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Standing Again at Sinai.

THE MOVEMENT for women's equality in Judaism has presented an enormous challenge to the Jewish community over the past several decades. This struggle has resulted in changes in status for Jewish women never before contemplated in Jewish history. Women are now communal leaders. We teach Jewish Studies in graduate programs and seminaries. We have created and participated in life cycle ceremonies (baby namings and b'not mizvah) that never existed before. We take an active, public role in religious and communal life, and don religious garb when we play. We have challenged Orthodox hegemony in Israel through our insistence that we be able to pray publicly at the Western Wall. We have challenged unfair divorce laws and other legislation and practices that make a woman's status less than a man's. In all but Orthodox communities, our equality with men has been realized. Is there anything more that Jewish women could possibly want?

In Standing Again at Sinai Judith Plaskow suggests that there is, indeed, more that women want. Everything gained by Jewish women has been within a framework created by men and built around their needs. She describes the contradictions of women's pursuit of equal rights poignantly:

When a woman stands in the pulpit and reads from the Torah that daughters can be sold as slaves (Exodus 21:7-11) she participates in a profound contradiction between the message of her presence and the content of what she learns and teaches. (xiv)

The question that interests Plaskow is how might Judaism have been different if women had been given the opportunity to create Jewish law and custom, to envision Divinity, to tell the story of the Jewish people; in other words, to articulate what we want Judaism to be. Answering this question will not result in women having access to a male dominated Judaism, but in a transformation or Judaism that will change its meaning and content for men and women alike.

Plaskow's work weaves together elements of a feminist Judaism that she and others have been developing over the past decade. While she and her cohorts began their search asking questions about equality, the answers which they found led them to explore further. They have written midrash, reconceptualized Divinity, spun new rituals, rediscovered Jewish women of past eras. Standing Again at Sinai captures the essence of these developments with great clarity and insight. Plaskow brings together the work of scholars like Paula Hyman, Chava Weissier and Rachel Adler, and poets like Lynn Gottlieb and Marcia Falk, into a coherent whole. This book is the first attempt to envision a feminist Judaism.

If Standing Again at Sinai were only a retrospective of the past two decades of "the Jewish feminist search to go beyond egalitarianism, it would be a major contribution to our understanding of contemporary Jewish life. But the book is more than a synthesis of the work of Jewish feminists. Plaskow is presenting a systematic theology of feminist Judaism. Like other contemporary Jewish theologians, she examines and redefines the central categories of Jewish thought - God, &, Torah and Israel. Her use of this conceptual framework locates feminist Judaism at the center of Jewish theological debate today.

Plaskow begins her discussion with Torah, which she defines as the living memory of the Jewish people. Torah is identified as the Jewish past. Women have been a part of this past, but we have not played an active role in recording it. For women to reclaim Torah, we must redefine our past. Plaskow suggests three vehicles through which this search may take place - history, midrash and liturgy - and describes the prodigious accomplishments of Jewish feminists in pursuit of this goal.

This "Godwrestling" is key to the creation of a feminist Judaism. Access to Torah becomes an active process that requires both knowledge of what has gone before and an imaginative approach to reconstructing it. All Jewish life benefits from this kind of creativity and engagement with the Jewish past.

Plaskow sees a limited role for halakhah in her definition of Torah, and questions the role of law for a feminist recreation of Judaism. Ultimately, she quarrels less with a need for a legal structure, per se, than with the particular content and structure of halakhah as it has been constituted. A feminist approach would involve a shared communal process for the making of rules, rather than a code of law that can be altered, if at all, only by a few men. Yet Plaskow does not rule out the possibility of some day creating a Jewish feminist halakhah. For the current time, however, it is not her priority.

The separation of Torah and halakhah is a significant feature of Plaskow's definition of a feminist Judaism. To those for whom Torah and halakhah are synonymous, this will be a stumbling block to their appreciation of her analysis. To others, this distinction will be valued, pointing toward a redefinition of Torah that encompasses a more open and fluid understanding of the continuing process of revelation.

Plaskow sees Israel, which she defines as the Jewish community, as the connecting factor between God and Torah. The community is the locus of the Divine, the element that makes it possible for the memory of Torah to remain alive. The emphasis on community exists both in feminism and Judaism. In both worlds, collectivity is prized above individuality.

That does not mean that Jewish and feminist definitions of community are compatible. In fact, several factors make it difficult to reconcile Jewish and feminist concepts of community. Plaskow critiques the Jewish approach to community for its penchant for defining itself as over against an "other." Whether the other has been women, pagans or Christians, Jewish definitions of group identity have tended towards dualism and exclusivity. While defining dichotomies is not inherently bad, Judaism has tended to hierarchialize those differences. (Shabbat, for example, is better than the other six days; light is better than darkness). This problem is most boldly illustrated by the concept of chosenness (i.e., Israel is better than the other nations), although not all will agree with her definition of what "chosenness" means in the Jewish tradition. Plaskow would prefer Jewish peoplehood to be based on our distinctiveness, not in judgmentally comparing ourselves to others. Not since Mordecai Kaplan eliminated the Chosen People Doctrine from his reconstruction of Judaism has the case against chosenness been articulated this strongly or clearly.

Plaskow takes the argument further than Kaplan does, suggesting that the dualistic, exclusive, hierarchical approach taken by Jewish tradition is also at the root of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but does not examine whether Islamic theology takes a similar approach.

In the chapter on God, she claims that she is merely finding new images and metaphors for God, not attempting a full philosophical reconceptualization. Yet, her suggestions for re-imaging God certainly point in the direction of a new God concept.

Many arguments for female God imagery and pronouns have been made by other Jewish feminists, and Plaskow summarizes them poignantly and coherently. She raises questions about the kind of anger and distress that the use of female pronouns and new images has evoked. She charges those who refuse to countenance new images and pronouns with idolatry - worship of male images and pronouns instead of God. She presents the challenge succinctly: either accept that when feminists change images and pronouns they are talking about the same God of Israel in new ways, or presume the absolute maleness of God. Plaskow's argument should put to rest, once and for all, debates over the appropriateness of these creative endeavors.

But Plaskow is wrong when she asserts that new images do not make a new theology. The only way that we can speak of God's essential nature is through the images that we use to describe God. Therefore, feminist imagery does alter one's fundamental understanding of the Divine. When Plaskow refers to God as friend, lover and companion, and when she uses the images of fountain, wellspring, source and ground of being, she is emphasizing images which, while locatable in parts of Jewish tradition, have been largely undervalued in the way we think of God.

More important is Plaskow's assertion that it is alien to a feminist reconstruction of Judaism to image God primarily as a sovereign manipulating the world from outside it and above. Without these concepts, how can we refer to God as King, or even Ruler of the Universe? Plaskow is calling for a revolution in the way we approach our understanding of God. Intimacy is to replace sovereignty as a dominant metaphor. This will inevitably change our way of understanding ourselves as Jews and the way we exist in the world.

Plaskow is right in her assessment that Jewish feminist theology must deal with the problem of evil. She alludes only briefly to questions of pain, death and suffering. Questions of theodicy need a fuller treatment. It would be of great interest to see how such issues are to be dealt with from a feminist perspective, and I hope that Plaskow or other Jewish feminists pursue these questions in future works.

As she points out, God, Torah and Israel are mutually reinforcing concepts. In her theology, she replaces a God who works outside of the world, imaged predominantly as male, who has revealed his Torah exclusively to his chosen people, with a non-hierarchical community that perceives a foundation/friend/mystery that, together, constantly reveal and evoke Torah, living memory. Plaskow follows in the tradition of Jewish theologians like Martin Buber and Mordecai Kaplan, who did not accept the mainstream understanding of the central concepts of Judaism. Her theology makes it possible for anyone who harbors doubts about the traditional system of Jewish beliefs to find a home in Judaism.

This past generation has, for the most part, ignored belief, preferring to express its connection to Judaism through communal affiliation and commitment to practice. Plaskow reminds us that belief is an important component of Jewish life and cannot be ignored. Her work challenges all Jews, regardless of affiliation or feminist convictions, to take theological questions seriously. Any course in contemporary Jewish theology that is taught in synagogues, seminaries or universities needs to include a thorough and serious consideration of Jewish feminist theology, and should include Standing Again at Sinai for a powerful statement of its views.

REBECCA T. ALPERT is a rabbi and former Dean of Students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She currently runs a program at Temple University for adults returning to school.
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Author:Alpert, Rebecca T.
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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