Author Archives: Judith Plaskow

Judith Plaskow

About Judith Plaskow

Judith Plaskow is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. She is the author of the landmark work Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, and has written and edited a number of other volumes on the topics of contemporary religious thought and feminist theology.

Remembering the Stranger

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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

One of the central ethical injunctions of the Torah is not to wrong or oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20). “…You know the feelings of the stranger,” says Exodus 23:9, “for you were strangers yourselves.” This repeated admonition represents a profound moral challenge that also lies at the heart of the Passover seder: we are called on to imagine and create a society in which we use our own past experiences of abuse as a compass for doing  justice rather than reproducing patterns of domination and subordination.

Interestingly, the wording of these verses in the Torah reflects a moment when the people of Israel have crossed over the line between slavery and freedom. You were strangers in the land of Egypt, but now you are a free people. Throughout the seder, we praise God for bringing us across this border—from slavery to freedom and bondage to redemption.



And yet we are never allowed to forget the experience of slavery at our roots. The text of the haggadah captures the doubleness of the Jewish situation—both redeemed and yet not free to leave slavery behind—in an especially complex and subtle way. As we begin to tell the story of the Exodus, we say, “This year we are slaves. Next year, may we all be free,” and as we close the seder, we say, “Next year in Jerusalem,” acknowledging that our redemption is not yet complete.

We could forget the past; indeed, maybe we would much prefer to bury the past, but we are forbidden to forget it lest we fail to implement its lessons. Unless we truly know ourselves as oppressed, the haggadah seems to say, we will not be able to regard ourselves as though we personally had gone forth from Egypt and therefore will not feel the necessity of opening our doors wide to all who are still oppressed and hungry today.

The great power and difficulty of the charge to remember that we were strangers even when we live in freedom becomes clear when we consider the countless ways in which individuals and nations fail in this obligation. The prophets’ railings against injustice make clear that even the near descendants of the ragtag group of slaves liberated from Egypt were no sooner firmly established in their own land than they began to oppress the weak and the powerless among them.

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Violence Against Women

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Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

This extraordinarily rich parashah filled with violence–not just the obvious and dramatic violence of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the incipient violence of the binding of Isaac, but also various, more ordinary, forms of violence against women. Half-buried in the vivid description of the people of Sodom gathering around Lot‘s house and demanding the strangers staying with him is Lot’s reply, “Look–I have two daughters who have never been intimate with a man; let me bring them out for you, and do to them as you please.
torah women's commentary
But do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof” (19:8). While a later midrash will see Lot’s offer as evidence that he was infected by the wickedness of Sodom and picture him as having been punished (Tanchuma Vayera 12), the biblical text offers no explicit judgment on his behavior. The violence of the people of Sodom merits the destruction of the city, but the willingness of Lot to see his daughters assaulted and raped is apparently unworthy of comment.

Abraham & Sarah

At the beginning of Genesis 20, we have another form of violence: the second of two stories (or two versions of the same story; see 12:10-20) in which Abraham seeks to pass off his wife Sarah as his sister in order to protect himself. In this passage, Abimelech, king of Gerar, seizes Sarah, but her potential rape is averted when God keeps Abimelech from touching her. The similar tale will be repeated once again in relation to Isaac and Rebekah (26:6-11).

The three-fold reiteration of the narrative suggests that it might serve as a paradigm of the situation of Jewish women. The first two male ancestors of the Jews, perceiving themselves as “other” and therefore endangered in foreign lands, use their wives as buffers between themselves and the larger culture. The women become the “others’ other,” the ones whose safety and well-being can be sacrificed in order to save the patriarchs’ skins.

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Tzaraat and Memory

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Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

The centrality of memory to Jewish self-understanding emerges with great vividness in parashat Ki Tetze, which repeatedly enjoins us to remember events in ways that affect ongoing behavior and practice: ”Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore … observe this commandment” (24:22, 18). “In cases of a skin affection be most careful to do exactly as the levitical priests instruct you…. urj women's commentaryRemember what your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt” (24:8-9). ”Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt … you shall blot out the memory of Amalek” (25:17, 19). Cleally, the major events of the Jewish past are not simply history but living, active memory that continues to shape Jewish identity in the present. Through telling the story of our past, we learn who we are and must become.

In insisting on the significance of memory for identity, the palashah shows that memory can serve a wide valiety of purposes and can be used to support modes of being that seem to conflict with each other. The memory of enslavement in Egypt is repeatedly yoked with injunctions insisting upon justice and compassion: “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn” (24:17). “When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” (24:19). Because Jews once knew hunger and experienced what it was like to dwell as strangers on the margins of society, we are commanded to create a society in which the marginal are cared for and the hungry are provided with food.

Memories of the deeds of the Ammonites and Moabites and the perfidy of Amalek become the foundation for opposite injunctions. those concerning exclusion and vengeance. Because the Ammonites and Moabites did not provide Israel with food in the wilderness, the descendants of these nations should be excluded from God’s congregation, even ro the tenth generation (23:3-4). Because Amalek cut down stragglers in the line of malch when Israel left Egypt hungry and tired, the memory of the Amalekites should be entirely obliterated (25:17-19).

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Women and Revelation

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Read from a feminist perspective, Yitro contains one of the most painful verses in the Torah. At the formative moment in Jewish history, when presumably the whole people of Israel stands in awe and trembling at the base of Mount Sinai waiting for God to descend upon the mountain and establish the covenant, Moses turns to the assembled community and says, “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman” (19:15). Moses wants to ensure that the people are ritually prepared to receive God’s presence, and an emission of semen renders both a man and his female partner temporarily unfit to approach the sacred (see Leviticus 15:16-18). But Moses does not say, “Men and women do not go near each other.” Instead, at this central juncture in the Jewish saga, he renders women invisible as part of the congregation about to enter into the covenant.The Torah: A Women's Commentary

These words are deeply troubling for at least two reasons. First, they are a paradigm of the treatment of women as “other,” both elsewhere in this portion and throughout the Torah. Again and again, the Torah seems to assume that the Israelite nation consists only of male heads of household. It records the experiences of men, but not the experiences of women. For example, the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (20:14), presupposes a community of male hearers.

Second, entry into the covenant at Sinai is not just a one-time event, but an experience to be reappropriated by every generation (Deuteronomy 29:13-14). Every time the portion is chanted, whether as part of the annual cycle of Torah readings or as a special reading for Shavuot, women are thrust aside once again, eavesdropping on a conversation among men, and between men and God. The text thus potentially evokes a continuing sense of exclusion and disorientation in women. The whole Jewish people supposedly stood at Sinai. Were we there? Were we not there? If we were there, what did we hear when the men heard “do not go near a woman”? If we were not there originally, can we be there now? Since we are certainly part of the community now, how could we not have been there at that founding moment?

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Reconciling Biblical Morality with Our Own

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Leviticus 18 is one of two passages in the Torah (the other being Leviticus 20) that consists of sexual regulations meant to distinguish Israel from the surrounding nations and make it a holy people. Although the prohibitions in our passage have had a profound impact on Western sexual morality, its assumptions are remote from-and in some cases even abhorrent to contemporary sensibilities.

Torah Women's CommentaryFirst of all, Leviticus evaluates sexual behaviors not in terms of the emotional and relational dimensions of sexual experience that are so central to judgments about sexual morality today, but in terms of the categories of purity and pollution. The purpose of antipollution laws is to impose structure on the chaos of experience by ensuring that social and symbolic boundaries are respected and that things conform to their proper class. Leviticus 18 forbids a series of discrete behaviors that supposedly cause defilement and thus disrupt the social/religious world, but it offers no positive understanding of holy sexuality.

Second, if we look at the social order that the Levitical anti-pollution laws protect, it seems to consist of extended patriarchal families in which the honor and authority of male heads of household is the primary social value. Verses 7 and 8 do not forbid the father to sexually violate his child bur rather forbid the son to violate the sexuality of his father by committing incestuous adultery with the father’s wife.

The verses instruct the less powerful party not to dishonor the powerful by treating the wife’s sexuality simply as her husband’s possession. Some of the incest prohibitions, such as the outlawing of marriage with two sisters (v, 18), work to the benefit of women, but it is not women’s concerns and interests that animate the text. The striking absence of the most prevalent incest violation, namely that between father and daughter, makes clear that it is not the purpose of Leviticus in this case to protect the weak and defenseless.

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Reshaping Jewish Memory

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According to Judith Plaskow, Jewish women live with a fundamental paradox. When they look to Jewish texts and traditions, they often find themselves absent and excluded, and yet they feel and experience themselves to be part of the covenantal community. Plaskow argues that Jewish history and, indeed, Torah itself, in all its manifestations, must be reconceived and reshaped to inject women’s viewpoints and visions into the Jewish communal consciousness. Reprinted with permission from
Standing Again At Sinai
.

Entry into the covenant at Sinai is the root experience of Judaism, the central event that established the Jewish people.jewish feminism

Given the importance of this event, there can be no verse in the Torah more disturbing to the feminist than Moses’ warning to his people in Exodus 19:15, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.” For here, at the very moment that the Jewish people stands at Sinai ready to receive the covenant‑-not now the covenant with individual patriarchs but with the people as a whole‑-at the very moment when Israel stands trembling waiting for God’s presence to descend upon the mountain, Moses addresses the community only as men.

The Profound Injustice of Torah Itself

The specific issue at stake is ritual impurity: An emission of semen renders both a man and his female partner temporarily unfit to approach the sacred (Leviticus 15:16‑18). But Moses does not say, “Men and women do not go near each other.”

At the central moment of Jewish history, women are invisible. Whether they too stood there trembling in fear and expectation, what they heard when the men heard these words of Moses, we do not know. It was not their experience that interested the chronicler or that informed and shaped the Torah.

Moses’ admonition can be seen as a paradigm of what I have called “the profound injustice of Torah itself.” In this passage, the Otherness of women finds its way into the very center of Jewish experience. And although the verse hardly can be blamed for women’s situation, it sets forth a pattern recapitulated again and again in Jewish sources.

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God: Some Feminist Questions

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Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma (17/325), January 9, 1987.

An extraordinary passage in Pesikta Rabbati (21.6) describes the many guises in which the one God has appeared to the children of Israel. God spoke to the Israelites on Mount Sinai not "face to face" (Deuteronomy 5:4) but "face after face." "To one he appeared standing, and to one seated; to one as a young man and to one as an old man." Showing them a plurality of aspects, each appropriate to some part of the divine message, God revealed a threatening face and a severe face, an angry face and a joyous face, a laughing face and a friendly face.

 

This midrash at once points the way out of the feminist dilemma of God-language and simultaneously illustrates its most trying aspect. It acknowledges the legitimacy, indeed the necessity, of plural ways of perceiving and speaking about the one God. It asserts that multiple images of God are not contradictions of monotheism but ways in which limited human beings apprehend and respond to the all-embracing divine reality. And yet, while the passage authorizes theological and liturgical inventiveness, the many faces of God it describes are only male ones. God is an old man or a young man, a man of war or a man of wisdom, but never a woman.

This unyielding maleness of the dominant Jewish image of God is not the end of the feminist critique of God-language, but it is its beginning. The absence of female metaphors for God witnesses to and perpetuates the devaluation of femaleness in the Jewish tradition. The God-language of a religious community is drawn from the qualities and roles the community most values, and exclusively male imagery exalts and upholds maleness as the human standard. It belies the biblical insight that God created human beings, male and female, in God’s image. It denigrates women’s lives and experiences as resources for knowing the sacred.

Transforming Meaning, Not Just Old Terms

As this language has become increasingly alienating to large numbers of women, those committed to shaping a living Jewish spirituality and theology have looked for ways to change it. They have sought a richer and wider range of images for speaking about and to the sacred. The Pesikta Rabbati passage seems to suggest that of those who saw God on Sinai "face after face," it was only the men who recorded and passed down their experiences. Feminists have taken on the task of recovering and forging a female language for God, female not simply in its metaphors but in its mode of religious apprehension and expression.

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