Here’s a fun Pesach prep activity: grab your haggadah and a sharpie. Open the haggadah up to the first page, and start removing all the phalluses drawn over Gd’s name.
“He” becomes “Gd.”
“Our Father” becomes “our Parent.”
“King” becomes “Ruler.”
You can help spare our ancestors from embarrassment too!
“Our forefathers” becomes “our ancestors.”
And of course we would never want our kids being misgendered.
“The four sons” (if you have such a weirdly old school haggadah) becomes “the four children.”
When the kids in your household ask you what you’re doing, get them involved! Tell them you’re helping save Gd, our ancestors, and our people, from misgendering. Children sometimes know better than anyone else what is inherently wrong with the ways we’ve constructed the world; kids know exactly what should make us all stand up and shout, “No fair!”
Gd is clearly not male. Gd is bigger than “He” or “She” pronouns. Gd is bigger than gender. We aren’t even supposed to draw pictures of Gd’s face–who on earth would have the chutzpah to imagine Gd’s genitalia?
This sharpie exercise is, of course, about more than imagining divine genitalia. And in fact there is something problematic in creating an automatic association between genitalia and pronouns. However, I bring up the genitalia association to show just how shocking it is to have Gd and ancestors discussed using exclusively masculine pronouns. It feels just as surprising as opening a prayerbook and seeing a drawing of a phallus scrawled across the page–who would have done such a thing? Why would anyone defile my prayerbook? Why would anyone defile my haggadah?
I understand that the world is still evolving around issues of gender, but there are certain regressive tendencies among supposedly enlightened communities that are cause for dismay. Jonathan Safran Foer’s New American Haggadah is an otherwise gorgeous book (the fonts! the watercolors! the commentary!)–but upon using it for the first time a few years ago, I was appalled at the insistent gendering of Gd and the Jewish people. My great grandmothers didn’t escape Cossaks, shlep across the Atlantic, and scrub their little tenement apartments for Pesach each year, just to be forgotten by their own descendants. The fact that I was raised reading about “the four children” shouldn’t just be a cute quirk of the 1980s and 1990s. How will little girls at seders this Friday see themselves as active participants in Judaism if they’re excluded from the stories? And why on earth does Gd need pronouns at all?
There are those who want to adhere to gendered language out of a certain faithfulness to the Hebrew, which is itself a very gendered language. I cannot argue for ungendering Hebrew–that’s a discussion for people with greater language fluency than I have. However, I can argue that there is no such thing as perfect translation. Ask any poet; it’s just not possible. Sometimes, the beauty is in the flexibility. Sometimes, the beauty is in being able to do more with two languages than you can with one.
There are those who feel compelled to adhere to gendered English in haggadot out of a sense of tradition. I understand that, and I would feel upset too if certain traditions were lost. (At the end of the meal, I expect to be drunkenly singing songs about goats and the Oneness of Gd, just like everyone else.) However, we need to be honest with ourselves and the fact that these traditions of gendered pronouns have alienated generations of Jews from a heritage which is rightfully their own. Dayenu.
I refuse to be alienated from my culture and my religion. I’m not going to let my seders leave me out, and I’m not going to flip through pages full of “He,” “King,” “forefathers,” and “sons.” When I pick up my last minute seder supplies this year, I’m going to pick up a box of sharpies, and I’m going to clean up my haggadot.