Jewish Feminist Theology: A Survey

From theologies that address the male-ness of God to ones that address the femininity of males.

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Transcendence is Male

Perhaps a greater challenge to mainstream Jewish theology is the work of feminists, including Judith Plaskow, who reject God's transcendence as a masculine construct that manifests a hierarchical world-view. This idea is based on a much-debated feminist assumption that hierarchical models of society are intrinsically male and foreign to feminine cultures.

On this basis, Plaskow challenges the assumption that God is an "Other," asserting that the core perception of God as a transcendent, distant, male Being is the root cause of women's suppression in Judaism. Believing Judaism to be fundamentally infused with patriarchy, Plaskow rejects the ability of traditional theology to reflect the values of feminism. Instead of focusing on things like ritual and law, Judaism needs to be remodeled from the foundation up. In Plaskow's mind, God is more spirit than personality, and until Judaism reconfigures itself around this "feminized" model, any changes in Judaism will be merely superficial.

However, some mainstream theologians such as Elliot Dorff (himself sympathetic to the message of feminism), disagree with the rejection of divine transcendence, pointing out that God can only be God if experienced as being beyond the human. In this understanding, God's superior position does not represent a male cultural construct; rather, it is a function of the nature of divinity. God's transcendence coexists with God's imminence.

Injecting Women Into Judaism

Instead of seeking out essentially "feminine" religious expressions, some feminists seek to add women's voices (both past and present) into Judaism and balance out the genders in ways that build upon tradition with innovation.

Rachel Adler exemplifies this approach. A scholar of Talmud and Jewish law, Adler uses Judaism's own tools in trying to bring equal status to women. Instead of emphasizing a past revelation at Sinai that spoke to ancient Israelites and early rabbinic Jews, Adler believes that Judaism should focus on using its ideals to build a future for the Jews of today. By working within the tradition, Adler feels that she is engaged in a continuing revelation of God's will, one that holds that men and women are of equal status.

For example, Adler--rejecting a perceived objectification of women inherent in traditional Jewish marriage (the language of acquisition, the inability of women to dissolve the marriage)--constructs an alternative model based on the commitment of business partners who both bring contributions in the creation of a new entity. Adler's ritual is also practical for homosexual couples.

Feminism For Men

More recently, feminist scholars have challenged the tendency to make generalizations about what it means to be male and female. Instead of identifying the "male" gender exclusively with men and the "female" gender exclusively with women, there has been a shift to understanding that both God and humans (being in the divine image) have aspects associated with both genders. This is so because gender (as opposed to "sex") is largely a cultural construct.

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