Abrahamic Feminisms

Since feminism's second wave, feminist scholars and activists in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, have been developing strategies for scrutinizing the status of women in our traditions and pressing for women's equality.
02/03/2016 05:29 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2017

I've just begun to teach a new graduate seminar called "Abrahamic Feminisms" at the University of Virginia this semester. It focuses upon the efforts of Christian, Jewish and Muslim feminists who have investigated the status of women and pressed for equality in all areas of religion. Since feminism's second wave, feminist scholars and activists in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, have been developing strategies for scrutinizing the status of women in our traditions and pressing for women's equality. Reading each other's work, studying together and meeting has inspired and pushed us; it has suggested what could be possible. The intersections have often happened by chance. With much work remaining to be done, my intention is to investigate how we have influenced each other and to discern how we can purposefully move both the scholarship and activism to the next stages.

My belief in the power of these intersections comes from a personal experience that truly changed the course of my life. I became empowered as a Jewish feminist because of the goading of colleague, Marilyn Thie, a professor of religion at Colgate University religion and philosophy and a nun who was teaching a course on "Women and Religion." This being 1980, her course was among the early efforts to bring the subject of women and religion into the university. It was before there were developed syllabi for the study of women in/and religion and before there were formal methodologies for feminist religious scholarship. Scholars were just beginning to ask such rudimentary questions as: "Is women in religion a bona fide academic field of inquiry or a political platform? "If we looked for 'women worthies' in religion, would we find them?" And, "If women had been written out of religious history, short of total invention, could they be rewritten back in?" It was the beginning of wondering if God language and God imagery could ever be coined in a woman's image, and if using that language in prayer would ever feel natural. As for studying patriarchal sacred texts, the terms -- a hermeneutics of remembrance and a hermeneutics of suspicion were not yet in our lexicons.

I was teaching writing and comparative literature at the time. Out of persona interest, had read Christ and Plaskow's "Womenspirit Rising: A Feminist Anthology in Religion" and in Judaism, I had read Blu Greenberg, Susanna Heschel, Paula Hyman & Charlotte Baum, and Koltun, which is to say, I was versed in the entire corpus of about five books that constituted the texts on women in Judaism. Knowing five books outside ones professional field, even knowing them exceedingly well, hardly made me feel well-versed. So when Thie asked me to lecture to her class on "Women and Judaism," I hemmed and hawed, saying I knew nothing about the subject aside from these five books and my own life as a Jewish woman. Of course, feminist theorists have since taught us to valorize subjective, lived, embodied knowledge as a form of knowing and to question the truth claims of scholarly objectivity. And since then, we now have a huge body of scholarship on women and gender studies in Judaism. But at that long ago time, it wasn't clear to me that living a Jewish woman's life and reflected endlessly upon it counted as expertise.

Thie managed to persuade me I was not an impostor. I reread the five books. I do not recall precisely what she said when I hesitated. Most likely, she told me to be myself and to speak about my own lived experience as a Jewish woman. I could not believe I was hearing correctly: that lived, embodied experience counted as an authoritative way of knowing something. But she persuaded me, and in doing so, she obliged me to claim my authority and expertise as a Jewish woman, and to find my voice, first, literally speaking in her class after and then more figuratively, as I began to write articles and then a book (Words on Fire) on women and the study of sacred texts in Judaism. From there, it was a much smaller step to my being coaxed by others--Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut, and Naamah Kelman, at the beginning, to becoming a Jewish feminist activist, and to fighting for Jewish women's religious equality, particularly the battle that has now gone on for too, too long over the right of Jewish women to pray fully as Jews at the Western Wall.

Thie had an additional obstacle to surmount in persuading me to lecture to her class. In those days, I and most anyone else would have defined expertise in Judaism by a single standard: mastery of sacred Jewish written texts: Bible, of course, but more precisely, Rabbinic literature, and more precisely still, Talmud. Not only was Talmud described as a vast sea in which anybody, female or male, was likely to drown; sophisticated study of Talmud was available, by and large, only to men. (This situation of limited access to sacred texts for Jewish women was improved in the 80's, when women in the Conservative Jewish movement were permitted to enter the rabbinate, and in the 90's, when a variety of maverick institutions sprang up for Orthodox women to learn sacred texts, a phenomenon I chronicled in my book, Words on Fire.)

I would not wish to minimize the centrality of sacred text study in Jewish tradition, or to give the impression that without expertise in sacred texts it would be possible for a contemporary Jewish woman to have the power and authority in her Jewish community or in the academic community of Jewish studies. She would not be seen as an authority or function as an agent of change. One must surely celebrate the remarkable accomplishment of Jewish women who have gained not only access to sacred texts but have created vibrant, funded institutions in which the next generation of Jewish women scholars are taught.

My Christian colleague, in recognizing other ways in which religion is lived by treating me as an expert, ignited a spark which fired all of my subsequent current work. She paved the way to seeing that male, text-based expressions of religion were but one voice, but one part of the story. Another voice of religious experience, the voice of practice, existed as well. Arthur Green once described this as the "living form that has been passed down from one generation to another as an expression of love...God is there in the love with which these forms are passed down.." (Stalking Elijah, R. Kamenetz p.270) Rituals and practices, for Green, are highly cultivated modes of knowing God and through which God is known. That is to say that sacred study, limud Torah, is not the only valued, legitimate, authentic way of being Jewish and of participating in the enterprise of transmitting Jewishness. Since text study had been so limited to the men's camp, and so restricted (by practice, more so than by law) from the women's camp, it had seemed to me that the Jewish women's world, no matter how emotionally or sensually engaging it might have been, was sentenced to be forever an auxiliary to the real thing. (I should note anecdotally, that for a long time, those men who were Jewish scholars in academia and who were not Talmudists, but rather historians, philosophers, theologians, were treated as ignoramuses by those holding that Talmud is the only authentic measure of Jewish intelligence.)

Anxious, I began my presentation in Professor Thie's class enumerating the problems Jewish feminists were experiencing. It was a long list of sources of irritation, pain, of spiritual contexts in which being a Jewish woman meant you were excluded, ignored, demeaned, silenced or objectified. This was to name just a few things a nice Jewish girl might hesitate to complain about, a shanda for the goyim--meaning it was bad enough we Jews knew we had a little problem--but if the gentiles were to find out--now that was a big problem. Why? Because, as many once believed, Judaism was a fragile, endangered thing that needed protection. The last thing you would do was to talk about internal problems with those outside the fold. Even internal discussion was subdued by a pernicious logic: that not talking about something limited the extent of its reality, that closing your eyes could blot out reality, which explains why Jewish children of my generation were not taken to funerals, and this, theoretically, cancelled death.

This is what Thie had done: she had extended to me the safe and creative and very smart space Christian women in religion had already been creating. It was a space characterized by the possibility of telling women's truths, the possibility of believing that if religion was what it claimed to be, then it would not break if women told the truth, for women were full reflectors of God's image. Nelle Morton, the Mudflower Collective, Rosemary Reuther, Elisabeth Schussler Firorenza--these were names I did not yet know, but it was their teachings that had birthed the possibility of women really being created in God's image. And if this was so, God would not abandon women for daring to ask, "Does it have to be this way?" and God would be with us in our tentative steps toward re-imagining liturgical language, creating feminist midrash, slowly infiltrating and then changing Jewish institutions--efforts which remain in the "stage one" phase.

Were I the only Jewish feminist so influenced by a Christian feminist, my personal story would have anecdotal, but not cultural significance. I tell my story because I think it is common: I think behind many Jewish feminist scholars or activists, behind many women rabbis, may be a Christian sister¬¬--encountered in real life or through her writing--who has paved the way. And behind many Christian feminists are surely the mothers of the American feminist movement, many who happen to be Jewish, and who asked provocative questions, such as these posed by Phyllis Chesler in 1972: "How shall we experience divinity as residing in the female body?" and "How can the creative impulse be nurtured in women--we, who have forgotten our myths, who have no rituals from which to proceed?" (Women and Madness, p. 302-303): Our Christian sisters took up the challenge, making facts on the ground happen. From our Christian sisters, Jewish feminists have learned that it is possible to remain in a patriarchal tradition, provided one has enough psychic, physical and spiritual stamina, and a community of the like-minded; it is possible to remain when one has experienced the tradition as having sufficient love and sufficient wisdom and sufficient strength to be transformed to honor the face of God in women.

From my Christian sisters, I learned that women in Judaism cannot be quiet, tactful, subtle and patient and expect that kind, ethically awake, sensitive men in our religions will take the initiative to address the spiritual and concrete ways in which women are oppressed in religious texts, practices, communities, institutions and intimate relationships. And even if a number of good men rise to the task and take up women's issues, the issues will not be high on the list of priorities and they will not receive sufficient funding. I see this all the time in women's institutes for sacred text study: they come into being only when women have the financial means to fund them. I am not suggesting that kitchen table radicalism has no impact--but I am saying it is unreliable and inefficient. And even if men were to rise to the task and make women's issues a priority and fund them appropriately, it's unlikely that men's solutions to women's issues are to the point.

When I studied for a doctorate in Anthropology of Religion at Drew University, nearly all of my professors were Christian feminist scholars of note: Karen McCarthy Brown, Dorothy Austin, Catherine Keller, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Heather Elkins. As diverse as they were in training and outlook, they all taught me to look at religion from the perspective of unsurfaced assumptions, particularly those concerning power. Gazing at a religious institution, ritual, ceremony, liturgy, belief, or clerical role, I was trained to locate where power resided. Who had power, who maintained it, who benefited, and who was suppressed?

Leila Ahmed used to come down from Harvard visit us often at Drew; that's when I began to encounter the voices of feminist scholars of Islam. And now, at UVA, a number of my students are researching Islam from a feminist perspective and I am learning along with them.

So, my plan for the semester: to learn more about productive interchanges among feminist scholars in the three Abrahamic traditions. I'll hope to chronicle what we learn.