There has been an explosion of exploration by feminists seeking alternatives to theologies rooted in and reflecting the male experience. These 10 works, and most especially the two anthologies—Women of Spirit and Woman spirit Rising—provide a diversity of religious options while making obvious the differing agendas of the reformists and the revolutionaries.
The reformists, mostly Christian feminists, are examining their heritage, researching and reconstructing the past in an effort to remove layers of sexism in religion and to uncover what they regard as the essential core of their traditions. While rejecting any misogyny within their faith, they remain loyal to their religion, seeking change from within the system.
The revolutionary feminists reject such loyalty, considering all religious tradition irredeemably sexist, and turn to other sources in their search for spirituality. Some, seeing divinity within women, seek new symbols, new rituals based on women’s experiences, dreams, fantasies and literature. Others, seeking freedom from the past, are returning to ancient symbols of womanspirit such as witchcraft (The Spiral Dance) and Goddess worship. Some even suggest that a modern form of polytheism is necessary to reflect the diversity of imagery. Still others offer Jungian psychology as a replacement for religion, although Naomi Goldenberg warns in Changing of the Gods that this system supports stereotyped notions of masculine and feminine.
A common thread weaves through this diversity of material: Judaism is singled out by many feminists—reformists and revolutionaries, religious and anti-religious—as the source of society’s sexism.
In their desire to prove that Christianity is not innately sexist, some Christian feminists have all too often unintentionally but unquestioningly incorporated the anti-Semitic prejudices of Christian male theologians of the past. References abound in their works purporting to trace the sexism of Christianity to its Judaic heritage. Paul’s negative statements about women are attributed to his Jewish heritage, while Jesus is depicted as standing in opposition to Jewish society in his support of women.
Even Leonard Swidler, who acknowledges in Biblical Affirmations of Women that Jesus was “an observant, Torah-true Jew. . . standing very much in the Jewish, Pharisaic tradition of his day,” claims that Jesus was unique among his peers in his positive attitudes towards women. Not even Jesus’ expressions of concern for the widowed, long a part of Prophetic tradition, are attributed to his Jewish heritage.
The term “Judeo-Christian heritage” crops up again and again in these books, as if Judaism and Christianity were one. This simplistic usage ignores the fact that Jews and Christians do not share a unified common historical experience, nor do we interpret in the same way the Scripture that we do share. Judaism and Christianity are not monolithic in their treatment of women and also discriminate against women in different ways. The sexism in Christianity, therefore, cannot be attributed solely to its Jewish roots, as many of these authors do.
The old Christian charge of Deicide, that the Jews murdered God incarnate in the ultimate masculine body form of Jesus Christ—rejected in recent times by many denominations—is now being resurrected by some revolutionary feminists in different form: the accusation that the Hebrew people were responsible for the destruction of the ultimate feminine deity, the Goddess.
Merlin Stone, in When God Was A Woman, describes the Hebrews as ruthlessly supplanting Goddess worship with the monotheistic male Hebrew deity:
“Into the laws of the Levites was written the destruction of the worship of the Divine Ancestress, and with it the final destruction of the matrilineal system.” While acknowledging that the elimination of Goddess worship started long before the appearance of the Hebrew people and continued until the last Goddess temple was destroyed by ‘the Christians in the fifth century, C.E., Stone fails to note (as Raphael Patai does) that monotheism involved the destruction of all idolatry of both male and female deities.
This charge of Goddess-murder has been added to the feminist arsenal of accusations against the Hebrew people.
The most blatant distortion of Judaism occurs when feminists apply modern standards of morality to the beliefs and practices of ancient Israel. Abraham, the Patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the revered model figure who demands justice even from God, is depicted by some Christian feminists as despicable for behavior that recent archeological evidence indicates was probably customary for those times in that milieu.
No re-evaluation by feminists has had a more negative impact than that regarding the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. Referring to this event as the “Sacrifice of Isaac” reveals the bias of the focus. Stone acknowledges that testing by divine powers in connection with the revelation of moral truth was common to many cultures, but interprets the Akedah solely as a harsh test of blind obedience, missing the point. Carol Ochs, in Behind the Sex of God, mistakenly assumes that the Akedah has the same meaning in Judaism as in Christianity and also represents the ultimate patriarchal expression of religion:
“The meaning of the test is that Abraham must prove his allegiance under the new patriarchal system. . . An order to prove that Abraham is not rooted in the older [matriarchal] tradition, God demands that he renounce the most fundamental tenet of the matriarchal religion and kill his own child.”
She understands the rite of circumcision, a custom also common to surrounding cultures, as a substitute for child-sacrifice, but fails to note that this ritual, which seals the covenant relationship in Judaism, is consistent with the requirement that Abraham and his descendants obey God and refrain from child-sacrifice.
Neither Stone nor Ochs considers the significance of God’s dramatic intervention to prevent the sacrifice of Isaac. According to Jewish tradition, the crucial moral truth revealed is God’s opposition to human sacrifice. This contrasts with Christian theological focus which depicts Christ as the “Lamb of God” whose sacrifice is required.
The information Stone provides about Judaism is selectively judgmental. She describes as “shocking” Biblical laws regarding virginity before marriage but applies no such pejorative adjective to describe ancient sacred sexual rites associated with Goddess worship in pre-Biblical days—which included the ritual sacrifice of the annual male consort of the High Priestess. Stone further suggests that eventually other rituals, such as castration, were substituted for human sacrifice, indicating also that men may have made themselves eunuchs to serve as attendants to the High Priestess. She exhibits no revulsion or concern about these practices, which could surely be considered more abhorrent by modern standards than the requirement of pre-marital virginity by females.
Some feminists have fallen into ancient masculine anti-Semitic traps unworthy of their scholarship. Stone perceives the myth of Adam and Eve as an assault upon Goddess religion and thus, by inference, the basis of women’s debasement. And Ochs, in what is perhaps the ultimate expression’ of Christian feminist chauvinism, portrays Mary as a goddess figure— and as the antithesis of Eve:
“Through Eve all women are cursed and through Mary all women are blessed. . . . Mary through her gift of Jesus. . . . restores humankind to its sinless state.”
While the popular notion among many Christians attributes the subjugation of women to the Eve/apple story from Hebrew Scriptures, new research by Biblical scholars indicates that such an interpretation is unjustified and that the original meaning of the text is egalitarian.
Stone regards both Judaism and Christianity as anti-sexual, but attributes this solely to Hebrew culture and disregards entirely the impact of Hellenistic emphasis on body/mind dualism. However, Rosemary Ruether, the Christian feminist co-editor of Women of Spirit, correctly calls attention to the profound effect of this philosophy on the development of sexism in Christianity. Hellenistic philosophy equated the human body with carnal impulses, regarded it as evil, and associated with women; it placed these attributes on a lower level than the intellectual and spiritual realm, which was reserved for men by men. Ruether more carefully identifies Christianity as the heir of this philosophy, of neo-Platonism and “apocalyptic Judaism.”
She sees the ascetic movement in Catholicism as a liberating force for women, offering them options of freedom from unwelcome marriages and providing them with the opportunity to lead a holy life of greater independence, self-development and study. This was achieved at the price of their sexuality. Another pitfall many of these authors fall into is their tendency to interpret Hebrew Scriptures in the worst possible light and to contrast this interpretation with the most positive evaluation of the New Testament.
Even Elizabeth Fiorenza, Associate Professor of Theology at Notre Dame, who calls on the Church in her piece in WomanSpirit Rising to “abandon all forms of sexism” as it has “publicly repented of its anti-Semitic theology,” falls victim. She claims that the baptismal formula in Galatians 3:28, which states that for all who have accepted Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor freeman; there is neither male nor female” demonstrates Christianity’s egalitarian commitment, and she offers conclusive evidence of women’s participation in the early Church. Many scholars, however, see the verse in Galatians as a reference to the hope that social discrimination will cease in the next world.
Fiorenza compares that verse to what she describes as “accepted social discrimination
in the Judaism and Hellenism of the times.” She bases this conclusion on the similarity of prayers thanking God for being human, not beasts; Jews, not heathens; free, not slaves; men, not women.
Her comparison, however, is between different categories of writing. The New Testament, sacred to all Christians, is contrasted with one minor prayer designed not for synagogue use, but as an optional private prayer for the home. And, indeed, only one group of Jews —Orthodox males—include this prayer in their liturgy today (Reform Judaism rejected it and Conservative Judaism eliminated it), a fact apparently unknown to Stone who states, without qualification, that this prayer is still recited by Hebrew males every day.
While no amount of apologia can eliminate the underlying chauvinism of this traditional prayer, a better comparison could be made between Galatians and Jewish writings of an equally sacred nature. Genesis 1:27—a revolutionary statement of principle that men and women were created equal at the same time by God, in the image of God—would be a more valid comparison.
Stone and other feminist writers assert that the position of ancient Israelite women was worse than that of women in surrounding cultures. Swidler also indicates that this position was worse during the end of the Second Temple Period, with further restrictions imposed upon women partially as a result of the increasing persecution of Jews by pagans and Christians after the destruction of the Second Commonwealth. These evaluations pose a challenge to the assertion by Jewish authorities that the position of Jewish women was superior to that of other cultures.
The question of what is truth and what apologia will haunt us until more Jewish feminist scholars devote time and energy to the painstaking job of research. Historically denied access to education in Torah and Talmud, Jewish women have very few scholars equipped to challenge and remove centuries of sexist translation, interpretation, commentary and customs.
Jewish feminists are caught in a dilemma. Most of the research reviewed here has been conducted by Christian women who have a long history of involvement in scholarship within their faith groups. We owe our Christian counterparts a tremendous debt of gratitude for their pioneering work in developing feminist insights into Scripture which enhance our personhood as women. But there also is deep resentment that these same insights threaten our personhood as Jews.
This new feminist theology, which unfortunately incorporates old anti-Semitism, will be taught to generations of Christians to come unless there is open conversation between Jewish and Christian feminists, free of diatribe or polemic, to bridge the gap in understanding and foster a joint unbiased approach to Biblical interpretation in the future. Only when we can openly acknowledge that neither Judaism nor Christianity has lived up to its expressed ideals in the treatment of women will we be able to unite in our demand for justice in the name of God who demands justice for all.
Annette Daum is Co-ordinator, Department of Interreligious Affairs, Union of American Hebrew Congregations. She also staffs the Task Force on Equality of Women in Judaism.