Naomi Graetz

T’is the Season of Kings: Rosh Hashanah and Cognitive Dissonance

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The Queen is Dead: Long Live the King

Two major events occurred in our Jewish lives this week, and I say this without sarcasm. One is the death of Queen Elizabeth and the other is the selichot service which leads into the most solemn days of the Jewish year. Watching the funeral of a monarch and the transfer of power with its choreographed religious Christian pageantry from the queen to the king in Westminster Abbey and St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle made it clear to all Jews, Moslems, Hindus etc. that the Western world is a Christian world. The two services were ecumenical as intra-Christian, they were not ecumenical as in inter-faith. It is possible to appreciate a religious service and respect the faith of others.  Our new year is also is about the coronation of a king, except that this king is the Heavenly One. The problem of Kingship in our religion rears its head every time this year resulting in my feeling of cognitive dissonance with regard to prayer.


The lead in to Rosh Hashanah is the selichot service, which in the Ashkenazi tradition, is the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, or as in this year two Saturday nights before RH. In the sixties I worshipped at a modern Orthodox synagogue in NYC, where it was the custom to go to selichot after a Saturday night date, with an array of tempting desserts before the service. It was the “in” thing to attend selichot.  My positive experience as a young adult was related to the social aspects of the service and less on the service itself. In Israel, selichot is not part of a “date night” and is focused solely on getting prepared for RH.  The major part of selichot is the assertion of the kingship of God—culminating in avinu malkenu (our father, our king).

Since this week, my eyes were focused on the death and funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of the new King Charles III, I thought a lot about how rulership is normally associated with men. Yet one wonders why, when even in the Orthodox world there are female rabbis, female prime ministers and even after 70 years a reigning Queen, women rulers are not considered the norm. Why is the default male? 

God, the Almighty is a king

Perhaps it is between God is the king of kings: HE is a father and an all-powerful Creator. This is reflected in our liturgy. We use male pronouns to describe God; our God is the lord, the king, the father, the soldier who leads us into battle. Because this image is familiar, it is comforting. If we add to this the melodies of the prayers that we know so well, it is possible not to notice that women are not present anywhere in this liturgy. All the metaphors describing God are patriarchal, even when he is described as a shepherd. He demands loyalty; he demands that we worship only Him. In this system, women are other, and men are the norm, hence God as a male king is normative and no one questions this, especially on the high holidays.

Cognitive Dissonance

Leon Festinger in 1957 was the first to write about A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in which he proposed that we strive for psychological consistency in order to function mentally or cognitively in the world. Cognitive dissonance occurs when someone believes one way and acts in a manner that is inconsistent with that belief, which produces discomfort, or dissonance. My feelings about Rosh Hashanah involve cognitive dissonance. I do not believe in the kingship of God, yet I pray to this God. I believe (or do not believe) one way and act in a manner that is not consistent with that belief (or lack of belief). And so, during an entire holiday season that stresses God’s kingship I am in a constant state of discomfort, or what the social scientists call dissonance.

It is serious to me as a feminist that the god language of the siddur is only male, that God is only addressed in the masculine (e.g. elohenu, avinu, adonenu) and that many of the concerns of the prayers reflect primarily male perspectives masquerading as universal concerns. The late bible scholar, Tikva Frymer-Kensky (who was my contemporary) pointed out the problem in an article “On Feminine God-Talk”:

 “The God of Biblical Israel is grammatically male: all the verbal forms, adjectives and pronouns are masculine. God in the Bible is also sociologically male: the husband, the father, the king…..This cumulative impact of male-centered language and imagery is profoundly alienating to women….The fact that these images are used for God…reinvests these male images with ….status and power. Women are completely left out of both the imagery and the power loop.”

She wrote that if we tossed out a lot of these images “we would not only lose a large part of our traditional imagery but we would also deprive ourselves of its emotional effect.” She would have understood the problem that I have as a “traditional” feminist. On the one hand, I recognize the abusive potential of an all-powerful God, on the other hand, if I toss out many of the traditional images—I lose a lot of the beauty (melodies to words I know, images, associations) that are part of the Jewish tradition that I grew up with.

I am thus almost always in a state of cognitive dissonance when I pray, especially on RH. On the one hand, I believe that I should not be praying to a masculine God, that I should not be using the formula “Barukh atta adonai, elohenu melech ha-olam“, and that I should be using gender-free and inclusive language. When I “think”, I try to avoid using exclusively male language, make my own “little” changes, so that I am at least a resisting worshipper. However, — the reality is that this is how I pray—how I was brought up to pray—and thus my behavior is inconsistent with my belief.

It gets worse! One of my beloved piyutim comes from the Music of the French Synagogue recorded during WWII ,  אדירי איומה יאדירו בקול whose refrain is Adonai, melech, Adonai malach, Adonai yimlohch leolam va-ed. Years ago I fell in love with the music and what remains of the record, which somehow got melted, is the jacket of the record that we purchased in the 60’s.

In googling to hear the music, I discovered that you can only listen to the music on site at the NIL (National Israel Library). If someone reading this, knows how to download the music please send me the link. We introduced the melody to our volunteer hazzan and it is a staple of our synagogue service. I sing along without any thought to the words—my association is with the congregants of the French synagogue who taped this when under siege during the Nazi period.

Avinu Malkenu

At the selichot service I was confronted with the prayer avinu malkenu that Barbara Streisand has made into a shlager.

There are so many melodies and so many harmonies to this, that it is difficult to give it up—especially the moving last lines: עשה עמנו צדקה וחסד. I have tried mixing up the gender, alternating by saying our father, our mother, avinu, imanu, instead of our father our king, avinu malkenu). Intellectually I would like to make changes—emotionally it is difficult. Melodically it takes a great effort and I might be fighting an uphill battle. So, I am in a state of discomfort in my “egalitarian-traditional” synagogue, and am not totally acclimatized to some of the newer forms being newly introduced, whose use would probably entail much effort and a change of venue for me. In many ways my cognitive dissonance is similar to the non-Orthodox movements’ age-old problem of choosing between tradition and change.

Cognitive dissonance may help me to understand why I “put up with” the old images, but as Frymer-Kensky eloquently points out there is no going back once we “see the light”. Once we engage in de-gendering, incorporating feminine forms for God, we can either leave the fold, or remain, and be complicit.

When we think of the monotheistic God as he/she/it appears in Jewish sources, we have many images associated with masculinity and strength. There is God the husband and father; the rescuer and protector of Israel; the owner of the strong arm who took us out of Egypt. There is the God who rewards us and punishes us, who forgives our unfaithfulness, who expresses his great passion for us with love and vengeance when betrayed. Most ominously there is the violent God who is depicted as a wifebeater. Many of these masculine images are used to portray God, the object of prayer, in Jewish liturgy.

Today there is a groundswell of prayers, poetry, and readings being composed to meet the needs of women who are unhappy with the liturgy of male monotheism in its present form. Feminist theologians have argued that we should use female God language to complement the image of the male God in Jewish prayers. Writers of feminist prayers have substituted She for He, have added women’s names to the litany of men’s, and have created special prayers which address women’s issues. But these changes, suggested and/or implemented by theologians such as Judith Plaskow, Rita Gross, and Lynn Gottlieb, Dahlia Marx, among others, are merely cosmetic. The problem is the transcendence of God. Even if we soften God’s image by introducing compassion (rachamim) the problem is that of a “single-image God” a monotheistic God and a God who is at the top of the hierarchy, who dominates, hence the King. Oddly enough, the origin of God as king is barely evidenced in the Bible, despite the commonly held views that God as king is biblical. God is definitely anthropomorphic in the Bible, but except for a few passages (Exod 15:18; Num 23:21 and Deut 33:5), He is not associated with Kingship. If the kingship of God is primarily a rabbinic innovation, perhaps it could be easier to rid ourselves of this particular metaphor.


It is true that one can argue that the concept of God the King is merely a rabbinic metaphor used to describe a transcendent God. Rabbinic thought also introduced the idea of partnership, that in order for God to do anything, he had to have followers of His divine will.  There are those who would argue that worship is an ongoing process of cooperation. God alone does not perform these acts. Man’s actions are necessary for God’s “deeds” to be actualized. For example, when a prayer says “God makes salvation grow up” (matzmiach yeshua—using the continuous tense), one can understand it to mean that God and God’s partners make salvation grow up. No one had to spell this out for the rabbis. The words of the prayers were understood in the context of a pervasive world-view which assumed this interpretation of the words automatically. This idea was developed by the theologian Max Kadushin in his 1964 work, Worship and Ethics: A Study in Rabbinic Judaism.

The marriage metaphor is often used to describe this unique relationship between God and His people. But, until recently marriage itself reflected an unequal partnership based on coercion, male power, and female servitude. New attempts to redefine marriage as equal partnership, mutual respect, and closeness, can lead to a revival of prayer based on this new understanding. We must feel comfortable reversing the persona—that is, God and Her people. Until we actually do this, the feminist argument with explanations such as these is that what counts are the actual words we use and repeat in our prayers; and that the image of God as the almighty king who rules the world (Adonai elohenu Melech ha-olam) reflects our (and the world’s) unequal relationship to God.



About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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