Judith Plaskow. Photo: Judith Plaskow.
Womanspirit Rising included Rita Gross's article "Female God-Language in a Jewish Context."
Judith Plaskow's new book with Carol P. Christ will be published in summer 2016.
Remembering Rita Gross
By Judith Plaskow
I first met Rita in the early 1970s through our joint involvement in the exciting early days of the Working Group on Women and Religion of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). The fact that we were both writing feminist dissertations—I believe the first two at any institution—immediately provided a common bond. Rita’s thesis topic, "Exclusion and Participation: The Role of Women in Aboriginal Australian Religion,” did not remain the focus of her work, but it signaled her life-long interest in the religious lives of women and her commitment to moving from what she called an androcentric paradigm in the study of religion to an androgynous one.
In 1975, the Working Group on Women and Religion became a Section—one of the major program units of the AAR. We argued, successfully, that we needed more space on the program because we were trying to revolutionize the whole field of religious studies. Rita became the first chair of the Section and led it for eight formative years. To get the Section off the ground with a bang, in 1975, she organized a very important panel on “The Feminist Transformation of Religious Studies” in which several emerging scholars talked about the potential impact of feminist perspectives on their particular disciplines. It was in the context of the panel that Rita shared her critique of the androcentric paradigm that had governed religious studies throughout its entire history, and I still remember clearly the power of her words.
Rita had converted to Judaism by the time I met her, and in 1976, she published a piece in Davka, a Jewish counter-cultural magazine, entitled “Female God-Language in a Jewish Context.” The first piece to seriously examine the impact of male God-language on the Jewish community, it was a very influential article that remains as thought-provoking today as when it was first written. Carol P. Christ and I were delighted to include it in Womanspirit Rising, the first collection of work in feminist theology. A few years later, Rita expanded on the essay in a piece entitled “Steps Toward Feminine Imagery of Deity in Jewish Theology,” in which she argued that Jews need to look outside as well as inside the Jewish tradition in developing new female images of God. She offered five fundamental images found in non-Jewish Goddess traditions that in her view needed to be incorporated into Judaism.
This move to broaden Jewish/Western discourse through conversation with other traditions was a constant theme in Rita’s work throughout her career. The book she and Nancy Auer Falk published in 1980, Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives in Nonwestern Cultures, opened up a universe of religious practices from around the world that become visible once scholars of religion move away from an androcentric paradigm. Rita repeatedly inveighed against the narrowness of feminist conversations in religion that focused exclusively on diversity within Christianity. As she wrote in an important roundtable lead piece for the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion entitled “Feminist Theology: Religiously Diverse Neighborhood or Christian Ghetto?” feminists need to return to our original inspiration, “the desire to overcome the monopoly of one voice on the process of creating theology and to open the forum to a diversity of voices.” The call to open, whether from a male-centered to a truly inclusive paradigm or to the richness of the world’s religious traditions was a central theme and witness of Rita for over forty years.
Judith Plaskow is Professor Emerita of Religious Studies, Manhattan College. She is "the first Jewish feminist to identify herself as a theologian. Deeply learned in classical and modern Christian theology yet profoundly committed to her own Judaism, Plaskow created a distinctively Jewish theology acutely conscious of its own structure and categories and in dialogue with the feminist theologies of other religions. In shaping this theology, at once academically rigorous, politically leftist and firmly woman-centered, Plaskow has distinguished herself as one of the most significant constructive theologians of the twentieth century." Selected works include: The Coming of Lilith: Essays on Feminism, Judaism, and Sexual Ethics, 1972–2003, edited by Donna Berman. Boston: 2005; Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism From a Feminist Perspective. San Francisco: 1990; Co-editor with Carol P. Christ, Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality. San Francisco: 1989; Sex, Sin, and Grace: Women’s Experience and the Theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. Washington, DC: 1980; Co-editor with Carol P. Christ, Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion. San Francisco: 1979. (Jewish Women's Archive, online, http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/plaskow-judith, accessed 3/2/2016.)
Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Carol Christ will be released in August 2016 by Fortress Press.