Two Friends Debate God and Goodness

Doubt and Dialogue 

Whether or not you recognize the name Judith Plaskow, the fact that you’re reading this “frankly feminist” magazine named Lilith honors Plaskow’s pioneering efforts to formulate a Jewish feminist theology. It’s one that transforms traditional Judaism’s image of God as a dominant male figure who excludes women from central roles in the covenant community.

Plaskow wrote an essay on “The Coming of Lilith” in 1972 while still a graduate student in religious studies. In this daring midrash that became an instant classic, the exiled, much- maligned Lilith returns with Eve to the Garden of Eden, “bursting with possibilities, ready to rebuild it together.”

Now Plaskow has rejoined her longtime friend and colleague Carol P. Christ —with whom she co-edited the groundbreaking Womanspirit Rising (1979) and Weaving the Visions (1989) —in a book that returns to the excitement of second-wave feminism, when many women were bursting with possibilities, and into the 21st century rebuilding a “more just and harmonious world.”

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology (Fortress, $29) is a dialogue between two brilliant women who love and respect one another and who, through honest exchange, have helped each other articulate deep and often conflicting thoughts about some fundamental questions. Is God male, female, both, or neither? Is God to be envisioned as a “person” at all? Is God all-powerful? Good? To be found in the world or beyond it?

Most of us harbor implicit, poorly worked-out answers to these questions, and we rarely share them. As Christ and Plaskow explain, “Talking about divinity is surprisingly intimate….Revealing our deepest convictions can leave us feeling vulnerable and exposed.” For Christ, female imagery for a Goddess she envisions as personal and loving is essential. Her celebrated essay, “Why Women Need the Goddess” (1978), argues that “speaking of Her” can transform how we think about divinity, ourselves, and the world. Plaskow instead postulates an impersonal, non-gendered —or perhaps even transgender—deity that is the source of both good and evil.

Christ felt impelled to leave the Christianity of her childhood, developing a Goddess theology she articulated in several books. Plaskow has remained within Judaism, working to change it even as she affirms the centrality of Torah, communal worship, and the celebration of Jewish holidays, as she wrote in her now-classic Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (1990).

Both women, however, are united in their commitment to an embodied theology grounded in human experience and tackling the “harmful and destructive” consequences of imaging God as “an old white man who rules the world from outside.” Their new book is both profoundly personal and philosophically rigorous, revealing the sources of their ideas in their life stories. They never demand a single answer to their questions, modelling genuine conversation and inviting readers to develop their own ideas of divinity.

For example, Christ argues that the images of war and violence embedded in the Bible have harmed and continue to harm women (and others) throughout the world, and so she rejects any religion based on these inherited texts; Plaskow agrees that such images are “truly awful,” but believes that Judaism’s traditions of conversation, questioning, and ritual compensate for the problems. Thinking about her young granddaughter at the Sabbath table, she admits: “True, her father recites the blessing over wine using male God-language, but is that more important than sitting with her family around the table for a relaxed meal, dipping her finger in the wine, or feeling the texture of challah in her mouth?”

As a Jewish woman drawn to the Goddess, I find myself torn between their two viewpoints: on the one hand, I share Plaskow’s joy in Jewish ritual and community; on the other, I wonder about the value of clinging to what she calls the “orienting narratives” of the Torah: should we really be celebrating God’s killing of the first-born in Egypt every year? At what cost do we continue to define ourselves as a people whose history is bound up in warfare? She writes that “there is no us and them, no group that is only oppressed or only oppressor,” but the Torah certainly fosters a destructive “us” versus “them” mentality. I personally find that embracing a loving Goddess brings me a greater sense of harmony within myself and with the world, but, like Plaskow, I wonder if divinity can be encompassed by any symbol, if God really is what we think of as “good.”

“Theologies matter,” Plaskow and Christ tell us, “because they situate us in the world and orient us as we act in it.” Do we want to continually interpret and reinterpret ancient texts to suit our changing circumstances, or should we create new stories and symbols that foster the “flourishing of life on the planet we share”? As Goddess and God in the World demonstrates, how we answer these questions may matter less than that we honestly ask them. 

Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey, and a regular contributor to the blog Feminism and Religion.