Meet Me at Sinai: An Interview with Judith Plaskow
On Sunday February 8, New York City's B’nai Jeshurun will host Meet Me at Sinai, an all-day event to celebrate and discuss the 25th anniversary of the publication of Dr. Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai, a book that shook the foundations of Jewish expression with its candid discussion of Jewish feminist theology. The event will include more than thirty Jewish leaders speaking on Judaism and gender, as well as film, music, text study, movement, and prayer.
In celebration of this momentous occasion, JWA's Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum spoke to Judith Plaskow about her groundbreaking work as a Jewish feminist, the unfinished work of feminism, and what she would change about Standing Again at Sinai were it published in 2015.
Will you share with us how you came to write Standing Again at Sinai? What enabled you to take on the enormous project of innovating the field of Jewish feminist theology?
By the time I started working on Standing Again at Sinai in the mid-1980s, I had been teaching Women in Western Religion for over a decade and had been actively involved in creating Feminist Studies in Religion as a field. Carol P. Christ and I had published Womanspirit Rising; Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and I had cofounded the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and so on. So I was aware of all the Christian and post-Christian work that was being done and felt it was very important to bring the fundamental questions non-Jewish feminists were raising into the Jewish context. The founding of the Jewish feminist spirituality collective B’not Esh in 1981 (which I was part of) was also crucial because it provided me with a Jewish space to raise theological questions. Without both of these feminist communities, I could never have written the book.
In your book, you explore how bringing women’s perspectives to Jewish tradition could transform the central categories of God, Torah, and Israel. In what ways do you think those transformations have taken place over the past twenty-five years?
The amount of feminist work transforming Torah has been very impressive. I’m thinking of the many commentaries, midrashim, essays, and novels written by feminists, the artwork and the dance that have explored the meanings of Torah from feminist perspectives, the new feminist histories that have expanded and reconfigured our sense of the Jewish past. How far all this has made it into local congregations is an open question. I believe our sense of the community of Israel has been reshaped on the ground, so to speak, through the expansion of women’s participation and leadership roles. God less so. The revised denominational prayer books of the last decades avoid male God-language in English by using You or repeating the word God, but in a sense, this has meant a contraction of language rather than an expansion. Except for the Reconstructionist prayer book—and that is an important exception, we don’t see experimentation with new imagery, and certainly not female imagery. Sadly, God-language is an issue that has largely fizzled.
Like all books, Standing Again at Sinai reflects a particular historical moment. If you were writing Standing Again at Sinai today, what would be different? To put it another way, the subtitle of the book is "Judaism from a Feminist Perspective." How has your feminist perspective changed over the years?
In many ways, I am an unreconstructed 1970s feminist, and I still stand by the central methodological points I made in the book. I am certainly aware in a way I wasn’t twenty years ago of the critique of the gender binary and how it throws the category of “woman” into question. I would discuss that in the book, although I believe that, in a world in which people are perceived and treated as women, the category remains important. I did not come out as a lesbian in the book, and now I would look more closely at the intersection of sexism and heterosexism. I tried to be aware throughout of the intersection of sexism with many other forms of oppression, but, in general, I would expand and deepen my intersectional analysis. I don’t talk about class or race as categories within the Jewish community, which I now see as very problematic.
Your book has been called both “groundbreaking” and a “classic.” Will you please reflect on the experience of coming from the margins to create a new field and then seeing your work become a central text of modern American Judaism?
It’s what every author hopes for, isn’t it? It’s deeply moving and gratifying to me when people tell me that they wrote a certain Midrash or undertook a particular project because they were inspired by my book. I’ve never had the opportunity to thank the woman who converted me to feminism (it was the feminist psychologist Naomi Weisstein who spoke at Yale while I was a graduate student), and I like to think of myself as passing on the gift that she gave to me. I love the idea that she planted a seed for me, and I’ve been able to plant it for others who have in turn planted it for many others.
I noticed that the program on February 8th doesn’t really address theology. Do you still believe, as you wrote in an influential essay in the 1970s, that “the right question is theological?”
You’re right. That’s very ironic, isn’t it? Yes, I do still believe that it’s theology that raises the really fundamental questions that the Jewish community needs to address. I think part of the reason my book has been so influential is that it’s about those fundamental questions. But I’ve also come to realize that, even those who agree, do not necessarily find theology congenial themselves. Judah Goldin told me my first day of graduate school that “Jews don’t do theology.” That’s patently false, but it is the case that not a lot of Jews do theology and, it turns out, neither do many Jewish feminists!
What do you believe is the “unfinished business” of feminism in the Jewish community? What do you hope will change over the next 25 years?
I have a long list of things starting with basic access issues that have not been addressed such as putting an end to the glass ceiling and unequal pay for women in the rabbinate, seeing more women in powerful positions in federations, committing to significant representation of women on panels and in books on Jewish topics, etc. Then there’s the task of fully integrating the achievements of the last decades into all areas of Jewish life. What are kids learning as Jewish history in Sunday school, for example? Do we see an expanded definition of Torah enacted in synagogues? What would that even mean? What about God-language?
I also deal with sexuality in the book, and it seems to me that Jewish discussion of sexuality over the last twenty-five years has been disproportionately focused on LGBT sexuality. It appears that, just as only black people have a race, only LGBT people have sexuality! I would like to see robust discussion of sexuality for everyone, from dealing publicly with issues of sexual violence to seriously grappling with the gap between traditional sexual values and today’s realities. Beyond that, it’s also important to bring a Jewish feminist analysis to broader struggles for social justice. I see secular Jewish feminists as having been more successful than religious feminists at making such connections. What does Jewish feminism add to “praying with one’s feet,” to use Heschel’s phrase? What have we learned in the last forty years that makes a difference in the way we work against racism, climate change or engage in other issues?
How to cite this page
Rosenbaum, Judith. "Meet Me at Sinai: An Interview with Judith Plaskow ." 4 February 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/meet-me-at-sinai-interview-with-judith-plaskow>.