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Zer Presence

Besides working through the problem of what is meant by being asked to worship an invisible, non-verbally communicative superbeing (who is yet imagined to be present, personal, and ready to intervene), my next most-difficult problem when conforming the god of my imagination with the god of Jewish liturgy has always been how to avoid thinking or using gendered pronouns. Feudal appellations such as “Lord” and male pronouns disturb me about as monarchic female terms “Queen” and female pronouns when I’m involved in a meditation that is either trying to connect with something essentially unfathomable, or if fathomable, not yet known well enough to describe with the intimate knowledge that gendered pronouns imply. (On my own, often enough, I avoid these issues all together by imagining god less as a being than as an emergent consciousness, as the Makom, or similar to what Stanslaw Lem describes in his novel Solaris, a magnificent being that with my help is attaining self-awareness.)

In the context of Jewish mysticism, this sentiment might already tag me as a neophyte (correctly) since the majority of my ancestors and the most famous kabbalistic works not only unapologetically gender their god — the use of the dual male/female Gender system is made an essential allegory for describing the Godhead and the relationship between it and the created world. I have bunches more to read here including Elliot R. Wolfson’s Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and Poetic Imagination, but I’ve read Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess. I am convinced by his thesis that a perceived feminine aspect of god can be traced back from our current neo-hasidic revival of interest in the Shekhina (the Divine Presence) to the medieval kabbalistic Matronit to imaginary depictions of the shekhina in exile in late antiquity following the destruction of the second temple, to biblical depictions of the shekhina and association with cherubim and clouds… and yes, to the Asherah. Patai having made his point, I was left struggling with its relevance for my religious imagination, even entertaining the thought of breaking with this ancient well formulated tradition that uses gender allegories to describe aspects of our god.

Influenced as much by the synthesis of Greek Philosophy and Jewish mysticism (inherent in movement like Sethianism), I’ve been more eager to describe God by what my god is not. The description Ein Sof, or god “without end,” is so much more useful to me than the distraction of gender. If I must think of the philosophical meaning of a cleft in the Godhead in the cosmogonic myth (as I often do), I will think of an illusory division between an unknowable transcendence and an intimately knowable immanence — and refuse to describe transcendence as male aloofness and immanence as female sexuality. I refuse!

I mention this all in passing to Jay Michaelson during a break at the recent New Voices conference in NYC. (I’ve been a fan of Michaelson’s writing since Paul Serici first introduced them to me, so meeting him was a thrill.) Michaelson is thinking about the gender of God taking into account the different gender identities we are only now coming to terms with in Gender and Queer Studies. In reacting to my points, Michaelson was more accepting of a gendered God in mystical experiences. He differentiated between (at least) two different kinds of mystical experiences, one of which, catalyzed by use of an entheogenic plant, would inspire a much more intimate and sexualized experience of divinity. Then he invited me to Nehirim, the shabbat retreat of LGBTQ Jews and their allies, to learn and talk some more. (Despite the suggestion of cosmic serendipity, first meeting Eli K-W also on his way to Nehirim and then to be invited by the organizer himself, I chose not to spend the full registration out of pocket to attend, and instead spent much needed time in reunion with my cousin Una.)

This brings me to introduce Rima Turner, now interning for Nehirim (congrats!). I first met zir* at Jews in the Woods: a bespectacled, diminutive, giant of a spirit whose haftorah reading one Shabbat morning managed to draw down tears from eyes that had for too long been dry. We’ve been in communicating for the past three years, sharing what we’ve learned in our respective wanderings. Rima also invited me to Nehirim, but whatever I missed there I’ll make up in responding to the interesting and personal d’var torah, “Sacred Spaces: The Tabernacle, Women’s Work, and the Body as Sanctuary.” Ze just recently shared zir essay over at Jewish Mosaic, the national (Jewish) center for seuxal and gender diversity.

On Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21 – 7:89), Rima writes:

In Numbers 7, we read about the sanctification of the tabernacle (the Mishkan). Moses anoints the tabernacle and its components, and then the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel each bring offerings: silver, gold, incense, oxen, sheep, and goats. The offerings function as a dedication, after which the tabernacle is anointed again. Moses goes into the tabernacle, and the Divine speaks to him.

What does it mean to create a holy space? The Divine is not your dinner date — Ze won’t come over to your apartment just because that’s where you live. You can invite Zir in, but that doesn’t mean Ze is going to come. Those of us who pray or meditate regularly are familiar with this reality. Some days we enter into prayer and prayer enters into us—but sometimes prayer takes a day off, no matter how hard we try (or try not to try, or try not to try not to try—well, you get the picture).

I love what Rima’s done with gender-neutral pronouns. I had heard these neologisms used in referring to people (at Jews in the Woods, where else?) but never before had I seen them in discussions about divinity. So useful!

The use and innovation of gender-neutral pronouns in English has a long history summarized in a FAQ here. Gender-neutral pronouns currently in use have roots extending back at least into the early days of USENET in the 1980s, where they found popularity in nascent gender queer usegroups. The earliest use I could find of the pronouns zie and zir on USENET are in this post by a Lynn Dobbs in the soc.bi newsgroup from December 1993. (Fair warning, the subject matter is erotic.)

Richard Creel, a philosophy professor at Ithaca College, may have been the first to specifically use gender-neutral neologisms in discussing divinity in his philosophy of religion classes. This is what Creel wrote in “Ze, zer, mer,” in the Fall 1997 issue of the American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy:

“Ze,” “zer,” and “mer” may seem awkward now, but if we use them regularly and the usage becomes widespread, they will soon seem quite natural. Meanwhile we will have enriched the categories of our language and improved our ability to communicate clearly, precisely, and grammatically. “She,” “her,” “he,” “his,” and “him” should, of course, continue to be used when appropriate. “Ze,” “zer,” and “mer” will supplement them, not supplant them.

To close on a personal note, in my philosophy of religion courses I explain these terms to my students, then I use them when I speak of God, which, of course, I do a lot. My students are not required to use these terms yet many of them are intrigued, attracted, and choose to do so, at first with self-conscious good-humor. My women students seem especially appreciative of an opportunity to speak of God without being forced to use a gendered pronoun or an awkward strategy designed to evade the use of pronouns altogether. Similar benefits accrue for general discussions of the nature of a person, whether in philosophy of religion or not. Hence, even if “ze,” “zer,” and “mer” do not enter into common usage (obviously the odds are greatly against that), nonetheless they can be very useful in philosophical discussions.

* As evidenced by her bio at Jewish Mosaic, Rima is exploring the use of the neologisms ze and zir to refer to zirself. I can hardly imagine what it must be like to be at war even with language in determining for society what your gender identity is. But I do know a hint of a shade of this struggle from thinking about gender and god, and so I’m hopeful that in using the language that my friend Rima chooses for zirself, I will also be that much more mature in wrestling with a god that defies easy gender delineations.

UPDATE 6/15: Rima posts more at her blog.

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“Zer Presence” is shared by Aharon Varady with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

About Aharon Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner (M.C.P.) and Jewish educator (M.A. J.Ed.) working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of Torah study. His work and writing have been featured in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz, as an outspoken representative of the free-culture and open-source movement in the Jewish community. He currently studies the intersection of theurgy, experiential education, and ecology at the JTS/Davidson School of Education. He welcomes your comments and personal messages.

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