Spirituality and Politics: Lessons from B'not Esh
Plaskow, Judith, Tikkun
One of the earliest and most important lessons I learned from my Jewish feminist spirituality collective, B'not Esh, concerned the connection between spirituality and politics. In seeking to get to know each other when we first met in 1981, we spent three sessions in small groups sharing our spiritual pasts, presents, and futures. The past and the present, we had no difficulty discussing. When it came to the future, however, my group seemed to veer from the subject into numerous digressions.
After repeatedly chiding ourselves for talking about work, community, relationships, politics--in short, everything but spirituality--we suddenly realized that, in fact, we were addressing those realities that stood between us and our ability to imagine our spiritual futures. If we wanted to live as feminist Jews, we would have to help create communities--and create a world--in which such a spirituality would be possible. For all of us, this was a key moment in understanding the relationship between our individual spiritual lives and the wider social and political contexts in which we lived. As feminists, we. were committed to the notion that "the personal is political": That many of women's seemingly personal problems are a function of fundamental social inequities, and can be resolved only as those inequities are addressed.
Now we began to see that "the spiritual is political." Our difficulties in projecting our spiritual futures were likewise connected to larger structural issues. Both the ways in which Judaism as a religious tradition diminished us as women, and the demands and priorities of the larger social system constituted impediments to our relationship with the sacred. In this situation, politics, we realized, is the necessary work we do to make the world safe for our spirituality.
We made less effort to define "spirituality" precisely. The group implicitly understood it as both ongoing mindfulness of the sacred in the ordinary moments of our lives, and special moments of vision and celebration, of particularly intense connection between ourselves and the sacred.
In the aftermath of the 1994 elections and the increasing influence of the Christian Right, I keep coming back to these insights as a potential source of an alternative religious/political vision. On the one hand, it is clear that religion and spirituality are much too important to many people's lives to surrender their mantle and definition to the Right's patriarchal, authoritarian, and individualistic reading of a complex biblical tradition. On the other hand, unless we are to fall into what liberation theologian Hugo Assman aptly calls the "fundamentalism of the left"--a tendency to equate liberating texts with the whole of the "biblical message"--it must be acknowledged that progressives cannot advance the same neat and authoritative program of religious principles and injunctions that the Right pretends to offer.
Progressive spirituality is, by definition, a critical spirituality, cognizant of the oppressive strands within the Bible and tradition, and concerned about their power to shape consciousness and actions. As we tried to imagine our spiritual futures as B'not Esh, for example, we were repeatedly brought up against those aspects of Judaism that themselves impeded this process. Mindful of the tensions and contradictions within each religious tradition, a liberating spirituality must consciously ally itself with some strands against others. But this means it is unwilling to claim the absolute authority that is part of what makes the Right so attractive.
In other columns in TIKKUN, I have discussed the problem of authority and laid out a feminist critique of various aspects of Jewish tradition. Here, in an effort to formulate an alternative to the right-wing version of a religious politics, I want to suggest some positive elements of the spirituality and politics I have experienced through B'not Esh as well as in other contexts. …