D’var Torah: On Non-Gendered Language for God
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 10 February 2023
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with the most up to date drafts of the new Reform Machzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
At Alyth, we have been using a draft of the Rosh Hashanah books for a few years and have been waiting in eager anticipation for similar for Yom Kippur. As with so much else, the challenges of pandemic pressed pause on the development. But, now, the final books are due to be published in time for the High Holy Days of 2024.
So, I was pleased to be able to get a sneak preview of what they might look like. And to appreciate the enormous amount of work that has gone into them already.
Like our daily siddur, much of the benefit will be in layout – making clearer distinctions between passages; better layout of Hebrew, translation and transliteration; and restoring some of the classical structure of our services. It will also benefit from new commentaries and readings, opportunities for reflection.
The new machzor will also bring our High Holy Day liturgy up to date with some of the important liturgical changes made in 2007/2008: reference to the matriarchs in the Amidah, to Miriam in the geulah. And, bringing the machzor in line with our siddur in its use of non-gendered language for God throughout in the translation.
15 years on from its introduction, while non-gendered language can still feel a bit inelegant sometimes, it never feels controversial or unwelcome.
But we were reminded this week that this change is not something to take for granted.
For this week, the use of non-gendered language for God – our practice for a decade and a half – was placed on the agenda in the Church of England.
Now, it is a bit more complicated for the C of E than it was for us:
Firstly, the Church of England is a different kind of religious organisation. The needs of a global communion are a hard balancing act, and a large established religion is inevitably rather more bureaucratic than we are. This issue is being looked at by the Liturgical Commission in collaboration with the Faith and Order Commission. And nothing looked at by two commissions is ever going to change quickly.
There also appears to be a dogmatic position among some in the Church which is going to make this difficult – a view that there is a fundamental maleness to God through the model of Jesus – thus, a doctrinal commitment to God as male. As one traditionalist rector put it: ‘He [capital H] has made clear what His preferred pronouns are’.
Yet, the experience of gendered prayer language is the same for those in the church as it was for us. What it says about God; what it says about our relationship with the sacred; what it says about what is sacred, in as much as it defines what the image of the divine looks like. Now, the church is beginning to face up to that challenge just as we did 15+ years ago.
Opening the 1985 Machzor – with its references to Lord, use of He as the only divine pronoun, its description of God exclusively as father – feels uncomfortable; it is now alien not just to the tongue but, more importantly, alien to the soul – it feels like a closing down of our theological possibilities, limiting in our metaphorical language and – most importantly – excluding in its understanding of what is divine.
All of which makes me appreciate even more how doctrinally and ritually nimble we can be and have been over the years.
And it reminds me of how important our form of religious life is – in the lives of our members but also in what it offers the national religious sphere to encounter a genuinely progressive religious movement.
In so many areas we represent a different way of doing religion: open and inclusive, non-judgemental, non-dogmatic – able to respond to the needs of real people.
We are committed in a deep and reflective way to thoughtful change when it is required. Viewing our legal tradition as guide to our engagement with the world, not as a fence to keep it out. Unwilling to get stuck, bogged down, in our search for a sacred response to how to be in the world.
To have a new machzor that removes gendered language will be a welcome development, and long overdue.
We will have to wait until 2024.
It is a shame for the church that they will need to wait a whole lot longer than that.