One of my favorite things to do when I come home is to find snippets of my past and delve into them, reviving the stale thoughts and memories that have been tucked away for a later date. This time, I found something especially valuable. A diary entry from July 25th of 2011 reads, “Following my mother’s orders, I offered food to our guest and the rest of the table full of middle-aged men. They sat and relaxed as we were delicately preparing the 5-part meal. They watched as it was being served, commanding what they wanted so as not to life a finger – God forbid they ruin the beautiful ass-prints being created in the seat cushions. What is this tradition that is justified by religious roots? Why are 5-year old women being trained to serve 45-year old men? Last time I checked – isn’t it supposed to be the elder who help the younger, being wiser and well seasoned? I can’t, I won’t, have a man treat me this way. I will never feel below him, and I will never let myself be in a position to be.” It was around this time last year that I had lost my faith in religion. I saw it as a cult – with individuals conforming to self-destructive ideals and outdated traditions that permeated their daily lives. What was more terrifying than losing this sense of faith was realizing that my distance from religion would inevitably create distance with my highly religious mother – a woman whom I love more than anyone in this world.
Slowly, things changed. I went abroad and saw a country where Catholic women were strutting their stuff in dignified attire that complemented their confident air. I saw a strong woman in a Christian host mother who had a boyfriend at age 70 and preached to us about never letting a man stop you from doing what you want. These glimmers of hope seemed promising, and something about their novelty pushed me to enroll in Feminist Theologies. I wanted to turn these glimmers into fireworks – to prove myself wrong. But what I found was so much more than what I was looking for. In looking at the scriptures, I found writings that made my stomach churn. In looking at the traditions, I found rituals that raised my skin. Beyond all of this, in looking for faith behind the discomfort, I found feminism; which to me, is much more than the scripture and the tradition – it is bigger and better than any of it. We look for certain things in religion, but it is when it offers us something we didn’t know we could find, or something we weren’t looking for, that it becomes indispensable.
Take, for instance, a common reason that first pushes people towards religion: liberation from the physical world. The way in which people may search for this type of escape is through an imagined deity. Because religion is a patriarchal institution, however, the majority of deities exist in the male form. Rather than being tied to this norm, feminism offers a wider range of role models through its lens. Judith Plaskow, for instance, confronts this inequality by revealing the crux of the issue: that notion that God even has a specific gender at all. There exists a problem of the “dominating other” that comes with assigning a specific sex to God, due to the almighty power that is associated with the notion of a higher being. Although we have contentions with the fact that currently, God is usually portrayed as male, this problem would not be solved by making God a female, as there would still be one sex that rules over the opposite one. Feminism does not stoop to the level of its religious ancestors by placing one sex above the other, but instead strives to maintain equality. A shift in pronouns, therefore, would result in a shift in power, which still does not push towards an egalitarian world. Sallie McFague, however, offers an alternative way to perceive God that may offer us a different form of faith that helps us overlook a deity’s sex.
Rather than depicting this spiritual being as a frightening force, McFague asks us to consider a God who is more like a genderless friend that wants to guide us in the correct way to lead our lives. By shifting the emphasis from a dominating sex to an equal entity, she offers a unique way to think about God, and in doing so, gives us a unique way to think about the world. Instead of offering liberation from the world, then, Sallie gives us liberation within it – an idea that is echoed by Buddhist teachings. To see God in every aspect of our physical lives, in every rock and tree, we are able to take solace in this warm feeling of acceptance, making us vehicles to our own fate. The divine that resides in our everyday lives gives this spirit an added component that we do not often find in archaic religious scripture: accessibility. Instead of wasting our effort on the attempts to create a powerful picture of a person without a sex, we instead find God in what we actually see – making this picture one that is not only easier to imagine, but one that is not dependent on sex. Moreover, the positive reinforcement that is offered by McFague’s theory is uplifting, and perhaps more effective than having a booming Godly figure that acts as an unmerciful overseer.
This shift in God being above us to within us instills a unique sensation that is absent from the scripture and tradition we are used to. Within archaic texts, we find covenants, rules, promises, and commandments. With McFague’s approach, we find a force that literally engulfs us with a warm embrace. This is not to say, however, that this God is one who lets morality run amuck. Instead, this feminist view of God goes beyond the narrative approach we are used to and forces us to have faith not only in the physical world, but our own selves to leading life the correct way. By being vehicles of our own fate, we are in control for the first time, which is a notion that is empowering enough to inspire good rather than evil. By ousting any idea of sin and punishment, McFague puts faith in us as individuals, which is perhaps the kind of can-do attitude that will help us better embody the values that will make our lives complete.
Apart from freeing us from the constraints of a deity, there is another important sense in which feminism is liberating. By freeing us from the stagnant texts themselves, its emphasis on reinterpretation allows us to no longer be bound by the bindings. What this means is that feminism gives us the ability to perform critical analysis of the scriptures and traditions, which to me seems like a skill that is far more important than the scriptures and traditions themselves. Blind faith is a deadly force, and the ability to recognize the merits and problems within a religion is an essential component of properly practicing it. A feminist lens is one that is constantly questioning and working towards an ultimate goal of an egalitarian world. By placing the emphasis on this objective rather than being bogged down by specific sentences, it shifts our usage of the texts to being tools to and end rather than ends in and of themselves. Classmate Selenah Bequette-Kaiser aptly points out that we need to change the panels of this broken floor rather than replacing it entirely. A feminist perspective allows us to use our acquired insight to manipulate these texts in a productive way, while still maintaining what is valuable from these traditions.
Although feminism does not limit itself to individual sentences within scripture, this does not mean that it fails to recognize the importance of language within a faith’s teachings. God-language has been a subject of much contention throughout feminist theological analysis, as Johnson alludes to when comparing a tyrant-like God who inspires fear to a beneficent God who promotes forgiveness. By honing in on the way that descriptions of the divine largely effect the followers, she urges us to figure out what the “right way to speak about God” is, which is an answer that is not necessarily spelled out in the scriptures that we are exposed to. In order to accomplish this, we must use the tools of feminist analysis. Because this strategy allows for enough freedom to stray from the norm, but isn’t so lax as to disregard detail, feminism finds a balance in its hermeneutic approach.
In addition to concrete scripture, people may also look to religion for the stable traditions it offers in order to take comfort in the way that orderly procedure can unite individuals. To this end, feminism instead offers us reason to jump out of this comfort zone and instead unite under the umbrella of progressive ideology. Feminist thought changes in step with society, constantly attempting to incorporate the curveballs that are thrown our way. For instance, take the growing concern of homosexuals and transgenders in the religious sphere. In recent years there has been a clear increase in the number of individuals who have “come out” or switched genders. This phenomenon was completely absent at the time these scriptures were written; therefore they lack a clear space for people who do not fit into the gender binary that is present within them. Feminism, however, is here to help. Focused on emphasizing the idea of equal individuals, no matter what gender, it offers ways to read these texts in a way that promotes acceptance to a wider range of people. While we may look to tradition to unite us, it does not currently unite all of us. Feminism strives for this unity between all individuals, regardless of sexual identity. Instead of creating spheres, it breaks them down, and this sense of community goes beyond what we currently find today.
We see this effort for creative inclusion manifested in works such as “The Big O Also Means Olam,” in which Hanne Blank expresses discontent with the fact that Judaism’s laws as they stand do not explicitly spell out procedures outside of a heterosexual, monogamous couple. Instead of sitting on this as a stagnant law, however, she urges us to think outside of the box, as feminist theology is constantly pressing us to do. For instance, the Jewish law that dictates a man to give his wife a certain amount of sexual pleasure per week can also be applied to polyamorous couples. These individuals may designate a certain number of nights to commit to each other each week, if a primary commitment is unable to be ascertained. This forward-thinking way of applying what seem like inapplicable rules is a valuable quality of feminism that keeps it moving into the future.
In looking at the reasons that people may turn to scripture and tradition for validation, we see that feminism wins by not only fulfilling these reasons, but going beyond them as well. To me, feminism is far more important than any of these archaic texts or upheld ideals. It is a hermeneutic approach that takes the best of what we’ve got and creates something far more beautiful than what we began with. By giving us faith in a re-imagined deity, it offers us peace within the world around us. By giving us a critical lens, it gives these texts utility for a more noble goal. By giving us the constant ability to redefine, it gives us a faith that is always applicable, and never outdated. Feminism is clearly liberating in more than one way, and for that reason, far more dear to my heart than any tradition or old scripture may dictate. While I may still fear that a difference in faith will create distance from my mother, I am no longer afraid of the faith itself as being anything short of beneficial to me.
Blank, Hanne. “The ‘Big O’ Also Means Olam.” Yentl’s Revenge: The next Wave of Jewish Feminism. Comp. Danya Ruttenberg. Seattle: Seal, 2001. 194-205. Print.
Johnson, Elizabeth A. “Introduction: To Speak Rightly of God.” She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York: Crossroad, 1992. 3-15. Print.
McFague, Sallie. “God and the World.” Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987. 59-87. Print.
Plaskow, Judith. “Reimaging the Unimaginable.” Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. 121-69. Print.
About the Author
Avani is a rising senior studying Philosophy and Religion at Tufts University. Based in New Jersey, she is a freelance writer and a sucker for a good book. She has been published in her school’s daily newspaper The Daily, and South Asian literary magazine Salaam.