For Mara Benjamin
by Catherine Madsen

CATHERINE MADSEN is contributing editor and book review editor for CrossCurrents.

A metaphor for God may be not a remedy but a record of the irremediable.

The half-formed cup cries out in agony,
The lump of clay suffers a silent pain.
I heard the cup, though, full of feeling, say,
"O clay be true, O clay keep constant to
Your need to take, again and once again,
This pounding from your mad creator who
Only stops hurting when he's hurting you."
-- John Hollander, "The Mad Potter"

It is only when man wishes the impossible that he remembers God.
To obtain that which is possible he turns to those like himself.
-- Lev Shestov


The violence of God, against which the defenders of gentleness have brought out such heavy artillery, seems permanently bound up with his maleness. Kali, with her girdle of skulls, is an Eastern phenomenon (God being -- however universal in another sense -- a Western one); feminist theology in the West is as uneasy about violent images of female power as Adam would have been letting Lilith back into Eden. As energetically as "women's rage" has been celebrated everywhere else in feminism, the celebration ceases at the doors of the seminary.(1) There it is safer to try to quarantine violence: to hope that if enough male pronouns are altered, enough violent images deleted from the Psalms, violent realities will simply ebb. To hope that when there is no longer a violent God there will be no more violent men.

The reasoning seems to be the same as in cases of television and movie violence: "If they see Him doing it, they'll want to do it themselves." It is as if representation came first, and then action: as if stories do not spring from realities but from malevolent purposes trying to work themselves out as realities. As if there can be no reason apart from malevolence to tell a troubling story.

Not the least of the crimes of television and movie violence is that it has driven out of the culture any general understanding of what makes violence necessary, not gratuitous, in a story. We are so accustomed to seeing death and damage presented suddenly, more or less cleanly, and without emotional sequelae -- not for the sake of understanding, pity and change but for the sake of shallow excitement -- that we begin to think the violence in works of art has no wider purpose than that. One recent feminist study of Yeats considers "Leda and the Swan" (for a page or two of a more complicated chapter) as pornography, "stripped of its artistic privilege and examined in terms of its content alone."(2) In terms of its content alone -- supposing the poet's sensibility to be no part of its content -- the poem is an image of a woman being violently raped by an animal; the fact that the image is not Yeats's own daydream but an episode from a myth -- that the bird is a god in disguise, and a god without altruism -- ceases to have any importance. It ceases to matter that the poet speaks of the terror and helplessness of the "staggering girl. . . mastered by the brute blood of the air," and of the fracture of her life and of history that unfolds from the rape: the ten-years' war for Troy and the murders of the house of Atreus. It makes no difference that the poet wonders what a woman, seized by another body against her will, takes from that unwilling intimacy: what knowledge of the other body simply as body (man, bird, god) breaks through the knowledge of attack as attack, an incongruous moral neutrality in the midst of the evil. Bird, woman and violence are still there. The critic who relied altogether on this method might perceive the mythical and emotional subtleties of the poem as mere erudite posturing, a smokescreen of culture disguising raw titillation. In effect she would be declaring that because rape ought not to happen, poets must always write as if it did not; that the representation is as illegitimate as the act, and done for the same reason; that no violent image can ever be presented without colluding in violence.

But is it only artistic "privilege" that distinguishes "Leda and the Swan" from a porn video of a woman and a dog? Does the poem's "content" stop at its visual content, at what could be transferred to a movie screen? Is its mood, its subtlety, its intellectual demand, invisible -- weightless in the political scheme of things?

The Bible is not a work of art in the same sense as a poem. It is not meant primarily to make an intellectual demand in memorable language -- or like Greek myth to tell an absorbing story, or like Greek tragedy to purge us by pity and terror. It aims to move us to justice and mercy. It is active art, to which people trust their conduct; moral art, which (rightly or wrongly) designates some forms of violence as necessary for the conduct of ethical social life. If the gratuitous violence of popular culture incites its viewers to mindless emulation, one could say that the violence of the Bible incites its readers to mindful emulation. The Bible acts directly on the conscience, without the filtering process by which art sifts down into our decisions. Even if we arrive at an adequate standard for judging "Leda and the Swan" -- or, say, King Lear, which presents another vain and violent old man -- the Bible will not submit itself to that standard.

Yet God's own violence moves quickly beyond mindfulness. If we did what he did or threatened what he threatened, we would be unjust and merciless. God is more like Lear than perhaps any invisible and worshipful creator has the right to be, not least in his misogynist invective and his need for praise. In spite of him -- and against the clear intent of some biblical writers, though I think with the clear encouragement of others -- the filtering process begins, and we are drawn into reading the story as art. It begins to have an indirect effect on our decisions which may outweigh and counter its direct effect.

God claims to operate out of moral purpose, which is how he is unlike Zeus; children are not brought up to call Zeus good. The Ten Commandments are meant to be followed; God takes an intimate interest in people's moral behavior. His own utterances and subsequent tradition discourage us from taking an equal interest in his. Pious readers have done mental contortions in order to interpret his rages as good, to exonerate him from the accusations we would incur if we demanded (even as a test) that a man burn his son on a mountaintop, or if we spread plague among an insubordinate people. The effort is exhausting; God seems to resist exoneration. The whole enterprise of theodicy -- of justifying God's ways to man, or rewriting the definition of God such that God can be justified -- failed long ago, before feminist theology got hold of it, before Job's comforters got hold of it. God refuses to fit the mold of perfection.

Why are children brought up to call God good?

Again and again women write -- it seems to be especially women -- of being told that God watched over them and finding themselves forsaken: of being lonely as children and finding that God did not assuage the loneliness, of living a selfless life as adults and still losing a child or being betrayed in marriage, of following all the rules and still getting cancer. Or simply of reading the Bible and wondering how that God could be trusted in simplicity and sweetness. Why did anyone lie to these women to begin with? Why such a transparent lie, as if doubt and the sense of forsakenness were unusual, as if the dark night of the soul were such an uncommon experience as never to strike a nice girl?

Jeremiah, one of God's many reluctant prophets, in Abraham Heschel's translation:

O Lord, thou hast seduced me,
And I am seduced;
Thou hast raped me
And I am overcome. (Jer. 20:7)(3)

Jeremiah was a child of nine when God first spoke to him. Did he put on His knowledge with His power?


It is peculiar to encounter the assumption in feminist theology that it is a wonderful thing to resemble God: that women are denied this resemblance because of their gender and that men, who are permitted the resemblance, must be endlessly proud of it. Carol Christ's early and definitive essay, "Why Women Need the Goddess," assumes that what a woman wants in a God -- and what a man automatically has -- is a mirror, a gendered self writ large, a ratification:

Religious symbol systems focused around exclusively male images of divinity create the impression that female power can never be fully legitimate or wholly beneficent. . . A woman. . . acknowledges the anomaly of female power when she prays exclusively to a male God. She may see herself as like God (created in the image of God) only by denying her own sexual identity and affirming God's transcendence of sexual identity. But she can never have the experience that is freely available to every man and boy in her culture, of having her full sexual identity affirmed as being in the image and likeness of God.(4)

Most other feminist theologians and their male allies have approached the question similarly ever since without much debate.(5) But -- leaving aside the question of whether the man or boy who identifies proudly with God on the basis of gender has understood his religion at all, or whether male power can ever be fully legitimate or wholly beneficent, or whether God's psychological function is primarily to affirm us, sexually or otherwise -- is it flattering to be made in the image of God? Is this a God either women or men can be pleased to resemble? Is a female sexual identity a sufficient protection against resembling him?

And would a God whom women could resemble really end the trauma of God's violence? Are women so unfailingly gentle? Perhaps our resemblance to God consists not only in our acts of imagination and kindness but in our capacity for destruction, for ambivalence, for enacting our rage on people we should not hurt. There is nothing particularly male about this pattern. Women act it out on their own children, and on men, and on other women; nothing in our sexual identity (whatever that amounts to -- our bodies? our socialization?) acquits us of human evil.

We could represent God in the most disturbing of female terms: the Goddess who sneers at her lover, goes in for sexual bargaining and emotional blackmail, screams at her children with loathing and calls it love.

Feminist theology, of course, does not want the equivalent of the biblical God in female form; it wants to redraw the boundaries, to leave violence outside the definition of God. (How the essentially monistic feminist sensibility hopes to leave anything outside the definition of God is a puzzle; if God is immanent, if God is everything, there is -- as in ecology -- no "away.") It calls for a Goddess of nurturance and consolation, modeled on women we love. It assumes that what women want in a God is not a fully realized female personality but an idealized self, and that we are willing to idealize our actual relations with women in order to get it. But an idealized image, though it may seem like the highest form of flattery, is really the quickest way to falsify one's relationships with both women and God. Also, of course, no story can be told about it: there is no tension and no resolution.(6)

Feminist theology has understood -- accurately enough -- that God-language is constructed; it does not seem to have grasped entirely why it is constructed. God as he appears in the Bible is not so much goodness personified as the whole of life personified -- what we love and what we dread, what we hope to do and what we would never do: an attempt to pack everything into one image, a synthesis of the lived and the unlived life. We may, with every good reason, prefer "power-with" to "power-over" in our own dealings, but the universe works both sides; we cannot limit its operations as we try to limit our own.(7)

One doesn't, in any case, make use of a beloved woman's image to shore up one's trust in the universe: the universe that produced her is the same universe that produces every threat to her well-being and survival. She will die, and God -- in spite of our fondest wishes -- won't. How can gratitude for her existence outweigh the anguish of her incipient nonexistence?

I suppose I need nurturance and consolation too badly to get it from God; I have made sure to choose lovers who could supply it. Do I want to remake my image of God in the image of my lover? No, I don't; she is not to be duplicated. A human body and personality must not be reduced to a mere object of worship. If male God-language were objected to for its reduction, not its inflation of men, one could not object to the objection.

Recent writing about God-language reads, on the whole, like the search for a better metaphor -- an enterprising Henry-Fordian quest, a retooling of the theological factory for the more efficient production of spirit. But spirit develops only inefficiently, through suffering and indirection.

Emily Dickinson, who had tested that process thoroughly, wrote:

Each one of us has tasted
With ecstasies of stealth
The very food debated
To our specific strength --(8)

Perhaps the stealth is essential: perhaps we all have to be stealing our image of God from the heap of stones the builders rejected in order to be sure we have the right one. Perhaps the very force of the rejection called our attention to our particular rock: its trajectory, the thump as it landed, the mottling or veining visible on its surface, its heft in the arms. Perhaps women who need the Goddess need her because she was forbidden. Perhaps when God is no longer compulsory -- when the builders consider him a bad risk -- he immediately becomes irresistible.

What if, from the very beginning, the one male God was not primarily an attempt by a male priesthood to consolidate its authority against Goddess religion, but an attempt by a powerful imagination to delineate a problematic God? What if the alternation in God's character between tender care and ferocious brutality, between limitless creation and wholesale wreckage, occurs not because the writers of the Hebrew Bible admired brutality or wreckage, but because they could not escape them? Metaphor is a talking cure: it starts at the point of injury. What if J and Jeremiah and the author of the Book of Job suspected that the violence of the universe was at every point congruent with its nurturance? Hebrew monotheism sets up one source for good and evil, one responsible will from which they both derive. Is any image more apt, more visceral, for such a God than male violence?


Kadosh: set apart: lonely.(9)

Jack Miles, in God: A Biography: "God, by being removed from time and generation, is also somehow barred from love. And though it is hard to say quite how, this fact is surely connected with the mutual irritability that exists between him and Israel, an irritability unique in the annals of literature."(10)

Of course: he has no one to touch him.

The poet Sam Hamill has called domestic violence -- which so often takes the form of harsh punishment for supposed minor infractions -- "an inarticulate expression of self-hatred."(11) The batterer's rage is not, at heart, caused by anything in the victim's behavior. She is only the scapegoat on whom he inflicts unendingly his own deep shame at his life. His power over her is limitless -- it may be murderous -- but he feels himself to be powerless, both against her intractable separate self and against his own circumstances.

Feminist analysis is naturally reluctant to look at his feelings with sympathy: the power differential between the fist and the face is so undeniable, and the difficulty of protecting a woman against a violent man so great. But Hamill does not say the batterer needs sympathy; he says he needs language. The batterer wants the power to order his own life, to know and supply his own needs, but he is enslaved by the conditions of his outer life and has no coherent inner life. He wants -- as one wants blindly, bodily, before language or consciousness -- to give some gift to the world, but he cannot imagine or name it. Hamill quotes May Sarton: "The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison."(12) The batterer's inability to give his gift is so magnified by the humiliations of his daily life that it becomes insupportable: he strikes at the nearest person. He beats his lover because he is enraged at his whole universe -- that is to say, at the whole range of his mind.

God has language. He created the world through words. But words fail him. Matter responded to his words at the creation, but humans do not. Since Adam and Eve ate the fruit and Cain murdered Abel, he has been trying to order the world to a pattern of his own comprehension, but no one else will comprehend it along with him. Almost from the outset he doubts himself: the flood is an act of regret and disgust at his own world's imperfections as manifested through humans. He repents of the flood too, once he sees the suffering he has caused; like any batterer he regrets his loss of control, and promises never to do it again. And does not -- not by that method.

Perhaps a covenant with one people will be a more manageable start than a relationship with all people. He settles on Abraham. His harrowing test of Abraham -- and of Isaac -- seems a sort of screaming through the dense fog of incomprehension that hangs between the bodiless and the embodied, which he can stop as soon as he sees that Abraham does in fact hear him. But he repeats that test with variations on Jacob at the ford of Jabbok, Moses on the way down to Egypt, and the whole people at Sinai after the incident of the calf (and again and again in the wilderness): flashes of rage, passed on as terror to the people whose love he demands. He wants to give something, which he clothes over and over again in the form of injunctions and prohibitions, but he is so unable to say clearly what it is that we do not know yet: more life, that much is clear, and a life that entails a just and compassionate social order, but the details become so involved with an elaborate ritual practice -- and an elaborate contempt for other people's ritual practice -- that it is impossible to untangle the compassion from the contempt. By the time of the prophets he is disgusted even with the ritual practice he once commanded (Isa. 1:11-14), and claims to have given bad laws for the people's undoing (Ezek. 20:25).(13)

Words fail him. He is so consumed by his vision that when he cannot convince the people of its necessity he is filled with an extreme self-contempt. He is not introspective; he projects his contempt entirely onto the people, despising them for their failures and for his own. He takes to commanding a kind of theater-of-cruelty performance art, which revolts the prophets who must enact it: "Eat [your bread] as a barley cake; you shall bake it on human excrement before their eyes. So. . . shall the people of Israel eat their bread, unclean, among the nations to which I will banish them" (Ezek. 4:12-13). Ezekiel, horrified, resists and is permitted cow's dung instead; but Hosea enacts with his "wife of whoredoms" the whole miserable history of God and Israel, locked in a marriage that neither can endure. By this time the cycle of rage and regret is fully established, a casebook pattern: the prophetic books read like a series of domestic crises, in which the batterer threatens destruction in terms so forceful they begin to blur the distinction between threat and enactment. He threatens till he has satisfied his rage, and at last (seeing the bewildered agony on his wife's face) consoles and forgives.

The forgiveness is what marks him as God: a human lover would apologize. But neither God's forgiveness nor man's apology holds good over the long term. The pattern begins again at the slightest act that might be read as provocation. He does not know how to stop, only how to say that he will stop.

The fact that forgiveness is in the picture at all forces our attention to the most repellent realization of all: in the terms of the biblical story, God has a case against the people. His ferocity is directed against real sins: the neglect of the poor, the oppression of workers, the evasion of filial duty. God does not do violence as Zeus does, to satisfy his lusts; he does it on behalf of the vulnerable. Abraham Heschel argues in The Prophets that he does it to show the unmindful oppressors what vulnerability is: to show them that poverty, hunger and homelessness are that fearful, that shattering to the poor. He goes on reenacting the trauma on us till we refuse to reenact it on them.

He has made a good world and has no one to give it to: everywhere he offers it (perhaps inarticulately, perhaps too insistently), his immense and difficult gift is met with reluctance and irresolution. He is neither good nor omnipotent; in his enraged disappointment he uses the only power he is sure of, the power of destruction. In the terms of the story, the whore-wife Israel has deserved her punishment -- for abandoning to the terrors of poverty "the widow and the orphan," single mothers and their children. A reading impossible to assent to, impossible to dismiss.

Misogyny pervades the prophetic books, but somehow incidentally: God raves not in support of misogyny but by means of misogyny. He is disgusted with Israel as jealous men are disgusted with women.(14) He is not licensing biblical literalists to beat their wives (as if they did it on command, or needed any excuse but their own despair). Men who take his behavior as warrant for their own have not thought or felt any more deeply than he has. They do resemble him -- or he resembles them; undoubtedly human batterers came first in the metaphysical fossil record -- but the resemblance is nothing to celebrate.

Heschel is immune to irony -- serenely, magnificently immune -- but human psychology, surely, is not. How does God help the poor by reducing their oppressors to the same state of terror and impotence in which the poor already live? How does he hope to make people good by inflicting evil on them?

"The prophet," says Heschel, "is a man who feels fiercely"(15) -- yet ferocity of feeling, even on behalf of the poor, is not in itself a remedy. Were the prophets -- was God -- incapable of finding a remedy? Was feeling their only resource? Had God exhausted his repertoire of commandments, did he find himself with only this impotent rage, this extravagance of accusation? The feminist -- or at least the pragmatically female -- sensibility is mystified: why didn't the prophets just act ?

Alice Miller, the psychotherapist who has written so much against violent methods of childrearing, has found that one person may make the difference in convincing an abused child that he or she is not fated to perpetuate that violence as an adult. If you have one "enlightened witness"(16) -- one person who shows you, however briefly, that another mode of life is possible -- you will turn toward that mode of life and not hurt your own children.

Does God not have that one witness?

Perhaps the point is not to purge the metaphors of violence to protect our children (though there would be some protective effect in not persuading our children that God's violence is good). To the extent that God is our metaphor -- our brain child -- perhaps the point is to establish so direct, so mutual, a relation with him that his gift can be finally given. Not to censor the violence but to relieve it: to give God an inner life.

Isaiah 43:12: "You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and I am God." The surrounding passage is one of triumph, mutual honor, restoration: splendid promises, magnificent verbal music. A classic Jewish commentary glosses the verse with a pinprick of doubt: "When you are my witnesses, I am God, but when you are not my witnesses, I am, as it were, not God."(17)

Elaine Scarry sees God's violence as having two functions in the Bible: from God's point of view it is punishment, but from the point of view of the people (who must, after all, contend with an invisible God) it is verification:

Although an occasion of wounding is often described. . . as a scene of disobedience and punishment, it is in many ways more comprehensible and accurate to regard it as a scene of doubt, for it is a failure of belief that continually reoccasions the infliction of hurt. Unable to apprehend God with conviction, [the people] will -- after the arrival of the plague or the disease-ridden quail or the fire or the sword or the storm -- apprehend him in the intensity of the pain in their own bodies, or in the visible alteration of the bodies of their fellows or in the bodies. . . of their enemies. The vocabulary of punishment describes the event only from the divine perspective. . . Moments in which the people have performed an immoral act (other than doubting) and where the idiom of punishment may therefore seem appropriate, must be seen within the frame of the many other moments where the infliction of hurt is explicitly presented as a "sign" of God's realness and therefore a solution to the problem of his unreality, his fictiveness.(18)

We invent a God who notices when we fail. He witnesses us at our worst; compels us to witness him at his worst; reminds us of the consequences we impose on ourselves. In that sense God's violence may be intended -- by us, not by God -- to convince ourselves that even we are not fictive: our acts have consequences.

As individuals, we do not particularly need God as our witness. A human other is more convincing and less ambiguous, and will teach us humaneness not by invective but by example. Indeed a human other can be our witness against a violent God. But the biblical pattern is not individual, not even quite personal; it is collective and schematic. At the collective level, a sane and gentle human other can seldom get a hearing. God's voice is the only one loud enough to convince a large group that there is some other way to live.

Even then, the method is likely to backfire: the word "repent" always sounds louder than the words "do justice," and it is always the men who are proud to resemble God who shout it the loudest. And they always shout it at women who leave their control: at women who support themselves, at women who think for themselves, at single mothers.

For God -- and for Israel -- the tragedy is that Israel is not God's witness: "she" is merely somebody else, who accepts the covenant in fear and gratitude but is essentially intent on being that separate self whose autonomous life so enrages the batterer. She is not really the receiver of his gift. She is not altogether convinced that he is real. God calls her behavior disobedience, and punishes accordingly, but it is merely incomprehension; she is minding her own business, which is not his. So far as the marital metaphor applies, God has taken a wife when what he needs is an audience.

Job may have been the witness: playing Cordelia to his comforters' Goneril and Regan, he spoke the truth about God. The essence of his complaint was God's injustice -- Job, having always dealt justly with the poor, had done nothing to deserve punishment -- and God endorsed the complaint (thus witnessing Job in return). Scorning exoneration -- relieved, perhaps, to be seen as he really was -- God confirmed that suffering is not always deserved. His bragging display of his works seems designed to tell Job that suffering may have no moral meaning at all. Perhaps it is a mere by-product of all that energy: consider behemoth, leviathan, staphylococcus.

God does not speak again in the Hebrew Bible after he speaks to Job. The Song of Songs follows: the reconciliation, the allegory of love between him and his people. Once the witness appears, what is left is the mad attraction, the erotic release. At last God and humanity have heard and understood each other, and what do they do but chase each other all over the town and the fields. They have no sense of propriety about how a couple behaves after a long and shattering quarrel. What are they doing together? What does she see in him?

And then (again, as Jack Miles notes) God disappears: he "loses interest," he dwindles. He who began in "activity and speech" ends in "passivity and silence,"(19) and the people are left on their own. (Or he waits, suddenly immobilized by Job's challenge and by the erotic release, like a lover now afraid to make the first move, having discovered what is at stake: a full human relation with a confident other, whom he can no longer bully or punish. He has taken a wife and she is becoming a lover: he is chastened and wary.) But outside the biblical text he does not disappear: he falls into a kind of hibernation or dormancy, from which he emerges in two parallel and competing forms -- in the New Testament, where he emerges as from the chrysalis of Mary's womb in a human body, and in the Talmud, where he is a kind of eavesdropping presence on the circle of scholars, brought back as it were domesticated and ready for civilized marriage.

In Christianity women have long had, not an equal or an easy hearing, but a chance to develop their own metaphors: to imagine themselves marrying or being pregnant with or suckling Christ, or drinking the flood from his side; to imagine Christ as their mother, to work up the extravagant visions and ascetic excesses their times and cultures encouraged. In Judaism, where women were shut out of the circle of scholars -- occasionally appearing as eavesdropping presences themselves -- all the metaphorical excess has belonged to men; all the intimacy, the sad humor, the moral persistence, the preoccupying eroticism, of Talmud and Midrash and Kabbalah was the work of married men, with women implied but not speaking. In contemporary religious life both Jewish and Christian, women's presence is different since feminism: we do not want a vicarious intimacy with God, or one circumscribed for us by the traditions in which we were once subordinate. How shall we speak of intimacy on our own terms?

Luther, according to Nietzsche, "wanted to speak to God directly, speak as himself, and without embarrassment."(20) How are women to do the same?


Till I have told the sages where God is comforted.

Yeats's "Woman Young and Old" only proposes to tell the sages where man is comforted, though Thérèse of Lisieux once said, "It is for us to console Our Lord, not for him to be consoling us," and mystics both Christian and Jewish have said the same. Comfort may seem an unpromising place to start: it is women's weary work to comfort everyone, and to have to attempt it with God too may seem the last straw. But imagine it undertaken with confidence: imagine it adventured without illusion, without the expectation of permanent transformation. It seems worth a try. Perhaps, after all, all he really needs is someone to touch him.

We are still teaching God to have a body.

William James said of philosophy that it is far more dependent on temperament than philosophers are willing to admit:

Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries, when philosophizing, to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-headed view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes in any representation of the universe that does suit it. . . Yet in the forum he can make no claim, on the bare ground of his temperament, to superior discernment or authority. There arises thus a certain insecurity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned.(21)

Maybe this is true of theology too. Certainly the frankly utilitarian slant of the current thinking on God-language suggests that, as if by a kind of First Law of Theodynamics, we get the God we need straight out of our temperament. But what happens when we try to override our temperament? I have heard women admit to still loving some old patriarchal prayer, after having made conscientious efforts to stop loving it. Is it wise to try to cure oneself of one's loves? What we love and deny will revenge itself in our tactics; our strenuous self-denial will demand equal self-denial of women whose selves we are in principle trying to affirm. We may need the Goddess and still get Old Nobodaddy; both of them have a way of persisting whether anyone finds them useful or not.

Maybe the Second Law of Theodynamics is that the God we need degenerates with use into the God we don't need. Maybe there is no way to forestall this breakdown.

There are women who prefer Old Nobodaddy to begin with, and cannot be won away from him. Temperament is intractable; it has its reasons whereof reason knows nothing. It will not assent even to other people's good reasons, when the assent would annihilate it. Call it intellectual preference: one must take the stance into which one does not feel falsely maneuvered.

Some women learn early -- generally not through religion but through literature -- to negotiate their relationship with the male God on other grounds than submission, just as some women learn to negotiate the heterosexual relation on other grounds. No amount of political or moral persuasion will move their imaginations to be interested at the same level in the Goddess, or in a benign male God. Their preference does not bolster men's religious authority, but avoids it altogether: they abscond with the male God, run away with him, confront him in private without benefit of a male clergy. They are in search of an unmediated relation to maleness, in which women can set the terms. If it is exhilarating to imagine God as a female energy, it is also exhilarating to imagine a masculine energy that does not constrain or inhibit or bind our own energy, but sets it free. A violence that can be met and mastered, a bad temper that can be opposed, an unlikeness that is not a negation.

Emily Dickinson, alone in her room, writing fierce poems to God: the unio mystica of Nobody and Nobodaddy.

The outcome of the adventure is unknown; it may not be good; it may be the same disaster that has awaited other bold young women. But warnings do not deter. Curious that the one warning common to both conservative men and radical women is that a woman must not be alone with a male God.

Feminist theology, whose stated reference point is "women's experience," has so far left the female interest in the male anatomy entirely untapped; for all the maternal imagery, there is a striking dearth of erotic metaphor for the male God in any feminist theology I know of. Decorum may have something to do with this pattern, especially when one considers the rapid rise of feminist theology in the seminaries: the price of female respectability has always been a heavy emphasis on motherhood combined with a certain maidenly reticence about the actual cause of motherhood. Lesbian exuberance has something to do with the pattern as well, though lesbian exuberance conceals a good deal of bisexual experience under a veneer of solidarity.(22) Probably the most powerful factor is sheer exasperation with all male attempts at control, a disbelief that anything male can be worth saving. What has dropped out of the picture, though, is an exceedingly common female experience. Feminist theology, it seems, has been unable to imagine -- from a scarcity of reliable earthly examples, no doubt, but also on principle -- a male God who could be desired.

Yet mystics have always known that the sense of being occupied by God is a sensual one -- and a temporary one, sometimes ending before we wish it; that it is a communicative and reciprocal relation; that it may have desperate consequences. Shall we refrain for the sake of solidarity and decorum from extending the metaphor? Shall we refuse to see the full risk and irony of our spiritual life? Shall not all the letters of the Torah have little whiptails, to swim into our inward parts, there to implant themselves and grow? Shall we not conceive inopportunely by them, the accidents of our love forcing themselves to term and the longed-for fruits miscarrying? Adonai, when we long to carry your seed we are barren, and when we wish to be empty of it we are full; blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who has planted everywhere life in our midst. (Or, who gives and who takes away.)(23)

Hosea's marriage metaphor, the allegorical reading of the Song of Songs, the florid elaborations of the medieval kabbalists, present the unio mystica of the bodiless and the embodied, God and Israel. (In Christianity -- where both Christ's body and Mary's so often function as a reproof to women's bodies generally -- there is still an intense concern with this union: God's growth in a woman's womb, his dual nature as divine and human, the extension of his body through the whole community of believers by baptism and communion; his ingestibility to anyone, man or woman.) Invariably the bodiless is the male and the embodied the female -- a legitimate source of feminist exasperation -- but if one refuses to make the body a source of shame, one can turn the tables on God; one can, as it were, wrestle and prevail.

The kabbalists' Tree of Life diagram represents God schematically in ten qualities or emanations -- represents him completely, the ninth emanation, Yesod or "foundation," corresponding to the genitals if a sketch of the body is superimposed on the diagram. The Lurianic kabbalist Hayyim Vital called the Torah itself Yesod de-Abba, the "foundation of the father," whose resting place is the ark, the Yesod de-Imma or "foundation of the mother." The kabbalists also wrote of the Torah in feminine terms, as the mother of sages, or as a princess, or as the Shekhinah with whom one is united in study(24) -- not that these images are reassuringly nonsexist -- but a woman may find the male image as interesting as the female. She may reflect, in the manner of the kabbalists, that the Torah scroll is a column of skin, which is taken out of the ark and carried around the room in its wrappings to be touched and kissed (while a hymn from Chronicles is sung that declares hamitnasei, he makes himself rise), and then, being removed from its wrappings, is touched at every word with a little ceremonial pointer in the shape of a hand, as the congregation studies lovingly, attentively and with lively imagination how to disseminate mercy.

Or, if such a woman does imagine God female, she may observe the worshiper doing prototypically masculine things. In Jewish prayer, where kneeling is not a traditional posture, the central prayers are said standing; it is as if the Shekhinah appears and we rise right into her presence, charged in every nerve with power and desire. What depths may the circumcised heart search out in God's body? Not as a servant his master, but as a man his lover, do we strive to please you; blessed are you, Shekhinah, in whose presence we stand.

Arthur Green has written of the obsolescence for postmodern people of the "vertical metaphor" of God above and humanity below, and in support of the perennial mystical understanding of reality "in terms of inner and outer rather than higher and lower." He suggests that Sinai be seen not as "the ultimate vertical metaphor" but as "a vertical metaphor that describes an inward event."(25) He is making an essential point about the interpenetration of immanence and transcendence, but his effort to replace the "vertical" metaphor with the "inward" metaphor is more deferential to feminist convention than true to experience. The inward and the vertical are not always on hostile terms; there are occasions when the inward loves the vertical. What we think of as God may be found within because it is there or because it goes there, and perhaps at the time one cannot really distinguish or bring oneself to care.

All of which is not to say that the erotic relation with God is an adequate answer to God's violence. The horrors of Deuteronomy and Lamentations are not mitigated by the Song of Songs; the erotic relation with the male God is not reassuring. Given the narrowest choice, we would not live a real-life relationship as we live this one.

Yet we may need one relationship so unbreakable -- perhaps it has to be an imaginary one -- as to enable us to face the entire coinherence of good and evil, and the thin edge we walk between melting gratitude for the world and absolute resistance to it. Failing a female image like the composite Kali/Durga that can express this relationship adequately -- and failing what we may call the political will in feminist theology to evolve such an image in durable language -- Western women are left with the male image: the peculiar uncanniness, the scent, the irreproducible flavor (recall Portnoy's "buttermilk and Clorox") of the God of the Hebrew Bible.

Neither conservative men nor radical women -- putting it crudely; that is, neither religion that trusts God on the Bible's terms nor religion that needs the Goddess -- can tolerate this attachment. Each wants women to have a religion, but not that one.

The illegitimacy and danger of wanting God is of the same quality as the illegitimacy and danger of wanting a man: the circumstances in which one can act on the desire are so narrow, the risks are so great, and the drive is so strong that we act on it anyway, setting in motion some prolonged private disaster that may take the rest of our lives to repair. Or if we do not act on it we are always conscious of the pressure to do so, whether it comes from our own frustrations or from the expectations of others. (In that sense, a woman who has never wanted a man for her own reasons is still under pressure to want one for somebody else's, just as people who have no strong religious feeling are always under some pressure to adopt a religion.) We have no way of ascertaining whether it is strength or masochism, lockstep conventionality or profound instinctual compulsion, that drives us to take the risk; but it is no accident that Christians pray on their knees, or that Jews say in the morning service before the Shema Yisrael, "Let us not be ashamed." There is an element of shame in our wanting anything as badly as we want God -- even when there is pride in it, even when we preen ourselves on having a better religion than anyone else's. Egalitarian pronouns and exclusion of violent images have nothing to do with the question, and evade the real insight that feminism could offer to theology if it would: that our lives are haunted by God, that we will risk any misery to have him, that we cannot let him alone.

Why should one worship such a God? But the question comes too late; we already have. We have discovered the sense in which worship is and must be the breakdown of our integrity. We do not worship out of a placid sense of having found what is worthy of worship; we worship because we have to, in the entire absence of a satisfactory object, because we cannot wait for a satisfactory object to appear. We worship because we cannot perpetually resist our own nature, because we must bless, because biological compulsion has overwhelmed reason -- and worship is a biological compulsion, largely dependent on the need to sing in a group, a need that is desperately thwarted in modern life. Comfort is never quite justifiable -- only imperative: we take it where we can find it.

Integrity reasserts itself in due course; critical reason is also a part of our nature; we learn to scorn our own worship, or somebody else's, in order to restore our sense of ourselves as morally competent beings. But we cannot avoid the slide out of competence, the vertiginous recognition of God's own incompetence -- and the moment when the vertigo stops, and we find ourselves quietly together, accusation suspended, God and woman confronting each other without excuse or escape. If the sky falls down, then we play on the ground.(26)


The violent God is not an image of our aspirations; he is an image of what happens when we fail. The Bible is not a blueprint for the ideal relationship between God and humanity, but a profound psychological portrait of a relationship that has been wretched from the start. A woman can walk away from a violent husband (sometimes, but not always, with the hope of escaping him), but we cannot leave the universe; there is no divorce from God. And here -- in the least feminist, indeed the least ethical of situations, the one in which there is no choice -- the terms of the problem become clear. A metaphor for God is not a preventative or a remedy. It may be a record of the irremediable: a marker for a disaster that has already happened, a pain for which there was no preventative, a wound for which there was no medicine. God is not the cure but the disease.

Do we just have to accept the disease? -- "Die of the absolute paternal care / That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere"(27) ? Resignation is neither a biblical nor a feminist virtue. How can either religion or politics tolerate a permanent barrier to ethical progress, and a barrier that wears the name of the unbreakable laws of the universe? Both religion and politics, at that point, must insist on breaking the laws of the universe; both must insist that God is solely the power that helps us to break those laws, never the power that enforces them. Both religion and politics refuse to accept a choiceless world. Both, in that sense, declare for God's transcendence against God's immanence: they declare him the cure and never the disease.

Or perhaps they insist that God is immanent only in the moment of moral choice, never otherwise: only at the moment when the laws of the universe defer to the laws of ethics -- or when the laws of ethics stop bullying the laws of the universe and learn to cooperate.

The moment when the inward loves the vertical.

Bettelheim, who understood the ability of fairy tales to cure through indirection, speaks of children's need at the age of five or so to understand the parent's love and the parent's anger through separate personae: the good fairy and the wicked stepmother, Grandma and the big bad wolf. "Such a splitting up of one person into two to keep the good image uncontaminated occurs to many children as a solution to a relationship too difficult to manage or comprehend."(28) Within a few years, time and experience enable the child to let the two personae merge back into one: the parent's ambiguous humanity will never be easy to handle, but is no longer shattering. The Bible seems to work from the first, undifferentiated stage: the good and the terrible father succeed each other rapidly and frighteningly, without intelligible purpose. Popular religion has generally accomplished the split: Christianity, under Gnostic influence and later under its own, has persistently slid off into splitting God into God-and-Satan, and certain forms of strenuous Judaism do a similar thing by isolating evil in the sitra achra, the "other side." (The less strenuous forms of Judaism tend to accomplish the same thing through liturgical sentimentality.) Theology has developed far more sophisticated ways of keeping the good image uncontaminated. Feminist theology, which might have been expected to have a higher tolerance for ambiguity because of its origins in "women's experience" and its affection for the immanent God, instead took up mainstream theology's task of redefining God so as to keep decontaminating the image. Is there a third stage of reambiguation, in which God's good and God's evil can be understood as belonging to the same loved but difficult personality?

Bettelheim's reading of the animal bridegroom tales may shed some light on the biblical marriage metaphor. Though the tales are brief and simple and the Bible is complex and vast, the two share certain primary elements: a covenant, an intolerable lover and a transformation. The biblical story has not yet arrived at the delicate humanity of "Beauty and the Beast," in which the beast is courteous and restrained and conscious of his beastliness, and the young woman gently refuses the covenant of marriage until she sees that he will die without her and that she loves him; it is more like the barbarism of "The Frog Prince," in which the frog insists on the fulfillment of a contract thoughtlessly made (he has rescued the princess's beautiful golden ball, which she lost down a well, in return for a promise that she will let him sit next to her, eat from her plate and drink from her glass, and sleep in her bed), goes on froggishly insisting in spite of her reluctance to honor the contract, and is at last flung out of bed and against the wall by the disgusted princess -- whereupon the enchantment falls from him and he turns into a prince. Bettelheim reads the story as an allegory of dawning sexual experience: the importunate boy with the ridiculous genitals becomes a beloved and dignified fellow-human through the experience of desire, and an act that seemed to the child inexplicable and repulsive becomes to the adult an overpowering pleasure. The critical point -- which always escapes from the wry women's jokes about how many frogs you have to kiss before you meet a prince -- is that the princess's rejection causes the transformation: it denies the frog (or prince) access to her except on her own terms. Her own flash of violence takes her out of the realm of noblesse oblige and the grudging fulfillment of contracts into the realm of strong and spontaneous feeling -- where, having despised him, she is also free to desire him. The desire she offers from that realm will not be pretended.(29)

In that sense, women who have had the male God forced on them without the possibility of rejection -- who have always been compelled to polite consent -- are perfectly right to want the Goddess instead: only a complete and thoroughgoing rejection will seem sufficient. The enchantment falls from him and he turns into the Goddess, whom they can love; they have relocated goodness to a place where it makes sense, and can live happily ever after. The shocking, disorienting necessity to resist reverts to the serenity of not having to resist, and equilibrium is reestablished.

Yet women who have always had the right of rejection -- for whom the violent God is a force of nature and culture that must always be reckoned with but never submitted to -- have had what may be an entirely different experience of religion, one in which its overpowering pleasure was understood earlier and with more complex emotions, and equilibrium is not the point. For these women the experience is not a once-for-all transformation, a revolution of consciousness after which nothing can be the same; instead all parts of the story exist simultaneously, the struggle, the rejection and the resolution. God is not permanently transformed from the frog to the prince: they love him, as it were, warts and all, at every stage of the story. Even to resist the frog's attentions, to fling him away, is to live happily ever after; each phase implies the other. They accept only a God whom they can resist.(30)

We go to God for what is impossible. With a human lover we could not have a relationship that was both absolutely broken and absolutely trusting; one aspect would conquer the other, the brokenness overwhelming the trust or the trust overcoming the brokenness. With God we can have both at full strength. Religion is a form of imaginative literature: it stretches reality to its uttermost tension for the sake of some understanding. "In the beginning," like "Once upon a time," is an inductive formula that removes us from ordinary time and place to a state where our condition is curable -- even if God is not himself (or herself) the cure.

What we need from religion is the knowledge of possibility: the knowledge that our lives are in our own hands, that the lives of others are in our hands, that we cannot stop at hopelessness. But we need that knowledge abjectly, without dignity, beyond any semblance of self-control; we beg for it, we babble our gratitude. The liberation and the shame are simultaneous.

What drives us to bitterness in a relationship is the prolonged sense of being undesired by the one we desire. God and his people have recurrent lapses of desire for each other in the Bible, recurrent doubts whether each other is worth desiring. God's hibernation and our own ambivalence devolve from the exhaustion of this recurrence. The same patterns of baffled and gratified desire, the same need to resolve them with kindness and trust, and the same apparent impossibility of kindness and trust, apply between God and the people -- or God and the self -- as between two human lovers.

What human lovers must do at such a point is admit mutual failure, stumble toward accommodation, imagine desire out of the ashes of its own spontaneity with an embarrassment that is the worse for occurring between intimates. (We know well enough, but it may still need to be said, that the intimates need not be of opposite sexes; the question is far subtler than the distribution of gender roles or the calculus of power. Neither "The Frog Prince" nor Hosea is fundamentally about socializing young women to heterosexual norms.) The right of rejection is crucial, but even with it there is no guarantee that the impasse can be resolved. Still there remains the sense of inalienable belonging: you would rather have this lover even in the most painful embarrassment than leave -- or regret -- the relationship. To be in each other's presence is more necessary than resolution.

In the Bible the renewal of love and trust is prophesied -- out of the very jaws of the devouring Father -- in such incandescent language that, like the threats, it seems already to have occurred at the moment of speaking. When you pass through water, I will be with you; through streams, they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, you shall not be scorched; through flame, it shall not burn you (Isa. 43:2, JPS). I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the coasts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travaileth with child together. . . I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble (Jer. 31:8-9, KJV). Historically this renewal is, in a sense, what happened -- in the two parallel forms of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, each of which softened without censoring God's violence and attempted to write the covenant on the heart. Psychologically, we must each achieve it ourselves.

Theology attempts to do this task for us, vicariously, but it cannot succeed; burdened as it is by the need to preserve the good image uncontaminated, there are methods it cannot use. It is all superego, all admonition and no longing; it is not sure that anything is due to the id. At worst it speaks in rational prose of what cannot be understood without rhythm; it recommends what can only be seized with cries and tears. It becomes not a means of bringing us into God's presence but a kind of verbal chaperonage in which we can be in God's presence but never speak freely or touch.

To sneak away from the chaperones and have him all to ourselves!

Among other consummations prophesied for "that day" -- the day of God's and Israel's reconciliation -- is that Israel will call God my man (ishi) and no longer my master (baali) (Hos. 2:18). We will approach God as an equal and not as an idol. For all the idolatry of masculine language that goes on among conservative men, it is worth a radical woman's making the approach without changing the genders: it is precisely a refutation of male authority. It is an acceptance that implies the right of rejection.

Feminist eschatology: there will come a time, against all evidence and all precedent, when we treat men without either deference or disdain. Neither an idol to be worshiped nor an idol to be smashed. Perhaps it is worth speeding that day, by practicing on God.

What is God really? We imagine Elohim creating the world through words, but God's other Name is recognized by some bodily sense unamenable to words, like a scent. It goes deeper than metaphors, deeper than pictures, right to the root of the brain where the sensations live, the tastes and smells and memories by which we judge our safety and our risk. At the frontal lobes God is creator and commander, mother and nurturer, or any image we choose; in the limbic system YHVH is my rock, my milk, my rosemary leaf, and words are short-circuited by the body's allegiance. To try to speak of that presence at all is such a separation from it that we cannot get the language right. If the words we use for it are violent and desperate, perhaps that is because adversity itself is what returns us to that presence. We give the method because we cannot give the description. An image of God must be a kind of Zen koan, which shatters with its sheer unreason the expectation of a model or a name.

When the figuration of God is impossible, what should it be but disfigurement?


1. [Back to text]  In this essay I am reacting (intemperately, but I hope usefully) to twenty-five years' observation of feminist theology from the far edges of the field -- from under the boughs of the tulgy wood of literature, where different rules are in force. My observation began as a hopeful interest, but fairly soon changed to puzzlement and chagrin; I did not and do not understand the appeal of a God -- or "God/dess" -- who solves or sidesteps all the problems raised by the God of patriarchy and who is always on women's side. For me the appeal of God is the elusiveness of the God of the burning bush or the still small voice: a God who hovers on the very edge of personification, fending off definition, shaking, burning, with the effort to be present without being defined. In theory it is obvious that even male pronouns are too much definition, and that female pronouns should serve as well (or as badly); in practice, when female pronouns and images are credited in advance with the power to improve the position of women, mitigate violence private and public, and assist in the restoration of the planet, the burden of definition is so great that no God with a taste for surprises could do anything but elude it. What I have to say about the Goddess I said twenty years ago in a play called "Dentata" (WomanSpirit no. 39 [Fall 1982]: 16-20); what I have to say about God in this paper is not the extent of what I think about the divine, but it is a protest against the easy dismissal of the biblical God as if he were nothing more interesting than a patriarchal cudgel.

The objection to violent images of God has become a commonplace of feminist thinking on the Bible, and is often made in passing and in shorthand. Formative discussions of the issues occur in (among other sources) Carol Christ's "Yahweh as Holy Warrior" in her Laughter of Aphrodite (San Francisco: Harper, 1987), 73-81; Judith Plaskow's section on "God: Reimagining the Unimaginable" in Standing Again at Sinai (San Francisco: Harper, 1990); Sallie McFague's Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987); and Gracia Fay Ellwood's Batter My Heart (Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill, 1988), which collects all the texts on God's violent marriage with Israel. There is a crucial difference between these women's work and mine: they are concerned with how to limit the damage caused by the religions they were born into, whereas I (born without a religion) am concerned with how to live with the fact of needing religion at all.

David Blumenthal, in Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993), is closest to my own position, though his starting point is theological where mine is literary. We share several important premises: that God is not purely good; that humanity can accept only a God against whom we can protest; that it can be both a moral and a psychological need to trade accusations with God; and that "divorce" from God, however desirable it might be in theory, is impossible in practice (in contrast to a human relationship). Of course these are longstanding premises in Jewish thought, implied in the Hebrew Bible and made explicit by Levinas, Wiesel and many others in the wake of the Shoah; but so thoroughly have Protestant habits of mind set the terms of theological discourse that it is relatively uncommon to see Jewish premises stated at full strength and without apology in a theological work.

2. [Back to text]  Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, Gender and History in Yeats's Love Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 151-53.

3. [Back to text]  Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, vol. 1 (New York: Harper, 1962), 113.

4. [Back to text]  Carol P. Christ, "Why Women Need the Goddess: Phenomenological, Psychological, and Political Reflections," in Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, ed. Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 25.

5. [Back to text]  A particularly interesting example by an "ally" is Arthur Green's "Bride, Spouse, Daughter: Images of the Feminine in Classic Jewish Sources," in Susannah Heschel, On Being a Jewish Feminist (New York: Schocken, 1983), 248-60. Green poses several astute questions: "Do images of the divine feminine belong only to women?. . . Might one not argue that men need the feminine, as women would need the masculine, if religious life involves something like what the depth psychologists call a search for polarities? In the course of our intense longing for the divine Other, a longing long depicted as having a strong erotic component, might it not be opposite rather than like that needs first to be sought out?" (248-49). Green may have been the first and last to suggest that women could "need the masculine" in their religious life; feminists at that point were almost unanimously engaged in expelling the masculine, and those who defended the male God did so not in psychological terms but in terms of allegiance to tradition. (Not until Alicia Suskin Ostriker's The Nakedness of the Fathers [New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers, 1994] did a feminist present an erotic reading of women's relationship with the male God, and as a poet and critic Ostriker has had more latitude than theologians generally seem willing to take.) Since the focus of Green's essay is on the "male-created series of feminine images" of the divine in Jewish texts, he does not pursue the implications for women of the search for polarity in a (male-created) image of the masculine, or speculate on what a female-created masculine image might look like. I have always harbored an antipathy for the language of male-female polarity, but I came from radical feminism to Judaism with a renewed curiosity about the masculine (or perhaps genuinely curious about it for the first time); I am sorry that Green, or somebody, has not said more about the possibility of female desire for a male God.

6. [Back to text]  Charlene Spretnak attempted, in Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths (Boston: Beacon, 1984), to subtract patriarchal violence from the stories of the Greek goddesses, and the results are cautionary for those who think of doing a similar thing with the Bible. Persephone, for example, descends to the underworld willingly, out of pity for the bewildered dead, and Demeter -- after having given reluctant permission -- allows the crops to fail simply out of grief at her absence. Spretnak succeeds inadvertently, in this version, in transferring Hades' gratuitous violence to Demeter: in the Greek version Demeter causes the drought out of desperate rage at the gods' failure to take action against Hades' rape of Persephone. When wrongs are committed by the gods, right is on the goddess's side; only where wrong is not part of the goddess's vocabulary is she capable of starving the world because her daughter has grown up and found her work.

7. [Back to text]  Judith Plaskow ("Facing the Ambiguity of God," Tikkun 6 [September-October 1991]: 70+) was the first feminist theologian to consider (in a generous response to a suggestion of mine) that the problem of evil might not be solved by the excision of "images of domination" from God-language. A few others since have dealt gingerly with the question -- notably Kathleen Sands in Escape from Paradise (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994) and Renita Weems in Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995) -- but the theological habit of justifying God's ways remains remarkably constraining.

8. [Back to text]  "A word made flesh is seldom," J. 1651.

9. [Back to text]  This constellation of meanings was first suggested to me by Jay Ladin.

10. [Back to text]  Jack Miles, God: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995), 138.

11. [Back to text]  "Shadow Work," in A Poet's Work: The Other Side of Poetry (Seattle: Broken Moon Press, 1990), 43. Hamill became a poet as a direct antidote to a violent life: in another essay in the same collection, "The Necessity to Speak," he writes of having been "both victim and executioner," and of discovering the source of his violence in his inability to name his fears and his needs. "Out of my own guilt and shame at having been raped [by a gang of boys in prison at fourteen], out of my own guilt and shame over having been a batterer, out of my own silence over these terrible events. . . I found it necessary, essential, to bear witness. . . An apology from a reformed batterer means nothing. The only conceivable good that can come from my confession is that of example for other sick men, a little hope for change amidst the agony of despair" (10-11).

12. [Back to text]  Hamill, "Shadow Work," 41.

13. [Back to text]  If we include the New Testament, which Christians have presented as a mitigation of the violent relationship between God and his people (and one erstwhile post-Christian as the answer to Job), we find, first of all, "his people" redefined and "the Jews" pushed to the margins; we also find Jesus' mercy no less contingent than God's, though the conditions on which he shows it are somewhat different. The care of the poor is still a primary obligation (and its neglect is now punishable in eternity); the forgiveness of sins is still dependent upon repentance and amendment. But most strikingly, the gift of the only-begotten son for a sacrificial death is, like the covenant, an offering of unbearable urgency, as if God were now saying Look, I will wound myself for you, you cannot fail to take notice, like van Gogh cutting off his ear. All things considered it is astonishing that the gift should have been taken as possible and credible; perhaps after all it is a credit to humanity that this story should have founded a religion of great emotional power, rather than simply provoking the laughter of generations of barbarous schoolchildren as van Gogh's self-wounding does.

14. [Back to text]  Renita Weems (Battered Love), investigates the historical causes and socioethical effects of the prophets' metaphorical misogyny at length. Though I believe she takes too directly instrumental a view of metaphor -- which at the prophets' pitch of anxiety is surely too deeply rooted in the unconscious to be a calculated tool of persuasion -- she does recognize the unique moral energy of the Bible, even where the Bible is morally flawed. She also makes the essential point that "Great authors need great readers -- readers who make demands upon their authors" (103).

15. [Back to text]  Heschel, On Being a Jewish Feminist, 5.

16. [Back to text]  Miller first used the term in Banished Knowledge (New York: Doubleday, 1990b), 167-75.

17. [Back to text]  Sifre Deuteronomy,  346.

18. [Back to text]  The Body in Pain (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 201.

19. [Back to text]  Miles, God: A Biography, 402.

20. [Back to text]  Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals III, 22; the translation is Erik Erikson's in Young Man Luther (New York: Norton, 1962), 97.

21. [Back to text]  Pragmatism (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1955), 19-20.

22. [Back to text]  Janet Morley, in her striking book of prayers All Desires Known (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1992), goes farther than exuberance; she is one of the few contemporary feminist writers to use female imagery for God in its full emotional range and without romanticism.

23. [Back to text]  "Who has planted everywhere life in our midst" is Paddy Chayefsky's translation (in The Tenth Man, Act II, scene i) of the blessing after reading from the Torah, "v'chayei olam nata b'tocheinu."

24. [Back to text]  Elliot Wolfson, "Female Imaging of the Torah: From Literary Metaphor to Religious Symbol," in From Ancient Israel to Modern Judaism: Intellect in Quest of Understanding, vol. 2 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 271-307. I am grateful to Lawrence Fine for calling this article to my attention.

25. [Back to text]  "Judaism for the Post-Modern Era" (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1994), 11-12.

26. [Back to text]  Margaret A. Roche, "Pretty and High," The Roches (Warner Brothers BSK 3298, 1979). copyright 1971 ASCAP.

27. [Back to text]  T. S. Eliot, "East Coker," in Four Quartets.

28. [Back to text]  Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Random House, 1976), 67.

29. [Back to text]  Ibid., 286-91. Rachel Adler, in Engendering Judaism (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998), has arrived at a similar understanding via the image of Israel as God's whore-wife: "The great innovation of the prophetic marriage metaphor is that it presents God as an injurable other enmeshed in a danse macabre of reciprocal injury. Unlike God the Creator or God the King, God the husband is an erotic subject who can be hurt, insulted, deceived. Endowing Israel with the power to hurt God intimately redistributes the balance of power in the divine-human relationship. The terrible rage in prophetic adultery [sic] is, ultimately, a helpless rage" (160-61).

30. [Back to text]  Regina M. Schwartz, in The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), sheds an interesting light on the right of refusal -- or the absence of it -- in the covenants of biblical and prebiblical times. In ancient Hittite documents binding vassals to overlords and vanquished to victors, the right of refusal was entirely lacking, the subject party having only the choice of acceptance or death. "[W]hen we think of the prototype for the biblical covenant, we should not imagine a contract between two equal consenting partners" (27). It is not, of course, inaccurate to personify the universe as an arbitrary overlord -- merely forthright (and subject to opportunistic use by arbitrary overlords who take the metaphor as authorization). How much chance do we get to shape the conditions of our biology, our family, our time and place and class, before being irretrievably shaped (and misshapen) by them? "Right of refusal" always comes at a late stage, when the relationship has taken up squatter's rights in our life and cannot be undone; the frog is already in bed with us, we have the choice of submitting to it or flinging it away and coming to pity and care for it because we have hurt it. We do not have the choice of ignoring it altogether. We are violated by the conditions of our lives; our only choice is whether to accept those conditions on the violator's terms or to insist on altering the terms.

It is, of course, worth introducing Heschel's complicating factor, that the violent God is offering us an ethic worth living up to; perhaps we can only accept that ethic when we have rejected it in outrage (and seen the consequences). George Steiner has suggested in several essays and in his novel The Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H. that the European animus toward the Jews was an unappeasable resentment, not that they had "killed God" but that they had invented God; it seems fairly clear that resistance to God in the Hebrew Bible stems from a resentment that he has invented ethics. Perhaps there is a stage in our lives -- before we understand that we can hurt others? -- when the necessity of ethics strikes us as a violation. Can any God-language at all spare us that shock?

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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 2001, Vol. 51,  No 2