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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With the arrival of feminism in public discourse in the mid-20th century, religion--including Judaism--came under criticism for its gender-determined roles, its exclusion of women from communal life, and its apologetics that tried to justify women's domestic positions.

Many early feminists were skeptical of institutionalized religion, and indeed, some believed that there was no way to salvage Western religion from its androcentrism. These feminists criticized Judaism for constructing a male God and an irrevocably patriarchal culture. However, by the 1970s, other feminists began creating theologies that blended Judaism and feminist principles.

Confronting a Male God

In a 1976 article ("Female God Language in a Jewish Context," Davka Magazine 17), Rita M. Gross addressed the issue of male God imagery and vocabulary in prayer. In this article, Gross discusses the theological implications of referring to God exclusively with the pronoun "He." Gross acknowledges that female pronouns for God are equally inadequate; in fact, clinging too much to the idea of an anthropomorphized, gendered deity borders on idolatry, she wrote. However, Gross promotes alternating the usage of male and female pronouns not because God has gender, but because people do, and the ability to relate to language has a direct impact on the ability to relate to God.

Others expanded the feminist critique of religious language and looked at the masculine imagery traditionally used to describe God's relationship with humanity. Arthur Green notes the feminine attributes and images in biblical and classical rabbinic texts. Not only is God King, Warrior, Judge, and Father; God is also the deity that is Imminent, the Source of Compassion (the Hebrew term for "compassion" resembles the word for "womb"), and Mother. Green's approach--one shared by a number of feminist theologians--attempts to uncover aspects of traditional Jewish thought consistent with feminism, instead of totally reconfiguring Judaism in a way that divorces it from the past.

Jewish Goddess Worship

On the other hand, there are scholars who do, indeed, break from traditional Jewish theology. While some feminists like Penina Adelman cling, for example, to the mystical representation of God's imminence--a feminine divine attribute known as Shekhinah--others challenge the use of this and other feminine images that are defined in relationship to male ones (particularly those kabbalistic images which are often negative).

In an effort to break from a Jewish God perceived as masculine, some feminists such as Savina Teubal turn to explicitly pagan goddess traditions among the ancient Israelites, many of which were condemned in the Torah. They claim that these counter-traditions are representative of a fundamentally "female" religious drive. The less radical of these theologians attempt to reveal divine qualities recognized as feminine and embodied in Goddess worship, and then attach them to the God of Israel in order to bring greater balance to the Jewish perception of God.

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