The Gender of God

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By Rabbi Michael Barclay

The Church of England has announced that it is evaluating the language of gender with relation to God. While they recognize that God is neither female nor male per se, the dialogue came up in a recent exchange in the General Synod, the governing body of the Church, when a priest sought options to speak of God in a non-gendered way.

While this is an interesting theological discussion within the Church, answers have been given about God’s “gender” in Judaism for millennia. There is no need to start a “gender inclusive” description of the Almighty and become pronoun conscious in order to satisfy the desires of modern gender activists. The understanding of God’s “gender” can be easily understood and explored through an understanding of Hebrew; and in so doing, we can avoid surrendering the infinitude of Divinity to a populist desire for gender inclusion in language.

The main name of God found in the Bible in the original Hebrew is “YHWH” (the four Hebrew letters of Yod, Hey, Vav, and Hey; and often pronounced as Yahweh, Jehovah, etc. and referred to by academics as the Tetragrammaton). Each of these four letters is “soft” and can be pronounced in a multiplicity of ways. Additionally, in the original Hebrew of the Torah, there are no vowels, so in theory, the name could be pronounced as “JoHoWaHa”, “YaHWaH”, “JeHoVaH” or any number of other ways. Because we don’t want to mispronounce the name of God, Jews often refer to this word as “HaShem” (meaning “the Name”) or “Adonai” (meaning “my Master”). But the name itself is a hidden key to understanding God’s Presence in the physical world. In order to use this four-0lettered name as a key, we need to take a moment and understand Hebrew grammar.

Like many languages, Hebrew often has two or three root letters that compose the root of a word, that can then be conjugated into varying forms of a word, tense, and gender. When the letter yod is placed before the root letters, the word becomes conjugated as male future tense. As an example, the root of the Hebrew word meaning “to speak” is d.b.r., or “daber”. If a yod is placed in front, we have the word Y’DaBeR, meaning “he will speak”. Similarly, if the Hebrew letter hey is placed after the root, the word becomes past tense female: “D’BRaH” is translated as “she spoke”.

Now let’s look at God’s personal name of YHWH. Grammatically, the root letters of the word are Hey and Vav, the middle two letters. These letters form the root of the Hebrew word which means “to be” or “to exist”. It is here that we see the insights into God’s “gender” and pronouns.