Anne Ebersman
Anne Ebersman
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Gender and revelation

Genderless language helps us develop a deeper, richer understanding of what it means to be created in God’s image
A young boy, reaching out his arms at sunset. (iStock)
A young boy, reaching out his arms at sunset. (iStock)

Recently, in a second-grade classroom, in response to the question, “Is God a boy or a girl?” a child responded: If you want to know if someone is a boy or a girl, you have to ask them, you can’t necessarily tell by looking at them. So I think we should call God “they” because we can’t tell by looking at God and we can’t ask.

I love how this comment brings together two key themes in this week’s Torah portion: revelation and gender. In considering these two themes, Parashat Yitro is at the same time majestically inspirational and painfully difficult. How else can you describe a Torah portion that contains both the moment of direct encounter with God and the moment preceding it, when Moshe instructs the men to prepare for the experience by not touching a woman?

If, as our second-grader suggests, we chose to use they/them pronouns for God to acknowledge that God is not gendered (and for the record, Elohim is a plural noun…), God would be joining an ever-increasing number of my younger colleagues who are choosing to to refer to themselves with genderless language, such as they/them pronouns. I have had many questions about these unfamiliar identity markers, whose meaning I don’t yet really understand.

As I search for a framework to more fully appreciate the range of gender choices I see around me, during this week of revelation, perhaps the classic framework of our Jewish story, articulated by Franz Rosenzweig, can help me. We move from creation to revelation to redemption.

Creation. How can genderless language help us all to develop a deeper, richer understanding of what it means to be created in God’s image?

Revelation. What will be revealed to all of us as a result of a greater range of gender identities becoming part of our communities? 

And finally, redemption. In many Jewish families, children are blessed every Friday night as part of the Shabbat table ritual. Traditionally, we bless boys by saying, “May God make you as Ephraim and Menashe” and girls by saying, “May God make you as Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.” But I greatly prefer the Marcia Falk version:

May you be who you truly are and may you be blessed in being who you truly are.

Perhaps redemption is the time when everyone is who they truly are and, unafraid, can reveal the blessings of that true self to the world, confident that others will see them as created in God’s image.

About the Author
Rabbi Anne Ebersman is the Director of Hesed and Tzedek (Community Service and Social Responsibility) at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City.
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