Being Both…a Male and Female God: Q & A with Rabbi Mark Sameth

Rabbi Mark Sameth’s new book, The Name: A History of the Dual-Gendered Hebrew Name for God, chronicles how the God of ancient Israel was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a non-binary, male-female deity. Recently, I had a chance to ask the Rabbi about his new book, and how it might be particularly relevant to interfaith families.

Q: Your book chronicles the idea that the secret, unpronounceable name for God in ancient Israel is Hu-Hi, or “He-She,” an entity equally male and female. Tell us a bit about the influences of other religions and cultures on this idea of a dual-gendered God in the ancient world.

A: Dual-gendered gods were utterly normative in the ancient world. The Mesopotamians had them, the Egyptians had them. No one questions this. Israel sat between these two ancient regional superpowers. It’s hard to imagine how Israel could not have been influenced by them.

Q: And briefly, how is this idea of a dual-gendered God manifested in the Torah.

A: Well, for instance, in the Book of Deuteronomy it says that God “your Father” (32:6) “convulsed in labor for you,” (32:18) “gave birth to you,” (32:18) and “suckled you” (32:13). And there’s a lot more where that came from, if you can read the Hebrew. Moses addresses God in the second person masculine singular (attah) and the second person feminine singular (at). The adam, the human being — pointedly said to have been created in God’s own image — is referred to as “them” (otam). Indeed, the rabbis took this to mean that the original earth creature had been created as an androgynous being, which was later separated by God into the male and female characters Adam and Eve. 

Q: So then, how and why did that male-female aspect of God become suppressed and subsumed? Do you see that suppression as related to power and patriarchy? After all, there are no women commenting on the Torah in texts, until the 20th century.

A: I do wonder about the how and why. But yes, of course. I mean, there were occasional exceptions when women rose to power. Pharaoh Hatshepsut — considered one of the greatest of the pharaohs — was a woman, as of course was Deborah in Israel. In the early twentieth century, Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, known as the Maid of Ludomir, was a Chassidic master. But again, these were the rare exceptions. Gerda Lerner, some thirty years ago, wrote that “the system of patriarchy is a historic construct; it has a beginning; it will have an end. Its time seems to have nearly run its course—it no longer serves the needs of men or women and in its inextricable linkage to militarism, hierarchy, and racism it threatens the very existence of life on earth.” Amen, late sister.  

Q: We are in the midst of a dramatic shift in American culture in which individuals who have non-binary gender identities are telling their stories, creating space, and rising to leadership. How much did you think about this, while writing this book, and how is your book and this historical moment intertwined?

A: I have to say that, at first, I wasn’t thinking about it at all. I was really just trying to figure out the puzzle; trying to figure out why, in Hebrew, the Torah is gendered the way it is (men are referred to in the feminine; women are referred to in the masculine). It was only later that I began to consider how this intertwines with stories in my own family — stories about one pioneering, transgender cousin in particular, as well as about elderly gay and lesbian cousins who had been closeted their whole lives — and, as you say, how this intertwines with the historical moment. That’s chapter seven of my book.  

Q: I think for many progressive Jewish leaders, it has become relatively comfortable to speak about the intersectionality of being a feminist and Jewish, or gay and Jewish, or Italian and Jewish, or Black and Jewish. But when interfaith families want to talk about the enriching and formative effects on us of Hinduism and Judaism, or Paganism and Judaism, or, heavens forbid, Christianity and Judaism, the room goes silent. Has your historical work changed the way you see interfaith families who insist on teaching their children, or practicing, more than one religion?

A: It has. In Hinduism, the six-sided Shatkona star — in form and meaning — is indistinguishable from the Magen David (Jewish Star of David). They symbolize the intersection of male and female energy. As does the six-sided star of Shintoism, the Kagome Crest. Paganist reverence for the physical world is not alien to Judaism. The Chassidim teach what’s called avodah b’gashmiut, “bodily prayer.” Mystery — which we associate with Christianity — was central to how Jews did religion. The Zohar was considered a holy book, on par with the Torah, until historical circumstances (the Shabbatai Tzvi debacle, a story for another time) made Jewish mysticism seem too dangerous. So when you ask about teaching our children more than one religion, I think it’s worth considering that very important, spiritually essential, core Jewish beliefs and practices — such as non-dualism, body-centrism, and mysticism — have been nurtured in non-Jewish communities, and in some of our Jewish communities have been lifted up again only as people who grew up elsewhere have entered into contact, alliance, and sometimes affiliation with us.

Q: In interacting with interfaith families, religious institutions often present the idea that different religions are completely distinct, and that to be authentic, one must practice them in some pure, unadulterated, static form. In contrast, as with gender identities, many people from interfaith families see their religious identity as more “both/and,” or hybrid, or non-binary. It may not be a coincidence that a growing percentage of young adults are no longer affiliating with religious congregations (of any religion). I find religious scholars like yourself often understand the complexity and shades-of-grey realities of the history and culture of religions, and how interfaith families might be claiming that complexity. But how would religious institutions need to change to accommodate this kind of thinking? And is that going to happen?

A: Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, may his memory be for a blessing, said a religion is like a cell. If anything can pass through the membrane, the cell dies. If nothing can pass through the membrane, the cell dies. I think it would behoove religious institutions to bear in mind that there’s no such thing as “pure, unadulterated, static” religion. It never existed; it doesn’t exist today. Religions — like all other eco-systems and organisms — evolve. And they keep on evolving. The Jewish community is evolving toward a greater awareness of and appreciation for how much the community is enriched by all the panim chadashot — all the new faces, new talents, new perspectives.

Binaries will always exist, of course. You and I are speaking just after a presidential election, right? Not everything can be both/and. Sometimes we have no choice but to make a choice. Having said that, the families of the president-elect and vice-president-elect alone comprise — in addition to a host of ethnic and racial backgrounds and blends — Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Jews, Hindus, and Baptists.

Welcome to America. Seeing the opportunities, approaching each other with openness and curiosity, wondering what we might learn from each other, developing a nuanced sense of what religions are capable at their best of doing — all of this can all help us progress as humans, individually and collectively. Is it going to happen? It’s happening.

Mark Sameth was named “one of America’s most inspiring rabbis” by The Forward (inaugural list, 2013). His published essays include “Is God Transgender?” in the New York Times. His book, The Name: A History of the Dual-Gendered Hebrew Name for God was published by Wipf & Stock in 2020. Follow him on Twitter @fourbreaths.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

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