Friday, September 3, 2010

Women in Prayer: Part 3, Shemoneh Esrei

Traditional prayer has been criticized by feminists as being male-centric. They’re right; prayer is dominated by mentions of the Patriarchs and mitzvot (commandments) that only apply to men. However, it can easily be reclaimed by women and turned into a feminist connection to God.

You are holy and Your Name is holy, and holy ones praise You every day, forever. Blessed are You, Hashem, the Holy God.

אַתָּה קָדוֹשׁ וְשִׁמְךָ קָדוֹשׁ, וּקְדוֹשִׁים בְּכָל יוֹם יְהַלְלֽוּךָ סֶּֽלָה. כִּי אֵל מֶֽלֶךְ גָּדוֹל וְקָדוֹש אָֽתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הָאֵל הַקָּדוֹשׁ

The third brakha (blessing) of Shemoneh Esrei, usually called Kedushat HaShem, is all about showing how powerless we would be without God, and how holy God is. It says that even the name of God is holy. However, it refers to that Name in the male tense.

The gender of God is an issue that multitudes of feminists, Jewish and Christian, have grappled with. Obviously, God is neither male nor female; God is not a human being. When someone refers to the “hand of God,” it’s an allegory meant only to make the unfathomable concept of God a little easier for us to understand. Hence, when God is referred to as male (or female) it’s only to make us able to understand God better.

While we may understand that God is sexless, the issue of how to refer to God still remains. I used to refer to God as She, but once I realized that God is truly neither male nor female, I didn’t want to box God into a specific gender, so I stopped using pronouns. I use You and other non-gender specific terms, and I word my sentences to avoid using He or She; God is neither.

What still is not solved is the issue of God’s name in prayer. If one wants to pray in English, there are many egalitarian siddurim (prayer books) that remain gender-neutral, but when praying in Hebrew, a gender-specific language, God is always referred to in the male tense. Just as one should keep the Imahot (Matriarchs) in mind when the names of the Avot (Patriarchs) appear, remember when you refer to God as male that God is neither male nor female.

It is said that the first three brakhot (blessings) correspond to the three Avot, so this third brakha corresponds to the third and last Patriarch, Jacob. To the Jewish feminist that will have the Imahot in mind, this brakha is for the wives of Jacobs. He had four: Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. While only Rachel and Leah are counted as Matriarchs, Bilhah and Zilpah still mothered four of the twelve tribes, and some commentators believe they were Rachel and Leah’s sisters (an interpretation that Anita Diamant uses in her book The Red Tent, a fictionalization of the life of Dinah).

When you put Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Leah’s initials together, you get BRZL. Barzel is the Hebrew word for iron. Iron is one of the strongest metals and is used for items of warfare; it is so closely connected with war that the Mizbe'ach Avanim (Altar of Stones) in the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) cannot be made of iron, since its purpose is to make peace between God and humankind. Because Jacob’s wives’ initials are BRZL, we know that they were as strong as iron. Iron’s atomic number is 26. God’s name, the Tetragrammaton that cannot be spoken out loud, has a Gematria (numerical value) of 26. These four holy women “equal” 26, the same number that the name of God “equals.” Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Next time you say Shemoneh Esrei, remember that God is truly neither a He nor a She, and keep the wives of Jacob, Bilhah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Leah, the women who were as strong as iron, in mind.


  1. I struggle with the concept of a gendered or non-gendered God. I wasn't brought up in a religion, yet I absorbed the idea of a male God; I found Paganism later in life, where the genders are separate yet one, but the Goddess is more important. As I've gotten older and more spiritual, I've come to feel that gendering God is too limited, as you noted. Yet, in my head, whenever I think of the concept, it's always male. I wonder how to change it so it's real for me rather than conceptual.

  2. I read an article about Christian feminism and the gender of God a while ago, I found it again here In my head, I also often think of God in male terms, and sometimes it slips out and I'm honestly ashamed of myself when it does. I've been thinking of replacing the term S/He with It, so that way I still have a non-gendered pronoun to use and make my life easier.

    I know there's been a lot of Jewish feminist authorship on this - I hated the book, but Judith Plaskow's Standing Again at Sinai explored the concept, and I know she listed other authors who discussed the concept.