A few weeks ago, I was saddened along with the rest of the world at the news of Leonard Nimoy’s death. I grew up watching Star Trek, and I knew how to make the Vulcan hand symbol before I learned how to make the peace sign.
I didn’t realize that when I separated my fingers into Spock’s iconic salute and told my sister to live long and prosper, I was using a gesture derived from the invocation of the feminine divine in some Jewish traditions.
Leonard Nimoy frequently told the story of how his eight-year-old self was awestruck at a synagogue when fervent priests shouted out blessings while holding their hands in the shape of the Hebrew letter Shin, the first letter in Shaddai—and in Shekhina. Nimoy created the Vulcan hand symbol in imitation of those priests.
The Shekhina is what Raphael Patai calls “the visible and audible manifestation of God’s presence on earth.”1 With initial references as far back as 1st or 2nd century B.C.E., the Shekhina later became a recurring figure in Talmudic literature. And she is feminine.
It was only later in life that Nimoy realized during a conversation with a rabbi that the ceremony that had affected him so strongly when he was eight was centered on invoking the blessing of the Shekhina. The realization inspired him to create a collection of photography exploring the intersection of the spiritual and the physical—the presence of God on earth—through images of women.
You can hear Nimoy discuss his Shekhina collection here:
Some might say that the intentional eroticism of a number of Nimoy’s photographs objectifies the female models—Donald Kuspit calls Nimoy’s nudes “beautiful sexual objects” in his essay accompanying the art book publication of the Shekhina collection.2 But it’s not hard to see why Nimoy claims that the project is “a very strong feminist statement.”
To portray God as feminine goes against a huge weight of patriarchal tradition, in both Jewish and Christian theology. (Despite the presence of the feminine Shekhina in Talmudic literature; despite the presence of feminine descriptions of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.)
As I look through the photographs comprising Shekhina, I am struck by how difficult it is for me to imagine these images as portrayals of God. Nimoy’s black-and-white, chiaroscuro compositions are frequently powerful, and the women, sometimes clothed and sometimes nude, sometimes in motion and sometimes static, are both primal and spiritual.
I have no trouble recognizing this as God and God’s glory:
And I can see this as an image of God and God’s love with no problem:
So why is it harder to think of this as a portrayal of God and God’s presence and power?
The answer, of course, is that the persistent pressure of patriarchal theological traditions has shaped my experience of God and my mental image of God, as it has for most people.
Why does it even matter how we think about God’s gender? Some people—I used to be one of them—automatically mock gender-neutral or gender-varying language for God as a laughable bit of political correctness gone wild (when it’s not taken as far-from-laughable heresy, of course).
But it matters because how we view God shapes how we view each other. (And vice versa.)
When it comes to God’s gender and what that means for human beings who are made in the image of God, there are three basic options.
1) God is solely masculine. With this premise, it is possible to argue that even if all humans are equally created in God’s image in all other ways, masculine people have an attribute of similarity to God that feminine people do not. If it is good to be like God, then masculine people are better than feminine people. However slight the degree of additional godlikeness this grants to masculine people, it is still a universal one, setting up an across-the-board value difference between masculine people and feminine people. It boils down to Mary Daly’s famous statement that “if God is male, then the male is God.”3 (The reverse holds true if we consider God to be solely feminine.)
2) God has no gender. In this case, we should probably use gender-neutral or gender-varying language when talking about God, so that we avoid anyone accidentally getting the wrong idea and going back to #1 and its attendant arguments. However, in Christian theology, Jesus’s physically male body may pose a problem for some for envisioning a completely genderless God. Even if we view the other two persons of God as genderless, if we view Jesus as masculine, God is still more masculine than feminine, and we are back at #1. (Of course, we might not view Jesus as solely masculine, which is itself another complicated discussion.)
3) God is both feminine and masculine. In this case, all people (of any gender identity) are made in God’s image in every way. Gender does not make a person more or less like God.
Needless to say, this is an extremely simple outline of these three possibilities, and there are many other complexities that enter into each of these positions and into other aspects of our choices about the language we use to talk about God.
But if an individual or a church takes views #2 or #3, or a mixture of the two, it would make sense to use language and images of God that reflect that. And if an individual or a church takes view #1 but holds that masculine persons are not inherently more like God than feminine persons, it would be good to clarify that position often and thoroughly. It’s too easy to fall back to the default assumption that having a masculine God means that the masculine holds a higher position than the feminine in His creation.
As I flip through Shekhina, in the moments in which I am able to get past my mental block and recognize God in images of women, I am reminded that I am not a secondary creation, an afterthought to Adam. I am made in God’s image. As each of us is, equally and profoundly.
It’s something we should all remind each other of more often.
With that in mind, live long and prosper.