Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Article Double-Whammies Goddess

In Medusa Coils’ first post, Why Are We Here?, we stated that one of this blog’s goals is to counter the practice of downplaying contributions of spiritual feminists, including Goddess authors. We said we would "be particularly critical of writing that ignores the Goddess or feminist sources of ideas it espouses while at the same time putting down modern Goddess religion or spiritual feminism." We promised to post soon about such an article. Here it is:

The article we’re going to point the finger at is certainly not the only example of this shall-we-call-it genre, and likely will not be the last we discuss. It just happens that it’s the one I came across at about the time I decided to launch this blog. It appears in a journal that you might not expect to publish such a point of view, Tikkun, whose name is Hebrew for a concept that humans have an obligation to repair and perfect the world. Its publisher is listed as the nonprofit "Institute for Labor and Mental Health." The magazine is associated with the Jewish Renewal Movement, a liberal (or progressive, take your pick) form of Judaism, and with the Network of Spiritual Progressives, an organization formed to counter the political clout of fundamentalist religions. Tikkun’s editorial board includes at least two well-known female feminist authors; it appears that only 20-25 percent of its 49-member editorial board are women. Because this publication and organization project a reputation of being feminist-friendly, it’s of even more concern (to me, anyway), when an article dismissive of aspects of spiritual feminism appears in it.

Tikkun’s masthead includes a disclaimer that "Articles in Tikkun do not necessarily reflect Tikkun’s position on any issue." So I suppose we shouldn’t hold Tikkun as a whole responsible for the views in the May/June 2006 article, "Jewish Renewal and American Spirituality." Yet its author, Shaul Magid, is one of Tikkun’s contributing editors. So I’m still worried – and not a little angry.

This article engages in the double-whammy of appropriating ideas previously developed, expressed, published by spiritual feminists – particularly Goddess feminists – while at the same time putting down Goddess feminism. A neat trick, eh?

In the first paragraph of the article, Magid explains that:

"As a particularly American form of Judaism, Jewish Renewal can trace its spiritual lineage back to these American Spiritualists as much, or even more than, it can claim Eastern European Hasidic ancestry."
Magid then discusses the influence of Eastern Religious thought, inspiration from the Transcendentalists, and then in the 20th century the Beats, the Beatles (?!) and the "New Agers." Nowhere does he mention the strong interrelationship between first-wave feminism and Spiritualism (see Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith), nor does he discuss any contribution of 20th century spiritual feminist thought other than a brief dismissal several paragraphs later (yes, I'm coming to that, grrrrrr).

Magid says,

"Renewal added to that mix Jungian and neo-Jungian psychology, theories of holistic healing, and a belief in multiculturalism – creeds straight out of the New Age culture that developed in the 1970s."
Though he doesn't define exactly what "New Age culture" includes today, he does say that it re-emerged in the 1970s bringing with it concepts from 19th century metaphysical thought. He also apparently doesn't include feminist/Goddess thought under the rubric "New Age." I agree with both of these assessments.

Under the subhead, "Paradigm Shift," Magid observes:

"Renewal founder Reb Zalman Shacter-Shalomi calls what he is doing a 'Paradigm Shift' from a theology where God exists but is utterly distant, to a world where God is an organic part of creation."
Magid sources this idea to Buddhism and New Age thought. I question this. We usually think of Buddhism as teaching that the primary quality of life and the material world is suffering, and that the way to nirvana (an egoless state of utter peace) involves movement away from the material world and thus away from suffering. Most of us think of Buddhism as having little to say about "God,"
certainly in the Abrahamic sense of a single all-powerful deity. But even if we were to ascribe some deity description to Buddhism as it is most commonly understood, because of its negative view of the material world one could hardly describe that deity as "an organic part of creation." I suppose, however, that since there are so many varieties of Buddhism, it’s possible that one or more of them could somehow be interpreted to include immanence of deity in the material world. But it’s certainly not what one commonly thinks of as Buddhism. As for "New Age thought," as Magid indicates, much of this is material carried forward from metaphysical groups and writing of the late 19th century. And in the 21st century it still retains strong elements of separating the spiritual from the material, and also tends to be hierarchical (for example, the board of directors type group that you supposedly meet after you "cross over").

Which contemporary spiritual path does involve extensive discussion of a paradigm shift from transcendent ("utterly distant") God to organic deity? Three guesses and the first two don’t count. That’s right – Goddess spirituality. From Starhawk to Riane Eisler to Carol Christ – and beyond. But does Magid mention this connection? Hah!

Magid says:

"American practitioners of Eastern religions – and particularly those who identify with New Age movements – share a belief in the world as a living organism, or as Reb Zalman calls it, 'Gaia consciousness,' a belief that refracts nature religion and pantheism through a revised monotheistic lens. . . .Zalman argues that the disciple [sic? does he mean discipline?] of your father represents the old paradigm, the Torah of patriarchy. If one can no longer hear that Torah, there is still the instruction of your mother, [italics Magid's] the Torah of Gaia, the notion of the world as an organism..."
But the concept of Gaia consciousness is not only refracted by Reb Zalman; it’s also common among Goddess and non-Goddess folks. It has both spiritual and scientific aspects. The scientific Gaia Theory, which sees the Earth as a living organism, was first proposed by James Lovelock in the 1960s, but not widely accessible to the general public until the publication of Lovelock’s book, The Quest for Gaia in 1975. Was it synchronistic that this occurred at about the same time that Goddess feminists/ecofeminists were pointing out the relationship between the trashing of the environment and religious views in which "man" is given "dominion over" the Earth? Or do you think perhaps there was some sharing of opinions along the way? In any case, naming the theory and "consciousness"(and type of Torah!) after Gaia, ancient Greek Mother Goddess, certainly points to Goddess influence, and the spiritual views now called "Gaia consciousness" were elucidated early on by Goddess feminists. Then how can "Gaia consciousness" be called specifically New Age? While it’s true that many who consider themselves "New Agers" are interested in it, not all New Agers are avid environmentalists. And not everybody who sees Earth as an organism and relates to this idea spiritually is part of the "New Age culture." Interest in the scientific basis of and relationship to global warming issues of Gaia theory/consciousness extends far beyond the boundaries of New Age. Could it be that Magid credits Gaia consciousness to "New Age" to avoid giving credit to Goddess and/or Neo-Pagan thealogy, which, after ignoring, he then disses and dismisses under the subhead, "Post-Monotheism":

"Zalman's Judaism is not a neopagan pantheism that seeks to retrieve a pre-monotheistic paradigm that was corrupted by the (patriarchal) domination of monotheism."
Whew!!! I was worried there for a while, but now when you assure me that this isn't Neo-Paganism, I feel soooooo much better, especially when you go on to tell me in the very next sentence that spiritual feminist stuff is also simply a retrieval and restoration project: "
"One does find that view among Zalman's contemporaries, particularly in the works of feminists such as Adrianne [sic] Rich (especially her early work), Meryll [sic] Stone, Riane Eisler, Starhawk, and perhaps most prominently Jenny Kien's Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism....
Rather the theology Zalman suggests is more constructive than restorative...."
If Magid had read all the books more thoroughly (and respected the authors enough to get their first names right: Adrienne Rich, Merlin Stone) he might have come to different conclusions. Though there may be a few Neo-Pagan groups who are trying to exactly reconstruct ancient polytheistic religions, they are in the minority and Goddess feminists are not usually among them. The authors Magid mentions don’t propose to just retrieve ancient religions. What Stone, Eisler, Starhawk, and Kien do is deconstruct religious beliefs using what we have of the history of religion, then reconstruct in our imaginationsnot propose that they be adopted exactly as they were – what pre-patriarchal religions might have been like, and then construct in real life new spiritual forms.

For example, in her still-popular 1979 book, The Spiral Dance, Starhawk, who is also an environmental activist, describes one idea of what might have been "the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess," but ends the book with a chapter on ,"Creating Religion: Towards the Future," in which she says:

"When God is felt to be separate from the physical world, religion can be split off from science, and limited to the realm of things having to do with God. But Goddess is manifest in the physical world, and the more we understand its workings, the better we know Her. . . . I would like to see the Goddess religion of the future be firmly grounded in science."
Starhawk goes on to discuss the spirals of DNA and galaxies.

And then there’s Riane Eisler. In her influential 1987 book, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History Our Future, Eisler traces the anthropological and sociopolitical history of religion back to the early Neolithic (6000 BCE), but not so that we will adopt ancient Goddess-worshipping religions exactly as they were then. Rather it is so that we will understand that society was not always structured on domination and hierarchy but at one time, before Goddess worship was forcibly suppressed, was built around cooperation and equality. Eisler’s concern for the present and future is not primarily the establishment of religions; rather she hopes historical knowledge will help us move out of our present dominator (her term) paradigm to a new social paradigm based on what she terms "partnership." The last chapter in Chalice and the Blade is about building "a Partnership Future." A later book she wrote with David Loye, The Partnership Way, and their organization, the
Center for Partnership Studies focuses on how to put partnership theories into practice now and in the future in various types of non-sectarian groups and relationships.

And then we come to Jenny Kien's 2000 book, Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism, which Magid elevates to prominence (as well it should be—it’s a terrific book!). Kien, a Ph.D. neurobiologist, looks specifically at the history of Goddess worship in the Ancient Near East and its relevance to Judaism and sees as one possibility, the inclusion of Asherah in modern Judaism. But contrary to Magid’s implication, she doesn’t advocate the restoration of pre-Abrahamic Goddess worship as it existed in antiquity. Here’s what Kien, does advocate (on pp. 201-202) :

"...a compromise, a mixing of the new (or old) imagery with the current traditions, an evolution instead of revolution’.
"There are many paths that this evolution can take. One of them is the taking up of old goddess religions, redefining them according to our needs, and developing a modern form of spirituality. This is the path taken by the new goddess religions and the modern feminist spirituality movement that center on the Divine Woman....I do not advocate turning our backs completely on the traditional religions. Instead, it is necessary to reinstate the Divine Woman in all religions where she is missing."
It's certainly clear from these quotes and from just about anything else you might read by Goddess feminists, that we are not advocating restoring ancient Goddess religions exactly as they were in antiquity. I wonder why Magid needed to make it seem otherwise?

We Goddess feminists don’t pretend to know all the details of religions before 3000 BCE, we can only make educated guesses. But what we do know from extensive and growing archeological evidence is that they included imagery of the divine embodied as female, i.e., goddesses. Most of us realize, however, that there would probably be parts of these religions that would be anachronistic, even possibly distasteful. What we do do, and what these authors did, is create anew by combining what we have discovered about pre-patriarchal religions with what has gone on in religion and spiritual beliefs in the thousands of years since then, sometimes introducing concepts, images, rituals, etc. to counter that influence.

We’re almost through here, but I can’t stop without sharing a couple of other Magid quotes. Under the subhead, "A Leap 'Outside' ," in the next to the last paragraph in the article, Magid writes:

"The God that is (re)created in Jewish Renewal is no longer the God of classical monotheism, nor is it the 'return of the gods' in the Nietzschean fashion or the new spirituality of neopaganism..."
Wait! Neo-Paganism has a new spirituality??? But I thought you just said it's merely retrieving a pre-monotheistic paradigm.... Oh well, go ahead
"but a post-monotheistic God who is both one and many, close at hand and within one's reach."
Yes, and we call this post-monotheisitic deity Goddess, right?

But no, because when crediting the influences of this "post-monotheistic" concept of deity Magid lists:

"Baal Shem Tov, the Seer of Lublin, Nahman of Bratslav...Emerson, Whitman, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, Felix Adler, Thomas Wentworth Higgenson, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Thomas Merton, the Beats, and others in the American spiritualist tradition...."
But not, definitely not, Starhawk, Eisler, Kien, (and others most of us could name) and not even Carol P. Christ, a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale, who has written about these concepts in modern Goddess religions for at least 25 years and most recently in her 1997 book, Rebirth of the Goddess, and has even written about the similarities between Goddess concepts and process theology in her 2003 book, She Who Changes. Why not?

Why does Magid go out of his way to distance himself, to put it politely, from feminists and Neo-Pagans while appropriating their concepts?

Well, maybe you can think of some answers to these questions. Maybe not. Certainly articles like this one leave a big question mark in my mind. Medusa Coils plans to look at other articles and maybe even books that similarly raise our blood pressure from time to time. If you know of any we should consider, hope you’ll leave a comment. In the meantime, I’ll be stocking up on bp meds.


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At Friday, August 18, 2006 1:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Besides everything you point out, this shows how women's contributions can get "disappeared". Seeing this happen now, it's easier to understand how women's contributions got erased in earlier times, like in early Christianity.


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Judith Laura

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