The idea of God birthing the world on Rosh Hashana evokes a particularly woman-centric image. This is quite the relief in a tradition drenched with male-centric imagery. In our prayers, God is likened to a father, to a king, and to a slavemaster. The standard Orthodox prayerbooks continue the patriarchy by referencing God of our forefathers and ignoring our foremothers. The traditional blessing addresses God as male -- "barukh ata adonai".
(Of course, there are no gender-neutral pronouns in Hebrew, so many people argue that the male form is actually a reference to all genders. But that doesn’t really work. After all, if male is really everyone, when is male just male? It’s tempting to make convenient distinctions when we don’t want to admit how much patriarchy has constructed our religion. But the argument that when we say “men” we mean “everyone” doesn’t really hold water. At least not for people who are not men.)
My point is that despite the whole kings-and-fathers theme of Rosh Hashana, there possibly remains a certain echo of “feminine” themes in the liturgy. One of the main locations of this theme is in the text we read after the sounding of the shofar: Hayom harat olam. This is loosely translated as, Today is the birth of the world. That is the imagery that I hung on to when my daughter was born. It felt beautiful, special, and profoundly relevant to my life experience.
Last week at Hebrew Union College, I listened to a class by Dr. Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel that expounded on this theme. A scholar researching the connections between myth, Kabbalah, psychoanalysis, and gender, Dr. Kaniel taught us a text from the Zohar that, she argued, demonstrated a rabbinic intention to invite a feminine manifestation of the divine into the high holiday liturgy. The text described a rabbinic discussion about how the ten sephirot , or energies of God, include some “feminine” aspects and some are “masculine” aspects. The rabbis in the text were struggling with the balance between these “masculine” and “feminine” aspects – with God as the avenger (male) versus God as the embracer (female). Dr. Kaniel argued that the rabbis were trying to make room for the so-called feminine aspects, something which can be viewed as radical. She said that this reading helped her personally come to terms with the festival, in that it enabled her to view the experience as a rabbinic attempt to restore gender justice and make room for women’s experiences.
I thought about Dr. Kaniel’s interpretation during the services on Rosh Hashana, particularly when we read the Torah portion. On the first day of the holiday, the Torah portion and the haftarah are both very female-centric stories. The Torah reading is about the birth of Isaac, and all the chaos and misunderstanding that went on prior to his birth – including some troubling interactions between Sarah and her maidservant, Hagar. The Jewish people were firmly established on the foundation of women’s pain, and the ways in which women hurt each other because they each desperately want scraps of attention from men. Patriarchy is the source of so much of women’s anguish, and that in turn leads to ripples of more suffering. The haftarah portion, which is about Hannah, the barren “second wife” of Elhanan, is a similar woman-centric narrative of women’s pain, jealousy and dependence on men. The choice of these texts seems to validate Dr. Kaniel’s thesis. The women in these stories have names, voices, and desires. And they are women who birth – they birth men, and the men in turn lead nations.
Still, I am not sure that these texts are intended to give congregations a better appreciation of women’s real lives. Even though women are definitely present – which is a plus, for sure – we are still instruments in the narrative. Our wombs are what are important. The struggles we go through in order to bring people (men!) into the world are dramatic but not necessarily the point.
Take, for example, the Torah portion that we read on the second day of the holiday. The story of the Binding of Isaac – in which a man we have come to revere obeys God’s command to sacrifice his son, the very son that was just born in yesterday’s reading – is hardly a celebration of women’s experiences as birthers. Sarah is all but ignored as she faces the greatest loss she could imagine. She waited until she was 90 years old to have this child, and Abraham is ready to kill him just because of some conversation he had with his God. The Torah is completely silent about how Sarah feels about this, reinforcing the idea that women are welcome as instruments of birthing a nation, but not much more.
I saw an incredible play last year called “God’s Girlfriends” which brilliantly filled in the gaps left by the Torah. The play took three biblical stories that featured silent or nearly-silent women and imagined what they might have been going through. The first story was about Sarah, and the anguish that they imagined was powerful and compelling.
I have two other nagging thoughts about whether the high holidays are female-centric.
One thought is that even though the world being “birthed” is a lovely image, it is not the intention of the text. The phrase “harat olam” comes from a particularly awful passage in the book of Jeremiah (20;14) in which the prophet is so depressed and angry at all of humanity that he wants to die.
Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying, "A male child has been born to you," making him glad.
And that man shall be like the cities that the Lord overturned and did not repent, and let him hear an outcry in the morning and a scream at noontime. T
hat he did not put me to death from the womb, that my mother should be my grave and her womb a perpetual pregnancy. [harat olam]
Why did I come forth out of the womb to see toil and grief, and my days end with shame?
Harat olam for Jeremiah does not mean the birth of the world (olam as "world"), but rather an eternal pregnancy, (olam as “forever”). It is the womb as a tomb, the exact opposite of how we tend to read the imagery in the liturgy.
Okay, I hear your pushback. After all, this is hardly the first time that a biblical text has taken on meanings that have nothing to do with their original context. One might even say that the Jews are experts at doing that exact thing to texts.
Still, in this case, the rest of the passage in the classic Orthodox and Conservative liturgy confirms the use of this phrase to induce fear rather than images of birth.
Today all creation is called to judgment, whether as Your children or as Your servants.
If as Your children, be compassionate with us as a father is compassionate with sons.
If as Your servants, we look to You expectantly, waiting for You to be gracious to us,
and as day emerges from night bring forth a favorable judgment on our behalf, awe-inspiring and Holy One.
Not only is this text absent of any mention of mothers, it is also a very harsh way to understand what it means to start a new year. This text, which arguably sets the tone for the entire way we mark the High Holidays today, sees that avenging, judging God (“male”) as the predominant form, and a possible compassionate God (“female”) as one that we have to beg for. Compassionate spirituality is not the default way of life. If we get compassion, it is like we got lucky.
This brings me to the second big question nagging me about Dr. Kaniel’s reading. This use of the terms “male” and “female” to describe different qualities – of God or humans – does not sit well with me. In fact, I think I have spent my entire adult life fighting the idea that to be “female” means to be passive and receptive. We have to be really careful when we talk about what is “feminine” or “masculine” because it is language that can set us back significantly.
To be clear, I don’t believe for one second that my soul is “female”, or that my brain is “female” or that my eyes or ears are “female” and that they see the world a certain way. Descriptions like this send the message that there is something inherently “female” about certain behaviors. That kind of assumption is exactly what keeps women from gaining parity in the world. Because when women act outside of these expectations – if we are smarter, more assertive, or less doormatty than the world expects – we get punished in a myriad of ways. So this language of “feminine” God versus “masculine” God is very problematic. I have lots more to say on this point, and especially on its connection to texts about sephirot. But I will save that for a later post.
That said, getting back to the original point about birth, there is room to acknowledge a uniquely female experience of the world. It is not just having a womb that distinguishes (most) women from (most) men. It is also the experience of being the ones who are silenced, ignored, and considered instruments for the advancement of nations and men. Women’s perspectives on the world often come not from some wishful thinking that we are biologically predetermined to be miraculously amazing nurturers so that men can be free to battle and purge to their heart’s delight. I don’t believe that for one second. Women’s perspectives come from the fact that we have spent generations living out the roles of silent, enabling carers while men followed their heart’s desires. Women carry a cultural weight on our shoulders, the knowledge about what our foremothers went through in this world. If we have a unique contribution to make to the world, it is about more than pregnancy. It is about seeing imbalance, injustice, and mistakes, and often being powerless to do anything about it.
So even though I want to believe that the rabbis were trying at some point to create gender justice in their theological outlooks, I’m not convinced. And I’m not sure I would want that kind of thinking to dominate our liturgy. I’m not sure that femininity is a concept that has any usefulness at all.
But that doesn’t mean that we cannot redefine, right now, what it means to bring a “women’s perspective” If there is going to be a “women’s” perspective on the High Holidays, I would like it to be that. We should be talking about the knowledge that women bring to the world based on having front-row seats to what the world looks like when there is no space for compassion. For me, bringing gender balance to our ritual is not about the gender of God. It is about whether we give space to women’s lived experiences. And whether we are ready to shift paradigms of living, so that compassion is not an afterthought or a special prize, but the essence of our entire humanity.
Perhaps this is what the Reform movement is trying to do. This is the text from the (forthcoming) Reform machzor, as brought by Rabbi Leon Morris:
This day, the world is born anew, and all creation awaits Your judgment.
We are Your daughters; we are Your sons —
So love and remember us in the way of mothers and fathers.
We are Yours in service —
so let there be light to guide us in the corridors of justice and on the path of holiness.