When I am teaching, I like to design activities that involve layered learning. For example, in business writing courses, when I am teaching people how to make their pronoun references clear, I also use that time to explore and teach about our gradual shift from gendered to non-gendered language. If I’ve lost you already, let me explain.
Pronouns are the words we use to refer to people, places, or things (nouns). When we refer to a single thing, we use the pronoun it; when we refer to more than one thing, we use the pronoun them. Up until now, when we referred to one person, we have used the pronouns he or she, depending on whether that person was male or female. If we were unsure of a person’s gender, we would write he/she, s/he, or in a longer piece of writing we might alternate between he and she, which is a bit confusing for the reader. These solutions still assume that people identify as either male or female.
However, the pronouns he/she or s/he only include people who identify as male or female and exclude people who identify with both or neither gender (non-binary, two-spirited, seeking, etc.); yet, the English language offers us no clear alternatives. We do not refer to people as it, so we must use the non-gendered pronoun them. When we use they/them/their to refer to one person, we must make sure that those pronouns could only refer to that person and not to any other people or things in our sentences.
If you are feeling a bit confused, that’s okay! It’s natural for us to feel confused when we are shifting from one way of thinking and expressing ourselves to another way, especially when the language we use to make those shifts is limited. And it is limited, so I now ask you to stick with me as I try to explain the gendered pronouns we use to refer to G-d.
In our prayerbooks and other scriptural texts we usually refer to G-d with the pronouns He/Him/His. In Judaism, that is because the names of G-d are the characteristics or attributes of G-d and in Hebrew, nouns and their adjectives (words used to describe people, places, and things) are either male or female depending on their energy. Everything and everyone have both male and female energies within them, and it may surprise you to learn that in the Torah, G-d is referred to with female pronouns, too. When G-d is initiating we use masculine pronouns; when G-d is responding to us, we use feminine pronouns. We also refer to G-d with plural pronouns. G-d is one: we just look at G-d from different angles (see Why Don't We Call G-d Mother? Is G-d masculine or feminine?).
We are limited in our ways of thinking and understanding who and what we are. Even when we accept that G-d created everything and is, in fact, everything (there is nothing besides G-d), our language limits our ability to express that belief accurately in a way that everyone—and I mean everyone—can understand. Without understanding, it is difficult to have empathy and compassion for others who hold views that are different from ours. To reach a common understanding, we need to negotiate shared meanings for the words we use to refer to and include all people in worldly and spiritual matters.
For my part, I am continually studying and learning ways to use language to express complex thoughts and ideas that will contribute in some small way to making our world a better place for everyone. In my spiritual studies, I look at the texts in the Torah from the four levels of interpretation: Peshat, the plain or literal; Remez, the hint or allusion; Derash, the metaphorical comparison and illustration; and, Sod, the hidden meaning or mystery. The acronym for these four layers is PRDS spoken as pardes, which means orchard, garden, or paradise. When we are all truly included and accepted, we will create paradise on earth.
Fiona Prince, MA is a coach and teacher who provides fundamental communication and writing skills through her own company and through Royal Roads Professional & Continuing Studies. Fiona acknowledges that her home and office are located on the traditional territories of the W̱SÁNEĆ and Lkwungen-speaking peoples, on whose traditional territories, she is thankful to live, learn, play, and do her work. She worships at the Chabad Family Shul in Victoria and teaches children and adults how to read Hebrew. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to study with her.
You can read more articles from our blog, Spiritually Speaking at https://www.timescolonist.com/blogs/spiritually-speaking