Judith Plaskow’s theology is profoundly experiential. Time and again, she challenges us to return to the multiplicity of human experience, to explore what has been ignored, and to recognize as particular that which has claimed universality. Plaskow has taught us that what is called universal human experience is often male experience and that we must open the definitions of human to include women’s histories, lives, rituals, and encounters with God. The issue is not whether or not men’s experiences are true. The issue for feminist theology is the claim of universality for experiences that are not, in fact, universal.
In her writing on sin, Plaskow again turns to this issue of experience and the universal. In her 1980 article “Male Theology and Women’s Experience” (republished in The Coming of Lilith), Plaskow draws on Christian theology’s history of linking sin with pride and self-centeredness. Utilizing the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as an exemplar of this practice, Plaskow describes the way in which Niebuhr links sin with the human attempt to escape boundedness. For Niebuhr, sin stems from our dual positions of embededness in the natural order and our ability to stand outside this order and transcend it. This transcendent character enables us to imagine limitless possibilities that we are not, in fact, able to achieve. The sin of pride lies in the claiming of these achievements. Niebuhr focuses on these claims to unlimited knowledge, power, and righteousness, both private and national.
Drawing on women’s experiences, Plaskow challenges this notion of pride as the universal sin. Women’s socialization, she teaches, does not encourage women to explore these imaginative boundaries of freedom. Instead, women are encouraged to limit their expectations. A different sin lies at the center for women: “…the internalization of society’s demands to the detriment of freedom.” (Coming of Lilith) Out of a focus on women’s experience, a converse conception of sin emerges. Rather than too much boundary-pushing, our sin may lie in insufficient challenging of boundaries, in our hesitation to push ourselves to reach our imaginative possibilities. An emphasis on pride as the defining sin may even serve to further reinforce societal pressure for women’s self-abnegation and self-effacement. For Plaskow, the issue is not whether or not women sin through pride. Of course we do! The issue is what happens when pride is universalized, obscuring women’s experiences of sin.
The Days of Awe give us the opportunity to examine the life of a woman who presents us with a counter-model, a woman who speaks up against her own effacement. In the haftorah of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we hear the story of Hannah, who in deep sorrow pleads her case before God. Praying, her lips move, but she makes no sound. When Eli, the temple priest, sees her he takes her for a drunkard. Hannah does not accept this false accusation. She speaks and tells Eli that she is not drunk; she is praying to God. Eli responds by blessing her. In the Talmud (B. Berakhot 31b), Hannah rebukes Eli even more strongly: “You are not lord. The Shekhina and the Holy Spirit are not with you that you judged me on the scale of guilt and not on the scale of innocence. Do you not know that I am a woman of sorrowful spirit and wine and liquor I have not drunk?!” Hannah reminds Eli that he is not God; he cannot see into people’s minds and know their intentions. Because he has presumed Hannah’s guilt rather than her innocence, God’s presence has departed from him.
Hannah’s rebuke of Eli’s unjust treatment becomes a model for the commandment of reproving one’s neighbor. If I see someone acting wrongly I should reprove her. However, if I am falsely accused I must speak out and correct that accusation. The accuser, in turn, not only has to apologize but to bless the wronged person. This is a strong message — an ethic of responsibility for our neighbors as well as an ethic to speak out for our own selves in the face of falsehood. Hannah’s life presents us with the opportunity not only to reflect on how we have sinned, but also how we can heal sins against our own selves. In Plaskow’s words, “God may dwell, sin may flourish, and grace abound where they have not yet been suspected.” (Coming of Lilith)email print