FEMINIST JUDAISM: PAST AND FUTURE
by Rachel Adler

The world to come is this world, which we hold in trust for its rightful recipients.

RACHEL ADLER is a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the University of Southern California in the School of Religion.

What is the proper subject matter of Jewish feminism? And why is it so much messier than the subject matter of Christian feminism? Our first two anthologies of Jewish feminist thought puzzled Christian feminists, crammed as they were with a hodgepodge of articles, most of which had nothing to do with matters of faith and doctrine. Instead history, sociology, and psychology rubbed shoulders with halakhic (legal) analyses, personal narratives, new rituals, and a very few articles recognizable as theology. Each of those articles was a seedling of a new subject area in its academic discipline. Now there is so much scholarship on Judaism and gender and Jewishness and gender in all of these disciplines that no single individual could keep up with it, and its is so sophisticated and so specialized that even a renaissance woman could not understand it all. From our current perspectives, the two little anthologies look na´ve and clumsy. They contain crude outlines for what we went on to detail and complexify. They fall into fallacies we did not recognize until much later. But with unerring aim, they problematize the issues that needed to be rendered problematic and ask the questions no one had asked before. I marvel at us.

At Hebrew Union College, for the graduate students and rabbinical students I teach, the existence of women and the variable of gender are no longer topics confined to special seminars. Whether you are studying modern Jewish thought or rabbinic texts or Bible or liturgy or American Jewish history, you will read the work of feminist scholars, you will note the depiction or absence of women in your text, and you will be exposed to questions formulated by feminist hermeneutics. In the seminar I currently teach, we are exploring how one makes theology and, especially, how one makes feminist theology. How do its methods and materials, its premises and presumptions differ from those of theologies of the past?

I am once again asking myself this question. After I finished writing Engendering Judaism, I thought I would write about violence. I pursued my concerns with the themes of law and violence in the covenant marriage metaphor. But I became more interested in the human impact of violence than in violence itself. And so I wrote an article exploring a feminist approach to Holocaust theology. That piece was deeply influenced by Elaine Scarry's book The Body in Pain, which deals with the way pain unmakes the universe and how we remake the universe through the recovery of language. I asked myself: what form would the first efforts to recover language take? And I answered: not the ordered linear structure of narrative but the fragmented, disordered form of lament.

But I find I have a lot more to say about lament. For the past four years my mother has been sinking deeper and deeper into dementia. Once a proud professional with a graduate degree, a thinker, a writer of exemplary prose, she became unable to remember, and then in agonizing succession, unable to read or write, unable to feed herself, to walk, to form a coherent sentence, a recognizable word. Now in the terminal stage, she is almost mute. But twice now, when I have come to visit her, she has said to me only one word: why? It is like a piece of Talmud you thought you understood and then realize you didn't understand at all. Why, what? Why me? Why am I suffering? Why am I still here? Why does God allow there to be such a thing as dementia? Why does the meaning-making part of me no longer work?

And I have my own whys and wherefores. Why does my mother address this question to me and to no one else when she hasn't known me from Adam for two and a half years? And why am I supposed to have an answer? I didn't create the universe. I just live here. What does it mean that my mother is asking this why? To what extent is she consciously suffering? Or is she, at her low tide, dragging up the flotsam and jetsam of previously encoded behaviors: tears, grimaces, terror, random words, all signifying nothing? And what is a proper response to my mother's presumed suffering or to my suffering at losing her interminably inch by inch? Surely not that of the sentimentalist who burbled, "Don't be sad, God is with her." Given her inability to recognize her own children or her best friend of seventy years or the man she loves, it is hard to believe that a theophany would make much of an impression on her. And as for the sententious cleric who told me "God never gives us more than we can bear," only my rigorous training in lady-like behavior restrained me from belting him in the chops.

In the face of my mother's whispered why, I decided that the violence I most wanted to think about was human suffering. Most theologies that deal with suffering are interested in the metaphysical problem of evil. Their examples of suffering tend to be martyrdoms or massacre on a grand scale. In these classical theodicy formulations, God moves to center stage and our subjective human experiences are marginalized. The task of the theologian is to justify God.

But I am less interested in the martyrdoms of the saintly and the pure than in the unwitnessed everyday suffering of ordinary people, the demented, the disabled, the displaced, the stigmatized, the bereft, the haunted. What I would like to explore is how we would talk about the presence or absence of God if we did not shift the focus away from the concrete human experiences of grief and pain and how the questions we asked might be different. How do ordinary people confront their pain? How does the community want them to confront suffering and loss? Should they go to the many healing services that have sprung up? To grief groups and therapists? Are we so eager to heal and repair the sufferers among us because we are unwilling to acknowledge the possibility of tragedy? How must our theologies change if we acknowledge that some sufferings cannot be healed and some emptinesses cannot be filled? What would happen if, instead of making elaborate theological arguments to justify God, we bore witness to agony and grief in all their unendurable concreteness and listened for revelations there?

At the same time, it is all too easy to identify God only as the source of strength in our sufferings, the radically immanent God present in the human kindness that ministers to us, a God who bears no responsibility for evil and pain. In my opinion, this God gets off the hook far too easily. I believe in a God who is a Thou, a covenanting God, a God who can call us to account because He/She can be called to account. This is the God who speaks through Isaiah saying, "I form light and create darkness, make peace and create evil." It is this God of whom a bitter Yiddish proverb says, "If God lived on earth, people would break His windows." At the same time, I am curious about chaos, that chaos upon which the biblical God sets bounds but never eradicates. What is the relationship between God and chaos?

So I have a messy project, not yet well thought out or organized. But here are some more questions I would like to ask. Are there texts from the tradition that would speak to people in pain? There are the books of Psalms, Job, and Lamentations, with their centuries of commentary, and talmudic texts like the famous discussion in Berakhot about whether God tests those He loves, and whether the conviction that God is testing us should make people more willing to suffer. Can anthropologies of pain, sociologies of social suffering, and psychologies of trauma and grief augment a theological understanding of the processes and content of suffering? How would these understandings affect Jewish law and ethics concerning our behavior toward the suffering and the bereft? Would we widen these categories? How might we speak to God, either privately or in community, about the experiences of pain and loss? Are there prayers and rituals we might discover or rediscover?

It has always seemed to me that the theologian and the sufferer are speaking radically different languages. The sufferer is speaking lament, picking her way through a broken rubble of unbearably vivid happenings and sensations, senseless, arbitrary, incoherent and disordered, punctuated with screams, sobs, curses, and pleas. The theologian is speaking a language full of abstractions, conceptual, theoretical, measured, and judicious. The lamenter's theme is the heartbreaking fragility of nerves and flesh and the brutality of their destruction. The theologian's concern is to uphold the perfect justice of the Eternal. No wonder theology is so unsatisfying to those it seeks to comfort!

The traditional prayer book contains a prayer rubric recited on weekday mornings called Tachanun, a prayer full of guilt and pain and rage and desperation. The Reform movement excised it from their prayer book because it was not optimistic. It did not uplift and edify. We feminists, like Reform Judaism, are a product of the Enlightenment, its last piece of unfinished business, as Susannah Heschel suggests: the adjustment of gender roles and rules to modernity. We have inherited its egalitarianism, its faith in the human power to remake society and lavish benefits on all its members. But perhaps its optimism, its belief in a harmonious and balanced universe are no longer theologically convincing. Perhaps the universe is darker and messier than we have been willing to concede, and a Tachanun prayer is appropriate to it. Indeed, perhaps this tender, intimate divine presence which is our generation's master liturgical image, implicit in all its prayers and sacred music is not the only face God turns toward us. Sometimes She cannot be imaged as Mother or Lover. Sometimes she is the attacking bear bereft of her cubs, the lioness in our path, the terrifying, the arbitrary, the inexplicable. I am asking how we will speak to and of Her. I am asking why.

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 2002, Vol. 51,  No 4.