Feminism and Messianism

By Balin, Carole B. | Tikkun, November/December 1996 | Go to article overview

Feminism and Messianism


Balin, Carole B., Tikkun


Feminism and Messianism

Carole B. Balin, a rabbi, is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department of Columbia University and an instructor of history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The ways in which Jews envision the Messiah are as varied as the far-flung places from which Jews will putatively stream forth once the Messiah arrives. Compare, for example, the following two illustrations of the Messiah culled from Jewish tradition. A fifteenth-century Haggadah of Munich depicts the Messiah as a man riding atop a white donkey being led into Jerusalem by Elijah the prophet. In contrast, Rabbi Azriel of thirteenth-century Spain characterizes the Messiah not as a physical being at all, but as a spiritualized force representing the perfection of the ten sefirot, which, according to the mystics, are the spheres that constitute the universe. Radically disparate images such as these show that Judaism puts forth no single, unified concept of messianism. Rather, Jewish messianism consists of any number of different expressions, each sharing a messianic consciousness--that is, a utopian yearning to transform the imperfect present into an ideal future.

Jewish feminism, too, has a messianic consciousness. Striving to bring about an ideal future, it forms a part of the whole of Jewish messianism. Its unique voice declares judgment on the patriarchy of the present and insists upon its eradication and displacement. It calls for a new age in which differences between the sexes will not only be recognized but valued equally. Notably, Jewish feminists conceive of the new age as something utterly new. They do not expect the perfect future to be a return to a "golden era" of Judaism, for, as the historical record attests, no period in the Jewish past was "golden" as far as Jewish women's experience is concerned.

Therefore, Jewish feminism is nourished by hope for a fresh future; its messianic consciousness seems to encompass a wholly utopian vision. But, as the noted Jewish historian Gershom Scholem has pointed out, any manifestation of Jewish messianism requires a combination of utopian and restorative tendencies. After all, Jewish messianism has been customarily understood as a belief in the certainty that God will restore the people Israel to greatness through a redeemer. The restorative tendency of messianism is directed backward to an ideal past; it is conditioned solely by history and memory. Its hope is to re-establish an original state of things.

What "original state of things" might Jewish feminists resurrect to create their ideal future? Can Jewish feminism be legitimately incorporated into the "canon" of Jewish messianism? Here the work of the archeologist Carol Meyers is instructive. Combining literary analysis and archeological evidence, Meyers has reassessed how Israelite society--as depicted in the Hebrew Bible--developed. She found that war, famine, and plague intensified the role women played in domestic affairs. Prior to the calamities--during the earliest stages of Israel's formation--it appears that women's and men's roles were less stratified and more equally valued. When the crises passed, however, the restriction of women to the domestic sphere had become so deeply ingrained in Israelite society that it endured and ultimately became the basis for women's inferiority and subordination.

In order to create their ideal future, Jewish feminists might resurrect the "original state of things," as reconstructed by Meyers and others reclaiming the historical experience of Jewish women. In so doing, Jewish feminism can take its deserved place in the ever-fluctuating "canon" of Jewish messianism. In light of Scholem's definition, Jewish feminism is but one thread in the Jewish messianic fabric, projecting a singular messianic vision of a perfect future to be woven into the whole. …

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