My Lord

For the last couple of decades, Jewish congregations of various non-Orthodox persuasions have been following a trend of making their ritual gender-neutral, at least in the vernacular version of their prayers. The most prominent example of this trend is the elimination of references to God as ‘the Lord,’ a designation that is seen as essentially masculine. In American congregations of the Conservative movement, such references are replaced by ‘Adonai.’ Moreover, ‘Adonai’ is repeated wherever the older versions include the pronoun ‘He’ or any inflected form of it.

Actually, the designation Adonai never occurs in the Hebrew Bible. In all the references that have been traditionally translated as ‘the Lord’ (going back to the Septuagint’s ό Κύριος), the Hebrew has the tetragrammaton יהוה (YHWH), interpreted as Yahweh, the name of the Hebrew God. It is the vowel marking applied to יְהֹוָה) יהוה) which indicates that the reading is to be Adonai (and which has also led to the misreading as Jehovah).

But in Hebrew Adonai means simply ‘my lord,’ or even more literally ‘my lords,’ except that the plural here is normal whenever the word Adon (‘lord’ or ‘master’) occurs in a form modified by a personal possessive suffix: ‘his master’ is literally ‘his masters’ (adonav אדוניו rather than adono אדונו), and so on.

The exception to this rule is the first person singular: in this case the form is Adoni (singular) rather than the plural Adonai. Actually Adoni is often used like a title (the equivalent of Mylord or Monsieur), even when plural speakers are quoted (as in Genesis 47:18, where some modern versions render it as ‘our lord’).

Since, however, the reading of יהוה as Adonai antedates the introduction of vowel marks by many centuries, it may well be that where the vowel-marked text has Adoni the original reading was Adonai (since the raw spelling is identical, אדוני), consistent with the other persons.

What, then, is the point of replacing ‘the Lord’ with ‘Adonai,’ which means essentially the same thing and is just as masculine? Is it the assumption that the exoticism of the Hebrew word somehow neuters it? This would seem to be contrary to the Conservative movement’s emphasis on the study of Hebrew. Since anyone with a smattering of Hebrew knows that Adonai means ‘my lord,’ the replacement doesn’t actually do anything in the cause of gender neutrality.

In fact, there is nothing inherently masculine in the word lord; it comes from loafward (Anglo-Saxon hlafweard), that is, ‘keeper of the loaf.’ True, it has traditionally been applied only to men, but so have many other designations of professions and offices that were open only to men, and some of these designations do in fact have – at least etymologically – a masculine flavor, for example doctor, which in Latin has the feminine form doctrix that in English would have become doctress (by analogy with actress). But in English (unlike French) the application of doctor to women has not presented a problem.

In the United Kingdom there a numerous official position that have Lord as a part of the title: Lord Chancellor, Lord Lieutenant, Lord Mayor, First Lord of the Admiralty and so on. Some of these positions have recently been occupied by women, but there has been no need to change the title to Lady Mayor and the like. The current Lord Lieutenant of Belfast is Lady Carswell, while Naomi Long is the Lord Mayor there. If the people of Ulster can handle a female Lord, then so, I am sure, can Conservative Jews in America.

יְהֹוָה
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