Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective

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9780060666842: Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective

A feminist critique of Judaism as a patriarchal tradition and an exploration of the increasing involvement of women in naming and shaping Jewish tradition.

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About the Author:

Judith Plaskow is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. She is cofounder and coeditor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.

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Chapter One

Setting the Problem, Laying the Ground

The need for a feminist Judaism begins with hearing silence. It begins with noting the absence of women's history and experiences as shaping forces in the Jewish tradition. Half of Jews have been women, but men have been defined as normative Jews, while women's voices and experiences are largely invisible in the record of Jewish belief and experience that has come down to us. Women have lived Jewish history and carried its burdens, but women's perceptions and questions have not given form to scripture, shaped the direction of Jewish law, or found expression in liturgy. Confronting this silence raises disturbing questions and stirs the impulse toward far-reaching change. What in the tradition is ours? What can we claim that has not also wounded us? What would have been different had the great silence been filled?

Hearing silence is not easy. A silence so vast tends to fade into the natural order; it is easy to identify with reality. To ourselves, women are not Other. We take the Jewish tradition as it has been passed down to us, as ours to appropriate or ignore. Over time, we learn to insert ourselves into silences. I Speaking about Abraham, telling of the great events at Sinai, we do not look for ourselves in the narratives but assume our presence, peopling the gaps in the text with women's shadowy forms. It is far easier to read ourselves into male stories than to ask how the foundational stories within which we live have been distorted by our absence. Yet it is not possible to speak into silence, to recover our history or reclaim our power to name without first confronting the extent of exclusion of women's experience. Silence can become an invitation to experiment and explore-but only after we have examined its terrain and begun to face its implications.

This chapter has two purposes: to chart the domain of silence that lies at the root of Jewish feminism and to take up the methodological presuppositions that inform my thinking. While it is not my primary intention in this book to set out an indictment of Judaism as a patriarchal tradition, criticism is an ongoing and essential part of the Jewish feminist project. Not only is criticism a precondition for imagining a transformed Judaism; without a clear critique of Judaism that precedes and accompanies reconstruction, the process of reconstruction easily can be misconstrued as a form of apologetics. In exploring the territory of silence and describing my methodology, I mean to prevent this misunderstanding by clarifying the stance and intent that underlie my constructive thinking.

Exploring the Terrain of Silence

In her classic work The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir argues that men have established an absolute human type-the male --against which women are measured as Other. Otherness, she says, is a pervasive and generally fluid category of human thought; I perceive and am perceived as Other depending on a particular situation. In the case of males and females, however, Otherness is not reciprocal: men are always the definers, women the defined. While women's self-experience is an experience of selfhood, it is not women's experience that is enshrined in language or that has shaped our cultural forms. As women appear in male texts, they are not the subjects and molders of their own experiences but the objects of male purposes, designs, and desires. Women do not name reality, but rather are named as part of a reality that is male-constructed. Where women are Other, they can be present and silent simultaneously; for the language and thought-forms of culture do not express their meanings.

De Beauvoir's analysis provides a key to women's silence within Judaism, for, like women in many cultures, Jewish women have been projected as Other. Named by a male community that perceives itself as normative, women are part of the Jewish tradition without its sources and structures reflecting our experience. Women are Jews, but we do not define Jewishness. We live, work, and struggle, but our experiences are not recorded, and what is recorded formulates our experiences in male terms. The central Jewish categories of Torah, Israel, and God all are constructed from male perspectives. Torah is revelation as men perceived it, the story of Israel told from their standpoint, the law unfolded according to their needs. Israel is the male collectivity, the children of a Jacob who had a daughter, but whose sons became the twelve tribes .3 God is named in the male image, a father and warrior much like his male offspring, who confirms and sanctifies the silence of his daughters. Exploring these categories, we explore the parameters of women's silence.

In Torah, Jewish teaching, women are not absent, but they are cast in stories told by men. As characters in narrative, women may be vividly characterized, as objects of legislation, singled out for attention. But women's presence in Torah does not negate their silence, for women do not decide the questions with which Jewish sources deal. When the law treats of women, it is often because their "abnormality" demands it. If women are central to plot, the plots are not about them. Women's interests and intentions must be unearthed from texts with other purposes, for both law and narrative serve to obscure them.

The most striking examples of women's silence come from texts in which women are most central, for there the normative character of maleness is especially jarring. In the family narratives of Genesis, for example, women figure prominently. The matriarchs of Genesis are all strong women. As independent personalities, fiercely concerned for their children, they often seem to have an intuitive knowledge of God's plans for their sons. Indeed, it appears from the stories of Sarah and Rebekah that they understand God better than their husbands. God defends Sarah when she casts out Hagar, telling Abraham to obey his wife (Gen. 21:12).-1 Rebekah, knowing it is God's intent, helps deceive Isaac into accepting Jacob as his heir (Gen. 25:23; 27:5-17).

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