Monday, February 26, 2007

Gender Roles and Religion, Part II

If I asked you to imagine G-d, what would G-d look like? When you use a pronoun in reference to G-d, which one is it?

It's easy to forget that descriptions influence the way we view G-d, and religion in general. For the first question, most people get the imagery of the wise old white guy with his cane. For the 2nd, I'd wager to say almost 90% of the people say He. Does this not seem odd to you? Why is it that the vast majority of society prefers to denote G-d with masculine qualities?

I can see two main arguments. The first, is probably the most disturbing. That argument is thus: the majority of society views stereotypical male qualities as good for a leader and a rock of spirituality. Males are the ones we feel more comfortable going to for guidance, the ones we hold in deeper respect, the ones that inspire us, the ones we can more easily see ascribing terms such as omnipotent and omniscient to. Now, I'm hoping that this isn't the case for most, but unfortunately it probably is for some.

The second argument is that in order to avoid using G-d every time, some gender-sided pronoun had to be used, and incidentally the male one was chosen. If this is only a grammatical decision, then why do we still imagine G-d as masculine? The answer most likely is that since the time we were little we have always heard G-d described as He. This was the time we first formulated an image of G-d, and it's stuck with us. Yet add to this imbalance the scarcity of women mentioned in the Torah and prayer books and a scarcity of female religious leaders. What you end up with is a male-centric (at least by outward appearances) religion.

Now, traditional religious thought in most religions deals with this difference by describing the center of male spiritual life external (i.e in synagogue, as leaders of the community), and the center of female spiritual life internal (i.e. in the house, raising the kids Jewish, etc). I'm quite thankful that in ultra-orthodox homes the women are well-respected for their roles, and men for theirs. I don't particularly feel comfortable boxing my religious identity into that small arena, but I can respect those who chose to do so.

My problem is with the middle of the observance spectrum who still follow the above-mentioned inequalities. These are the people who still cling to the gender imbalance, yet have no grounds to support their beliefs with other than "it's tradition". The many who adamantly refuse to add the matriarchs into prayers, without even understanding why they were excluded to begin with. And yet, it is in this middle group that women who do not feel comfortable within the rigidly defined orthodox sense of female spirituality (such as myself) seek religion.

For those women struggling to find a spiritual connection in a male-centric arena, it is often imperative for them to find something or someone with which they can identify. As society becomes increasingly more secular and egalitarian, it is these middle groups that must expand to include those who otherwise may be left behind (without losing the traditions that make them who they are). It's the reason I sought out a very minority-, gay-, and women-friendly conservative synagogue when I came to Atlanta. But it's a shame there weren't more truly egalitarian choices.

Here's a challenge to those reading this that pray on a regular basis. The next time you go through your prayers, think of G-d as female. Change every He to a She, and really think about the prayers and the way you feel reading them this way. You might just be suprised...

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