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Judith Plaskow

b. 1947

by Rachel Adler

Judith Plaskow is the first Jewish feminist to identify herself as a theologian. Deeply learned in classical and modern Christian theology yet profoundly committed to her own Judaism, Plaskow created a distinctively Jewish theology acutely conscious of its own structure and categories and in dialogue with the feminist theologies of other religions. In shaping this theology, at once academically rigorous, politically leftist and firmly woman-centered, Plaskow has distinguished herself as one of the most significant constructive theologians of the twentieth century.

Judith Plaskow was born in Brooklyn on March 14, 1947 to Vivian Cohen Plaskow (1920–1979) and Jerome Plaskow (1918–2002). Her mother was a remedial reading teacher, her father a Certified Public Accountant. The couple had another daughter, Harriet (b. 1950). The Plaskows moved to Long Island, New York where Judith grew up during the 1950s. Her religious education was classical Reform, emphasizing the universalism of ethical monotheism, the Jewish mission to be “a light unto the nations,” and the liberal vision of social justice attributed to the prophets. “I fully embraced this version of Judaism,” she reports, “without worrying about either its internal coherence or whether it really distinguished us from anyone around us” (Plaskow 2004). Her first theological questions as a teenager, about good and evil, the nature of God and the nature of human beings, were provoked by studying the Holocaust. As a sixteen-year-old she attended the 1963 March on Washington with others from her congregation and heard Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. The vision of a world transformed by racial equality becomes in Plaskow’s work a vision of a world transformed by the full and equal status and contributions of women.

Plaskow received her B.A. from Clark University, magna cum laude, in 1968, and did her graduate work at Yale Divinity School where in 1975 she produced a doctoral thesis later published as Sex, Sin, and Grace: Women’s Experience and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. At Yale Plaskow received her introduction to feminism as a member of the Yale Women’s Alliance. She quickly applied feminism, not only to her dissertation but to institution-building. She was co-chair of the fledgling Women and Religion Group of the American Academy of Religion from 1972–1974 and a member of its steering committee once it became regularized as the Women and Religion Section. She was a co-founder of the pioneering Jewish feminist group B’not Esh (1981). She was co-founder of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and served as co-editor from 1983–1994. Ultimately, she served two terms as Associate Director of the American Academy of Religion (1992–1994 and 1998–1999), a term as Vice President (1995–1996), as President-Elect and as President (1996–1997 and l997–1998) of that august institution.

From 1976 to 1979, Plaskow was an assistant professor of religion at Wichita State University in Kansas. From 1979 to the present she has taught at Manhattan College in New York, rising from assistant to associate (1984–1990) to full professor (1990). Married to the rabbinics scholar Robert Goldenberg in 1969, she separated from him in 1984. From this marriage she has one son, Alexander Goldenberg, born in 1977. Plaskow came out as a lesbian in the 1980s. In 1986 she and Martha Ackelsberg, a government professor at Smith College, celebrated their commitment ceremony.

Intellectual friendships formed through feminist gatherings and institutions have been especially influential in Plaskow’s life and thought. She met Carol Christ, with whom she edited the groundbreaking anthology Womanspirit Rising (1979), through the Yale Women’s Alliance. At the Conference on Women Exploring Theology at the ecumenical center at Grailville in 1972 Plaskow met Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, with whom she edited the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and whose book on women in early Christianity, In Memory of Her (1983), had a profound effect on Plaskow’s expansive concept of Jewish women’s history. The women of B’not Esh, among them Martha Ackelsberg, Marcia Falk, Drorah Setel and Sue Levi Elwell, stimulated Plaskow’s determination to create Jewish theology that was both authentically rooted and transformative.

Plaskow’s theology has had a profound effect on Jewish women’s theological conversations in every decade since the 1970s. Both in the Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds, she is the best known Jewish feminist theologian. The dialectic that distinctively marks Plaskow’s thought counterpoises the tensions and complementarities between Jewish thought and feminist religious thought in general. This dialectic is visible in Plaskow’s earliest work, “The Coming of Lilith” (1972), which originated in a group exercise at the conference on Women Exploring Theology at Grailville. “The Coming of Lilith” rewrites an ancient midrash by portraying the two wives of Adam, the outcast rebel Lilith and the more tractable Eve encountering each other, forming a creative sisterly bond that exposes the unexamined bond between God and Man and proposing to transform the Garden. In retrospect, Plaskow sees the impact of non-Jewish thought on “The Coming of Lilith,” and the dearth of Jewish theological language and understandings, but she also sees in it “my first incorporation of Jewish modes of thinking into my attempts to theologize.” The importance of “The Coming of Lilith” can be gauged by the number of times it has been reprinted in both interfaith and Jewish feminist collections.

While “The Coming of Lilith” uses midrash to expose the patriarchal template Judaism uses to shape its reality, Plaskow’s electrifying article, “The Right Question Is Theological” (1982) exposes halakhah as a patriarchal construction. Writing in response to “Notes Toward Finding the Right Question,” by Cynthia Ozick, Plaskow insists that theology rather than halakhah is primary. Halakhah results from theological presumptions one of which is the fundamental otherness of women. Rather than waste time trying to mend an unmendable halakhah, Plaskow argues, women should remake theological discourse.

In Plaskow’s masterwork, Standing Again at Sinai, all of the tensions, between being a woman, a feminist, a historically grounded person, a post-colonialist, on the one hand and being a Jew, on the other, are merged into a feminist synthesis in which a dynamic, non-essentialist theology emerges from a unified feminist Jewish self. In Standing Again at Sinai Plaskow breaks open and moves past all the previously intractable areas of struggle, patriarchal hegemony over the construction of Jewish history and sacred text, patriarchal privilege defining the community of Israel and distributing power in it, patriarchal monopolies justifying exclusively masculine God-language and patriarchal understandings of body and sexuality.

Using the Rosenzweigian theological formulation God, Torah and Israel, Plaskow employs these terms in her own distinctive way. In her chapter on Torah, Plaskow argues for the use of feminist historical methodologies to uncover Jewish women’s history and cultures, yet she asserts that these will be inadequate without the use of feminist midrash and liturgy to reshape Jewish memory both in the past and in the present. She emphasizes the pluralism of the Jewish past as well as the pluralism of women’s experiences. Regarding halakhah, she is less negative than in “The Right Question Is Theological.” Rejecting both the anti-Judaic bias against law as a religious structure and the essentialist view that law is a distinctively masculine form, she regards law as a necessary element of all human cultures. “Perhaps what distinguishes feminist Judaism from traditional rabbinic Judaism,” she concludes, “is not so much the absence of rules from the former as a conception of rule-making as a shared communal process” (Sinai 71).

Plaskow’s chapter on Israel explores creating a community in which Jewish women would be present, equal and responsible. The concern with responsibility leads Plaskow to trace oppression in both Diaspora communities and the state of Israel: sexual and economic hierarchies, Ashkenazis versus Jews of Sefardic or Middle Eastern origins, Israelis and diasporic Zionists versus the Palestinian Other.

Her chapter on God deals with metaphors for God. As in “The Right Question Is Theological,” she relies on the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s description of how religious language and symbols legitimate social systems. If God is portrayed as father, human fathers will be viewed as God-like. If God is viewed as a dominating male, human institutions are likely to be male-dominated. Hence, for Plaskow, the exploration of God language is inextricably tied to justice and authority in the human realm. Plaskow also critiques feminist God-language. She argues for pluralistic imagery within monotheism, contesting pagan feminists’ charges that monotheism is essentially masculine and monopolistic. But she observes that the aspect of God that feminists have been least successful in translating into imagery is “the presence of God in empowered, egalitarian community” (Sinai, 155).

In the following chapter, Plaskow introduces an unorthodox topic: theology of sexuality. This is because for Plaskow, sexuality is not a physical detail but an inherent part of our identity and experience. Drawing from traditional sources, she argues that Jewish tradition is ambivalent toward sexual expression and sexuality as an attribute. If feminist theology were able to overcome the dualisms inscribed in patriarchal sexuality, Plaskow argues, and if women were able to claim their own sexuality, we would come to understand our world as body-mediated, and our humanity as sensuous as well as rational. We would then perceive that the erotic and the spiritual are interpenetrating. Awareness of how sexuality connects us to all things would help us to sanctify it and not misuse it. In the resulting new ethics, sexual relationships, both hetero- and homosexual, would predicate obligations not on ownership or hierarchy but on mutuality and joint empowerment.

Plaskow’s most recent work deals with theodicy and the problem of evil, with sexuality, with political justice in the state of Israel and with Judaism and the repair of the world. At this writing she is in her fourth decade of courageous, innovative, and broadly conceived feminist theology.

SELECTED WORKS BY JUDITH PLASKOW

Books

The Coming of Lilith: Essays on Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics, 1972–2003, edited by Donna Berman. Boston: 2005; Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism From a Feminist Perspective. San Francisco: 1990, German edition, 1992; Dutch edition, 1992; Co-editor with Carol P. Christ. Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality. San Francisco: 1989; Sex, Sin, and Grace: Women’s Experience and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. Washington, DC: 1980; Co-editor with Carol P. Christ. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. San Francisco: 1979. Japanese edition, 1982; Editor. Women and Religion: 1972. Missoula, Montana: 1972; Co-editor with Joan Arnold Romero. Women and Religion, revised edition. Missoula, Montana: 1974.

Articles

“Difference and Power: The Difference of Power.” In Transforming the Faith of Our Fathers: The Women Who Changed American Religion, edited by Ann Braude. New York: 2004; “Decentering Sex: Rethinking Jewish Sexual Ethics.” In God Forbid: Religion and Sex in American Public Life, edited by Kathleen Sands. New York: 2000; “Lilith Revisited.” In Eve and Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender, edited by Kristen E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing and Valerie H. Ziegler. Bloomington and Indianapolis: 1999; "Feminist Theology.” In The Sh’ma and Its Blessings. Vol. 1 of My People’s Prayerbook: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries, edited by Lawrence Hoffman. Woodstock, Vermont: 1997; “Sexuality and Tshuvah: Leviticus 18.” In Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days, edited by Judith Kates and Gail Reimer. New York: 1997; “Toward a New Theology of Sexuality.” In Twice Blessed, edited by Christie Balka and Andy Rose. Boston: 1989. Reprinted in Redefining Sexual Ethics, edited by Susan Davies and Eleanor Haney. Cleveland: 1991; “The Right Question is Theological.” In On Being a Jewish Feminist: A Reader, edited by Susannah Heschel. New York: 1983. Preprinted as “God and Feminism.” Menorah: Sparks of Jewish Renewal. February, 1982; “Christian Feminism and Anti-Judaism.” Cross Currents 33 (Fall 1978). Reprinted in Lilith 7 (1980) and in Nice Jewish Girls, edited by Evelyn Torten Beck. Boston: 1982; “The Coming of Lilith: Toward a Feminist Theology.” In Women Exploring Theology at Grailville. Church Women United, 1972. Reprinted in Womanspirit Rising and in Frauen in der Mannerkirche, edited by Bernadette Brooten and Norbert Greinacher. Kaiser Grunewald: 1982.

Bibliography

Ozick, Cynthia. “Notes Toward Finding the Right Question.” Lilith Magazine 6 (1979), reprinted in On Being a Jewish Feminist, edited by Susannah Heschel. New York: 1983; Ruether, Rosemary, ed. Womanguides: Readings Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: 1985; Schussler-Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her: Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: 2000; Umansky, Ellen, and Diane Ashton, eds. Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality. Boston: 1992.

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The first Jewish feminist to identify herself as a theologian, Judith Plaskow has created a distinctively Jewish theology that is at once academically rigorous, politically leftist and firmly woman-centered. The best known Jewish feminist theologian in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles, she appears here in 2004.

Photographer: Martha Ackelsberg; Institution: Judith Plaskow

How to cite this page

Adler, Rachel. "Judith Plaskow." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 25, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/plaskow-judith>.

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