Genesis of Eden

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Adams, Carol (ed) 1993 Ecofeminism and the Sacred,
Continuum Publishing Company, New York. ISBN 0-8264-0586-X

NOTE: This extract is included as an essential reading for transforming the world. You are requested to purchase the book yourself as it is, without question, essential reading material.

Extract from: Feminist Judaism and Repair of the World Judith Plaskow
in Adams, Carol (ed) Ecofeminism and the Sacred

Judith Plaskow is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College. Cofounder and coeditor of the Journnal of Feminine Studies in Religion (with Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza), she is currently completing a Jewish feminist theology entitled Standing Again at Sinai: Rethinking Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. She has co-authored Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions with Carol Christ.

Jewish feminists have described women's liberation as an aspect of tikkun, an ingredient in the repair and transformation of the world that is part of its redemption. These are all ways of insisting on the connection between social justice and the relationship to ultimate reality, of saying that social transformation is a spiritual process pointing beyond itself. The impulse to connect spirituality and politics does not annul the contradictions in feminist thought and practice, any more than is the case with prophetic notions of justice. Just as the prophets' passion for righteousness did not exclude religious intolerance or extend to abolishing patriarchy, so feminist commitment to the full personhood of women does not always encompass dismantling the race and class oppression that prevents most women's empowerment. In feminist practice as in prophetic thought, a politics unaware of its own privilege serves to highlight the relation between vision and social structures, even while it seems to separate them. Theory formulated by communities of white middle-class women often neglects issues crucial to minority feminists, just as lack of engagement in the concrete struggles of minorities limits the vision of white middle-class women. Insofar as feminism aims to make women the social equals of men, it emerges out of and reinforces race and class privilege. Lower-class and poor women, especially women of color, are more likely to emphasize a spirituality and politics of liberation than of equality, for they know that the men to whom they would be equal are in many ways not the equals of middle-class women (see Hooks 1984, ch. 2; Isasi-Diaz and Tarango 1988). While the vision of feminism as an ontological revolution theoretically incorporates the abolition of all forms of oppression, the absence of communal diversity at either the level of theory making or of action easily turns both into vehicles for domination.

 

FEMINIST JUDAISM AND ITS SOCIAL CONTEXT

If both Judaism and feminism, whatever their shortcomings, have propounded and practiced an ongoing connection between spirituality and politics, vision and social transformation, this connection must then be applied in the context of a feminist Judaism. The creation of woman-affirming Jewish communities is an important element in the quest for social justice, but it is just one piece of a larger struggle for justice that is being carried on in every corner of the earth. The Jewish community is a small one in the United States and a tiny one in the world. It would be foolish to expect that it could avoid entanglement in national and global structures of domination or forge its own way in creating new egalitarian forms of community in the absence of changes m the larger society. Jews have as often emulated and contributed to the inequality, domination, and injustice of their surroundings as modelled different ways of being. Only by keeping in mind the larger context of our efforts to create justice within Judaism can Jewish feminists avoid reproducing relationships of domination or fuming our own liberation into a vehicle for the further oppression of others. Jewish feminists then, while we may want to begin with clearing our own house, must look beyond the Jewish community to the task of repairing the world, creating a just society to which a just Judaism can contribute and flourish. What repair of the world means concretely in the context of a feminist Judaism emerges most clearly from the contradictions between feminist vision and a profoundly unjust social order. The vision of the people of Israel as one among many overlapping non-hierarchical communities constitutes the living center out of which other aspects of a feminist Judaism emerge. The attempt to realize the bonds of communal structures and modes of being that a feminist Judaism requires and entails, however, brings us up against opposing social religious, and political realities. As one of many ethnic/religious communities in a complex and diverse United States, the Jewish community interacts with and is affected by structures of sexism, class inequality, racism, and homophobia that infect the society as a whole. It has to deal with problems of internal diversity in the context of a culture that professes respect for diversity while continually constructing difference as super and subordination. Thus, within a social system in which the physical environment is shaped to free men for "productive" work while women perform support services in the home, women can take on expanded roles in the Jewish community only if they remain childless, have extraordinary energy, or pay someone else to act as housekeeper and child-tender (Ruether 1979, 44). It is possible for middle-class women to participate fully in leadership and decision making within Judaism without renegotiating family or social relations, but only if they compensate someone else to play the role of "wife." Jewish women's own freedom, however, then depends on the continued oppression of other women who have fewer options within the social system. Women of color and poor white women make up the overwhelming majority of domestic workers because a racist and class-divided society presses certain groups into jobs that no one else wants. While substantive changes in the sex role system would alleviate the burden of poor women by raising wages and providing child care alternatives, it would not address the issues of race and class that crucially affect job patterns and the range of women's choices. If the feminist vision of social change is to embrace all women, then any vision of equality within the Jewish community must address two questions: What communal and social changes are necessary 'm order that all Jewish women can enjoy full equality within the community? And what social changes are necessary so that no Jewish woman's equality is predicated on the individual or structural exploitation of other women, but rather the struggle for equality in the Jewish community becomes part of a wider struggle for social justice? The feminist quest for equal participation in the Jewish community is one area where Jewish issues link up with larger problems of gender, race, and class. Feminist efforts to redefine the Jewish understanding of sexuality-to see sexuality as a fundamental dimension of our embodiment -are also dependent on a host of social changes. Truly to honor our bodies as the foundation of our being would necessitate a profound alteration in our relation to the world. The import of the feminist slogan "the personal is the political"-meaning that seemingly personal problems are often rooted in the wider social context, and that social change must bring changes in daily life -is nowhere clearer than in the challenge of a positive view of the body to the devastation of the earth and to the ugliness and suffering in society. First of all, to value our bodies means to value and care for the earth of which they are part; otherwise, the valuing has no relation to a material base that supports and sustains it. The increasing pollution of the environment, the dumping of toxic chemicals and nuclear wastes, the poisoning of the food supply through pesticides, and destruction of lakes and rivers all are rooted in denial of our embodied creatureliness, rejection of our embeddedness in the natural order. Feminist revaluation of the body entails an ecological consciousness and politics, an active awareness of, and responsibility to, the complex web of Iife. Second, the capacity to open ourselves to the world, to allow the power of our senses to quicken our lives, depends on creating a human world in which this is a possibility. In the world as it is, with its increasing numbers of hungry and homeless, the demand that we seek full life, take joy in our work, or live with our senses sharpened must come to many as a painful and irrelevant irony. For the privileged, there is only so long the senses can take in the sight of homeless and beggars, the city smells of urine and garbage, and a constant barrage of sound. To live in a city and survive is to learn to shield oneself, to shut down feeling, to stop experiencing with the whole self. For those without privilege, the assault of hunger and the search for a quiet place to sleep take numbing precedence over the celebration of embodiment. It is not simply traditional attitudes toward sexuality that lead us to fear being alive, but also the world around us. To live with a full sense of our own bodily energy, then, entails not only dealing with natural environmental issues in urban as well as town and rural contexts, but also confronting the political questions that shape our total environment-the gentrification of inner cities that is leaving an increasing number of people homeless, the dearth of humane living spaces, the factory closings and relocations that are creating a new group of unemployed and homeless, the structures of racism and class domination as they affect housing, homelessness, and the distribution of government services.

 

SPIRITUALITY AND POLITICS IN A FEMINIST JUDAISM

The connection between spirituality and politics is inescapable. Our visions of the way the world can be are articulated within and over against existing social structures, and everywhere we turn in seeking to realize these visions we come up against institutions that stand between us and our ability to live spiritually fulfilling lives (Ackelsberg 1986, 114). Unless the quest for integration of our relationships to self, God, earth, and others emerges out of and leads to the creation of forms of community that nurture our whole being, this quest remains marginal to our daily lives, and thus ineffective and irrelevant. For spirituality to matter, it must be poured out into the world in which we live, just as enduring social change must be rooted in some intuition of a richer and more humane future. I have argued that both Judaism and feminism have tried to connect faith and vision with everyday realities-although often not in ways that are sufficiently self critical. The prophets' insistence that love of God is to be manifest through justice is itself expressed in the language and thought forms of patriarchy, and in images that accept and perpetuate the existence of patriarchy. The rabbinic concept of olam (right ordering of society) demands that, 49 as a precaution for the general good," witnesses sign a bill of divorce.,' But olam does not extend to reordering a society in which divorce is a male prerogative. The feminist vision of the liberation of women intends justice for all women, yet feminists often imagine the fruits of liberation in ways that presuppose continuing race and class inequity and domination. For Jewish feminists to develop a theology and practice that is sensitive to the interrelation of different sorts of oppression, we will need to attend to the structural character of oppression and to address its structural forms. The complexity of modem society, the seeming intractability of certain social dilemmas, the overwhelming threat of environmental destruction, the global roots and ramifications of many political and economic problems force us increasingly to grapple with the systemic character of injustice and justice and to confront patterns of injustice that the tradition has taken for granted. As emerging political and liberation theologies have made amply clear, the political and structural dimension of sin and salvation in the modem age requires the structural reformulation of many traditional values. In the contemporary context, concern for widows and orphans must express itself in dismantling the patriarchal structures that disenfranchise and marginalize women and children. Compassion for the poor must entail confrontation with corporate greed, arrest of imperialism, and the struggle against racism and class oppression that consign many to misery. Remembering the stranger must involve breaking down the barriers of nationality, religion, sex, race, and class that turn differences into occasions for domination. Because certain key Jewish ideas and institutions are part of the unjust systems that need dismantling, the connection between politics and spirituality requires the transformation of Judaism itself. Ideas and structures within Judaism that reflect and foster models of domination a Torah that mirrors and reproduces the power of men over women, an Israel that in conception and communal form constructs difference as hierarchy, a notion of God as dominating Other, a legal structure that defines sexuality in terms of possession must be reconstructed on the basis and for the sake of a different mode of relation. A spirituality that emerges out of the vision and sometime reality of diverse, egalitarian communities, that knows God as present within-not above -community as its binder, sustainer, and goad, can nourish and is nourished by the critique and transformation of all structures of oppression. As Jewish feminists work for justice within the Jewish community and beyond it, the emergence of new communal forms becomes the vital foundation for shaping a feminist Judaism. Then within Jewish communities seeking to connect faith and politics, new content poured into traditional Jewish ceremonies and forms often provides connections between visions of social and religious transformation and the basic rhythms of everyday life. The consonance of purpose between law and prophecy to connect faith with the whole of reality can be enacted in ritual and law attuned to the demands of justice. Thus, coming out of new Jewish communities, a number of Jewish feminists and other progressive Jews have called for a set of dietary laws (kashrut) that reflect the feminist value of connection to other persons and a wider web of life. Kashrut is already a system reminding us of the sanctity of animal life, and some have suggested that, for the sake of this sanctity as well as for the sake of preserving grain for the hungry, we extend this reminder to a full vegetarianism. Kashrut already tells us that "we are what we eat," and many values central to contemporary progressive food practices and to feminist concerns about sexuality and embodiment can be included in an expanded system of kashrut. Concern for protect' 9 our bodies might take the form of prohibiting foods that are grown with pesticides or that contain carcinogens or hormones. Concern over the rise of hunger might be expressed in the form of a special blessing before or after meals and a commitment to set aside a proportion of the cost of all meals to feed the hungry. Concern about the exploitation of workers and planting of monocrops on lands needed for local agricultural production might lead to forbidding foods that are the product of exploitation and oppression. In these ways, kashrut can be a vehicle for connecting Jews to others without losing its meaning as a marker of Jewish distinctiveness and identity. Such a new kashrut would turn the simple everyday act of eating into an aspect of the continuing quest for justice. Other ritual and legal forms provide different ways of concretizing the commitment to social and religious change. Shabbat, like kashrut, is a central element in Jewish ritual life, and one that can also foster an ethic of connection. Arthur Waskow has described the Sabbath as part of a rhythm of work and repose, labor and celebration that can provide time to examine the meaning and direction of our ceaseless production and consumption (Waskow 1971, ch. 3). While getting and spending may be central to the other six days of the week, Shabbat is a day for family and friends, for honoring creation, for resting and enjoying the fruits of our work. It is a day for being rather than doing. It is a day not for changing the earth but for noticing it, for attending to the fragile mystery of the world that grounds and precedes all our labor. When we take Shabbat seriously, the values it represents can begin to permeate all our days. Just as the work week makes Shabbat possible, so the value and integrity of our relationships with others and the earth are the presuppositions of all that we do. When we sacrifice our obligations to self and others to the demands of work, Shabbat reminds us of the sanctity of relationships. When our concern with profits and production leads to the exploitation and destruction of the world in which we live, Shabbat reminds us of the sanctity of creation, of the God-given value of the material order. Ellen Bernstein has suggested fuming Tu Bishvat, a minor holiday marking the new year of trees, into a major environmental holy day. For the rabbis, the meaning of Tu Bishvat was quite straightforward: The time when sap begins to rise, it marked the beginning of the year for calculating the tithe on fruit. The Kabbalists gave Tu Bishvat deeper significance, connecting the sap of earthly trees with the image of God as cosmic tree that renews the flow of life in the universe. 'Me Kabbalists created a ritual for Tu Bishvat in which the participants eat different types of fruit, each symbolizing different levels in the process of creation. Bernstein builds on and transforms the Kabbalistic ritual, turning it into a ceremony honoring the four elements of creation. Exploring the worlds of earth, water, air, and fire, she interweaves Jewish sources fostering awareness of and responsibility to the earth with contemporary material and ecology and environmental destruction. Her ritual is at once a celebration of the divine in nature and the occasion for taking stock of our responsibility to nature, for renewing our commitment to the preservation of the natural world (Bernstein 1987). Esther Ticktin has called for new halakhot (laws) that give concrete expression to the commitment to equality for women within the Jewish tradition. Grounding these halakhot in the biblical reminder, "for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt," she suggests that the Jewish experience of exclusion should become the basis for a commitment to stop excluding women from public religious life. As a start, she asks that male Jews refuse to benefit from any policy of exclusion, that they refuse to participate in a minyan that separates women behind a mechitzah (barrier), and that they refuse to go up to the Torah in congregations that do not call women to the Torah. If Orthodox men feel they cannot take on these restrictions, then at least they should refrain from celebrating their privileges or speaking of them in ways that tease and hurt women (Ticktin 1976, 129-35). Such halakhot provide specific ways to act on feminist values; they are consciousness-raising for those who take them on and can sensitize and mobilize others. Each of these suggestions for ritualizing religious and political values -and each of the communities out of which they arise-represents an attempt to resist the forces that would separate faith from worldly involvement: the cultural opposition of religion and politics, the Marxist understanding of religion as a reactionary diversion from the battle against injustice, the lure of oases of spiritual experimentation in the midst of a world desperately in need of redemption. Each challenges us as feminists and as Jews to bring our spirituality and politics together in such a way that our religious lives change the way we live, and our political commitments shape our spirituality. To build community, to work for political change, is to act out the spiritual vision of a world in which diverse communities can live together and leam from each other, each with the resources it needs to survive and mature. To celebrate and ritualize our visions is to locate our political projects in the context of the ongoing work of creation, to take our place in the eternal dialogue between God and creation through which the world develops and unfolds. As we start where we are, addressing ourselves to particular constituencies and particular needs for healing or repair, we slowly build the institutions and communities that can begin to bring the future into being. As we create communities that can nourish and sustain us; as we work to transform the institutions that most deeply affect us; as we enact and celebrate together moments of commitment, clarity, and vision, we generate energy for further change-that is rooted in what we have already envisioned and accomplished. Just as structures of domination support each other, so do our efforts at justice. The sum of the changes that we seek eludes us as a total system, because those working for change have less power than the complex and entrenched institutions of hierarchical power that dominate our world (Ruether 1983, 233 -34). But lured on by the ground already attained and by the Ground of that ground that empowers us, we remember the words of Mishnah Avot (2.16): It is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it altogether. As we work toward the creation of a feminist Judaism as part of a larger struggle toward a more just world, we place our small piece in a mosaic that will finally provide a new pattern-a new religious and social order.