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Tattoo Worthy Texts 4 - Is Judaism Sexist?

Whenever I teach, I hear myself, saying, ‘if I could get this phrase tattooed, I would!’ I am obsessed with words. I am hooked on discovering teachings that connect all the dots and turn my thinking upside down. I love finding words that break open new possibilities I didn’t even know existed. Aside from my very low pain threshold, I would run out of space to get all of the words that have transformed me tattooed. So in lieu of finding a parlour that could do the miraculous, I’m going to share some of my favourite words and sentences that have blown me away. Knowing that the Internet is a type of memorial, given the impossibility of erasing anything that is ‘out there’ digitally, I hope that these words start conversations of critical thinking and connection.

Print by R.Robyn. Please ask permission or cite the author/artist if you are quoting any words or re-producing the art. Ta!


It's hard, for this post, not to simply type out a copy of the entirety of this ground-breaking, foundational book by Judith Plaskow. Depressingly, written in the 90s, Plaskow's call for a feminist Judaism seems more vital than ever. As she writes:

Judaism is, I shall argue, a deeply patriarchal tradition.  To change it will require a revolution as great as the transition from biblical to rabbinic Judaism precipitated by the destruction of the Second Temple.
Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, 1990, p.xiii.

Plaskow takes the reader on a journey from God, to Torah, to the Jewish people, sexuality and Tikkun Olam (repair of the world) in re-imagining a Judaism which fully sees women as full beings in Judaism. Judaism is deeply patriarchal and yet there is something to fight for if we can create and sustain this revolution.

Plaskow critiques the narrative that we are 'progressive' and that now we have female clergy and 'equality' the job is done. THE JOB IS NOT DONE.

If we pray to a male God, in male language, through stories written by men, for men, interpreted by men - then we have simply allowed women in. We and our Judaism have not, fully, been shaped by women. At best we are playing dress up in a male landscape, at worst we are unaware that we are subordinates in an oppressive system. How, Plaskow, writes are we addressing the silence and the harm in our texts, those stories which shape our identities today?

It is not good enough to relegate those texts we see as sexist today to ancient times. Plaskow points us to Moses' command at the revelation at Sinai, captured in Exodus 19:15, 'And he said to the men, “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman.”' At this holy moment - the setting of the covenant, the very heart of how we do Jewish, women were set aside and excluded. This reality cannot be ignored for is the story that we live and breathe every single day. Every time we roll open the scroll, teach our B'nei mitzvah, bring a conversion candidate to the mikveh we are acting out part of this story. As Plaskow teaches, the Torah is only part of the Jewish story for so many voices are excluded and oppressed in its telling. To turn aside from the reality baked into our tradition is to deny the sexism today and the harm done.

Feminism demands that the liberation we seek for women is felt by all. In the words of Adrienne Rich, quoted by Plaskow at the beginning of her books: 'What do we want for our sons?…We want them…to discover new ways of being men even as we are discovering new ways of being women.’ An androcentric world harms everyone living within it.

It is not enough to let a woman become a rabbi and read Torah - our Torah has to change - our services and synagogues have to change. As Plaskow writes:

‘Feminism is a process of coming to affirm ourselves as women/persons - and seeing that affirmation mirrored in religious and social institutions.'
Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, 1990, p.xvii.

What would this look like? Well, to get us started:

  • It would mean continuing Plaskow's work in creating feminist theologies of community and justice.

  • It would mean learning and understanding all the ways sexist theology infuses our religious spaces and being honest and brave in naming how this manifests.

  • It would mean placing the community and humanity first ahead of law and rigid tradition.

  • It would mean taking seriously women's experiences in synagogues and ensuring there are solid policies in place to address micro-aggressions, sexual harassment and abuse.

  • It would mean accountability and justice taken against perpetrators.

  • It would mean investing in our clergy and thinkers to have space, in Professor Rabbi Larry Hoffman words, to make new sentences. That is to think widely, critically and in a way that can energise the way we feel and do Jewish.

  • It would mean creating and using liturgy in the feminine - see The Book of Blessings by Marcia Falk, and Siddur HaKohanot.

  • It would mean re-fashioning the Torah - see the project of writing the Torah itself in the feminine - Beit Toratah. SUCH GOOD WORK! What would it mean to say the blessing for Torah in the feminine each week?

  • It means a new interpretive landscape for the Tanach. Buy the Women's Torah Commentary and see this feminist commentary to the Talmud. And bring them into our public spaces again and again and again.

  • It means creating new rituals and transforming our current ones - see LBC rabbinical student and Kohenet, Yael Tischler's recent D'var Torah on a blessing for menstruation and the amazing work of Yelala creating community spaces infused with all of the above.

  • It means sharing women's experiences, both those hidden in the Torah and those who were left out entirely - writing new midrash.

  • It would mean championing and supporting women's spaces so that stories can be shared and new connections, realities and worlds made.

This work is not about breaking the glass ceiling to let women in - it's about re-imagining and re-building the very building we are standing in. This work demands that as we see women and become shaped in their image, we too see all identities and those oppressed and ask ourselves, how can we do better, how can we rescue the heart of the Torah and it's call to see each person created with divinity and through its stream of righteousness (to use a term from Rabbi Sheila Shulman z'l)?

Next year may we see the fruits of this revolution. A(wo)men.

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