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Lines of Communication

Dear LILITH:
As Jewish women with a deep commitment to Jewish-Christian dialogue, we read with interest your articles in Issue #7 by Judith Plaskow and Annette Daum. As Jews, we should be particularly aware of the insiduous nature of defamation of groups and individuals. Yet, the two articles and the interview that followed tended to lump together a group of diverse individuals i.e., Christians writing about women and Judaism, in a damaging way. The authors do make a distinction between “Christian feminist scholars doing exciting research” and “the conservative group who used this ‘Jesus is a feminist’ argument.” The latter group is then branded by LILITH’S interviewer as a “bunch of anti-Semites.” Since the “Jesus was a feminist” argument had been correctly identified earlier in the article with the name of Leonard Swidler, this discussion leads to an implicit, yet preposterous allegation. Dr. Swidler is the editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, the veteran of decades of pioneering work in Jewish-Christian relations, and (most recently) the moving force in changing anti-semitic aspects of the Oberammergau Passion Play. Clearly, he does not belong in the “bunch,” using any common understanding of the term “antisemite.” While at the beginning of the article Plaskow distinguished between lay popularization which is anti-semitic and “women scholars,” this distinction does not—alas!—help Leonard Swidler. In fact, it only perpetuates this unfortunate and confused treatment of the work of a scholar of impeccable motivation.

This example should alert us to the delicacy of the matter at hand. As Jewish women, we have often criticized Jewish traditions concerning sex roles. While Plaskow is no doubt correct that the rabbis must be compared to the Church Fathers and not to the itinerant preacher Jesus, the fact remains that the followers of Jesus formed a movement which involved a radical critique of the Judaism they knew. That critique is one which is difficult for us Jews to hear coming from Christians. We are naturally defensive. But a Reform Jew (Daum) and a woman who considers “the whole concept of halacha” as worth reexamining (Plaskow) should be open to the idea that not all negative statements about traditional Judaism are antisemitic in motivation.

Given the long history of Christian anti-Judaism, the authors are certainly correct in fearing that such negative statements, made by Christians to Christians, may prove antisemitic in effect. Yet, when we approach individual Christians, whether they be scholars or lay people, we must not make assumptions concerning their motivations. Annette Daum concludes the discussion by saying that “the first item on the agenda (between Jewish and Christian women) has got to be their antisemitism. They’ve got to confront that before we can talk.” We would amend that statement to read, “The first item on the agenda must be our mutual prejudice, misinformation and historic mistrust. We must both confront those before we can talk…..”
by NANCY FUCHS-KREIMER,
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Temple U. Religion Department
by ELLEN Z. CHARRY,
Temple U. Religion Department
by MARY SWEETLAND LAVER,
Temple U. Religion Department
by RABBI REBECCA T. ALPERT,
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Philadelphia, PA


Dear LILITH,

I was shocked and disturbed to read that Ms. Daum described my work as prejudicial to any group, rather than as an extremely broad scale examination of patriarchal attitudes as they developed among numerous cultural and religious groups over some eight thousand years, and as they eventually affected the status and roles of women in Western society today.

I find Ms. Daum’s accusations to be based upon the conscious omission of some extremely important and pertinent facts—leading us away from, rather than towards, a real examination and analysis of how and why religious, racial and ethnic prejudices continue to fester and spread.

One of Ms. Daum’s deepest concerns, and one which I do feel is valid, is her apprehension that along with a feminist examination of religion in ancient periods, and a resurgence of interest in Goddess reverence among feminists, there might be a feminist accusation that the Hebrew people were responsible for the destruction of Goddess reverence (a too painfully familiar echo of “Christ killer”). I have personally heard this from one woman, who based it upon The First Sex by E.G. Davis—and found myself explaining the much more complex realities. Here, we must first deal with the absurd view of chronology involved in “blaming” any group of people alive today for events that occurred thousands of years ago. But since we know that such irrational anachronisms have been accepted and used against Jewish people time and again in the past, it is time that we learned to examine the economic and political motivations behind why and when such irrational ideas are used, rather than expending vital energies on the irrational ideas themselves. To dispense with this particular irrational idea, let me explain the historical realities.

Despite Ms. Daum’s stated concern about this matter, she was surprisingly unconcerned about being sure that her readers knew of the extensive body of evidence in When God Was A Woman that clearly documents that the suppression and obliteration of ancient Goddess revernce was enacted by every major religion of today, as well as by many other groups in ancient periods. As I explained in great detail in When God Was A Woman, ancient Goddess reverence in the Near and Middle East was suppressed to various degrees, not only by the ancient Levites, but by the Hittites, Hurrians, Indo-Aryans, Indo-Iranians, Assyrians, Kassites, Achaeans and Dorians. I had, in fact, discovered so much evidence on the roles of these other patriarchal groups that had suppressed ancient Goddess reverence that, although Ms. Daum mentions that I had acknowledged the roles of other groups, a reader of her article who had not read my book would never surmise that this evidence of the roles of other ancient groups occupies about a fifth of the book. Nor would the reader of her article suspect that in the pages concerned with later periods, close to an entire chapter was devoted to describing the actions and statements of Christians in the final obliteration of Goddess reverence, and the subsequently damaging effects upon women resulting from New Testament passages about women.

Since my primary field of study and publication is that of the evidence of the existence of ancient Goddess reverence, its suppression over thousands of years, and the effects that this has had upon attitudes about women today, I feel that it is my task to present the vast body of documented evidence that I have gleaned in over fifteen years of research and study on this subject. I am sure that Ms. Daum would agree that to have consciously excluded information on the role of the ancient Levites in the suppression of Goddess reverence, a role repeatedly described by the writers of the Hebrew Scripture/Old Testament, would hve been a most misleading type of censorship. But as anyone who has read my work should know, without question, the ancient Levites were far from the first, last, or only group that suppressed Goddess revernce—though they do appear to be the group that left the largest and most detailed body of written records of those periods that are pertinent to the subject.

My focus in When God Was A Woman was on the development of patriarchal attitudes as they exist in the Christian Bible, i.e., the “Old” and “New” Testaments, for these are the scriptures that have most deeply affected the laws and customs of Western society. Aside from the chronological reality that the Hebrew Scripture/Old Testament obviously precedes the New Testament, we must also consider that any religious group that has embraced, and even expanded upon, tenets and attitudes that are oppressive to women, for a period of two thousand years, can hardly then turn around and “blame” the original writers. One may forgive an eight-year-old child of racist parents for making a racist comment, but if those comments continue at 21 or 30 years of age, surely the comments become the equal responsibility of the person making them.

While confronting and challenging statements and acts of bigotry and group persecution, wherever and however these ugly and destructive stereotypes are raised, we must be careful to distinguish between the occurrence of actual bigotry and the nature of studies of historical events and developments. Academic and critical examinations of the scriptures and tenets of the major religions, past and present, from a feminist perspective, are a quite different matter than prejudice projected upon a specific religious, racial or ethnic group. The patriarchal aspects of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, in the various forms that each has taken, are now being examined from a feminist perspective. No one is asking that the baby be thrown out with the bath water, but as women we cannot afford to close our eyes or hold our ears upon being offered the work of concerned and scholarly feminist researchers and writers. These studies aid in our comprehension of the origins and development of many sexist attitudes that we live with today, and are important for anyone concerned with understanding the role of religion in keeping women in a secondary status.
by MERLIN STONE, New York, NY


Dear LILITH,

I am not sure that any Christian feminists intended to be anti-Jewish, but rather were using the well worn method of finding the “true and original” Christianity by a process of re-pristinisation; otherwise known as, “finding your viewpoints in those of Jesus, and repudiating the rest of the latter tradition.” But it so happens that this very method of going back to Jesus also easily falls into the pattern of setting Jesus against his Jewish background in order to find his originality. One then fails to notice some interesting facts; namely, that the most “feminist” Christianity is found in its earliest and most Palestinian Jewish roots; the most sexist in its latest New Testament development when it becomes institutionalized in the Hellenistic world! This in itself might be the basis of a different sort of dialogue.

I might correct a few slight misstatements. I never said that asceticism was a “liberating choice” for women in the unequivocal way stated in the paper. Rather I describe it as ambivalent and janus-faced toward women, offering opposite possibilities of both negating women’s sexual difference and negating women’s sexuality at the same time. The result, in fact, makes Christianity more explicitly misogynist than Judaism could possibly be precisely because the male intelligenstia of Judaism must still ultimately get along with their wives, while the Christian celibate intelligenstia retain their status by repudiating any inter-personal relation with women that might lead to intimacy. Also witches are not just women, but men and women. One of the first groups to be persecuted as witches in the Middle Ages are the Knights Templar, who were exclusively male.

One important area of dialogue between Christian and Jewish feminists may very well be on a Biblical rather than an anti-Biblical basis of religious feminism, vis-a2-vis “goddess” feminists. Although I am not an exclusivist, either as a Christian or as one that sees the Biblical prophetic God as important for feminism, I think that some of the greatest misstatements and polemics are presently coming from the anti-Biblical feminist camp. This is surely an even more critical issue for Jewish feminism than for Christian, although both have to sort out what they want to affirm and what they don’t want to affirm in relation to the Goddess feminism. Also the Goddess feminism seldom is interested in being very accurate about ancient Goddess religions, and readily takes its cues from outdated romantic scholarship.
by ROSEMARY RUETHER, Evanston, IL


Dear LILITH,

1. Ms. Daum states that we “desire to prove that Christianity is not innately sexist. “There are a number of women in religion, such as Mary Daly, who would reject that statement entirely. Many others have also written articles showing how the Christian church has been, and still is, extremely patriarchal in its orientation. Some of them have left the church over this issue. Finally, those of us who would still call ourselves Christian seem to me to live on hope—hope that our faith can survive and grow after it has been stripped of the sexism which exists in its language, symbolism, theology, ethics, and practice.

2. Ms. Daum appears to believe that references to a single Judeo-Christian ethic means that Christians blame Jews for the sexism in their own religion. I believe this is a leap which cannot be substantiated. Neither am I aware of cases where “Hebrew Scripture is described as polemic, while New Testament is treated as Gospel truth.” What I have read are condemnations of patriarchalism in both the Old and New Testament, as well as the selection of women from both traditions which are held up as role models and examples of what can be found in the Scriptures when we remove our sexist glasses. The idea that women can be prophets, judges, and liturgists comes from the Old rather than the New Testament.

3. Ms. Daum says that “the most blatant distortion of Judaism occurs when feminists apply modern standards of morality to the beliefs and practices of ancient Israel.” Certainly this is what feminists are doing to all traditions in order to expose patriarchalism. The New Testament condones slavery but more than a century ago these passages were being attacked by Abolitionists. This is similar to the present feminist task. We all would agree with Ms. Daum’s call for a “joint, unbiased exegesis” of Biblical texts but that is only a first step. Then we have to study how various texts have been interpreted and used to promote sexist practices. For example, Paul’s admonition against women speaking in church may have been spoken to prevent scandalizing a patriarchal Hellenistic world but this passage is still being used to prevent women in the Roman Catholic Church from preaching at a mass today.

4. There are times when Ms. Daum misrepresents the statements of feminists. For example, she says”in the ultimate expression of Christian feminist chauvinism Ochs portrays Mary as the antithesis of Eve.” Actually this viewpoint is expressed in a short paragraph which begins as follows “one additional point may help clarify the role of Mary in the patriarchal framework of Christianity.” (page 81.) Ms. Ochs is not supporting this position but pointing out a theological opinion which has been held by a patriarchal church.

If this letter seems particularly blunt it is because I believe the problem of Christian antisemitism is a sad fact of our history which many of us are trying to combat and correct. The one thing I have learned, however, is that although Jews and Christians share many concerns and that much of the best of Christianity comes from Judaism, the two religions are not the same. We have different beliefs about the divinity of Jesus Christ and have a different historical and theological tradition. These differences and distinctions between the two faiths have often been the cause of discrimination but I strongly believe that it does not have to be the case. I am, therefore, always interested in Jewish-Christian dialogue as long as it does not attempt to trivialize the differences between our faiths. A joint conference on Biblical exegesis does sound like a good suggestion but, perhaps some day, a consultation on similar problems/ different solutions in feminist theology might ranking in effect. Plus, there is the requirement that men adhere to God’s commandments, be in order.
by JOAN CHAMBERLAIN ENGELSMAN, Madison, NJ


Dear LILITH:

I thought I would share my suggestions about two minor points where I think Daum’s argument could be strengthened. Neither affects her basic thesis—that Christian antisemitism continues in feminist theological writings, a point which I believe is indisputable.

One point is not even substantive to Daum’s thesis. It is that I personally have criticized anyone’s using Carol Christ’s “reformist-revolutionary” typology to describe differences in feminist theory. I have always noted that we should not use political terms simplistically to describe religious difference and I deeply believe that how one stands in relation to historical religious movements is based more on one’s theory of social change than upon any strictly “religious” factor. For example, I feel every bit as critical of Christianity as does May Daly, but unlike Daly I believe historical traditions change only as we change them, so I stay within the Christian community. I do not believe that makes me a “reformist” while Daly is “revolutionary,” especially since I am a much more radical person that she is politically. I hope you see my point. I think we would have a better dialogue if we did not label our religious differences this way because those political typologies are always so loaded.

My second point is a little more substantive with respect to the accuracy of the article. Let me stress again that I believe Daum characterizes the errors of the writers she mentions with precision. However, she lumps all of them under the rubric of “Christian feminists.” This could have been the result of making some of us feel that we have been mislabeled. I particularly question whether Ochs or Stone could possibly be so labeled. I have been told that neither of these feminist religious writers are now or have ever considered themselves Christians. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that, but both seem to me to be clearly in the “post-Christian feminist spirituality” camp. I do believe that it is accurate to say that they extend a certain caricature of Judaism that is rooted in Christianity’s misreading of Judaism and that Daum is right to notice that they do the usual Christian error of speaking of the Judeo-Christian tradition as if there were such a thing, but one of the weaknesses of both these writers is their lack of historical precision not only about Judaism but about Christianity. Misinterpretations of Judaism must be called into question. I think both Jewish and Christian feminists have to make common cause against historical over-simplifications in any feminist theology, because such sloppiness only makes our critical work harder. I know Daum agrees with that!
by BEVERLY HARRISON, New York, NY

ANNETTE DAUM REPLIES:
I have no quarrel with anyone’s right to examine any aspect of Judaism, whether that person is Jewish, Christian, Muslim or atheist. The problems outlined in my article are the result of a literal approach to Hebrew Scripture, assuming that the words, as translated, “clearly” state anything—without an accompanying knowledge of how Hebrew .Scripture has been interpreted and used in Jewish tradition and how that interpretation and use differs from Christian tradition.

Let me outline the dimensions of the problem. Hebrew Scripture is the “Constitution” of the Jewish people, just as the U.S. Constitution is the basis of American society. The U.S. Constitution means whatever the Supreme Court interprets it to mean at any given time. A perfect example would be the concept of “separate but equal” which was regarded as constitutional at one point in our history, but is now regarded as unconstitutional. Two opposite principles, based on the same language! To state that the words of either Constitution “clearly” state anything is an oversimplification that leads to misunderstanding.

Misunderstanding and misinterpretation of Hebrew Scripture has, in the past, led to persecution of the Jews, which has been reinforced by the way the New Testament has also been misused to malign Jews. The resulting prejudice laid the groundwork for marching the Jews to the gas chambers, in modern society. The same potential for abuse of these criticisms exists today, only now the misunderstanding and misinterpretation is fostered by those whom I call my friends.

In the final analysis, you see, there are no Indo-Europeans, no Hittites, no Assyrians around to persecute because of interpretations of their words and/or deeds. Past experience alone necessitates a careful approach to Hebrew Scripture and Jewish history.


Dear Editors:

Your survey has inspired me to write. I once was a subscriber to LILITH, but did not renew because the focus of the magazine was, in the end, too parochial for me. I am glad that some of my sisters are struggling to make the religious institutions of our culture more egalitarian for women, and that others are working to make the mainstream Jewish organizations less sexist. However, the overwhelming majority of Jewish women, and particularly Jewish feminists, work outside of the institutions of the Jewish community. We, too, need to read about the work of our sisters who are imbued with the ancient call to be a light to all nations. The women’s movement, like all other humanist and progressive movements in the last hundred and fifty years, has been heavily influenced by the work of Jews.

Even the struggles within the religion seem to me, however, to miss something that has always been precious to me as a Jew. And that is that even with the misogynist laws and separations, women have been very powerful within the Jewish culture. Perhaps because I was raised with the spirit of the law, and not the letter. I am freer to interpret the culture differently. Maybe some examples will make clear what I am trying to say.

My father told me many times of the morning prayer in which men thank God for not having made them women. Then one day, he told me that women said each morning their thanks to God for having made them what they are. I was immediately struck by a contrast. Men clearly felt so weak and powerless that they had to ward off this other. We, on the other hand, were comfortable with ourselves as human beings, and were pleased. Seems a lot healthier. So, when Sibyl Cohen bemoaned the different funeral prayers for women and men, I again had a nontraditional interpretation. For one thing, all women are dealt with equally, and are valued for their productivity, all productivity being equally valuable to the society. There is no hierarchy of intellect, money, fame, etc. Turn, then, to the prayers for men, and we see as though they cannot be decent without recourse to written rules. I know that the religious ruling class, which is male, has valued men and devalued women, but I am not so sure that the original writings did the same.

In my family, the first six grand-children were female. So, everyone agreed that it would be nice to have some grandsons as well. However, I, as the first grandchild had, and still have, all the status that a son would have had in the family, and the arrival of grandsons never took that away. I was given the responsibility of the four questions, as were all my female and male cousins after me. I and my other female cousins spent hours in the shul running from my grandmother to my grandfather, and back, and none spoke against it. This was in an Orthodox, store-front Shul in Brooklyn.

The male world that controls the media always claims, for example, that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most revered of the Jewish Holy Days, and point to the large number of Jews who attend services on those days. Well, I know few people who make a point of attending those services, but I know hardly any who do not make sure to attend or hold a seder for Pesach. Especially women. I think that for men, Judaism has always been the life of the shul, but for women, who have had the fewer rules controlling them, it has been life itself. And life has centered on the home and on sustenance, and so the rituals of the home have been the most important. As we have been locked out of the decision making in the shul, men have been locked outside of the running of the home. Both must now become integrated, not just one.

I was also interested in the articles about “Biblical” scholarship. What strikes me about the writing about the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy is that the writers, because they are not Jewish, completely misunderstand the implications of the discoveries that have been made. Because they are Christian, and not Jews, they know nothing of modern Judaism, or modern Jewish culture. They do not know the the Sheckinah exists, or that the Queen of Sabbath comes each week, or that there was a Matronit. They think that Judaism is what Christian theology has said it was, and so they believe the lie that Jewish women have been denied any place in the sun. I think it is a mistake, however, to label that anti-semitism; it is just poor scholarship. For example, I found it to be a flaw in the fascinating book by Elaine Pagels on the Gnostic Gospels. To me, it was obvious that the approach to knowledge was directly descended from Hillel, and that, in fact, the Talmud is essentially a result of gnostic process. The dialectical process that is so deeply ingrained in Jewish thought and decision-making, is predicated on the assumption that ail people have the ability to think. One of the big differences between Judaism and Catholicism, for example, is that the latter has a rigid hierarchy, and the word of the pope is infallible dogma, while the words of any rabbi are infinitely challengeable. Even our reactionary institutions, if I read the articles on the ordination of women correctly, arrive at policy through democratic process, not revelation.

And finally, because Judaism is more than a religion, while that is not true for most other religions, as Jewish women we may be freer to reinterpret the structures of our past than other women are. One thing that secular Jewish feminists may be able to contribute is how to remain Jews, from one generation to the next, without adhering to “religious” law. by PRISCILLA ALEXANDER, San Francisco, CA


Dear Editors,

I read Greta Weiner’s The Mourning Minyan” (LILITH #7) and found myself becoming more angry and embittered by the traditional male minyan which often excludes my Jewish sisters from “being counted.”

My experiences with the minyan were different than Ms. Weiner’s, yet filled me with similar anger and frustration. After my father’s death, my mother, sister, brother, and grandmother, went to our large Conservative synagogue for the “mourning minyan.” We expected to fulfill our obligations and recite Kaddish for the year, while mourning my beloved father’s death.

At first we were warmly greeted—people were a bit surprised that four women and one young man would be present each day (after all, it was only my brother’s obligation to our father’s memory)!

The first week I learned to lay my father’s tefillin, and continued to do so at each minyan. I did this as a way of physically bonding myself to my father (knowing that he used to wear this when he recited Kaddish for his mother and father). I also wore the tefillin as a visible reminder of my equal participation in the minyan (or so I thought!).

In the coming months I was never asked to have an aliyah, never asked to help lead the morning service—none of the women were. Yet I watched other males come to the bimah, new visitors, struggling to recite some of the blessings properly. Each time I asked the shammos to allow me the same honors, he pleaded with me, “Please Robin, this is the only part of the synagogue that has any tradition left in it—let’s keep it that way.”

I found myself growing more angry each passing day. This was the same synagogue where I had become a Bat Mitzvah, chanted from the Torah on various holidays, and had always felt equal, until now. My anger at the inequality of the minyan, and the mixed messages of my synagogue, led me to discontinue going to the minyan. I felt like an outsider in my own shul.

I admire Ms. Weiner’s courage and perseverance in continuing her obligation to her mother’s memory. I feel a great sadness that I did not continue mine.
by ROBIN SIEGEL, Los Angeles, CA


Dear Editors,

I, too, have been subjected to the indignity of having to “pray in a cage,” and I share Weiner’s concluding sentiments.

Be that as it may, I must ask one question: Now that the eleven months have passed and M’s. Weiner and her sister are no longer saying Kaddish, how often do they attend a daily minyan? And if they choose not to attend, how often do they daven at home? Jewish law does not forbid anyone, even a woman, from praising Divinity or evaluating his/her personal behavior (that’s what prayer is all about) alone as well as together with others.

In the zeal to achieve equality, some of our women seem rather confused about Judaism, Jewish Law, etc. In the very next article, for example, Sybil Cohen calls “Ayshet Hayil” the memorial prayer for a woman.” Not so. Few people actually trace the words back to their source (Proverbs 31:10-31)—a mother’s advice to her son about what kind of girl to look for! LILITH should not print such misinformation—not because women “have to study before they are worthy of equal status,” as has sometimes been said, but because ignorance is not to be tolerated in anyone.

by MRS. EDYA ARZT, Education Director Women’s League for Conservative Judaism New York, NY

SIBYL S. COHEN REPLIES:

Mrs. Arzt is correct when she points out that the phrase “Ayshet Hayil” frequently translated “woman of valor” appears originally in Proverbs 31 (as I indicated in my article). However, she is quite wrong when she denies its inclusion in the Hashkava (memorial prayer). I would direct her attention to Book of Prayer, edited by David De Sola Pool, published by the Union of Sephardic Congregations, New York 5720 (I960), pp. 206 and 207. Although liturgy varies considerably from synagogue to synagogue, this particular prayer has been around a long time and continues to be a significant part of the service.

Although this prayer may not be part of the liturgy of all synagogues, the concept of “Ayshet Hayil” is pervasive. It is considered by all Jews as an accolade of the highest order. I have tried to show it is essentially demeaning-praise given to second class citizens.


Dear LILITH:

Congratulations on your best issue yet (#7).

What a pity, though, that you blotted your copybook by a prominent reference to “her story” on the cover and at p. 23. Either you intended this as a “cute” pun—in which case you detracted from the seriousness of the topic—or you erroneously supposed that the “his” in “history” represents the masculine possessive pronoun. This, of course, is not so; “history” is simply the English rendering of Graeco-Latin historia (lit. “inquiry”), in which the “his” has absolutely no connotation of masculinity. If LILITH wants to be taken seriously, she must refrain from marring her scholarly image by such etymological solecisms. by JUDITH ROMNEY WEGNER, Visiting Scholar Harvard Law School Cambridge, MA


Dear LILITH:

I’ve enjoyed reading LILITH #6. I took it with me for a week in Death Valley, vacationing and writing, and it moved me tremendously. Here I sit, facing 10,000 foot mountains, under the warm sun, LILITH to my left and ravens winging above me to the right. For this I thank the maker of deserts. (Who? Why Mamele Nature, of course) and the makers of LILITH. by ALANA SHINDLER, San Francisco, CA