference is neither he, she, nor it. The context was our changing perception of God. The picture we grew up with, the old man with the white beard, has been photoshopped over the last 25 years to a non-gendered divine abstraction. For the Sabbath of Return, I return to the God-of-no-gender from a different angle.
In Haazinu, the Torah uses feminine imagery for God, bouncing between God as father and as mother. Interestingly, the WRJ Women’s Torah Commentary doesn’t make a big deal out of this feminist theme, but Rabbi Plaut stresses it, as did Rabbi Hertz before him. Let’s look at Plaut’s introduction:
According to the Torah … the Eternal has no consort and thus is neither specifically male nor female. Yet here the text portrays God as both the nation’s father (verses 6, 11, 18) and its mother (verses 11, 13, 18).* These metaphors refer to ancient Israelite fathers and mothers in their ideal sense, as those who – in complementary ways – protect and provide for their land and their dependents.
*The mother imagery is obscured by the text’s use of grammatically masculine inflections. However, the grammatical masculine is the only way in Hebrew to express God’s overarching Unity. Even when God is being likened to a mother, a feminine inflection would not make theological sense.
Here are those verses, quoted in the gender-sensitive “New JPS” translation as adapted for the revised Plaut commentary: (Bracketed references to God appeared in earlier versions of New JPS as He.)
Is not this the Father who created you,
Fashioned you, and made you endure!
Like an eagle who rouses its nestlings,
Gliding down to its young,
So did [God] spread wings and take them.
[God] set them atop the highlands,
To feast on the yield of the earth;
Nursing them with honey from the crag…
You neglected the Rock who begot you,
Forgot the God who labored to bring you forth.
In the 1917 “Old JPS” translation used in the Hertz commentary, Verse 11 renders the eagle as feminine in English despite the masculine of the Hebrew, and Hertz references the maternal imagery in his notes.
As an eagle that stirreth up her nest,
Hovereth over her young
Spreadeth abroad her wings…
Regardless of the translation, these verses portray God both as mother, nursing and laboring, and as father, begetting and creating. Hebrew syntax allows only for masculine or feminine forms, and talks about God in the masculine. In English, we’re okay as long as we can use nouns; the problems begin when we need pronouns. This wasn’t a problem before the mid-nineteen-eighties, when our rabbis began to teach that both man and woman were created b’tselem elohim, in the image of God, and we had to think of God as genderless. Using masculine references to God (He, Him, or His) became sexist, as did metaphors like avinu malkeinu, our Father, our King.
Today, we want faithful translations, but we also want gender neutrality, concerns that apparently didn’t bother the translators of Old JPS (1917). In their day, masculine usages could encompass the feminine — an expression like b’nai Yisrael could mean sons of Israel or children of Israel, depending on the context. They could accept a He that included the She — and had no need for a locution like “He or She set them upon the highlands.”
Although we Reform Jews pride ourselves on our egalitarianism, and on our sophisticated recognition that God is neither He nor She, I find our efforts to reinforce this abstraction leading us to an abandonment of common sense. Surely our minds are big enough to say Our Father, Our King, while thinking also of Our Mother, Our Queen! Give me that old time religion, where Moses (or his Deuteronomist ghost-writer) could deal with synecdoche, using the part as a stand-in for the whole. I fervently pray that the day may come when the linguistic corruptions wrought by political correctness shall give way to the purity and poetry of which we moderns are surely capable!