Our Mother Who Art in Heaven

8 01 2007

DBS has another well thought out post, this one concerning the status of women within Judaism. While he doesn’t propose a specific solution, the recognition of the problem is part of the solution in itself, and his post is well worth reading. One of the points that he makes is worthy, on its own, of greater elaboration: that of the manner in which marginalised communities internalise their oppression. DBS makes this point in relation to the way in which traditional Jewish women accept their status and seek to justify it. This issue runs deeper, however, and is not necessarily a negative phenomenon. The desire to justify traditional Jewish misogynism has given birth to specific forms of feminist hermeneutics and resulted in extremely fruitful studies of the Bible, the Talmud and the entire system of halakha.

In brief, feminist approaches to the Bible are rather variegated but do fall into specific categories that can be separated from one another. One of these approaches, often referred to as the hermeneutics of suspicion, takes the patriarchalism of the Bible as a given and proceeds to determine ways in which one might work with that in order to glean historical information about women and their status in ancient society. This can be done by looking at texts about women or about ‘woman-ness’, texts that feature female characters, and also texts that might have been written by women.

A second approach acknowledges that the Bible is used to justify patriarchalist tendencies in the society, but also claims that this is a reflection of those Biblical texts that have been chosen by religious leaders as canonical. Focusing on other Biblical texts within the same corpus, revisionist feminists (as they are sometimes known) will effectively delineate a canon within a canon. They will then set about interpreting the texts that they have chosen in order to demonstrate that women were not as marginalised in “Biblical times” as religious leaders have wanted them to have been. Oppression of women, in other words, was not necessarily a Biblical phenomenon.

While these two approaches are certainly interesting, neither of them is concerned with objective truth. The one starts with one set of assumptions regarding the status of women, the other one starts with another. Both of them choose their texts as a means of justifying what they have already set about to prove, and then go about deriving that very information from those texts all over again. Were I to choose texts that spoke disparagingly of women then I could certainly use them to prove the fact that women were marginalised in ancient Israel; if I commence with literature that appears to praise all womankind, then I might be able to prove the fact that women ruled Judean society. There is, however, a third type of hermeneutics and, while it starts from as partial a perspective as the other two, it results in finds of a very important nature.

Known by some as loyalist hermeneutics, this is an approach that recognises the authority of the Biblical literature as it is. It does not seek to remove narratives from their context, but appreciates the legal codes and the literary digressions as being part of the same overriding structure. Effectively, loyalist hermeneutics is a religious approach, for nobody but a religious person would claim that Leviticus and Ruth are part of the same ‘book’. Nonetheless, while I do not agree with the advocates of loyalism, I do find their conclusions to be of interest. Effectively restating the finds of the two other approaches to feminist studies, loyalists demonstrate the patch-work nature of the Bible. This is somewhat similar to the entertaining book by Jack Miles entitled, God: A Biography. Taking the Bible as a homogeneous whole, Miles presents us with a schizophrenic God. Loyalist feminists do the same thing, demonstrating the multifarious ways in which the Bible can be both read and interpreted.

Ultimately, my money is on the hermeneutics of suspicion. The Bible, for the most part, was written by men; those sections that may have been written by women (such as Ruth and Song of Songs) are prime examples of the marginalisation of women in society. Both of those texts speak directly and indirectly of gross misogynism, the practise of which is ingrained at a legislative level. It is hardly surprising that, with such a collection of texts, both Judaism and Christianity developed as they did. Still, while this is the way that I personally feel, I respect the loyalist approach to feminist studies and I find their results fascinating.

Born of a desire to justify the treatment of women within religious society, loyalism has effectively undermined the entire superstructure on which their marginalisation rests. Having commenced as an internalisation of their own oppression, these religious scholars have externalised it to the point where it can be surgically scrutinised and dealt with. This has been done by indicating the disjunctive nature of the very text that they regard as whole, thus indicating the tendentiousness of our tradition. Irrespective of the manner in which women were treated then, there is no compelling religious reason to continue treating them in such a fashion now.

Addendum
It is worth commenting briefly upon the nature of the beast called “tradition”: that bastardised conglomeration of centuries of pious superstition and peasant nonsense. While it has changed for some things, tradition is a sluggish creature and will adapt more readily for some issues than for others. While those who envisage a better day might face opposition from the established authorities at every stage, the little headway that they make is positive and is having an effect, even upon those groups that claim to reject it. Judaism, however, has a deeper issue at stake than the “mere” problem of keeping people in their comfort zone.

A legalistic tradition at heart, the circumvention of certain laws may be unlikely to happen altogether in certain traditional communities. These would include the masculine nature of the liturgical language (an example of which can be found in the first century Jewish prayer misquoted in the title), as well as certain demeaning laws that relate to the status of menstruating women. Despite having spent some time in an ultra-Orthodox environment, I am not well equipped to discuss the underlying issues at stake in matters such as these. For a comprehensive (re)appraisal of Judaism – written from the perspective of a loyalist scholar – I would recommend Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism From a Feminist Perspective (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).

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