Gen. 1:1 – 6:8
By Rabbi Baht Weiss
(Please note this blog was written prior to October 7 and the events unfolding in Israel-Rabbi Pokras will be discussing the situation about the War in Israel on the bima at Friday Night Shabbat Services)
I want to ask a bold question. Is God nonbinary?
This week, we restart our reading of the Torah. In Bereshit, in the beginning, we are introduced to a being called God and the creation of the world is described in detail.
We read in Genesis 1:1
בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃
Bereshit bara Eloheim, et ha shamayim v’et ha’aretz.
In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.
Hebrew is a gender specific language. Each noun is decidedly masculine or feminine. The word EL in Hebrew means a god. Yet God is referred to as Elohim. And we learn that there is only one God—we are a monotheistic religion. So, Elohim cannot mean that they are many gods. This is confusing, God is singular and yet God is all things.
We tend to refer to God in the masculine. The Hebrew text is confusing because even though God appears to be named in the plural, we are told God created בָּרָ֣א in the singular. If God was plural, God would have created בָּרָ֣או
But God is one being and therefore God created the heaven and earth alone. After God creates light, darkness, land and sea, and all living creatures, it gets even more confusing.
Singular God says in verse 26:
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ
And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after OUR likeness.
Rabbis have debated—who is the us here? It has often been understood as God speaking to all the heavenly beings (angels, the divine spirits, the unknown) to create the world as we know it. So is God creating with something or someone else or using the royal “we.” It is one of the many mysteries of God that as humans we cannot know with certainty.
In contemporary times, there is a growing sensitivity and awareness to gender pronouns. All of the staff at Beth Ami self-identify our gender pronouns in our email signatures. At Machane TBA Hebrew School and Kayitz Summer Camp we ask the students to share their pronouns. During B’nei Mitzvah, the students and families share with us how they identify. We are no longer limited to the pronouns of he and she—a person can identify as they/them. For our students, this isn’t a difficult concept, for those of us of an older age, this concept of referring to one person in the plural is jarring. Somone says that they saw “them” yesterday, and it may take us a while to realize that this person is only referring to one person. This is confusing because our linguistic abilities to express ourselves are limited.
Personally, I don’t view God as a man with a long beard in the sky. God transcends gender. So, would that make God’s pronouns They/Them? God is often called the ineffable—one who is incapable of being expressed in words. The Kabbalists called God Ein Sof, the Infinite. God is impossible for us to describe with words. We attach gender to God in our attempts to understand God in human terms, but that is subject to human limitations in imagination. God is genderless—or non-binary.
God goes on to create humankind.
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃
And God created humankind in the divine image, create it in the image of God, creating them male and female.
Here gender is introduced as a construct. God created them male and female. Each of us look different and yet, each of us is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Each of us contain aspects of divinity. In this creation of זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה male and female, Genesis 1 sets up these binaries, these gender constructs. Yet God’s creation exists in spectrums.
The Human Rights Campaign points out” In between day and night we have dawn and dusk, between land and sea we gave coral reefs, estuaries and beaches, between flying birds and swimming fish we have penguins and high jumping dolphins not to mention the uncategorizable platypus. No one would argue that the penguin is an abomination for not fitting into the categories of Genesis 1, or that an estuary isn’t pleasing to God because its neither land nor sea. In the same way, God gives every human a self that is unique and may not always fit neatly into a box or binary.”
According to this view, God’s creation exists in spectrums.
Genesis 2 gives us another perspective on the creation story. In Genesis 2:18 God says,
וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃
“It is not good for the Human to be alone; I will make a fitting counterpart for him.”
This means that either Genesis 1 and 2 are different creation stories all together, or that the first being created in Genesis one was only one individual with male and female aspects and was later re-formed into two separate beings.
In a sixth century Midrash we read (Bereshit Rabbah 8:1)
And God said: Let us make Adam in our image, in our shape: R’ Yirmiyah ben Elazar said, when Hashem created Adam HaRishon, he was created as both genders; thus, is it written, “male and female did He create them.” R’ Shmuel bar Nachman said, when Hashem created Adam HaRishon, He created him with two faces, one on each side, and [when He made Eve,] He split him along the middle, forming two backs…
Was the first human being of Genesis 1 gender fluid or non-binary? It isn’t until Genesis 2 that gender constructs are named. This first person created—was male and female. This expresses the belief that people aren’t binary but rather live within a spectrum.
Understanding our fellow human beings is challenging enough, clearly, we aren’t able to understand or know God with any assurance. God is beyond our understanding. God transcends gender. So, what then can we learn from Bereshit and the creation story?
Bereshit tells us that God created human beings in God’s divine image. This means that no matter how we identify in terms of gender, sexuality, race or other man-made definitions, God made us worthy of love and respect. If God created us and made us in the likeness of God, then how can it be any other way? It shouldn’t matter what our pronouns are—we are all God’s children, all created by God, in God’s likeness. And even though we look different on the outside, in essence we learn, that on the inside—we each look like God.