Feminists and Faith

A discussion with Judith Plaskow and Annette Daum

LILITH: Let’s pick up on the article about Christian feminist anti-Semitism. Where, precisely, is it occurring? Among which elements in the church?

PLASKOW: First let me describe the two levels we’re dealing with. The level that I know is the level of women scholars in academia doing feminist research. There’s also a very strong level of lay church organization, where I think the scholarship filters down in a more popular way—that’s where I see the real problems lying. In other words, the women who are doing exciting feminist scholarship are not coming out with this anti-Semitic stuff. I think the level on which misinterpretation is taking place is the level of popular scholarship, the level that could be preached in the churches. The whole “Jesus is a feminist” thing is rooted in one article by Leonard Swidler [author of Women and Judaism and Biblical Affirmations of Women]. He has a theory that every religion was initially open and receptive to women and then fell away as it developed. He wrote a five-page popular article in Catholic World which has been quoted widely, from which other people, who also are not scholars, pick up his argument, parrot it; it’s carried on, then it’s picked up by the church task forces on changes in liturgy and on opening up the ministry to women. They use it to speak to women in their churches, to get them to become feminists because, after all, “Jesus was a feminist.”

LILITH: Do you think this is a way of “using” feminism to get them back to the church?

PLASKOW: No, I think it’s a way of using Jesus to bring people to feminism, and using the “Jesus was a feminist” argument to legitimize feminism in the eyes of other Christian women and men.

DAUM: And to bring about change in the church. In other words, the purpose has nothing to do with Judaism and is not anti-Semitic; the anti-Semitism comes in because they’ve all been brought up on church teachings which were anti-Semitic. I think it’s ironic that these women, the most vocal and activist in the church, may inadvertently be perpetuating anti-Semitism at the same time that their own denominations are trying to eradicate this bias. In the last 15 years, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches, among others, have in one way or another officially repudiated anti-Semitism as un-Christian. However, while the process of developing appropriate educational material and new translations has started, the old bias may still persist until the changeover is completed. Many of these women simply haven’t examined the old bias, so it just comes in without any thought.

PLASKOW: It also comes in their interpretation of Jesus himself, not just in how he treated women, but in his being opposed to Jewish authorities and the Jewish milieu in which he was raised. In other words, they’re taking the whole Law/Gospel dichotomy and giving it a new twist: Judaism was negative towards women/Jesus treated women as equals.

DAUM: In the same way that the old Christian interpretation that he was opposed to the Pharisees and the authorities, and everything that he did ostensibly was against the abuses he saw within Judaism. Basically, the thrust of the new scholarship is that Jesus was probably a Pharisee. You don’t compare what Jesus had to say to the Bible, you compare it to Rabbinic statements.

PLASKOW: No, no! You compare Rabbinic statements with the church fathers; you compare Jesus with the very meager—and this is the problem—contemporary Jewish literature.

LILITH: Let me see if I have this clear. When Judaism was being attacked by Christian popular scholars in the past, it was on a whole lot of things: the money-lenders in the Temple, the strict, rigid interpretation of the Torah which Jesus rejected. Now it’s sort of moved on to “Judaism is bad because of its treatment of women.”

PLASKOW: —because Jesus rejected the contemporary Jewish attitude towards women.

LILITH: So in a way Jesus is used as an organizing tool.

PLASKOW: Yes, exactly…. Part of the problem with Swidler is his assumption that Jesus as depicted in the Gospels is what Jesus was, which modern scholarship rejects.

LILITH: You think that Christian feminists accept this fundamentalist view?

DAUM: Yes, that’s exactly what’s happening. My assumption is that they’re simply unaware of the new scholarship, which clearly indicates that a lot of the so-called “facts” that are in the Gospels are simply not true.

PLASKOW: What the Gospels reflect is the teaching and the belief of the early church. But insofar as in fact Jesus did treat women as equals in the Gospels—and in fact there is nothing in the Gospels from Jesus supporting the subordination of women—then this must indicate something about the position of women in the early church, if not what Jesus thought. So I think what is valid here is how Jesus is depicted as having an egalitarian relationship with women.

DAUM: To a certain extent, yes, but the Apostles weren’t women. When it comes down to where the power is, it wasn’t with women!

PLASKOW: That’s right. There’s no radical break for this period.

DAUM: Precisely. The feminist movement within Christianity is trying to depict Jesus as a radical who was opposed to the Judaism of his times, who was opposed to the Roman authorities. But there’s nothing in the Gospels that indicates an opposition to the Roman authorities either! My feeling—and this is just a gut emotional reaction—is that Jesus may not have been treating women any differently from the way others did in the Jewish culture around him That, as modern scholarship indicates, what Jesus did and said were not so far removed from the Jewish milieu in which he grew up as a nice Jewish boy. If enough scholarship were applied, the same thing would probably show up in his treatment of women. We are beginning to uncover information that women were involved in the same kinds of ways in Judaism as Gospel accounts indicate they were involved with the Church in the time of Jesus.

PLASKOW: Actually, if we’re talking about movements within the Judaism of the period and their attitudes towards women, Jesus is evidence for Judaism’s positive attitude towards women! The whole “Jesus was a feminist” argument depends on an extremely negative depiction of the Jewish background, because the only way to depict him as a radical— that is, as overthrowing tradition—is to depict the tradition as negatively as possible. Because despite the evidence that he in no way reinforced patriarchy, there’s also no evidence that he did anything radical to overthrow it. So the only way you can make that argument is by depicting Judaism negatively.

LILITH: You say that the only way to show Jesus as a radical is to show that the Judaism of that period was horrible to women. But why is it necessary to show Jesus as a radical?

PLASKOW: To justify feminism within the church in the present time.

LILITH: Why couldn’t it just be said, “Okay, Jesus grew out of the spirit of his time. . . .”?

PLASKOW: Because we’re talking about a fairly conservative strand of Christian feminism. The people who are using this argument are Christian feminists who cannot bring themselves to say, “Look, basically all of religion is patriarchal and we need to start from ground zero and create the changes that we who are contemporary women see a need to be made.” This approach is coming from people who need to justify themselves in terms of tradition.

LILITH: They seem to be conservative, but they’re feminists?

PLASKOW: They need to show that feminism is Christian!

DAUM: You find the same thing in Judaism. You know the line: “Judaism has always given women an honored place….”

LILITH: Are the Christian feminists who use this pop scholarship aware of its anti-Semitic bias?

PLASKOW: People hear the anti-Semitism in the “Jesus was a feminist” argument, there’s no question about it. When I teach students— when students read “Jesus was a feminist”— they give back on exams that Judaism is terrible and Jews treated women as chattels and that along came Jesus and changed all that. However, the vast majority of the people who are using these arguments are not anti-Semities and are shocked and horrified when you bring it to their attention. I think that our obligation is to make Christian women aware of the fact that they’re not examining the Christian religion’s traditional anti-Judaism, using it once again without thinking—albeit for a very noble purpose. I also hope that in attacking the issue of Christian anti-Semitism on the feminist issue that we may be able to open Christian feminists to an awareness of Christian anti-Semitism as a wider issue, which is to our advantage as Jewish feminists.

DAUM: I have other concerns about this kind of thrust: it again devalues Judaism. And if anything were going to be said about the treatment of male and female, that there’s no recognition either of the concept within Judaism (Genesis 1:27) that male and female were created by God at the same time in the image of God. That’s a revolutionary principle. There’s no recognition of that when the starting point is Jesus, and everything before was “bad.” Another problem I have with this argument is that it is divisive of women who are feminists. Within each of our faith groups we are a minority, and many of the problems we face are common problems. Many of the solutions that we have developed, independently of one another, are common solutions. And we should be joining forces to make both Christianity and Judaism responsive to women and to women’s needs. And this will separate us and keep us from working together.

LILITH: Do you think that, politically, there is any utility in Christian and Jewish women working together?

PLASKOW: I’ll tell you why it’s to our advantage right now: because the Christian women are ten years ahead of us in the questions they’re asking. They’re raising the fundamental questions about sexism in the tradition which we have not begun to raise.

LILITH: Wait a minute! You said before that the “Jesus was a feminist” movement is based on the idea that Jesus overthrew the bad Jewish patriarchy. And now you say that Christian feminists are asking the fundamental questions—

PLASKOW: We’re talking about different women. Also, remember that within the Christian evangelical community there’s a real split. There’s the whole Christian right—anti-choice and anti-ERA; but there’s also a Christian evangelical left—which is saying that Jesus was basically a radical, that he came to overthrow the structures of the culture in which he lived, and a part of this was overthrowing the role of women—but they’re saying this within the context of a very conservative Christianity.

LILITH: What do you think are the crucial questions that Christian feminists, the ones who are at the cutting edge, are directing themselves to that Jewish feminists are not?

PLASKOW: Women in Judaism who are concerned with halacha (Jewish law) have raised questions about specific halachot (laws). We have not raised the question: “Is the whole concept of halacha opposed to feminism which seems to foster the individual growth, development and self-actualization of contemporary women in our own period? Why do we need to look back to some two thousand years of law, particularly law written by men, instead of consulting our modern experience and constructing a religious tradition out of our own particular needs?” One of the most important things Mary Daly [Beyond God the Father; Gyn/Ecology] ever said is that “women have had the power of naming stolen from us.” And that “we have to begin to speak our own words.” And to me that’s what feminism is about: women beginning to speak forth our own experience as women, and uniting as women to speak forth our own experience and to bring it out of each other. But then what does that do with another system of experience, namely halacha over there, speaking for .the male Jewish experience? Where do the two intersect? Do they intersect? That’s one question that we haven’t yet raised. Second, we haven’t really raised the question of God-language and God-imagery in a profound and thorough way.

DAUM: You really can’t be a feminist and relate to God as “He.” I’ve begun to do some research on concepts of God, and I certainly have come to the conclusion that, even within ancient Judaism, God had both masculine and feminine elements.

LILITH: Where are the feminine elements?

PLASKOW: Isaiah: “Like as a mother comforteth her children, so does God comfort you, O house of Israel. . . .” (Isaiah 66:13) Moses, turning to God in the wilderness when he’s angry at the people at one point, and saying, “Did I conceive this people? Did I bring them forth, that Thou should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a sucking child’?” A third question (which to me is the most interesting one) is addressed by Rosemary Ruether [Ed., Religion and Sexism; New Woman/New Earth; Faith and Fratricide]. She sees mind/body dualism as the fundamental problem within the Christian tradition that has led to its profound misogyny. Jewish feminists have not asked, is there a mind/body dualism within Judaism in the same sense, and what are the implications of this for the image of women? What does it mean that woman in Judaism is imaged as a temptress? Is this the same as the Christian image of temptress, is it functioning the same way, is it functioning differently? Do Jews also see women as “the body” and as completely identified with the material world? And if so, well, what role do we have then as Jews spiritually within the tradition? We have been taught that within Judaism there is no body/mind dichotomy. Yet the question of women’s sexuality has clearly been of tremendous concern within Jewish tradition and that question of sexualilty in Judaism is one that I’m particularly concerned with, especially in contrast with or compared to women’s role within Christianity. On some levels, a woman in Christianity certainly could pursue an intellectual career, devoting herself to the religion per se in ways that a Jewish woman could not [i.e., as a nun—Ed].

DAUM: There should be applause for the fact that a woman could more easily and more precisely pursue that kind of a role within Christianity than she could within Judaism. But there was a price to pay for it: she had to give up her sexuality. And what’s not seen or not discussed or not even revealed for people to be reading about is that within Judaism we have to give some applause for the fact that there was a recognition of woman and her sexual needs, and that those sexual needs had to be met—that was Jewish law, and there has to be applause for that, too.

PLASKOW: One of the reasons we need to talk to each other is precisely that what’s been valuable in each tradition is so different. And when you present to students what was going on in each tradition, how do you weigh them? Was it better to have the choice to become a nun but to have to give up your sexuality, or was it better to know that you had no chance of getting into the religious life but had status in the family?

LILITH: Is it better for a man to be considered not a whole person unless he was married—or to be considered not a whole person if he was married?

DAUM: All that has to be discussed, and I, frankly, feel that the best kind of exploration is for us to be doing this together.

LILITH: How is that possible if Christian feminists are ten years ahead of us?

PLASKOW: When we’re talking about the cutting edge of Christian theology, we’re talking about a handful of people who are asking the really exciting, important-and radical questions. And then others who are carrying it along. It wouldn’t take us that long to catch up if we could have half a dozen people emerging who had skills and courage—and other people who were willing to deal with the questions.

LILITH: Why are the Christian feminists ten years ahead of us in dealing with these issues?

PLASKOW: One answer is very simple. When I began Yale in ’68, I was one of three students there who did not have a B.D. degree as a prerequisite for entry. Traditionally, a seminary degree has been a prerequisite for getting a doctorate in religion, and women have just started being admitted to the Reform and Reconstructionist seminaries. And Protestant women have a slightly longer history.

LILITH: How dangerous is the phenomenon of Christian feminist anti-Semitism if it goes unchecked? How important is it in the light of all the other different kinds of anti-Semitism—the economy, the recession, the tradition of anti-Semitism generally?

PLASKOW: What’s important about it to me is that I hope that Christian feminists will be my allies as a Jew if there is a general outbreak of anti-Semitism in this country. And it frightens me that, instead, feminism may become an excuse for oppressing me as a Jew.

DAUM: Feminism may become another weapon to hang the Jews.

PLASKOW: Yes. I don’t think it’s more important than any other weapon. It’s just that I hope that feminists sensitive to their oppression as women will be sensitive to the oppression of Jews. One of the issues I raise in my article that feminists understand that women have been seen as the primary Other; all other forms of hatred are ultimately modeled on the basic alienation between men and women, and therefore, if men and women are reconciled, all other forms of hatred will melt away. But Christian feminist anti-Semitism is proving that that isn’t true. And that’s sad. Christian feminists are confronting this whole phenomenon of projecting evil onto the Other, in relation to the situation of women. They’re blaming the Jews; they’re projecting misogyny onto the Jews^ Instead of seeing women as the primary Other and saying, “Let’s end the whole phenomenon of projection; let us accept the evil as part of ourselves,” they’re making the Jews, who have always been the Other, the Other again.

LILITH: The reason for that may be confusion over where their prime identity is: as Christians, or as feminists?

DAUM: Now let me tell you what I’ve found in terms of women in whatever groups we find ourselves. And I find this replicated among women who are Jews and women who are Black and who belong to Black organizations. We women have taken on the identity of the ethnic group to which we belong. Jewish women have taken on the agenda of the Jewish community rather than the feminist movement, and Black women have done the same with the Black community. The male leadership of both groups have led women to be their own enemies, rather than to see ourselves as the oppressed Other in both groups.

PLASKOW: But it’s more complicated than that, because we cannot point to Jews and say, “They are the Other.” We are them. It’s not the same; it’s like there’s a double quality here that doesn’t exist when there’s a Christian projection of certain attributes onto Jews. We cannot let Jews be defined only as Jewish men!

DAUM: It’s the same kind of problem if we identify only as Jews, and not as women, and they identify only as Christians and not as women. That’s why they’re taking on all the coloration of Christian anti-Semitism. What I find so sad is that most women are not even seeing the duality. It is “I’m a Jew/I’m a Christian,” not “I am a woman who is Jewish and therefore I have problems that are different from Jewish men.”

PLASKOW: There is that dual identity that we can’t escape. I spent a year as a research associate in Women’s Studies at the Harvard Divinity School (I think there was one other Jewish woman there that semester), hired to raise women’s issues in the context of the Protestant Divinity School. I was working with Protestant and Catholic feminists who were wonderful women. And I survived the year because they’re wonderful women. That was 1973, the year of the Yom Kippur War. There was a lot of anti-Semitic feeling—and a lot of indifference, also—within the Divinity School, and for a week I went around feeling like I was literally ripped in half. And the fact is, although I identify as a woman, I am a Jew, and they are Christians; and they really didn’t give a shit whether Israel was destroyed or not, and I did.

DAUM: And it’s because they also absorbed the male hierarchy’s interpretation and reaction to Israel. Whereas what’s needed is the kind of discussion that could only take place if we do establish a relationship with each other.

PLASKOW: But I still think that, even if we identify first as women and establish a relationship with each other, that we still reach points when we will have come out of different experiences, different communities, and we will disagree—and that will be okay, because we’ll allow each other to be who we are.

LILITH: There’s another feminist argument: that women are a caste and everything else is irrelevant. That fact that we were born Jewish or Christian is totally irrelevant, because these are all patriarchies different in degree, not in kind. So what does it matter if a woman is Jewish or Christian or Moslem; we should get together and throw off everything. The past is not relevant to us.

DAUM: Then what are you left with?

LILITH: That may be the source of the fear: “That’s going too far.”

PLASKOW: It seems to me that everyone who asks the fundamental questions steps to that border at some point or another.

LILITH: Didn’t Mary Daly, who ended up rejecting the Church, walk over that border?

PLASKOW: Mary Daly walked over that border. Some people walk over, and some people stop, and some people walk back. But even to get to the border is very frightening. That is the challenge.

DAUM: I can only tell you where I am at the moment: I am a woman, but my heritage is also Jewish. I am a Jewish woman—or a woman who is Jewish, depending on where you want to put the emphasis. Some days it’s on being a woman who happens to be Jewish, and on other days it happens in terms of the Jew who is a woman. It depends on the day and the problem that I’m facing at that particular moment. I’m concerned for those people who have stepped over the border and refuse to recognize that that’s part of your identity.


DAUM: Because that’s a rejection of part of who you are. That doesn’t mean that you have to like it, but I think there has to be an acceptance. To me it’s like a Black woman saying, “I’m not Black any more.” She may not like it, but she is.

LILITH: But that’s not the same as a Protestant woman saying, “I’m not Protestant any more.” Although Sister Ann Patrick Ware has said that it is impossible for her to divest herself of her Catholicism, that is as much a part of her, in terms of her heritage or ethnicity, as we feel that Jewishness is with us.

PLASKOW: But once we step to that border and say, “Ah, yes, I am a Jew”—what does it mean?

LILITH: We have been talking for years about what is a Jew….

PLASKOW: But now we have to ask it as feminists. We haven’t asked it yet as feminists. We’ve asked it from every other perspective—

LILITH: One thing about Judaism that I find most appealing is that it’s a religion that celebrates life. Christianity seems to celebrate death. How are we supposed to have a dialogue as feminists, coming out of that?

PLASKOW: It’s true that generally, there may be more focus on death in Christianity than there is within Judaism. But there is diversity within Christianity, and there are many denominations that are moving toward— moved in the past, certainly in the Sixties— toward a more social activist kind of a thrust. It depends on whether you focus on the life of Jesus, or the Crucifixion, or the Resurrection. When you speak of Christianity and death, you’re thinking of the dead man hanging on the cross, but if you think of the Resurrection, or you think of Jesus the radical—

DAUM: Or you think of the Sermon on the Mount or the social gospel—

PLASKOW: It is a question of focus, and it’s also a question of different thrusts within different Christian denominations. Certainly the women who are in the feminist movement are not the ones who don’t care about what’s going on on earth! And they’re very worried about the dead man hanging from the cross; they talk about it a lot. After all, their God came down to earth incarnate in human male form. They have worse problems than we do. Some of them say, “Forget it, we can’t deal with it. We’ll have to leave tradition”; some of them say, “After all, this man was a male, but he had male-female characteristics, and he was a loving male, and he had many of the characteristics that we associate with women.” And some of them say that there’s a difference between the historical Jesus, who happened to be a man, and the teaching of the Church. They have as much diversity within the Church and are as free to argue with other.

LILITH: A point to remember, because I think that Jews generally don’t know about that.

DAUM: No, we don’t. And they don’t know about us.

LILITH: Can we be open with them and say, “Listen, there’s a big battle going on here….”

PLASKOW: Sure. Why not? They have many of the same things happening in their own tradition.

DAUM: That’s why discussion is so important. First, because of the cross-fertilization it enables. And second, it creates a climate in society that pushes us ahead that much faster. It creates a certain kind of psychological feeling within the people who are now in touch with a lot of other people who feel the same way that we do. We don’t feel so isolated, we don’t feel so alone, we don’t feel as if we are out of touch with reality.

LILITH: So we generally agree that contact between Jewish feminists and Christian feminists is very important. Considering the fact that most Jews know very little about what’s going on in the Christian world, isn’t it possible that they may confuse the group of Christian feminist scholars doing very exciting research “on the cutting edge” with the conservative group who use this “Jesus is a feminist” argument, which has some anti-Semitism floating around there on the horizon, and lump them all together? Wouldn’t that militate against any cross-fertilization process? Who wants to talk to a bunch of anti-Semites?

DAUM: That’s precisely my concern. And that’s why the first item on the agenda when we begin to talk to each other has got to be their anti-Semitism. They have to confront that before we can talk about anything else.