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
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
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.