In the introduction to her new book, feminist theologian and activist Judith Plaskow writes that “Jewish feminism gave me an appreciation of communities of identity, not as completely safe spaces or as resting places but as laboratories in which to create models of feminist practice that can be applied in a variety of spheres.” The collection of Plaskow’s essays. The Coming of Lilith: Essays on Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics, 1972-2003 (Beacon Press, $19), presents the experiments and results of more than three decades in the lab.
From her role as a founder of the feminist spirituality group B’not Esh (Daughters of Fire), to the publication in 1990 of her germinal work of Jewish feminist theology. Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, to her current work on sexual ethics, Plaskow has been among the most prominent of Jewish feminist leaders and teachers. Reading her early essays alongside more recent pieces is a reminder of the great success of Jewish feminism as well as of the work that remains to be done.
When Plaskow began writing, there were no women rabbis, little interest was paid to women’s religious experiences, and no one had ever composed a feminist midrash. Now, in pieces written over the past few years, Plaskow calls our attention to the treatment of gay and lesbian Jews and the continuing need to question claims made in the name of tradition. These essays are as important now as her earlier work was in 1970’s, as gay marriage and gay rights continue to be at the forefront of debate in Jewish (and non-Jewish) circles. Her thoughtful introduction provides an overview of how her thinking developed in connection with events and experiences in her own life and explains how she came to move from one area to the next.
With training as a theologian and the experience of feminist consciousness-raising as her guides, she has focused not on Jewish law or Talmud but instead on questions of how we understand and speak about God, Israel and Torah. Her 1982 essay “The Right Question is Theological” remains a strong defense of this choice. In more recent writings, she offers nuanced views that often challenge the conventional wisdom among Jewish activists. For example, she criticizes congregations that eliminate the reading of Leviticus 18 (the chapter from the Torah in which homosexuality is strongly condemned as sinful) from the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy without careful discussion of what contemporary Jewish values regarding relationships and sexuality should be. One particularly strong argument appears in an essay for an anthology in which feminists from many religions wrote on the topic of “good” sex. “Authority, Resistance and Transformation: Jewish Feminist Reflections on Good Sex” argues that “it can be strategically useful to point to the contradictions or moments of self-criticism within normative texts, showing how opposing positions can be justified on the basis of the same sources. Yet it is not useful to argue about which position is finally more authentic. From the perspective of the texts, the question of authenticity has no meaning; the texts encompass genuine disagreements. The argument over texts is in reality an argument over competing social visions.” As this statement shows. Plaskow’s work consistently cuts to the heart of the matter. Her work is a provocative reminder that we should never cede authority over our own religious lives.
Claire Sufrin is a doctoral candidate in Modern Jewish Thought in the department of Religious Studies at Stanford University