Our language about gender can shape a new Jewish world

Dr Who is now Dr He… a wonderful joke from my colleague Rabbi Mark Solomon for those of us with a grasp of Hebrew.

Sadly much of the world has not been so jovial at the recent news that Jodie Whittaker will become the first female Time Lord.

Indeed if you’ve been on social media, or listened to a radio phone in, over the last week then you would have heard a lot of people opining that “political correctness has gone mad”.

That’s because the news of Dr Who’s changing gender was one of a triad of stories this week which drew attention once again to the sphere of stereotypes, language and gender.

So the same people who raged that there was no way a time travelling alien could possibly be a woman were also vitriolic that London Underground staff will now say good morning to “everyone” instead of “ladies and gentlemen”. News that the Advertising Standards Authority will crack down on sexist ads – outlawing everything from ‘body shaming’ to reinforcements of gender stereotypes – also went down badly.

For many of us, especially in the Progressive world, it feels like groundhog day. As Vanessa Feltz put it: “Did we not fight this battle in the 1970s, have we not moved on now?”

The simple answer is no. This is not a battle fought and won. It is not good enough to say things are better now and so we have done enough.

This is not a world gone mad, but rather one where people are continuing to understand the impact of language and visual images in shaping the society we want our children to be a part of.

There will always be a moment when shifting our language has to be a conscious effort, but it soon becomes part of natural speech and reverting to the past seems rightly uncomfortable.

As a Liberal Jew and, yes, as a woman, it is important to me that we have non-gendered and inclusive language in our prayer books.

Nowhere in Liberal liturgy will you find God referred to using ‘he’ or any other male pronoun. In our prayers whenever Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are mentioned, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah are too.

So now my two daughters, and my son, are growing up able to talk about God neutrally, as neither male nor female. An activity which for me, took time and conscious effort.

Similarly, they attend a youth movement where gender binaries are exposed and talked about even from the earliest ages. My children, and their friends, walk with confidence and know they will always be empowered to express themselves however they choose.

When God created the world at the beginning of Torah it was done with language: “God said let there be light and there was light”.

So I am proud to endorse a society that is following Liberal Judaism in agreeing that our language and visual images should be aspirational and should help to create a new world.

Rabbi Charley Baginsky is Liberal Judaism’s director of strategy and partnerships

About the Author
Rabbi Charley Baginsky is Liberal Judaism's director of strategy and partnerships, as well as rabbi at South Bucks Jewish Community. She was previously rabbi at Kingston Liberal Synagogue.