26 September 2012

September 2012: Judith Plaskow Teleconference Notes

 WATER Teleconference with Judith Plaskow “God after Feminism” September 12, 2012

WATER is deeply grateful to Judith Plaskow for this teleconference. We wish her and her co-author Carol P. Christ well on the completion of what we are sure will be a “big book” in feminist studies in religion. We at WATER are privileged to have had this preview of an important work.

What follows are the introduction of Dr. Plaskow by Mary E. Hunt, a summary of Judith’s remarks, and notes from the discussion period that followed.

Introduction by Mary E. Hunt:

Dr. Judith Plaskow is Professor Emerita of Religious Studies at Manhattan College and also the Sally Priesand Visiting Professor of Jewish Women’s Studies at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. She is a Jewish feminist theologian who has been teaching, writing, and speaking about Jewish feminism and feminist studies in religion for over forty years. She is without question the leading voice of Jewish feminists in religion, a trusted and respected justice-seeker.

Judith was the co-founder and co-editor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. She retired from the editorship after serving for 10 years. Now, in her retirement, Judith is back on board as co-editor with Melanie DeBaufre-Johnson.

She was an early co-chair of the Women and Religion Group of the American Academy of Religion from 1972–1974. She was a co-founder of the Jewish feminist group B’not Esh (1981) of which she is a longtime member. She has served on the board of the American Academy of Religion and as its president in 1998. She models academic activism.

Dr. Plaskow is author or editor of several signal works in feminist theology including Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective and The Coming of Lilith: Essays on Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics 1972-2003 (2005). She and Carol P. Christ edited two early, now classic anthologies Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion (1979) and Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality (1989) which were hugely important in the development of the field.

Judith is currently at work on a book with Carol P. Christ, tentatively entitled Goddess and God After Feminism. If one were to sum up her work in two words one would say that she is collaborative and courageous. Almost all of her publications are jointly authored or edited; virtually all of her writing exhibits an intellectual and moral courage that others of us seek to emulate.

Summary of Judith’s opening remarks:

1. Judith is working with her friend and collaborator, Carol P. Christ, to make public their longtime conversations about God. The working title, Goddess and God After Feminism, is not meant to suggest that feminism is over but that feminism represents a watershed event that has shaped both women’s self understandings and their respective understandings of the divine. Think of life “Before Feminism” and “After Feminism.” The book begins with both women offering their spiritual autobiographies as starting points for a feminist approach to narrative theology.

2. Judith describes her life as a Jew in America, part of a community in which it is more embarrassing to talk about God in polite company than to talk about sex or money. To say that one believes in God is awkward. The rabbinate is a profession, not “a calling” like the Christian ministry. Thus, having been born a theologian, she felt different from an early age. She recalled early experiences of relating to God when she was celebrating the High Holy Days, of imagining that God might be a woman, something that was incompatible with her religious training. She read The Diary of Anne Frank as a young person and struggled with the Holocaust; then in college she looked at the work of Elie Wiesel (Night, Dawn, The Accident, etc.) and Camus’ The Plague, all of which led to reflections on the divine, covenant, and the like. As a graduate student at Yale University, Judith focused on the problem of evil in her doctoral comprehensive exams. When she finished her graduate education in religious studies, she thought of God as someone with whom one could be angry, since God either could not or would not prevent evil.

3. In 1968, Yale was a relentlessly patriarchal place with the atmosphere of a male club. As the only women in contemporary theology in their doctoral program Judith and Carol were under constant surveillance. Their femaleness was an underlying issue all the time.  They were harassed sexually before there was such a concept. In 1969, they became involved in the newly emerging Yale Women’s Alliance, an organization of graduate women at Yale. They were living “the personal is political” as well as Mary Daly’s sense of women’s “experience of nothingness.” Eventually they realized that the misogynist comments of every theologian they were studying were not verbal asides or individual opinions but views interwoven with their fundamental understandings of God and humanity.

4. In 1972, Judith was part of the exciting “Women Exploring Theology” conference at Grailville in Ohio. Sixty women convened to express pain and anger but also to initiate new modes of thinking and acting as religious women. Formative friendships emerged from the event as women felt the power of working together. Judith was in the “Bible and Theology” sub-group that focused on consciousness-raising as a religious experience. It was there that she wrote her famed “Coming of Lilith” myth. Initially without her knowledge, her experiences in the Yale Women’s Alliance, at Grailville, and in other feminist groups were ultimately to transform her understanding of God. To use Nelle Morton’s words, “something was bubbling up from under.”

Questions and Discussion:

1. The first questioner asks what young women are asking about God now compared with what Judith and Carol were asking at Yale?

Judith replied that she has taught mostly undergraduates so she is not sure about graduate students. However, she affirmed that many students are advised not to ask feminist questions until they have gotten tenure. In a shrinking job market asking feminist questions can have negative consequences.

2. One colleague used Judith’s work with undergraduates who loved to rewrite prayers
that connect with their lives yet are resistant to looking critically at God-language or religiosity that reflects male privilege. She asked why female God-language has not taken hold.

Judith answered that in part it seems to be because female language does not go far enough. But also, as Carol Christ has observed, using female language means that God has less power since ultimate power has been thought of as male.

3. Another woman suggested that many women do not understand their own sexism and language is a tool that expresses sexism and reinforces existing power structures.

Judith recommended Katha Pollitt piece in The Nation (This article appeared in the September 17, 2012 edition)—how can women support a political party that hates them (“Women Who Love Republicans Who Hate Them”). The power of women is not just the power to give life, as is often argued, but also the power of intellect/imagination.

4. A theologian asked Judith if she had been able to find in this “God after feminism” the numinous experience Judith described as a little girl in temple.

Judith talked about the radical changes in her own views. Whereas she used to hold God personally responsible for evil, she now understands God as creative energy that animates and sustains the universe. She experiences God’s presence in community and in nature.

5. One participant thanked Judith for reminding us how significant it is to complete one’s spiritual autobiography, how it can be a source of freeing women.

Judith observed what an interesting process it was and how it functioned as an exciting way into the book. She said she had intended to end the exercise at the point at which she completed her doctorate at Yale, but she found the process so compelling that she kept going to the present. The writing resulted in a clarity that she had not had before. On issues where she had previously not understood Judith, Carol, though she does not necessarily agree, can see some things more clearly now. This is not memoir so much as it is narrative theology.

6. A colleague observed that because there are still so many male professors in religious studies many females look to the authority of the “Doktorvatar.” As a seminary professor she wondered about the phrase “feminine divine” rather than female language for God.

Judith pointed out that such feminine language, instead of breaking through stereotypes, ends up reifying them (e.g. masculine God as king, warrior, and powerful; feminine God as loving and nurturing).

7. A rabbi mentioned that she often hears people ask, “Why can’t God be feminine?” and “Why can’t we use female language?” which would never have been the case decades ago.

Judith distinguished between “feminine” and “female” in that “female” has the full range of human characteristics while “feminine” tends toward stereotypes of protection, nurture etc.

8. A Buddhist colleague reported that she was not so tied up with language about God but that in meditation one often looks at a sitting male Buddha. How different it is, she observed, to sit with a sitting female Buddha.

Judith told of her recent experience of visiting churches in Cordoba, Spain where she saw the power of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In some Spanish churches Mary is bigger and more prominent than the crucifix.

9. Another question arose about the nature of narrative theology, how it relates to larger theological projects, and its limitations.

Judith described it as developing a coherent understanding of God through telling one’s own story that makes the understanding concrete. It includes experiences and textures of those experiences. An idea of God that may sound boring if it is baldly stated may make sense if it is enfleshed in the concrete circumstances in life. There is the freedom in Judaism to do this because practice is more important than belief. The limits of narrative theology are that it emerges from personal experience; it does not lay a foundation for community and communal practice.

Please join us on
Wednesday, October 10, 2012, at 1pm (EDT) to talk with Melissa Browning on the subject of "HIV/AIDS and Christian Marriage in East Africa," as she shares her recent work. Email the words "Browning Registration" to by October 9th, and you will receive dial-in information.