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Standing Again at Sinai

Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism From a Feminist Perspective

by Judith Plaskow

San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990 282 pp., $21.95 hardcover, $12.95 paperback

For the past twenty years, in living rooms, classrooms and meeting halls across the United States and Canada, Jewish women have been teaching one another that the tradition we hold so dear has included only half the story of our past, has given us incomplete direction for living in the present, and has embodied only fragments of a vision of the future. Such teaching has been based on a growing body of Jewish feminist writing.

Standing Again at Sinai reaffirms the centrality of theological inquiry to a revisioning of Judaism and offers both an analysis of and a proposal for a new, inclusive theology of Judaism, a theology that questions both the essence and the expression of Judaism.

Plaskow examines the three traditional categories of Torah, God and Israel, examining how each concept has been interpreted in a way that either ignores, invalidates or denies women’s experience. (In fact, given Plaskow’s thesis, I would have liked to see even more examples of women’s Torah, the history and literature that must become a part of the developing canon.) Plaskow opens up rich new areas for inquiry. She reviews the discussions of God-language that were the first step toward theological consciousness-raising for many, and proposes that we reconsider the power of using gendered language for God. Plaskow asserts that by using only gender-neutral terms like “Sovereign” or “Ruler” — instead of the clearly masculine “King” — we continue to picture God as a King. We need to use a “plurality of images’,’ including female ones. Two final chapters of the book posit a theology of repair (tikkun) that embraces and reflects the full range of Jewish experience, including sexual experience.

In the most innovative section of the book, Plaskow calls for a recognition of the erotic energy that fuels the best efforts of our lives, and for a celebration of the erotic as a path to both holiness and wholeness. She writes that, in Judaism, sexual energy has been traditionally feared and denied as a God-given gift. In her discussion of the term yetzer ha-ra (usually translated as the evil impulse and used in reference to the sexual urge), she exposes the narrowness of traditional Jewish conceptions of healthy sexual expression that are based solely on male sexual experience and an androcentric interpretation of women’s sexuality.

Plaskow suggests that a new theology of sexuality makes possible new visions of God as lover and companion, while simultaneously exposing the inherent prejudicial limitations of traditional notions of licit and illicit sexual behaviors. A new theology of sexuality recognizes the sanctity of all intense, essential relationships, both within and beyond the boundaries of heterosexual marriage. Plaskow writes, “when we touch that place in our lives where sexuality and spirituality come together, we touch our wholeness and the fullness of our power, and at the same time our connection with a power larger than ourselves!’

Sue Levi Elwell is a Los Angeles-area rabbi.