God and Gender: Missing the Divine for the Sign

"The story is told in countless versions. Somebody -- a saintly rabbi, a mystic caught up in holy ecstasy, even in one version a lost astronaut -- chances to see God face to face and lives to tell about it. 'What is God really like?' asks an anxious crowd back home. The narrator hesitates. 'You'll be shocked,' he warns. He is pressed further. 'Well,' he finally says, 'to begin with, she's black.'" --Time Magazine, March 20, 1972:

I dug up this old joke because it gives insight into a certain assumption underlying contemporary prejudices against belief. It has become fashionable to take swipes at the straw man that -- among other intellectual crimes -- traditional monotheism is sexist and, furthermore, is sexist because it is inherently riddled with primitive notions about God. Thus, the comedic formula for the joke (i.e. what makes us laugh) is the double "surprise" that comes from thwarting not one but two such primitive presumptions about what God is like.

But why not take it further? Why not mock traditional monotheism for believing that God has a height and weight? Why not a shoe-size? Surely those who pray to a "Him" must also believe that this "He" can be described with all sorts of human characteristics. What kind of a life insurance rating do you think an actuary would come up with for God?

But first, to those who do not wish to be disabused of any prejudices, you may proceed straight to the comments section where you may riff on whatever emotional associations have already been invoked in you. (Talk about the wonderful world of neurons!)

And now, to the who really believe that the Almighty, Eternal and Infinite Creator of All really does possess a physiological gender, like one that can be determined with a DNA kit, could you please also comment below so that I can be totally blown away that someone like you exists anywhere that's not in the fantasies of the people who were addressed in the previous paragraph?

Moses Maimonides, the great 12th century rabbi, physician and philosopher, included as one of his Thirteen Principles of Faith that God has no body or bodily likeness. So the fact that God is not really male or female is not exactly news.

When Jewish Scripture and prayers make gender-specific references to God it has nothing to do with the biological distinctions of male and female and certainly nothing to do with social conventions and human constructs overlaying gender identity. It has everything to do with abstract and powerful spiritual paradigms best expressed poetically in the language of gender. Ever heard of the Song of Songs? It's mysticism, not pulp romance. You're not supposed to get bogged down in the analogy. But go tell that to that young married guy sitting with his wife at the Starbucks in Barnes & Noble reading selections from the pocket Rumi to her aloud. (Oh, later he'll claim he was being ironic, but we'll all know he thought he was slick.)

God is not a "him" or a "her" any more than God took a "walk" in the garden in Genesis 3:8, although an atheist friend of mine once asked me plaintively how I could believe that He did. (KJV anyone?)

Whenever we use any name for God, we are not describing the Indescribable but our paltry and entirely subjective experience of divine "Otherness" -- that which is beyond us. In other words, God cannot be labeled. All we can label is the relationship as we experience it. To wit, even more "abstract" titles such as "Wise" or "Compassionate" or "Strict in Justice" do not mean that the definition of God is one who is wise or compassionate or strict in justice. These words just mean that in a given context, we who are finite, experience God through our awareness of one of those qualities.

So, God is not a gender. But we relate to God through the context of gender. And of course this context changes just as our relationship changes in different settings. That's why sometimes God is my husband (which doesn't make me biologically female when that happens, by the way). Other times, God is my teacher or my judge. God can be my father. Or God can be my mother. Indeed, the name that Judaism uses to describe God when She is most imminently present in our lives is the name Shechinah, the Nurturing and Omnipresent Mother.

The bottom line is that the language of gender is no different than the language of emotions or consciousness, like when the Bible says that "God was angry" or "God was jealous" or even "God loves" or "God cares." We have to know that these are descriptions of the human experience of the divine. Or should we insist that theism inherently embraces a Big-Man-in-the-Sky God?

If we do choose to take it that way, then what I want to know is when the mystical inner Torah talks about the physical universe as the contact point for bringing about the marriage of the masculine and feminine energies, should we book a wedding hall? And if yes, who's going to cater?