Plaskow’s feminist theology lacks one thing — Theology

Posted on October 26, 2011 by

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Welcome back to Steiner’s Two Cents — the section in which I probe the interaction between feminism and Judaism as it is filtered through traditional text.

Last week, I assessed Moshe Meiselman’s “Jewish Woman in Jewish Law,” which, in my opinion, neglects the deeper feminist criticisms of Judaism — namely, the impact of patriarchy on the evolution of the religion. Here, as promised, I examine Judith Plaskow’s “Standing Again at Sinai,” a revolutionary work of feminist theology and sociology of Judaism.

Standing Again At Sinai, 1991

Plaskow brings the full weight of feminism to bear on the structures of the faith. In her work, Plaskow demands that Judaism weather the full brunt of feminist critique, which encompasses larger issues than ritual involvement.

She writes, “We appear as equals, but we leave intact the history, structures, images, and texts that exclude and testify against us. When we act as though equal access were the whole feminist agenda, we do not touch on the roots of our marginality or the foundations of our subordination.”

Indeed, women’s perennial silence must be rectified by a transformation that undermines the very existence of monotheistic observance. Notions of divine transcendence and the supposed patriarchy it facilitates are crushed under the force of rationalism, and Jewish “chosenness” is summarily rejected as a male construction.

Plaskow further questions the efficacy of the Jewish legal process to facilitate the equality of women. A “hermeneutics of suspicion” elevates our skepticism of the Torah itself, taking for granted that “biblical texts and their interpretations are androcentric and serve patriarchal functions.” It’s not just talis envy.

Plaskow schmoozes with colleagues

However, in her dismissal of textual tradition as an asset to the Jewish feminist cause, Plaskow fails to recognize that secular theory alone cannot constitute our understanding of Judaism. As fellow feminist theologian Rachel Adler and others have avowed, sustainable reform must be buttressed by rabbinic methodology. Viable radical Judaism frankly seems a contradiction in terms.

Melissa Raphael, another feminist scholar, epitomizes this assertion in her piece “Standing at Demystified Sinai: Reading Jewish Feminist Theology Through the Critical Lens of Radical Orthodoxy.” The work probes the salient limitations of Plaskow’s project. As Raphael asserts, modernity has proved both the boon and the bane of Jewish religion, and the Jewish theologian should be reluctant to so-eagerly jump into the rationalist headwaters of the Haskalah.

“Jewish theology would do well to keep modernity at arm’s length. As is well known, modernity has both emancipated Jewry and destroyed it. Modernity’s rational demystification of the Jew has encouraged Jews themselves in the disenchantment of Judaism.”

I believe radical feminist theology has not cogently responded to these discontents. Plaskow’s reductionist assertions may demonstrate the difficulty feminism has in grappling with ancient religious yearnings. True, women have been tragically excluded from the development of Judaism, and we must “explore the terrain of silence.” Yet this does not excuse the anachronistic tendency to transplant contemporary discontents on those women who have historically been wedded to classical Jewish observance. Nor does it justify using those discontents to tear down the edifice of Jewish belief and praxis.

Despite my criticism, however, my objective should not be construed as an effort to delegitimize Plaskow. Rather, it is simply to argue that her contentions are unworkable as a system of sustainable Jewish identification. As I see it, demystified faith fails to impel people toward observance.

In voicing my critique, I am in fact humbled by the wise words of my academic advisor. “There doesn’t have to be a religion of Plaskow,” she informed me, “there just has to be one.” After all, it is Plaskow who sowed the seeds of Jewish feminist theological discourse that so compels me. For allowing me to participate in this conversation, I owe Plaskow my thanks.

Next time, our existential quest for a theology that encapsulates both feminist theory and traditional Jewish identity is sure to bear fruit as we examine Rachel Adler’s “Engendering Judaism.” Stay tuned for the next installment of Steiner’s Two Cents!

Posted in: Jewish Society