Deciding to Leave or Remain in the Religion of Your Birth – Part II by Judith Plaskow


Photo by Manhattan College

This is a response to Carol P. Christ’s blog of April 29, 2013 on why she decided to leave the Christian tradition. Carol and I discuss these questions further in our forthcoming book Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.

You raise the important question of what factors lead feminists to leave or remain within the religion of their birth. Your central challenge to me is how I can commit myself to a tradition in which God is imagined as a violent warrior when these images have harmed and continue to harm women and the world. How can I not recoil from using such images in worship? Why is the power of symbols less important to me than to you?

The first thing I would say is that, like you, I find these images profoundly problematic. One of the projects I have taken on in my retirement is reading the Bible from cover to cover, and I was appalled in going through all the prophets together at the amount of violence in their teachings. When I have spoken on the topic of dealing with difficult texts in the Jewish and Christian traditions—a subject that is dear to my heart—I always talk about God’s violence in addition to texts that demean women. And, yes, I have sometimes asked myself how I can remain part of a tradition in which God is depicted in this way. So I do not disagree with your critique of this imagery, but obviously for me, it is not decisive. Why not?

I think, as you suggest, that the different status of belief in Judaism and Christianity is a factor, though I’m not sure it is determinative. My experience of the importance of belief was very different from yours in that I never felt pressure to affirm certain things about God or about the origins of Torah; nor was I ever asked to defend or even to articulate my convictions. I always felt free to raise critical questions and, indeed, understood doing so as part of what it meant to be a Jew. While this may be one of gifts of my Reform upbringing, within certain parameters, it also characterizes the Jewish tradition more generally. Disagreement and debate are central modes of religious expression in rabbinic Judaism. The Talmud preserves minority positions and, in a famous passage, depicts a heavenly voice as responding to an ongoing dispute between two important rabbinic sages with the message, “These and these are the words of the living God.”

Beyond this, my Jewishness has shaped my identity in fundamental ways. Being perceived as “other” as a Jew was my first experience of otherness, long before I became a feminist. From a young age, I valued viewing the world from the perspective of an outsider. My life-long concern with issues of social justice came to me through Judaism. I certainly would not claim that the value of justice is exclusive to Judaism. But the idea of being kind to the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt creates a powerful link between the central Jewish narrative and the ongoing task of repairing the world. I find the Jewish story a powerful story—both the biblical account of Exodus and wandering and the continuing saga of the survival of a tiny, often persecuted, people, over the course of three millennia. It feels like a tremendous gift to be part of that long history and at the same time to have lived through the immense changes wrought by feminism over the last forty years. These changes strengthen my conviction that Judaism is an evolving tradition, that it has repeatedly transformed itself and can continue to do so. I also value both the theological importance of community in Judaism and the specific Jewish communities that have enriched my life. When I sit and sing with my havurah (a small Jewish worship group), I do not experience God as king or warrior, and my experience weighs as heavily for me as what you call the core symbols of the tradition.

In another context, you asked me whether I am not concerned with how the image of God as dominating male Other will affect my granddaughter and other girls. Thinking about my granddaughter puts me in touch with a whole dense network of symbols, other than those most troubling to you, that is central to my experience of Judaism and that I hope will be part of hers. Already at fourteen months, when Hannah (my granddaughter) saw the table set for the Sabbath, she put a kippah (skullcap) on her head and pretended she was singing. True, her father recites the blessing over wine using male God-language, but is that more important than sitting with her family around the table for a relaxed meal, dipping her finger in the wine, or feeling the texture of hallah in her mouth? At her first Passover Seder, she got to see a table laden with symbols, to taste the crumbly matzah and dip parsley in saltwater, combining a taste of spring with the tears of slavery. In a couple of years, she will be able to spill ten drops from the second cup of wine when we name the plagues as an expression of sorrow for the drowning of the Egyptians. In the fall, she will taste apples dipped in honey for a sweet year, hear the blasts of the shofar,  and a couple of weeks later sit in our sukkah, decorated with pine needles and laden with fruit and gourds. Certainly, none of these symbols individually is as central as the male God, but together they make a web of sensuous, embodied connections to what it means to be a Jew. She will have at least one grandmother who will talk to her about how God is in all these things and can be thought of as a girl like her and not just as male. She will grow up in a family in which asking critical questions is part of what it means to be Jewish and will be taught to think about the stories and images she is being bequeathed. Do I wish that more Jews used Marcia Falk’s blessings instead of the traditional ones? Yes. Do I see her exposure to male language as something to be discussed with her and questioned? Yes. Would I prefer that she be deprived of all these experiences because of the centrality of male language? Definitely not.

It seems to me that, in focusing on the damage inflicted by the symbol of the male, warrior God, you discount all the positive things that Judaism (or Christianity) offers its adherents. As you yourself have discussed in numerous places in your writing, many historic Goddess traditions also contain warrior imagery. But this does not lead you to reject all such imagery; rather you edit and transform it. Why should I then reject, rather than seeking to transform, a tradition that has enriched my life in innumerable ways?

Judith Plaskow is professor emerita of religious studies at ManhattanCollege and a Jewish feminist theologian. This spring, she and Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg are team-teaching a course at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

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Categories: Feminism, Judaism, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion

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19 replies

  1. I have moments where I wish I was brought up within a spiritual tradition, whether I decided to leave it or not is not the issue, but it would have given me a deeper understanding from within, exposure to ritual and to a sense of the sacred and the ‘other’ that, as a young woman I have been scrambling to find. I love the way you have described the Jewish ritual traditions and your grand daughters early relationship to them. I can see relevant points in both your and Carol’s arguments, I do see however, that ‘transformation’ of a tradition is essential if we have the desire to re-define the symbols, imagery and language that are seemingly violent and oppressive in their form.

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    • Great reply. I agree with what you say at the end about “transformation”. What caused me to write, however, is what you wrote at the beginning. I am a stepmom to two stepchildren, who live with us 1/2 time. Neither parent has passed on a spiritual or religious tradition to the children, and I have often wondered what this would mean for the children. Even in its imperfect form, religion can provide one a context and sense of belonging and a place in the world that is difficult to find elsewhere. Thanks!

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      • My solution to this problem was to become a Unitarian Universalist, where children are taught about the different religions and inclusivity is encouraged. As a UU, I can celebrate being an ecofeminist pagan, worshiping next to a Jewish Buddhist. We are a microcosm of the world, working at getting along together while focusing more on questions than answers.

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      • I appreciate you bringing up UU. For some reason,t hat resonates with me.

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      • Thanks to Katharine Bressler. My faith beliefs and interest in world religions seem to fit most of the parameters of the teaching of UU, I had to take some time and read about your beliefs online, but I really couldn’t locate a truly informative site.. Would be grateful for a link you might recommend on UU teachings. My father used to mention the Unitarians as the only religion he could possibly join, I can see why now.

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      • Check out “Beliefs and Principles” at uua.org for more information about Unitarian Universalism.

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      • Hi Sarah —

        There are number of UUs who participate on this site, including myself. We are a theologically liberal religion characterized by a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. A good site to check out is the UU Association’s website at http://www.uua.org/beliefs/index.shtml. We don’t have any dogma, but we do organize our congregations around 7 principles and see 6 major sources from which we gain inspiration. Almost any religious seeker can find a home with us.

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    • I do not wish I were raised in a spiritual tradition. I was raised a Communist and I had bright baloons for 1st of May – Solidarity of the proletariat, red carnations for 7th of November – The Revolution Day and tulips for 8th of March – International Women’s Day. I had my snow for New Year and the Day of the first cucumber (our family’s special day) in spring time – as there were no fresh veg throughout winter. And I an sure many people who were raised outside religion had their versions of tactile and sensual season celebrations. And if they did not, it is not the fault of an atheist culture. All these things can be present and are present in atheist cultures.

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      • I love that…..the Day of the First Cucumber! Sometimes I think that is close to what has ultimately become my own religion. As the poet Drew Dellinger said, “My religion is rain, my religion is stone, my religion is the sweaty epiphonies…..”

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  2. I don’t believe that one needs to self identify as a feminist to leave their origin of religious tradition. I grew up and was raised in the Catholic faith, left because I felt I couldn’t participate as fully as I thought I should be allowed. I was then baptized in the Mormon faith because as a “newbie” I liked how supposedly non lay people ran the body of the church. However, the longer I participated(26 years) the more I realized that this was a fallacy. It was Mormon men who ran the show with women as their subordinates(though you will get those who are True Blue believing Mormons who will deny this) I eventually left because of the emotional and spiritual bullying that went on in my Ward and when I went through the proper chain of command, they refuse to acknowledge that it was even going on.

    I am not currently seeking, nor do I intend to seek any other religious tradition, I don’t think its necessarily a bad thing. I still study on my own and that’s enough for me.

    @ Kimberly

    I am now at a point in my life that I don’t believe that if someone has not been raised in any particular religious tradition that it will be detrimental to their well being. In fact, I believe quite the opposite, I have known many, many members of the Mormon faith who will not associate themselves with members of other faith traditions unless its to convert them(every member a missionary) They firmly believe theirs is the ONE TRUE faith and no other will be accepted into celestial kingdom the way they are. And this is what I have with people who have this kind of faith (whatever religion) they can not see people whatever faith tradition they may be from, or worse yet, people who may be Atheists as capable of being good human beings with the same good morals.

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  3. Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light and commented:
    I really enjoyed this!

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  4. My educated guess is that nearly all American pagans of our generation were born into standard-brand religious homes, and a lot of us went through the UU church (and probably CUUPS classes) on our way to the old gods or the Goddess. During the past 30 years, though, I’ve met the children of pagan parents who never sent them to standard-brand Sunday school or confirmation classes. Pagan children! Hooray!

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    • Hello, Barbara! Yeah.. I would tend to disagree with you here. I am a firm believer that children should not, and to tell the truth, cannot belong to any religious tradition. It is our adult problems and our adult way of solving them. Children have a different worldview, different priorities and they certainly don’t have the same problems for them to need religion.

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  5. Thanks, Judith, for this insightful post. I think it’s difficult for those of us who grew up in the hegemonic religion, i.e Christianity, to understand the power of being an outsider religiously. Although this was not your main point, it leaks through in every paragraph. I believe that to leave one’s oppressed minority religion would be very difficult. But to leave the hegemonic religion when you realize how oppressive it is — especially when you see it oppressing you personally — is easy.

    I also hear that there are many positive reasons to remain a Jew, ones that I remember feeling jealous about when I discovered Judaism in college: the different status of belief (which may be the reason that we ex-Christians HAD to leave); the significance of social justice (which certainly wasn’t a part of my early experiences with Christianity); and the embodied spirituality that is a part of Judaism (my youthful Calvinist church was stripped of sensuality; thank goodness we sang).

    I also think you bring up a point that I’ve been feeling strongly about in the last few years. Within Judaism and Christianity and even in interfaith dialogs, people talk about the “prophetic tradition” as the biblical starting point for (and continuation of) social justice work. As an anti-war feminist Wiccan, I find this offensive. The prophets advocated the destruction of other peoples, the annihilation of Goddess traditions, and used extremely sexist analogies to do so. Just like there was no Renaissance for women — in fact, our situation got worse during this historical period — there is no “prophetic tradition” for me. I’d love to hear you respond to this.

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  6. I loved the power and depth of radical feminism. And lately, especially after reading this blog for awhile, I think I really got more and more bored with all the male gods, male religions and even the liberal women who seem forever to try to justify them.

    However I grew up, that is a long time ago now. I haven’t been in churches in ages, and while I used to get very excited about feminism and religion, or When God Was A Woman, I still find the most compelling story of freedom being Mary Daly’s life and times. I never grow tired of her work, or her walk out of Harvard Memorial Chapel. A real epic would be a movie about her life, and how she kicked all the men out of her classes at Boston College. Just love these stories of women walking out of patriarchy forever.

    On another note, the churches are just hetero children friendly, and all of this completely bores me. So women go to church because it’s social, because they want to just be in some hetero family unit. But since I see no benefit at all in that way of life, and love my radical lesbian sisters… it’s just boring malestream to me.

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  7. Judith, this dialogue between you and Carol Christ is fascinating. I’m so happy that you brought up many of the things that I love about Judaism, and why I remain Jewish in spite of the fact that it is difficult to find other Jews (other than on the internet) who are interested in bringing the goddess and other forms of feminine/feminist spirituality into the tradition. (I live in Tucson where there isn’t a lot that’s alternative going on) But I love Judaism for the ongoing tradition around the themes of social justice and liberation, which we celebrate at Passover in particular. And I love it for the fact that it is a tradition of discussion, debate, as well as including the minority position, just as you point out. And I love the fact that it is a minority religion which does not claim The Truth for all people, unlike Christianity.

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Trackbacks

  1. Mysteria Misc. Maxima: May 31st, 2013 | Invocatio
  2. Losing My Religion: The illusion of choice in religious leave-taking

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