Q: Recently you wrote about God and 12-step programs, particularly Alcoholics Anonymous. In their statements, they refer to God as "He." In my work with women in prison and in reproductive justice, I stress that since women and men are both created in God's image, God does not look like people. And even though the Hebrew Bible used "He" (being written by males), their approach need not limit us, don't you think? My seminary professors at Lancaster Theological Seminary tended to use no pronoun — could you try that approach? Peace and shalom. — From J, a volunteer chaplain from Harrisburg, Pa.
A: In 1989 I wrote my first book, "Does God Have a Big Toe? Stories about Stories in the Bible." In that book for children, in the nine books after it for children and adults, and in more than three decades of writing this column with Tommy (and without him) I have never called God "He."
I have never used the personal pronoun for God because, as you point out in your sensitive question, God is not a person (and … does not have a big toe!). Biblical Hebrew is difficult in this regard because Hebrew does not have the neutral pronoun "it." Even so, there are anthropomorphic elements that the Bible allows to creep in like God "walking in the Garden of Eden in the breezy time of day" (Genesis 3:8) and anthropopathic elements like God becoming angry or jealous, but these rare lapses of pure and proper theology ought not distract us from the truth of the theology of the Hebrew Bible that God is an invisible being who is not a person and therefore cannot be a man.
So clear was this belief that even Moses was refused when he asked to see God (Exodus 33:20). The God of the Hebrew Bible is not a man. Later in Jewish history, during the rabbinic period, God's gender is introduced as a split between two metaphors for God, a masculine aspect and a feminine aspect, though in both cases God is not identified as either. The masculine element was called "The Holy One Blessed Be He" (Hebrew: hakadosh baruch hu) and the feminine was called "The Presence" (Hebrew: shekinah). However, the unity and identity of God as a being beyond gender distinctions remains clear in Judaism.
The great problem of keeping God's gender neutral is the rise of Christianity and the figure of Jesus, who appeared on Earth as a man. If Jesus was a man and Jesus is God, then God is obviously a man. However, Christianity includes God as the Father and God as the Holy Spirit in the triune identity of the Trinity, and this modifies the idea that God is only Jesus. Jesus, for Christians, is just one of three manifestations of God in the world. After early church councils that dealt with the problem of Jesus being both a man and God, the Catechism of the Catholic Church 239 states that "God is neither man nor woman: he is God." (Perhaps it should read, "God is God").
All this may produce grammatical difficulties, but it produces a better more inclusive theology.
Q: It's my belief that most people claim to be of a certain faith because their parents brought them up to believe in their faith, not that they choose to be in that faith. Do you believe you'd be a rabbi today if your parents were Catholic and had brought you up in the Catholic teachings? Or do you think you'd eventually, through your own efforts, find that you were more comfortable being of the Jewish faith and convert? I want you to know that I'm a faithful reader of your column and appreciate the wisdom you provide for your many readers. Thank you! — E from Bethpage
A: To belong to a religion you must accept the spiritual belief that you have three beginnings. Birth is our biological beginning (actually it is conception), and our baptism for Christians or naming and or circumcision for Jews and Muslims is our religious beginning. This second beginning, however, happens because our family decides to introduce us into their religion. This, as you point out, is not our choice. What happens next, in our third beginning, is our choice. The rite of passage from childhood to adolescence is consecrated in every religious tradition in ceremonies like Bar/bat mitzvah or Confirmation). The point of these ceremonies is to give us all a spiritual opportunity to "confirm" what our family did for us when we were born. We need to be brought into a faith, and we need to confirm our faith in order to be securely rooted in the traditions of our past and to transmit them to the future.
Find the God Squad and more at newsday.com/LILife.