OTI Online
Summer 1997

Beyond Nostalgia:
RETHINKING THE GODDESS
by Judith S. Antonelli


The pagan temple was the original brothel.

Once upon a time there was a Great Mother Goddess who was worshiped all over the world. Under Her benevolent care, humans lived in peace with each other and in harmony with nature. Women were honored as Her earthly representatives and served as Her priestesses, enacting Her sacred sexual rites in groves and temples at seasonal festivals.
   One day a band of male warriors with a violent male god invaded this utopia, destroying the Goddess and installing their god as the "one and only" deity. From that day forward, women were subjugated, nature was exploited, militarism was glorified, and sexual repression became the law. This new order is described in the Hebrew Bible.


Two decades ago, the feminist spirituality movement emerged from the general women's liberation movement. Many women who had rejected the male God and sexist teachings of their religious upbringings nevertheless found that they needed some form of spirituality to nourish their souls. A kind, nurturing mother Goddess seemed to fill the void.

In searching for female images of the Divine, we turned to ancient pagan goddesses such as Asherah and Anat of Canaan, Isis of Egypt and Ishtar of Babylonia. Not only did we embrace these goddesses, however, we also adopted the perspective that these societies -- because they worshiped goddesses -- held women, sexuality and nature in high regard. Thus the "feminist fairy tale" (described above) was born. In the last 20 years it has become widely accepted as historical fact and, in one form or another, it continues to fuel the imaginations and feed the spiritual hunger of women who are understandably searching for an alternative to male-dominated religion.

There's just one problem with this story: It's inaccurate. It whitewashes the male supremacy and militarism of ancient paganism, falsely attributing the origin of these phenomena to "the Hebrews." It completely ignores the fact that sexual abuse and exploitation, ritual castration, phallus worship and even human sacrifice were all integral aspects of the worship of the earth-mother goddess and her consort, the vegetation god who was her son or brother. Even this divine incest does not seem to provoke any repugnance among feminists who are justifiably outraged by human incest.

Veiled Goddess
by Nancy Azara.
15" x 12" x 6", carved and painted wood with gold leaf.

Do modern women who are enchanted by the Egyptian goddess Isis know that her worship included the annual drowning of a young (virgin) girl in the Nile River to assure a plentiful inundation and harvest? James Frazer tells us this in The Golden Bough -- a commonly cited source in feminist spirituality -- and Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi also mentions it.

Do modern women who are attracted by the Babylonian goddess Ishtar know that many of her priestesses were simply temple slaves? These women, captured in warfare and dedicated by the king to Ishtar's temple in thanks for the military victory, were branded with a star (Ishtar's symbol), just like the animals that were dedicated to her. They were not free to leave their "priestesshood."

Lenore Walker, writing about battered women, claims that "prior to the creation of the Bible, women were not treated this way; rather, women were worshiped as the Goddesses of Life." Ironically, we must turn to a male author to learn that, in fact, an Egyptian husband had the right to beat his wife and a brother to beat his sister.

Without ever using the word "Jew," Walker is nevertheless telling us that the Jews started wife beating. Would she really have us believe that the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, whose empires were literally built by slave labor, never beat their wives? Both of these cultures predated the Hebrews by at least a millennium (Abraham and Sarah, the first Hebrews, were originally Babylonians). In the feminist fairy tale, however, these cultures are portrayed as benevolent, peaceful and matriarchal.

Versions of the feminist fairy tale can now be found in New Age and mainstream books, articles and television documentaries on the history of Western religion. Like the proverbial Big Lie, which is believed simply because it is repeated so often, historical revisionism on the subject has literally spun out of control.

To understand the Hebrew Bible, first you must forget everything that Christianity has taught you. When Christianity appropriated Hebrew scriptures as its Old Testament, it ignored all the centuries of rabbinic commentaries that, in Judaism, are considered essential to understanding any biblical verse. This is not to deny that sexism exists in rabbinic Judaism, but only to say that that should not be confused with Christianity's sexism and its distortion of another people's writings -- a people whom Christianity then persecuted for 2,000 years. And it is definitely the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible that has predominated in Western civilization (even in the minds of many Jews raised in a Christian culture).

It was not Jewish tradition that used Exodus 22:17, "A sorceress you shall not sustain," as a rationale for the mass murder of women as witches in the Middle Ages. It was King James I who translated this as "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," and then used it to justify the Inquisition. King James' fervent belief in demonology (he wrote a book about it) is actually more akin to what the Torah verse means by sorcery than are any of the activities or beliefs of the women who were burned at the stake.

It was not Jewish tradition that interpreted the story of Adam and Eve as a rationale for women's subordination to men, that equated the forbidden fruit with sexuality (and made the woman a temptress), or that claimed that all of humanity is born with the stain of original sin as a result. As is typical in rabbinic commentary, there are a number of diverse views; you've heard the saying, "three Jews, four opinions"? Among these views, there are certainly some sexist ones, but they are a minority. The majority of rabbinic opinions tells us the following:

• that the first human was created as a hermaphrodite, a male and female joined back to back.

• that the "creation of woman" was actually the separation of the female from the male by cutting them apart at the "side" (tzela, a Hebrew word that often gets translated as "rib").

• that the term ezer knegdo, usually translated as "helpmate," actually means "a help against him": If he is worthy, she will help him; if he is unworthy, she should oppose him. This is clearly not a prescription for an obedient wife; rather, it validates a woman's ability to accurately judge a man and treat him accordingly.

• that the serpent spoke to Eve alone because Adam was "asleep" (a metaphor, perhaps, for male consciousness?).

• that the consequence -- not necessarily a "punishment" -- for Adam was having to till the earth for food; before that, food was ready-made. The consequence for Eve was the nine-month gestation period; before that, children were "ready-made."

• that Genesis 3:16, "For your husband you will long, and he will rule you," is a statement that (most) women will have sexual desire for men in spite of the results -- that is, the discomfort of pregnancy, the pain of childbirth, and the fact that men can be real jerks. The Hebrew word translated here as "rule," mashal, does not mean to rule by domination (that would be malakh). It is the same verb used to say that the sun "rules" the day and the moon "rules" the night. From this we can deduce that it refers to a kind of affinity between man and woman.

While it is true that the sociological sexism in the Jewish community has prevented these interpretations from being in the forefront of Jewish education, the fact remains that these interpretations are nevertheless there in the tradition. Hidden gems such as these make it imperative that women undertake traditional Torah study and not just leave it to men.

The God of the Hebrew Bible is meant to be a noncorporeal (and therefore genderless) Being. Hebrew is a gendered language, however; there is no neuter. The masculine gender, which is the root form, is used in most cases to describe God. There are exceptions; for instance, Moses addresses God as feminine in Numbers 11:15. Also, many of the words could be either masculine or feminine; it is how they are vocalized that determines their gender -- and vocalization was determined by men.

The "linguistic maleness" of God is exaggerated by translation into nongendered languages such as English. It has been solidified into a physical image (totally prohibited in Judaism) of maleness by Christian theology, which has God "impregnating" a woman and "fathering" a son.

The notion that God is beyond gender was radical and potentially very liberating in the context of Canaanite, Egyptian and Babylonian religion in the first and second millennia B.C.E.

The Canaanite pantheon was completely a product of incest. According to the Canaanite epic poetry found on the Ras Shamra tablets, an archeological discovery from 14th-century B.C.E. Ugarit (northern Canaan), the goddess Asherah had 70 children by her brother, the god El -- including a son, Baal, and a daughter, Anat. His daughter was also impregnated by El. Baal castrated El and then took Asherah sexually. To complete the incestuous circle of this divine dysfunctional family, Baal then had sex with Anat.

A symbolic reenactment of the incest between Baal and Asherah formed an essential part of Canaanite fertility rites. This is why the Hebrew Bible has such repugnance for it and commands the Jews to eliminate "the Baal and the Asherah" from their midst. Instead of applauding this, feminists have criticized it as "patriarchal."

In Egyptian mythology, creation of the universe was accomplished through an act of masturbation by the sun god Atum. When Isis' brother and husband Osiris was killed and dismembered, she recovered all his body parts except his penis; she therefore made an artificial one for him, which became a focus of Egyptian worship. At Osiris' bull festival, women carried a genitally explicit replica of him that they set in motion by means of strings.

In Babylonian mythology (the Enuma Elish), creation is described as occurring through the murder and dismemberment of the goddess Tiamat by the god Marduk:

He released the arrow, it tore her belly, It cut through her insides, splitting the heart. Having thus subdued her, he extinguished her life. He cast down her carcass to stand upon it.... The lord trod on the legs of Tiamat, With his unsparing mace he crushed her skull. When the arteries of her blood he had severed... Then the lord paused to view her dead body.... He split her like a shellfish into two parts: Half of her he set up...as sky... In her belly he established the zenith....

In spite of "linguistic maleness," the God of the Hebrew Bible does not have a phallus, commit rape and incest, or create the universe through masturbation or the murder and mutilation of a female! Abraham and Sarah's radical vision of one genderless God must have been a welcome relief from these pagan gods made in the image of abusive men.

The service of these gods was also primarily sexual. Contrary to the feminist fairy tale, this service was exploitative and sometimes mutilating. The pagan temple was, in effect, the original brothel. The priestess of a goddess lived in the temple and was required to have ritual sex with any man who came and paid the price to the temple treasury; she was not free to refuse anyone. The priestess of a god was required to have ritual sex at harvest festivals with kings, pharaohs, and emperors.

The priest of a goddess was a transvestite eunuch who had ritual sex with men. Castration was the means by which these men were "dedicated" to the goddess; their phalluses were often gilded and treated as sacred objects. Asherah was served by eunuch priests.

The priest of a god was in charge of "feeding" the god with daily sacrifices and libations and honoring him with song, music, and incense. His was the only type of service that had no sexual component. To "wean" the Jews from pagan sex rites yet leave them with something familiar to cling to, the Torah had to use the model of a male priesthood serving a (linguistically) male deity.

This, then, is the context in which the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) was given on Mount Sinai. Its laws concerning marriage, divorce, adultery, rape, inheritance, slavery and conduct in warfare reflect an already-existing social reality. Because of this, what appears to be the Torah's sexism is actually a reflection of the sexism of Babylonian, Egyptian, and Canaanite societies.

Divorce is a good example. The Torah (Deut. 24:1) states that a man who wants to divorce his wife must write her a bill of divorce. In the ancient world, divorce was a unilateral prerogative of men. A man could divorce his wife simply by verbally dismissing her. The wife could not contest it, nor could she institute any similar proceeding against him. And in a society where women had no economic independence and were valued only as wives and as mothers of sons, being cast out by her husband could leave her homeless and penniless.

Requiring a man to write a bill of divorce actually protected a woman from being divorced on a whim. He had to give the matter some forethought and could not cast her out in a temporary, impulsive fit of anger. Today, sexist male interpretation in Judaism insists that this verse means that only men may initiate divorce! How utterly ironic that a law meant to protect women from male abuse has been twisted into another form of male abuse.

This illustrates the distinction that often needs to be made between what the Bible says and what men say the Bible says. Indeed, far from oppressing women, the Torah began to improve women's status in the ancient world -- in small steps, to be sure, but it was only meant as a start. If that was its mandate then, how much more so should it continue to be in modern times!


JUDITH S. ANTONELLI is a feminist and a religiously observant Jew who lives in Boston, Massachusetts. Her book, In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah (Jason Aronson, 1995), has just been released in paperback.


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