For many of us, addressing G‑d by the masculine pronouns He and Him (and it doesn't help that they are capitalized) sounds more than a little dissonant.

We are talking about the One who initiated time, founded space, and perpetually isifies every event in the universe; who philosophers call “the Absolute Being” and kabbalists call “the Infinite Light.” What place does gender have in any of this?

Some suggest we resort to “it.” Problem is, there is no such pronoun in the Hebrew language. In Hebrew, as in many languages, everything is referred to in either masculine or feminine form.

But more importantly, if G‑d is an it, then we are back to the cold, lonely universe of the physicalists, analogous to the ancient worshippers of mute, deaf, and blind idols of wood and stone ridiculed by the prophets. Can you love an it? Can an it love you? Would you pour out your heart in prayer to an it?

Being human leaves you bound to the restrictions of human language. Some attempt to tamper with that as well, sometimes in quite inorganic, disruptive ways. But Torah has its holistic ecology. Just as you don't want to rearrange the streams of a forest without first fully understanding what part they play within the whole, so you need to review the place of gender in classic Torah cosmology before suggesting changes to its language.

The Roots of Gender

In classic Torah literature, G‑d is male, female, neither, and both.

It all comes down to G‑d being both here and beyond at once. Philosophers call that immanence and transcendence.

In the Prophets, Midrash, Kabbalah, and in our prayers, we distinguish these two modalities as feminine and masculine. An entire book of the Hebrew Bible, “Song of Songs,” is constructed around this paradigm, employing a metaphor of a woman and man struggling with the love between them.

When we refer to G‑d's presence within our world, within us, and within nature, then She is “the Shechinah.”

This is a name that carries the meaning “indwelling.” The Shechinah dwells within our hearts and at the essence of everything that exists, generating life and nurturing it from within.

When we refer to G‑d's transcendence, how He is entirely beyond this world, we call Him "The Holy One, blessed be He."

“Holy” (Kadosh in Hebrew) carries the sense of being unique and apart. In the language of the Zohar, “He holds all that is, but none grasp who He is.”1 Meaning: Even as G‑d sustains the life and the very existence of each thing, He remains beyond life and beyond temporal existence, unknowable in His essence to any of His creations.

G‑d is one. He does not change or have parts, G‑d forbid. Both these terms refer to the same one and singular G‑d, just looking at that one G‑d from different perspectives.

From one angle, you see G‑d in a modality of thorough investment within our universe, immanently within every detail of our lives and of nature. From another you see Him in a modality of absolute transcendence even of existence itself.

There is no contradiction. Even as G‑d conducts the natural order and winks at you from within commonplace events as a caring mother who carries and nurtures her young, He remains entirely beyond it all, so that absolutely nothing must be the way it is and any prayer could be answered.

The Shechinah Prays

Indeed, this understanding of a harmony of modalities answers the toughest, most fundamental question about prayer:

What is a creation doing conversing with its creator?

It’s not just the absurdity of a walking meat-patty engaging the “One who spreads out the stars like dust,” invented the atom and all the laws of nature. The Creator sustains His creation in its every moment. If He would decide for an instant that nothing needs to exist, then all would cease to ever have existed, reverting to “exactly the state before the six days of creation,” as explained at length in Sha’ar Hayichud V’Ha-Emunah.2

If so, even as we exist in this moment, from our Creator’s perspective, we may as well have never been. And here we are, not simply offering praise, but, much like back seat drivers, kvetching over how this infinitely wise Creator is running His universe and suggesting alternatives that are preferential in our eyes.

There really is only one explanation:

When the first human being was created, G‑d “blew into his nostrils the breath of life.”3 In Hebrew, that breath of life is the neshamah. Within you, at your very core, that neshamah breathes according to your unique role in the universe. Together, as a single whole, all these divine breaths comprise the entire inner spirit of the Shechinah that is invested within G‑d’s creation, just as in that primal human being.

In our prayers, your neshamah speaks. She doesn’t speak for herself alone. She becomes nothing more than a channel through which the Shechinah speaks.

The kabbalist, Rabbi Chaim Vital (16th century Tzfat), describes prayer this way, as the state of a human being who stands within the created universe facilitating the Shechinah. You are allowing divine prayer to flow through your mouth and into your world in order that your world may rise upward.4

That is why, he explains, the quintessential prayer, the Amidah, begins with the words "G‑d, open my lips so that my mouth may tell Your praises."5 In your prayers, you are facilitating G‑d’s voice from within the creation, as He (or She) speaks to Himself.

In the words of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760, Ukraine):

As soon as you say “G‑d, open my lips,” the Shechinah invests Herself within you and speaks from within you all the words. If you will have faith that it is the Shechinah speaking, certainly a great awe will overcome you, for the Holy One, blessed be He, has also squeezed Himself into your world to dwell with you.6

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812, Belarus) explains this teaching:

The name used here for G‑d (Ado-nai) refers to the divine modality of Royalty, which is the Shechinah. The Shechinah opens the lips of the person who is praying.

And that is the meaning of “that my mouth may tell Your praises.” You are only “telling,” like someone who is channeling water from above to below. Just as the water flows spontaneously, the person only facilitating its flow by turning the tap at its origin, so the praises that the neshamah offers are not due to the neshamah’s own understanding…

…rather, it is “Your praises”—the praises of the divine modality of Royalty [the Shechinah]. Your mouth is only telling the words, allowing them to flow.7

He continues to explain that this is why prayer from the heart sometimes comes only with great effort, and at other times flows with great inspiration. It all depends, he says, on the divine speech flowing through you. Sometimes you may not be a proper channel for its flow. Sometimes, its just not there.

And indeed, the Talmud tells that Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was able to tell whether his prayers would be answered in this way. Here is the Mishnah in tractate Berachot:

If one prays and errs, this is a bad sign for him. And if he is the representative of the congregation, it is a bad sign for those he represents, since the representative of a person is his proxy.

They said of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa that after he would pray for the healing of the sick, he would say, “This one will live. This one will die.”

They asked him, “How do you know?”

He answered them, “If my prayer flows with ease through my mouth, I know that this prayer is accepted. And if not, I know that it has been rejected.”8

Without the explanation of the kabbalists and the chassidic masters, the Mishnah and its story of Rabbi Chanina seem to be providing little by way of practical application—that being the ostensible objective of the Mishnah, as a compendium of Torah practice and law.

With their explanation, however, it’s clear: When you pray, your principal effort is in getting out of the way and allowing your neshamah to speak on behalf of the Shechinah.

We simply stand at the contact point of a kind of feedback loop between the view from within and the view from above, privileged with the role of flicking the switch and allowing the dialogue to flow through our wires. We are the matchmakers between the feminine and the masculine of the cosmos, and as everyone agrees, the matchmaker’s main job is to make the introduction and then stay out of the way.

True, you may not feel that way. In your perception, it's for your own self-fulfillment that you're praying for that promotion/contract/house/marriage etc. You don't feel any divine voice speaking through you.

But then, how many of us are really cognizant of what we truly want and why we want it? Do any of us genuinely know why we do the things we do and what we are looking for in life?

The psalmist says, “A person’s footsteps are arranged by G‑d,”9 and that even your thoughts flow from above.10 The kabbalists explain that you are being guided to the places, the items, the jobs, the transactions, and the relationships for which your soul entered this world. Every life-event is an opportunity to uncover the divine sparks that relate to your soul alone. When you use these opportunities to gain some Torah wisdom, to do a mitzvah, such as an act of generosity or moral integrity, you are both transforming the world and uplifting your soul.

The Shechinah yearns to uncover these divine sparks through your agency, but you may feel nothing more than “I must have that. G‑d, please give it to me.”11

It's clear, then, that we can't address G‑d as the Shechinah and say “She,” because it's the “She,” the Shechinah, that's doing the praying. And the same must apply to every instance in which we engage the divine.

Engendering Oneness

Our mitzvahs, study, and prayer unite these two aspects of G‑d into a perfect whole. Studying Torah is a way for G‑d's transcendence to enter immanently into our world. Our prayers are a way that G‑d’s immanence within our world reaches upward and discovers the transcendence within itself. Each mitzvah in its particular way creates a harmony between the two aspects.

Much of the Zohar is dedicated to illustrating this concept. The prophets also allude to it in their ubiquitous use of the husband/wife metaphor. In many prayer books you will find instructions to say before a certain mitzvah, blessing or prayer, "For the sake of the union of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah, in the name of all Israel."

This is also the meaning of the phrase, "On that day, G‑d will be one and His name will be one."12 Of course, He was already one before the world began and remained one after creating it. The prophet is speaking of a time when the created beings will uncover the inherent harmony between the two fundamental elements of creation.

“G‑d will be one” is about His masculine transcendence extending into the feminine immanence, present in our world. “His name will be one” is about that feminine immanence discovering a harmony with that transcendence.

So yes, G‑d is female, as an immanent, intimate force of life.

G‑d is male, as a transcendent, mysterious force of being.

G‑d is neither, as an unknowable, absolute reality for whom all other forms of reality are a mere nothingness.

And G‑d is both male and female in perfect, utter oneness, simply because He cannot be nailed down to any descriptor, even that of transcendence or absolute being, and can choose to manifest in whatever modality He chooses—and He chooses these two polarities.

Gender Is Forever

That ultimate unity, yes, of course that transcends gender-reference. But G‑d desires a world to exist, and in the world He desires, gender is more essential to existence than time and space. The drama of gender in our world, at its core, is a reflection of the divine within creation, expressing how the two opposites of immanence and transcendence unite as one. That is what He chose: that His unknowable essence be known through the harmony of opposites.

That is the entire story of our universe and of each of our individual lives. We are all a commentary on the divine.

For more on the topic of the Shechinah, I suggest you read Who Is the Shechinah and What Does She Want From My Life?