Judith Plaskow: The patriarchal aspects persist despite the increasing egalitarianism of many Jewish communities

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    Judith Plaskow is a Professor emerita of religious studies at Manhattan College and a Jewish feminist theologian. Co-founder and for many years co-editor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, she is the author or editor of several works in feminist theology, including Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist PerspectiveThe Coming of Lilith: Essays on Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics 1972-2003, and Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology (coauthored with Carol P. Christ).

    In the 1982 essay, The Right Question is Theological, you claimed that women’s otherness to men and then to God is theological and as such is woven into the fabric of Jewish life, rather than just being a sociological fact. Is the right question still theological when you reflect on it now?

    What I meant by the right question being theological is exactly what you say: that women’s otherness is not simply a by-product of the fact that Judaism began in a thoroughly patriarchal culture, but is foundational to the fabric of Jewish life. I still believe this every bit as strongly. Even as the culture of many Jewish communities has become more egalitarian, the patriarchal elements remain. The clearest example is the Torah itself. Insofar as the Torah is a central element of Jewish identity and self-understanding, we keep rehearsing its patriarchal aspects. We repeatedly recite, hear, read, study, and interpret a text that marginalizes and demeans women. Yet, it’s not as if we can get rid of that text. What to do about the fundamentally patriarchal nature of the Torah is a serious challenge that needs to be directly faced.

    A few years later, you also wrote about the difficulty you saw with the Jewish God language, stating that the initial experience of an empowered community found expression in images that established hierarchy within the Jewish community and that marginalized or excluded half of its members. To what extent was the choice to enter the field of Jewish theological thought determined by the fact that you are a woman?

    My choice to enter the field was related to my being a woman only in that, as an adolescent, I wanted to become a rabbi at a time when that was not possible. I decided to get a doctorate in religious studies instead. I had no sense of myself as a woman in the field until I was already in graduate school. My choice to be a theologian was based on my lifelong interest in theological questions. I thought about the existence and nature of God, the meaning of human existence, and the source of evil in the world from the time I was very young.

    How has the historical exclusion of women’s voices in theological discourse affected women’s religious experiences and the rethinking of Jewish theology?

     On some level, this is a counter-factual question that we will never be able to answer. But theology deals with foundational questions about the nature of God, the purpose of human existence, and our responsibilities to the larger world in which we are embedded. It’s difficult to believe that the exclusion of at least half the Jewish population from addressing these questions has not had a powerful impact on how we think about them. In 1960, a young Protestant theology student named Valerie Saiving published an article in which she argued that the exclusion of women’s experiences has skewed Protestant theology in important ways. That paper became the basis of my dissertation and it has strongly influenced me.

    At the same time, as there is more and more historical research on the roles of women in traditional Jewish communities, we can begin to see how women constructed religious lives for themselves within the boundaries of a patriarchal culture. Susan Sered’s book, Women as Ritual Experts, for example, shows how women who were illiterate ritualized literacy, finding meaning in a book culture that, on one level, was thoroughly closed to them. Books like hers – and there are more and more of them – provide concrete examples of how exclusion from the theological conversation and creative responses to that exclusion shaped women’s religious experiences.

    The history of Judaism and the interpretation of the past shaped the Jewish identity. You place a strong emphasis on the necessity of including women’s history and making their contributions and experiences visible in your works. If reading the Torah is not only history but also living memory and recreation of the past through the liturgy – how do you assess the probabilities of reconstructing that history and memory and its (possible) implications for community relations?

    This question very much relates to the first: What do we do with the patriarchal Torah we’re still not only carrying around with us but holding up as the word of God? First of all, it’s important to acknowledge that a huge amount has happened in terms of making women’s contributions visible since I wrote Standing Again At Sinai. Feminists have created many new rituals for everything from marking biological events in women’s lives to celebrating everyday occasions to approaching the holidays in new ways, etc., (See ritualwell.org.). In the US, all the non-Orthodox denominations have new prayer books that not only change the language for God in English but incorporate lots of additional readings, many by women. There are many new Torah commentaries, including the Reform Women’s Torah Commentary that is used by many congregations.

    That said, there is still much to be done. For one thing, it is important that those who give d’vrei Torah, at least now and then, confront some of the uglier parts of Torah and use them as starting points for talking about social transformation. E.g., there is so much violence against women in the Torah that mirrors the violence against women in the world. To take one example, how do we use the story of Lot offering his virgin daughters to the men of Sodom to begin a conversation about the routinization of violence in our texts and our world? And we also need to find ways to bring the voices of women and other marginalized Jews into worship in more substantive ways. One idea would be to replace the traditional Haftarah readings with texts connected to the parashah that offer a different lens on its themes.

    Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. I read that you were there, at the March on Washington, and heard King giving the speech. Those are very vivid years of the women’s movement, too.

    The Civil Rights Movement preceded the feminist movement by some years. Second-wave feminism in the US dates from the late 1960s. In fact, many second-wave feminists came out of the Civil Rights Movement but resented the fact that their expected role was to brew coffee. I certainly was not a feminist at the time of the March on Washington, but it was a very important experience in my young life of the power of people coming together across differences to successfully create social change. It saddens me that so many people growing up in the decades since have no experience of the enormous hopefulness of that era and the possibility and reality of ordinary people making change.

    In what way do you perceive the terms Jewish Feminism vs. Feminist Judaism in the context of your own identity?

    I’m not sure everyone would use these terms the same way. For me, Jewish feminism is an identity term: I am a Jewish feminist. Feminist Judaism refers to what some Jewish feminists hope to create by thoroughly transforming Jewish tradition. In Standing Again at Sinai, I as a Jewish feminist and part of a larger Jewish feminist movement was trying to imagine a feminist Judaism.

    You noted that there is no specific intratheological dialogue within Jewish feminism in your paper Jewish Theology in Feminist Perspective. What are your thoughts on interreligious and intercultural dialogue, how women can shape it, but also how the dialogue itself can contribute to their own self-understanding?

    My own experience and thinking have been thoroughly shaped by working in interreligious contexts. I do not find interreligious “dialogue” per se particularly compelling because it is often performative rather than substantive. However, working in a multifaith context on common issues can be enormously generative. Women are often struggling with similar problems across religious lines, and we can learn a great deal from each other about fruitful approaches to religious texts, what kinds of questions are most important to raise, and how the specifics of different traditions pose both unique challenges and unique opportunities for resistance. Within Judaism, it seems to be the case that Jewish feminists are no more drawn to theology than are Jews in general, so the opportunities for intratheological conversation are limited.

    What, for you, is the most interesting question that feminist theologians nowadays think about? 

    One of the gifts of the pandemic for me has been studying for the last three years with next-generation Jewish feminist theologian Mara Benjamin, who is working on a book on the challenge of climate change to modern Jewish thought. I’ve thought for a long time that the next step for Jewish feminists is to bring our feminist insights and commitments to the many other urgent justice issues in our world, and climate change certainly holds a place at the top of that list.


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