Messy Complexity: On God, Language, and Metaphor

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April 1, 2011
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Danya Ruttenberg

Over the last 30 or 40 years, feminists have said much about the androcentric terms in which Judaism traditionally describes God. In many cases, they have suggested alternative language. This was a necessary process that enabled all who cared about feminism to reclaim Judaism on their own terms; it allowed many to see the divine in a new way and brought people into Jewish life who had previously been shunted onto the margins.

The time has come to stop thinking about language and God. Much necessary detoxification has happened over the last 40 years, and it’s time to stop worrying about our metaphors for God, lest we become so tangled up in them that they become our experience of God entirely.

Rabbinic texts tell us that “the Torah speaks in the language of humans” (Sifrei Bamidbar, Parshat Shelach, Piska 6, and elsewhere); in other words, language is a tool and only a tool to help us access the One who defies human description.

When, during the High Holiday prayers, we beseech “Avinu Malkeinu,” “Our Father, our King,” to whom are we calling? Do we believe God is our parent (stern, loving, or both)? Do we truly relate to God as a king (benevolent, exacting, or both)? The phrase can evoke the patriarchal domination that understandably sends many feminists reeling. But it can also evoke the feeling of a small child looking to a parent for comfort. It can represent the liberation from self-importance that comes from submission or a yearning for justice in the world. These symbols and myths manage to be so enduring because they name something when language eludes us, while also being porous enough to suggest several things at once.

Maimonides is adamant in his assestion that anyone who takes literally either the emotional or physical description of God in the liturgy is guilty of idolatry. The words of the liturgy are meant to name something just outside the grasp of articulation — the perfect unity, the transcendent power, the infinite expansiveness — that reflects our own feelings of smallness in comparison.

Of course, some may ask why we would accept God as father and king and not also (or, instead) mother and queen. If language doesn’t matter, why use the old tropes rather than new ones that feel more relevant and contemporary? The words are meant only as a starting point that we’re to transcend quickly. Both traditional and contemporary metaphors are useable as long as they help to open us up to the depth and meaning of the text. But by working too hard to measure the precise nature of the false clothes in which we dress the divine, we lose sight of what lies beyond the horizon.

We’re ready to develop a feminist understanding of liturgy that begins with an assumption that words are, in a way, incidental. While, to some extent, our metaphors for the divine are tied to our experiences of God — that one creates the other — shall we allow those metaphors to bind us to a certain way of meeting God? And how might our understanding of metaphor mirror the messy complexity of the human encounter with the Holy One? Do we allow room for contradiction, for the possibility that our experiences of the divine might include new information that challenges the easy, comfortable assumptions used initially when these metaphors were created?

A theology of contradiction doesn’t make presumptions about the experiences we will have when we enter into conversation with God. Worrying too much about language and metaphor can keep us from being open to surprises in our experience of the divine that belie our safe categories. God should challenge us and challenge us again. God should cause us to rethink and rework our assumptions about life, other people, the world, ourselves, and God. If we’re so tied to the idea that God is, necessarily, a compassionate, loving mother figure or a peacemaker, or any other metaphorical image, we’re going to miss vital information that contradicts our neat labels. We have to learn to become less attached to our metaphors so we can meet the God who dwells outside of them.

Often, the magic happens when we allow the porousness of a challenging text to be an entry-way into dialogue. When we embrace the complexity — make room for contradiction — we find ourselves able to hold more than we thought possible. Our understanding of and relationship to God expands ever wider.

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Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a member of the Sh’ma Advisory Committee, is senior Jewish educator at Tufts Hillel. The editor (or co-editor) of five anthologies, she is the author of Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, which was nominated for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature.

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