Rachel Adler: Judaism Unbound Episode 138 - God and Gender

Theologian Rachel Adler, of Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion, explores Judaism through lenses of metaphor, liturgy, theology, and more, in a conversation with hosts Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg. [1]

Image Credit: Rachel Adler

Image Credit: Rachel Adler

(0:01 - 14:02): To begin the episode, Adler examines the important role that metaphor plays in almost any theology. [2] She highlights metaphors ranging from God as a divine judge to God as a “rock of Israel,” exploring the ramifications of each. [3] She also looks at the idea of otherness, arguing that human speech is indelibly tied to the realization of individual separateness from other human beings.

(14:03 - 30:00): Adler distinguishes between essentialist and constructivist models of gender and sexual orientation. She argues on behalf of a constructivist model, and considers the implications of such a model when they are mapped onto Jewish liturgy and thought. Tying together the ideas of theology and ethics, she states that “A theology that does not result in concrete action out in the world is nothing more than hot air.” She also reflects on her own life experience, and in particular on those moments in which men (often rabbis) have told her that she is ignorant, or arrogant, for wanting to pursue Torah study and Jewish leadership.

(30:01 - 44:39): Furthering her analysis of metaphor, she express concern at the “problem of literalizing.” She critiques the tendency to equate “feminine” characteristics of God with ideas of nurturing, motherhood, and being a “tidy housewife,” and calls for a broadening of Jewish liturgical takes on what femininity might mean. [4] [5] She also discusses the ways in which women of the bible may have been more central characters than later interpretations suggest, citing the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) as one example — traditionally associated with Moses, while Miriam only gets a small footnote, Adler notes that many biblical scholars believe Miriam was initially the song’s central character. [6] To close the episode, she calls for Jewish communities to prioritize integrity over marketing, and emphasizes the fundamental need to understand that not all human beings identify as men or as women. [7]

[1] Learn more about Rachel Adler by clicking here. Purchase her book Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics, winner of the 1999 National Jewish Book Award in Jewish Thought, by clicking here.

[2] Adler cites Susanne Langer on the importance of metaphor. Explore Langer’s ideas further by clicking here.

[3] For a short video from our co-host Lex Rofeberg, regarding the metaphor of God as a “rock of Israel,” click here.

[4] Adler mentions an article entitled “If God is God, She is Not Nice.” Access it by clicking here.

[5] Adler also cites an essay written by Margaret Wenig. Entitled “God is a Woman and She is Growing Older,” you can read it here. For a source sheet by Sienna Lotenberg, exploring pieces of liturgy authored by Wenig and others in the 1970s (through the Brown University Women’s Minyan), click here.

[6] Learn more about Miriam’s role in the song of the sea, along with how she was pushed aside in favor of Moses, by reading this Judith Dowling essay, entitled “Lost Voices of the Feminine: The Song of Miriam Arises.”

[7] If you are looking for resources that will serve as an introduction to understanding gender beyond the binary of male-female, we recommend any of the following links: LGBTQ+ Definitions (from Trans Student Educational Resources), Everything You Never Knew About Being Genderqueer, Separating Out Gender Identity From Gender Expression