Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Introduction

searching

This doesn’t quite qualify as a book review as it is a book that I read nearly 20 years ago, but I lent it to a friend some years ago and despite my best efforts, did not receive it back, so I decided to treat myself to a new copy.

Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Introduction, edited by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, is a collection of essays introducing the topic of feminist hermeneutics, published in 1993 in preparation for the centenary of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s ‘The Woman’ Bible’ in 1995.

I bought it in 1996 as a curious non-feminist. I think I would still place myself in that category. Although I accept the basic idea of feminism – the need for equal and fair treatment for women, I am still not quite comfortable enough with the whole feminism entity (as I understand it) to declare myself a member. Beginning to read it a second time with so many years in between, however, I find that I am more ready and able to understand or at least begin to grapple with some of the arguments.

As a caveat, I must say that I have not read or even seen a copy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s original 1893 book.

When I re-opened the book it fell, appropriately, to Judith Plaskow’s chapter on ‘Anti-Judaism in Feminist Christian Interpretation’. Since this is a subject close to my heart, I thought I would share some of its insights.

Plaskow begins with explaining the significance of Cady Stanton’s book and how, on a basic level, it sought to acquit Christianity by laying its oppression of women at the door of Judaism.

“Anti-Judaism in feminist interpretation signifies both a failure to include all women within its vision and an often unconscious appropriation of anti-Jewish themes and strategies that are as old as the New Testament itself.”

Plaskow talks about the way in which, in order to do this, feminist interpretation unwittingly makes use of quite inappropriately (even patriarchal?) conservative principles of interpretation.

“The claim that ‘Jesus was a feminist’ – a claim first articulated by Leonard Swidler and then taken up by numerous feminist interpreters – can be argued persuasively only on the basis of a negative view of Judaism.”

She outlines some of the ways in which the view of 1st century Judaism as an oppressive patriarchal society is arrived at by picking and choosing sources that seem to agree with that view, whereas there seems to be a lot of evidence for two schools of thought (perhas allied to Hillel and Shammei?) within 1st century Judaism – one of which tended to be more oppressive and the other liberal.

Plaskow also goes on to outline the way in which St Paul’s very difficult, ambivalent attitude toward women is explained away by viewing Paul as being anti-feminist and oppressive in his Jewish identity, but liberal in his Christian identity, a dualism which necessarily ‘others’ Jewish women.

Plaskow says that, with a view to moving toward a more critical feminist hermeneutic, “The first step in eradicating anti-Judaism is becoming aware of its existence, and this means becoming educated about the dimensions of the problem.”

She mentions that “Feminist exploration of Jewish women’s history is a very new field…” – most of the references she gives are essays and articles in obscure periodicals rather than easily accessible books, so I would be interested to know what has happened since the book was published.

In conclusion, Plaskow says that one of the difficulties of dealing with anti-Judaism in Christian feminism is the isolationism, so again I would be interested to know what progress has been made by Jewish and Christian feminists working together since the 1990s.

Searching the Scriptures is a big, meaty volume, nearly 400 pages, so I doubt I will read it from cover to cover in one go – it will keep me occupied for some time, and I will probably dip in and out of it. But Plaskow’s essay has whet my appetite and I will look forward to seeing volume 2 in due course.

Apologies for publishing this blog-post prematurely, and I hope (I can’t see, since I am posting via my phone!) that, having edited, it will all come right in the wash 🙂

I would be interested to hear from reluctant / converted Jewish or Christian feminists, or anybody who can recommend reading in this area.

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One response to “Searching the Scriptures: A Feminist Introduction

  1. I look forward to your thoughts after you’ve finished this volume. In my experience, Judaism has been far more liberating to women than Christianity. For example, Martin Luther, the so called father of the reformation, was a vile anti-Semitic that also held strong misogynistic views. I highly recommend Dr. John Garr’s book series on women called “Feminine and Free”. I think you would enjoy them and appreciate his meticulous research.

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