Gender and Prayer

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Gender and Prayer

Thoughts on Hebrew grammar & egalitarian prayer:

P'nai Or/ ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal in its Siddur, and most ALEPH-related communities, and people who have learned therefrom, present "Brucha aht YAHH," on one side of the page, "Baruch attah YAHH" on the ther, and then "ru'ach ha'olam," or "chai ha'olamin," and then for exampleboth "borey" and "boreyt pri ha'gafen." In short, people can choose a masculine or a feminist form.

How then does this become non-sexist for individual davveners as well as for the community as a awhole? The major way we get beyond Hebrew's linguistic gender-fixation (I've just read a very funny & serious essay that begins, "Hebrew [as a language] is a sex-maniac.") is by mixing the genders not in a single sentence but in closely related brachot. Thus the feminine above for wine, and right away the masculine form for motzi. Or the beginning of the Torah-reading brachot in masculine, and the chatimah or end-bracha in feminine. ("Brucha aht YAHH, notenet ha'Torah.")

Is this "con-fusing"? Yes. It "fuses together" two concepts we have learned to keep in separate boxes. But for me, this is good -- in fact, among human beings and for the Divine as well, these neat separate boxes are not truthful.

In a similar vein, I (not many other people, so far as I know) deliberately say "Imeynu malkenu" ("Our mother, our king") in order to force the confounding or synthesis or transformation of images that results. Since "queens" are mostly consorts rather than rulers (pace Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great), i don't like to use "malkatenu." Using "Avinu malkenu" alone obviously reinforces male-divine imagery. The collision frees my mind.

One of the nice things about "ru'ach" is that it is one of the very few Hebrew nouns that can take either a feminine or masculaine verb. You might say that we are trying to turn "YHWH" into another such noun.

I might also add, an attempt to degenderize the verbs by mixing genders within a single sentence is not totally far-fetched (is that a Yiddish word?). When any language is in transition, a new usage will feel ungrammatical to those who learned it before the transition. Thus the increasingly common use in English of "their" as a way of avoiding having to say "her or his" is formally ungrammatical according to the old rules, but in 20 years this use of "their" may simply appear in the grammar books as a "personal gender-neutral singular pronoun," obviously different from "its."

For English to shed the gender aspects of German and Norman French meant that at some point, people were talking in a way the professors would have called "ungrammatically."

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Director, The Shalom Center

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