Depatriarchalizing Judaism

On the 30th anniversary of her groundbreaking book Standing Again at Sinai, feminist theologian Judith Plaskow discusses the choice to remain within a patriarchal religious framework.

Susan Reimer-Torn
September 10, 2020
Judith Plaskow. Photo: Martha Ackelsberg

Thirty years ago, Judith Plaskow’s breakthrough feminist manifesto, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism From a Feminist Perspective (1990), sent shockwaves through the Jewish world with its rallying cry: “We must render visible the presence, experience and deeds of women erased in our traditional sources.” Told that as a woman she could not be a rabbi, Plaskow earned a doctorate in theology at Yale. Together with her pioneering colleagues in the Christian world who were undergoing a similar theological transformation, she forged the study of Jewish feminist theology, which became her lifelong calling.

Her work posed questions that are still powerful today: How (and why) should a self-championing woman remain within a religious tradition that unapologetically privileges men? Why cultivate theology, or God-talk, when that language has long been male-dominant? What is left of our Jewish heritage when, and if, it is “depatriarchalized?” 

I still remember when it was radical for Plaskow to declare that women have always made up half of the Jewish people. Through her theological expertise, pivotal dialogues with other leading feminists, and central role in Jewish renewal, she dramatically reoriented communal concerns. She articulated the malaise we shared, and could visualize change. To mark the 30th anniversary of Standing Again at Sinai, I spoke to Plaskow about how far we’ve come in the struggle for gender equality within normative Judaism and the work that remains to be done. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Susan Reimer-Torn: So what is feminist theology?

Judith Plaskow: In the ’70s, my friend Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza defined feminist theology as a critical theology of liberation, and I love that definition still.  Feminist theology is a theology that is critical and transformative. It’s a theology that begins by exposing the profound patriarchy that’s there in the tradition and then tries to articulate a vision that fosters the flourishing of women and of all living things.

SRT: How did a Jewish girl from Long Island come to be a theologian?

JP: I have been fascinated by the idea of God, and the relationship between God and the evil in the world, since childhood. I think I was born a theologian because my interest in God certainly wasn’t encouraged by my family. In fact, it made me feel peculiar and different. 

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a rabbi, but there were no women rabbis at the time, so it didn’t seem like a possibility. Then when I was a sophomore in college, at the end of Ne’ila on Yom Kippur, it suddenly came to me that I could get a doctorate in religion. It was simultaneously a career decision and a spiritual decision.

SRT: When you enrolled at Yale for a doctorate in theology, did you think of yourself as a Jewish theologian?

JP: It took me a while to think of myself as a theologian. I certainly thought of myself as a Jew. My first year, I was the only Jew in my doctoral program! But I didn’t have the tools to say I was a Jewish theologian. My dissertation was on two major Protestant theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. When I started Yale, I went to talk to the one Jewish Studies professor there, and he told me there was no such thing as a Jewish theologian. So, I thought if I wrote a feminist critique of Franz Rosenzweig as opposed to a feminist critique of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, it would have much less impact on people’s beliefs and religious lives. 

For quite a few years, I found I was included on lists of Protestant feminist theologians. It felt absurd to me. When I was writing the last chapter of my dissertation, which included a section on the meaning of the life and work of Christ, I thought, how can I be writing this? I don’t believe any of this stuff.

SRT: How do you explain the unpopularity of God-talk within Judaism?

JP: I think there’s always been a stronger emphasis on mitzvot and on community, on doing the right thing. It’s not that there isn’t any theology in Judaism, but it’s done midrashically. Jews develop their ideas of God and God’s relationship to the world through narrative. The rabbis of the Talmud—unlike the Church Fathers—didn’t write treatises about who God is. 

SRT: I’ve heard you say that we need a new theological language. 

JP: Many people are still walking around with the Sunday school images that they learned in their childhoods. They are often not aware that there’s a whole range of ways to talk about God within Judaism. When we’re talking about the sacred—and we don’t need to use the word God to do so— we’re really talking about how we orient ourselves in the world, what our most fundamental values are, what kind of world we want to bring into being. I think we need a language of immanence—a language about a God who’s present in every aspect of our experience. The whole earth is full of God’s glory.

SRT: How has the historical exclusion of feminist voices in the discussion of theology diminished the discourse?

JP: It’s not just feminist voices—it’s women’s voices, period. Theology has been an overwhelmingly male discipline.

SRT: Would you say that feminist theology is now accepted? Or is it still marginal?

JP: Accepted by whom? 

SRT: If I enroll in Yale or Harvard’s Divinity School—

JP: You would certainly find courses in it, no question. Could you graduate without taking any of those courses? Probably. Is it integrated into all the other courses? Doubt it. The situation is really no different than feminist psychology or feminist sociology.

SRT: Have women’s actual lives been changed by feminist theology?

JP: When [longtime collaborator] Carol Christ and I published Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion in 1979, we heard from many people who said, “This changed my life.” Ordinary people who encountered Womanspirit Rising in a freshman religion class or a church group were just totally galvanized by it. It was a pioneering anthology of feminist spirituality.

SRT: Was Carol Christ always a post-Christian Goddess theologian? 

JP: No, when we began graduate school, she was Protestant. But in the early ’70s, she gave up on Christianity because she felt it was irredeemably patriarchal, and she became a Goddess feminist. This means that she believes in the Goddess as the animating force, the ultimate power in the universe. While most of us grow up thinking of God as male, she insists on the importance of imagining God(dess) as female. 

SRT: You two have had a long collaboration, along with significant disagreements. She would say God can be spoken about in personalized terms, and you don’t see it that way. You ascribe evil, as well as good, to God. She has a problem with that.

JP: Yes, and we discuss those disagreements in our book Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. But they are subordinate to our fundamental disagreement about staying or leaving. Do you stay within a patriarchal tradition or do you leave? She left and I stayed.

SRT: Why did you stay?

JP: I am a Jew. I should say I had a model of leaving in Starhawk, a well-known feminist Goddess theologian and practitioner of earth-based spirituality, who was writing feminist theology since the early 1970s. She is ethnically a Jew and quite knowledgeable Jewishly, but she’s a Goddess person. Her choice was always there as a possible path, but I wasn’t willing to split myself, to be a Jew ethnically and something else religiously. There were too many things about Judaism that I love.

SRT: Like what?

JP: The rhythm of the year, for example, and the permission to disagree and to argue and to raise questions, and the permission to fight with God. Job is my favorite book. I didn’t want to give all that up. I want to stay and change things. 

SRT: Could it be some people are more hardwired for rupture, for just staking out new territory?

JP: I’m not sure that Carol and Starhawk have created more rupture than I have. Have I not staked out new territory? I think in staying and saying, “I am a Jew whether you like it or not and this is what I mean by it,” that’s as much of a rupture as leaving.

SRT: But if you take the patriarchal language and context and worldview out of Judaism, what’s left? 

JP: In the early ’70s, Protestant Bible scholar Phyllis Trible wrote “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” a very important and influential article in which she reinterpreted Genesis 1–3 from a feminist perspective. The radical feminist theologian Mary Daly quipped that a depatriarchalized Bible would make a nice pamphlet.

I don’t think it would even be a pamphlet, because you cannot disentangle the patriarchal aspects of Jewish tradition from the liberating aspects. If you think of the prophets, their visions of a just and transformed world are articulated in the language of patriarchal marriage. You can’t separate out Hosea’s vision of a covenant of peace, justice, and harmony with all living things from his violent images of Israel as adulteress and whore. 

But where does one go? What isn’t mixed with patriarchy? You can go to Goddess religion, but a tremendous amount of historical Goddess religion is also profoundly patriarchal. Think of Greek mythology. A lot of female divinities are subordinate to male power and are even abused and raped. If you want to be rooted in any kind of historical tradition, you have to align yourself with the liberating voices within the tradition while acknowledging that the horrible stuff is there. I don’t see an alternative for myself. 

SRT: It’s the 30th anniversary of Standing Again at Sinai. What made you take that on? And what made that such a daunting task?

JP: In 1980, I taught a course on Jewish feminist theology at the first National Havurah Summer Institute, and that was my first opportunity to bring together my Judaism and my feminism. It was incredibly powerful and life-changing to look at feminist theological issues in a Jewish context for the first time. Right after that class, I wrote “The Right Question Is Theological,” in which I argued that the Jewish understanding of Torah, God, and the Jewish people “others” women in a profound way and that we need to completely change our understanding of these major Jewish concepts. 

I must confess that when I wrote that article, I hadn’t the faintest idea how to transform these categories. But I knew it needed to be done, and I also realized that I had to write the book that I could write as opposed to the book I would have written had I had a different education.

It was very important that I had Christian and post-Christian theological women friends who were doing exciting work within their own traditions. A very important book for me was Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her, in which she highlights the roles and spiritual practices of women during the formative period of Christianity. That book helped me realize that women were half of the Jewish people, always. So, what were women doing while men were doing the things recorded in our texts? That’s the question that we need to ask.

SRT: So what were women doing? 

JP: There’s now a whole new history responding to that question. To take one example, we know that according to the Talmud, only men can initiate divorce. But there are marriage contracts from the ancient world, from non-rabbinic communities, in which women took the power to divorce. In my work, I could use documents like this to point out the ways in which women have been living their religious lives all along, alongside men. 

What I realized is that my contribution was really in methodology, in the kind of questions I was raising. I wasn’t the one doing the primary historical research, but I could take that primary research and show its broader significance for how we understand Judaism in ways that people who did the research weren’t really interested in doing. 

SRT: But very often, women accepted the patriarchal structure. Doesn’t that matter?

JP: Whether they accepted patriarchy or not, they were finding a place for themselves within it. They still had religious lives that have been rendered invisible. I don’t mean to say it’s okay that they accepted the patriarchy. But they found ways to express themselves within the options available to them. 

SRT: I know that you’re concerned about intersectionality, the othering of groups who are not specifically cisgender women. 

JP: One of the central points of my work has always been expanding the circle of the Jewish conversation across generations. For almost all of Jewish history, the conversation has included only elite men. In Standing Again at Sinai, I was asking what Judaism would look like if we included women in the conversation.

Then for many years after, I focused on issues of gender and sexuality: first, gays and lesbians and bisexuals, and then transgender people. What would Judaism look like if we challenged the gender binary, which structures the tradition in so many ways? Now, I think that the deep challenge confronting the Jewish community is to expand the circle to include Jews of color.

SRT: You taught a class at our Upper West Side synagogue about the last Black Lives Matter platform, trying to work through its use of the words “apartheid” and “genocide” when referring to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with a Jewish group. 

JP: The Jewish community’s reaction to those words was the impetus for our studying the platform, but we definitely did not focus there. My partner Martha Ackelsberg and I felt like segments of the Jewish community had gone nuts about the two paragraphs on Israel/Palestine, but not many people had actually read the amazing 100-page document. We made a rule that we would not talk about that part of the platform until we read it in its larger context. The discussion of Israel is in the context of “invest-divest.” This plank calls for divestment from police, divestment from foreign wars, divestment from our military adventures, and instead investment in the infrastructure of communities that have been marginalized. It’s not as if Israel is singled out. Foreign aid to Israel is discussed in the context of an understanding of what the priorities of this country need to be.

SRT: Did the group come to a place of acceptance?

JP: A lot of people were fine with “apartheid.” Everybody had some pain around the language of genocide. But why did some groups within the Jewish community immediately publicly condemn the platform rather than trying to enter into dialogue? They reacted to an amazing vision of new national priorities as if it was all about us. That tells you where the mainstream Jewish community is in relation to Black lives. What does it mean to commit oneself to a more just society and to be able to have conversations about this? How do you create a coalition of justice-seeking people in which the concerns of everybody can be aired? Can we put the importance of solidarity in the conversation first?

SRT: I heard you say a few weeks ago to my study group that you are not attracted by the language of faith or hope. That’s radical for a theological thinker. Could you elaborate?

JP: I have trouble with the word “faith” because, to me, it implies an affirmation of something beyond knowledge and experience, and the felt presence of God in the world is very much part of my experience. But I cannot imagine saying that about hope. In my own cynical and pessimistic way, I am an extremely hopeful person. How else could I keep on doing the work I’ve been doing for 50 years?

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.