Last month I had the pleasure of teaching our Jews By Choice (JBC) class about Jewish theology.
Together we explored Jewish thinking about God from the biblical, medieval, modern and postmodern eras. One of the reasons I love to teach on this topic is because it allows me to reexamine various Jewish approaches to thinking about God and to reflect on and update my own thinking. As a woman rabbi who is proud to be the first woman rabbi in Cape Town as part of the Rabbinic Team of Temple Israel, which has been at the forefront of empowering women to take leadership roles in the Jewish community, I find that I am drawn anew to the thinking and writing of feminist theologian Judith Plaskow.
Judith Plaskow was the first Jewish feminist to identify herself as a theologian. A professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College, she is both deeply learned in classical and modern Christian theology and also deeply committed to her own Judaism. As such, Plaskow’s theology (thinking about God) was ground-braking and distinct, responding to the feminist theologies of other religions. In shaping this theology, rooted as much in academics as it is woman-centered, Plaskow has distinguished herself as one of the most significant theologians of the twentieth century.
Plaskow co-founded The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and has written among other things, the first ever book of Jewish feminist theology, published in 1991. In what is sometimes called her ‘masterwork’, entitled Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, Plaskow lays out a new, egalitarian approach to Jewish thinking.
In Standing Again at Sinai Plaskow calls attention to, and then moves past all the previously difficult areas of struggle within Jewish theology, like the way in which Jewish leadership is traditionally male-dominated and rooted in the patriarchal examples from Torah, or how we traditionally understand our sacred texts and retell the narrative of Jewish history from a male/patriarchal perspective, rooted in patriarchal privilege that has defined the community of Israel and how power is distributed within it.
Using the theological formulation God, Torah and Israel first taught by the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig, Plaskow considers these terms in new ways. In her chapter on Torah, Plaskow argues for the application of methods learned in other feminist studies to uncover the history and culture of Jewish women while also acknowledging that these same methodologies aren’t enough without also creating and sharing feminist midrash and liturgy to reshape and renew Jewish memory.
Plaskow’s theology is rooted in her sense that Jewish feminists needed to reclaim Torah as their own. “We must render visible the presence, experience, and deeds of women erased in traditional sources,” Plaskow writes. “We must tell the stories of women’s encounters with God and capture the texture of their religious experience. We must expand the notion of Torah to encompass not just the five books of Moses and traditional Jewish learning, but women’s words, teachings, and actions (as yet) unseen. To expand Torah, we must reconstruct Jewish history to include the history of women, and in doing so alter the shape of Jewish memory.”
Plaskow focuses much of her thinking on the words with which the Torah has been written — the language of male patriarchy that permits and even condones the marginalisation of women. I am particularly drawn to Plaskow’s discussion of the language and metaphors we traditionally use to describe God. Ultimately, Plaskow comes to the conclusion that in the post-modern world, many of these metaphors are in need of an update that reflects contemporary and egalitarian values.
Specifically, Plaskow explains how the male-oriented, authoritative names for God, such as ‘Ruler’, ‘King’ and ‘Father’, which promote a gender-based hierarchical structure are no longer appropriate in communities and societies where women play a major and (theoretically) equal role in society. Plaskow invites us to use terms for God that eliminate the sense of hierarchy and dominance and better reflect the egalitarian society in which we live, or hope to live. She suggests naming God as ‘Source of All’, ‘Fountain of Life’, ‘Companion’ and ‘Lover’, in addition to using the traditionally accepted name for the feminine aspect of the divine, Shechinah.
Since the terminology we apply to God often reflects our aspirations to become godly or like-god, Plaskow highlights the problem with the traditional language of dominance: If God is Ruler, we must rule others in order to reach our godly potential. However if God is ‘Lover’, we can reach our godly potential by loving others.
What an incredible difference this approach to relating to God and to others would make if applied by us all! By shifting the ways we think and talk about God, we not only reflect and exemplify egalitarian values, but we might even change the world.
Kein Yehi Ratzon.
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