To Increase Diversity and Decrease Bias, Start with God

By Rabbi Rachael M. Bregman

Within faith communities, if we are going to also do equality work, we must have God, or even “God,” in the conversation.

Two recent eJewishPhlanthropy articles beg the question, how do we fix the equality gap? I believe that “God” is the answer.

The Week That All Jewish Women Turned Invisible” a brilliant text co authored by the women of the 5779: Year of the Jewish Woman Facebook Group and “A Path Forward in Jewish Leadership Development” by Leading Edge COO, Mordy Walfish, are both trying to do the same thing. Fix it. Many are working to undo the damage that the privileging of those who are white, male, middle age, middle-class or higher, heterosexual, married, with children, able-bodied has done to those who are not. Many are working to craft cultural, representational and pay equity for all within positions of power. Not only to right the sins of the fathers, it turns out to be better for everyone to have more diversity in our communities.

Within faith communities, if we are going to also do this work, we must have God, or even “God,” in the conversation.

What do you think of when you read this word:


Lord, Avinu Malkenu, Our Father who art in heaven, God on High. This God, gendered-male in most of its Hebrew forms, is laden with maleness. Biblical imagery of God is almost exclusively masculine. The hierarchy of God up and us down is misogyny incarnate.

As Walfish points out in his article, University of Warwick professor, Tina Kiefer, asked participants in a study to draw a picture of an effective leader and the vast majority drew pictures of men. As the study has been replicated, so have the results.

Regardless of one’s personal God-beliefs, God figures prominently into the shaping of the Male on Top image. And it all begins with the creation stories. Yes, there are two. In creation story number 1, Genesis 1:27, the Torah text reads, And God created man (humanity) in His image, in the image of God He created it; male and female He created them. Curiously, a few verses later, we get creation story number 2. God creates man from the dust of the earth blowing breath into him. Adam. (Gen. 2:7-8) God then comments man should not be alone and God makes all the other creatures, but none are a good companion for Adam. A slumber descends on Adam, his rib is removed, Eve is formed from it. And Adam says, This one shall be called Woman, For from man was she taken. (Gen. 2:23) In the Hebrew, the word for man is ish and woman is isha. Even the word for woman itself conveys that women are subordinate to men. The text adds this: Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh. (Gen 2:24).

In story one, gender is part of humanity and is non-dual. Gender-male and gender-female are equal with and not exclusive of one another. And we have lost that through time as we have privileged the second story over the first.

From a gender equity, sexual orientation, and sexual identity inclusion point of view, the second text is incredibly problematic. A woman is made from a man. A man cannot be alone and must always cleave to a woman. Wives are an exchange for mothers. Men marry presumably only women. Gender is male-female binary. From a historical perspective, that the first story is replaced by the second story is the natural extension of story number 2.

And here’s the kicker; story one tells us And God created humanity in God’s Image. We have retained that human beings are made B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of The Divine and smashed it together with with the male, hetero, able, cis, married manifestations of story number two. If people are made in the image of God, Adam #2 looks like what he looks then, ta-da, God must look like Adam.

We don’t really know what God looks like. This is a simple yet radical thought. And this is a gift as well as an opportunity. The intangible nature of God makes for a beautiful doorway through which we all can walk, taking new images of leadership, inclusivity, equity and humanity with us. Here’s how:

1. Stop Talking about God

The word “God” is laden with all kinds of imagery and, often, hang ups for people. Many don’t believe in God but believe in something larger than themselves, powerful, loving, caring and kind. When you call that “God” somehow it just doesn’t work. Thankfully, Jewish tradition has a near infinite collection of other names for The Ineffable. Many are not much help. Adonai or Lord, El Elyon or God on High, and the like have contributed to the male, hierarchical, heteronormative and so on image we want to debunk.

We may be tempted to unilaterally replace our go-to names for The Divine with other traditional nomenclature like Shechinah which is decidedly feminine. However, in a 1987 Sh’ma journal article, the great feminist and liturgist, Marcia Falk, teaches us that we cannot just replace male terms with female ones.

[I]n objecting to God the King, we found that God the Queen was not a satisfactory alternative. Because, we discovered, Divinity means more to us than a principle of transcendent rule; even power can be imagined as something other than “power-over.” So instead we began to talk about empowerment, about Divinty as that which enables us to be our individual selves, and as that which bonds us when we unite as a community.

We have an opportunity here to deconstruct the whole power dynamic as we know it. In creatively naming the Divine, we can let our imaginations soar to places our embodied selves may not yet be able to reach. To successfully stop referring to the Source of All Being with balanced terms, begin by conjuring what you want to evoke and take it from there. If it is equity we want, try shifting to creation story one: The One in Whose Image All Humanity is Created or Loving Source of Being. Just close your eyes for a moment and feel the power of the universe and put that feeling into words.

2. Take a page from Feminist Theology

As Marcia Falk begins points to above, Feminist Theology had a great deal to say in the 80’s and 90’s about shifting God-language to be radically inclusive of the great breadth, grandeur and creative manifestations of humanity-especially in liturgy. What if we did the same exercise in the board room? In the classroom? When out to dinner? People can talk about The Sacred much more easily than we can talk about or even to one another. Our Great Sages, these Feminist pioneers of thirty years ago, held the spark we need. Marcia Falk, Maggie Moers Wenig, Judith Plaskow, Rachel Adler and many others built the tool kit, now it is ours to use their tools.

3. Made in the Image of The Divine-Neo-Chassidism and Ancient Chinese Wisdom

The Meor Aynaim, a late 18th century Chassidic text, offers the following teaching:

The stature of the first human, whose name was Adam, was [so great that it extended] from one end of the world to the other. This signifies that in him were contained all the souls that would ever exist in the world with all their divergent qualities.

The Meor Aynaim shows us that the first being created in the first creation story contains the fullness of all of humanity without exception. If you want to know what The Divine looks like, you have to look at everyone. And if you leave anyone out, you cannot really know God. Dr. Eugene Borowits (z”l) would dare his philosophy students at Hebrew Union College in New York City, tonight when you get on the subway to go home, look at each person and say ‘Image of God!’ Try it sometime with strangers, friends and family. See how the conversation changes. If we can see the One Who Makes Peace in everyone, then we can allow for The Sacred to be a trans, LatinX, amputee who runs a phenomenal board meeting.

There is an ancient Chinese Proverb. Several blind people encounter an elephant. Each one is only aware of the aspect of the creature right before them. The one by the tail thinks the elephant is a snake. The one by the leg thinks it’s a tree. Now we, as the observers, know it is an elephant. If only each individual could share their wisdom, together they could see the larger whole. We, today, are the blind people. We only know what has historically been before us. And we need one another’s wisdom to truly understand. If humanity is made in the Image of God, then The Divine looks like everyone. So too, for the images of our leaders. By opening our eyes, opening our hearts, opening our imaginations, we can evoke new images of The Sacred, of Leadership, of strength, power, love, courage and more.

When we recognize, and embrace that everything looks like God, we can see that there is no limit to what is possible.

Rabbi Rachael Bregman is the Berman Family Rabbinate Rabbi in Brunswick Georgia where she and the Jewish community create sacred and secular spaces for people to get together across all the boundaries which divide.