The feminist case for translating God in all His Kingly glory

A page from the 'New American Haggadah' | Little, Brown & Co.

In the past I argued vehemently for translating God in gender-neutral language. After going a long time without thinking about it, I found myself recently making a feminist case for a more direct way of conducting liturgical translations.

You can read this in full at the Forward’s Sisterhood blog:

No Haggadah in recent memory — or, perhaps, ever — has generated the kind of interest that the “New American Haggadah” has. When I began looking it over in preparation for a review of it, I was surprised by the unabashedly masculine way that Nathan Englander’s compelling translation refers to God. But as I thought about the issue throughout the Passover holiday, which ends tonight, it began to make a lot of sense.

I was raised in a Reform household. Our congregation had the older version of the Reform siddur, “Gates of Prayer,” the big blue one without the neutered translations. But it was the tradition there to improvise, de-gendering the English readings on the fly, often with charmingly chaotic results. Talk of the He-God makes me uncomfortable, and I sympathize with the discomfort expressed by some here at the Sisterhood with these masculine translations.

In her recent Sisterhood post, Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes about the widespread pairing of Elijah’s cup of wine with a cup of water for Miriam. In some corners of the left-of-Orthodox world, it has become downright traditional. Then she notes: “At the same time, the ‘New American Hagaddah,’ edited and translated by young literary lions Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander, seems to purposely go in an opposing direction.”

At the moment there are three small errors in the post, all of them entirely my fault. But I think my main argument will still be intelligible. [All the problems were removed. Thanks, Gabi!]

Anyway, check out the whole thing over here.

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3 Responses to The feminist case for translating God in all His Kingly glory

  1. Larry Kaufman April 16, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

    Also inspired by the Foer-Englander Haggadah, I blogged on  the degendered
    God and other translation issues at http://blogs.rj.org/blog/2012/04/09/dayenu-lets-stop-mistranslating-sacred-texts/. 
    It seems to me, as I said there, that the feminists have taught us not to imagine God as male OR female; but in tune with the law of unintended consequences, we now have a situation where we are so engrossed in what God is not that we forget to think about what God is. 
    For my favorite horrible example of the desexing gone out of control, take a look at Psalm 98 in Mishkan T’filah, where the effort to avoid a gendered pronoun lead to the Divine becoming two, as in Adonai has manifested God’s victory.  (At least they left God with a hand and an arm.)   (I know, you consider MT one horrible example after another.) 
    Having said all that, I don’t follow your argument for feminists to embrace Our Father, Our King — and as I also said in the Dayenu blog post, I can live with Avine Malkeinu not being translated.

    • David A.M. Wilensky April 17, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

      Well, I’m with the Rambam in that I don’t think it’s possible to talk about what God is at all. We can only make accurate statements about what God isn’t.

      I’m not arguing that feminists should embrace male translations. I’m arguing that there is a wide range of behaviors that can be considered feminist. One of those behaviors is translating God with His gender intact. In other words, it is not un-feminist to neuter translations of God, but it is narrow-minded to say that such translations are the only ones that feminists are allowed to get behind. 

  2. james jordan October 6, 2013 at 6:40 pm #

    Take gender specific language away from God, take anthropomorphism away from God, and you end up with no God.  If we can’t imagine God as a king sitting on a throne, we can’t imagine Him at all.  A formless blob that lacks anything resembling personhood is not at all relatable, and thus turning God into such is nothing but a first step toward atheism.