Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, March 7, 2001
The feminist challenge to reinterpreting religious tradition


During the last two decades, feminists have challenged religious tradition by reinterpreting texts, asking new questions and creating rituals -- all with the goal of claiming a place for women where none previously existed.

In doing so, feminism has become perhaps the most visible challenge to religious communities, said Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, associate dean for religious life since 1996. The rabbi, ordained in 1982 when women first began joining the rabbinate in greater numbers, spoke about how women have dealt with spiritual challenges they have faced at a Feb. 28 talk in the Jing Lyman Lecture Series sponsored by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

"How do religious traditions respond to individuality, autonomy, equality?" Karlin-Neumann asked. "How religious traditions understand and assimilate the feminist critique speaks to how they position themselves regarding all the other challenges from the secular realm, how they address questions of justice."

All religions have and continue to face this challenge, the rabbi explained. Last spring, members of an umbrella group called the Stanford Associated Religions were asked to share a "troubling text" from their own faiths. What was significant, Karlin-Neumann said, was that without collaboration, clergy representing Judaism, Islam, Evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholicism each brought a text about women and gender relations. For example, the Evangelical Christian text was concerned with proscribing the subordination of women in marriage. And the Muslim text appeared to provide a religious justification for wife beating. This "teaches us that no religious community, regardless of how conservative or ancient, can navigate modernity without addressing gender relations and the place of women in their stories," the rabbi said.

Religious communities, reflecting society as a whole, have chosen to respond to such challenges either by absorbing them or sealing themselves off. For example, Karlin-Neumann said, Southern Baptists have chosen to fight modernity by stating that women must submit to their husbands and restricting the office of pastor to men.

"Conservatives circle the wagons against the onslaught of feminist danger," she said. "For liberal religious communities, the commitment to gender equality has been absorbed, with congregations calling women clergy to lead them, eagerly creating new rituals around a woman's life cycle, studying texts about women and questioning male God language."

In almost every case, it has been women, not men, who initiated and shaped such changes in order "to claim a place for themselves" in their own traditions, Karlin-Neumann said. In doing so, religious feminists assert that "the patriarchal underpinnings of the western religious traditions exert an enormous historical, cultural and theological influence that needs to be considered and critiqued."

It is not always easy to challenge what has become accepted for generations as the norm, Karlin-Neumann said. According to the writer Adrienne Rich, "When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into the mirror and saw nothing. It takes some strength of soul -- not just individual strength, but collective understanding -- to resist this void, this non-being, into which you are thrust and to stand up demanding to be seen and heard ... to make yourself visible, to claim that your experience is just as real and normative as any other."

Alongside this challenge, Karlin-Neumann said, women continue to search for a "usable past" in text and tradition and create new rituals that reflect their experience. "Rituals are the one way we connect to those close to us, to community, to the story of our life," she said. "When it is not only our own story, but the story of our people, rituals strengthen our sense of place in the stream of tradition."

In Jewish communities in this country, Karlin-Neumann said, rituals have been created for bat mitzvah, marking a girl's passage into adulthood. Traditionally, only bar mitzvah was celebrated for boys. The seder, a traditionally male-dominated ceremonial dinner held on the first evening of Passover -- which commemorates the Jews' liberation from slavery in Egypt -- has been adapted by feminists to mark the progress of the liberation of women.

Studying sacred texts with a new set of questions is another way for women to claim a place in their respective religious traditions. In this context, Karlin-Neumann referred to Azizah Al-Hibri, author of Islam, Law and Custom: Redefining Muslim Women's Rights, who regards America as a "great gift" to Muslim women for providing a setting in which they have greater opportunity to study Muslim texts and traditions than in most other parts of the world. "The only way Muslim women can bridge the gulf between the inherent justice of Islamic principles and their experiences of injustice and oppression is by acquiring the tools of Muslim jurisprudence," Karlin-Neumann said. "Once women study religious texts, they can identify and expunge the patriarchal influences of past cultures from Islamic laws."

This approach can be applied to all religious traditions, the rabbi said. "When women re-examine sacred texts without expecting them to defeat us or to define us, we can often wrest new meaning and complex possibilities from their words."

For Karlin-Neumann, the sacred and secular worlds cannot remain separated from one another. "We live in a world split open," she said. "It is a world where assumptions are challenged, where authority is challenged, where orthodoxies are questioned."

Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann.