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Fall 1997

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Fall 1997

Goddess Knows

I was delighted with Judith Antonelli's critique of the usual feminist reading of the Bible [Beyond Nostalgia: Rethinking the Goddess, Summer 1997]. To begin with, there is no historical warrant for believing that the world was or would be a kinder, gentler place with female deities. One has only to look at India, where wife burning is still practiced.

The feminist notion that the Bible invented patriarchy is fatuous, as any anthropologist knows. Patriarchy is and has been a dominant social institution in 90 percent of civilizations and tribes, from the Stone Age to Greek and Roman civilizations, during prebiblical times and among people who never heard of the Bible. Judith Plaskow complained of such unhistorical reading of ancient history and misreading of the Bible as long ago as 1978 in her article "Christian Feminism and Anti-Judaism" (published in Cross Currents, Fall 1978): "There is a new myth developing in Christian feminist circles. It is a myth which tells us that the ancient Hebrews invented patriarchy: that before them the Goddess reigned in matriarchal glory, and that after them Jesus tried to restore egalitarianism but was foiled by the persistence of Jewish attitudes within the Christian tradition. . . .The consequence of this myth is that feminism is turned into another weapon in the Christian-anti-Judaic arsenal."

An antidote to blatant feminist misconceptions about some points in the Bible is Phyllis Trible's "Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread" (published in Womanspirit Rising), in which she points out that the word used for Eve, ezer, which means "helper," is the same word that characterizes God in several passages, and that Genesis is the only early account of the creation of woman as a distinct creature in her own right.

Roberta Kalechofsky, Marblehead, MA

I must take exception with Judith Antonelli's article Beyond Nostalgia: Rethinking the Goddess. It contains many historical inaccuracies, and some of her sources are questionable. As a religious historian, I could correct the falsehoods but I won't, only because it really doesn't matter. It doesn't matter how religions started or what was intended in their holy writings before they were corrupted by male interpretation (as Antonelli says, "the distinction . . . between what the Bible says and what men say the Bible says.") The Bible, the Torah and the Koran -- all contain passages that improved women's status at the time they were written. What does matter is that these holy texts have been used to oppress women for generations.

Antonelli and others spend much time and effort trying to redeem Judaism, Christianity and Islam by reinterpreting their ancient texts from a feminist viewpoint. But the fact remains that these religions oppress women. The ancient Goddess religions were not perfect, though certainly not as bad as Antonelli would have us believe. Today, however, Goddess religions are empowering women to break free from the molds in which the Big Three -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- have cast them. That is the important point. No matter the origins and history of Goddess worship, Goddess religions are freeing and empowering women!

Nadine J. Daugherty, Columbus, OH

In Beyond Nostalgia: Rethinking the Goddess, the author justly claims that male supremacy and militarism did not start with the Hebrews. Her research is incomplete, however, and she is just as inaccurate about her claims against the Goddess myth. She simply did not go back far enough in ancient history; thus in defense of the Jewish story, Antonelli did a disservice to her feminist sisters.

Antonelli buys into the beginning of male dominance with the Hebrews as she builds her case for a matriarchal society (more accurately, matrilineal, in which men and women were partners, and women were revered for their life-giving powers). She needs to go back much further to see the progression from the first intruders into "the utopia" in 4500 b.c.e., in waves up to 2800 b.c.e. Here she'll see the strengthening of kingship, the introduction of weapons and war machinery, the repression of women, the beginning of human sacrifice, the change in mythology and introduction of the pagan temple. She may notice the demeaning of women in these new institutions -- where women became property, were used as slaves and concubines and forced into prostitution -- and recognize that it was in this way that men held back the power of the Goddess and women.

Jacques French, Beaverton, OR

Judith Antonelli's apologia for Judaism and condemnation of goddess worship is informative and enlightening, a worthy piece on that basis alone. But I must write in defense of my feminist sisters' newly emergent spiritual renaissance.

Religions are not spun out of thin air or divinely chiseled into stone tablets. In addition to their role as institutionalized expressions of transcendence, they are gradual processes that evolve in response to previous cultural inadequacies and abuses as well as social constructions designed to control and/or guide a people. Judaic sexual repression is an example of both of these latter aspects, an overcorrection of Canaanite licentiousness. The worship of Mammon in twentieth-century United States is another, an overreaction to the dire poverty experienced throughout Europe in the previous centuries and the abundance of wealth to be found in the New World. The pendulum's swing is a physical law we'll be hard put to overthrow.

Feminist spirituality (should it evolve into an actual religion) will be another response to and correction of what has preceded it. That it is using a previous religion as template is but a first step in the process. That feminism has the freedom and intelligence to discard the negative aspects of that template is already well evidenced in the writing and research of such women as Antonelli and the ongoing practice of feminist spiritualists. That it is an important, necessary component of the feminist movement in its quest to deliver society from the abuses of patriarchy and realize our human potential, I accept. That mistakes will be made along the way is a given.

Holding faith with neither gods nor goddesses, I do have faith in feminism. At least it hasn't told me (yet) to don a wig, lest I tempt my brothers with my genetically endowed head of hair: To use a Dalyism, I am encouraged.

Janis Grant, Almont, MI

Judith Antonelli said, "The Torah began to improve women's status . . . it was only meant as a start." Ancient understanding of the Goddess was also only a start. The Divine is not limited by our choice of words.

Eleanor Richards, Sturgis, SD

Judith S. Antonelli responds: Claims that I am inaccurate are specious when no example is cited. The origins of a religion are extremely important, especially to women who derive spiritual satisfaction from it but want to reject its misogyny. If the misogyny is not inherent (as with the Torah), taking the good and dismissing the bad is both possible and desirable, not apologetic. Women in any field or profession, as well as the Big Three religions, must do this. All feminist women are not going to be pagans.

That male supremacy was a reality by 2800 b.c.e. is correct; that was a full millennium before the births of Abraham and Sarah, as I pointed out. Judaism is not responsible for sexual repression, nor does the issue of women wearing wigs diminish my argument -- that's a man-made sexist law, not found in the Torah. That modern goddess worshipers bear little or no resemblance to ancient goddess worshipers is certainly true, and rejecting male imagery of the Divine remains an important form of resistance in our society.

High Praise . . .

This is the first time I have read your magazine; I am very impressed with the clarity of the reporting and the tackling of difficult subjects. The most wonderful feature is the excellent writing. I only wish that you could extend your excellent reporting to feminist literary criticism, a convoluted, esoteric and elite language. We need more [magazines] such as yours to show the issues, regardless of the views held, in the wonderful voice of clear and literate prose. Thank you; you renew my faith in writing and feminist writers.

Kathleen Carlton Johnson, E-mail

I am a 28 year old feminist living in Orange County, CA. (Yes, land of the conservative yuppies.) I live with my husband and 16-month-old son. We like to think we can change the world one child at a time! We are always seeking ways to communicate the importance of progressive issues to our friends and family in a non-threatening manner. Although we are "Christians," we are embarrassed by the actions and behavior of the church and right-wing leaders, and do not affiliate ourselves with their political or social judgments. We are registered Democrats, and support a more liberal and fair agenda. Women's issues have been very important to me for years, and I hope my son grows up in a country that can walk the walk of fairness and justice, not just talk the talk. We look forward to reading On the Issues!

Kristina Beth Vinas, Monarch Beach, CA

And Challenges . . .

Editor Merle Hoffman's Fatal Denial [Spring 1997], which is about the tragic case of Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson and their pending trial for the alleged murder of their newborn, raises issues that are well-taken. There is one point that needs revisiting.

Hoffman wrote that the couple "shared a state of mind that knows no boundaries of race, class or socioeconomic status -- the state of denial." That is oxymoronic by every parameter by which we measure society. Our reaction to this tragedy is being exposed in part because this is a white, at least middle-class, Anglo- and Jewish-sounding couple who are "supposed to know better," where such behavior is considered -- by our racist thinking -- less of a contretemps in America's underprivileged classes.

Aristotle put it this way: There is a condition, a situation and a cause to every event. Yes, Peterson and Grossberg, if it's true, are the causes of this horror. But they acted out of a situation that was anxiety ridden, and a condition of abortion-choice denial in our present atmosphere that had them likely think their "choices" were limited. As we examine the tree, we must also save the forest.

Don Sloan, M.D., New York, NY

Regarding Merle Hoffman's comment that "anti-abortion conservatives are manipulating the Grossberg-Peterman case to create a rhetorical smog that posits a slippery slope with no differentiation between" killing a newborn and abortion.

I'll tell you what a slippery slope is: starting with a devaluation of life that begins with killing the unborn, then extending that to devaluation of newborns by reducing penalties for killing them. Where is the line finally going to be drawn? What's next, reducing the penalty for killing children of all ages?

Jeffrey Jeffords, E-mail

Educating About Rita

In "Biology and Destiny: The Feminist Reawakening of Nobel Prize Winner Rita Levi-Montalcini," [Spring 1997] the following false or misleading statements were made under my name:

1. "The Feminist Reawakening of Nobel Prize Winner Rita Levi Montalcini." Rita has been a feminist since early childhood. She rejected marriage because she believed it reduced a woman to an inferior status.

2. "Rita had never firmly identified herself as Jewish; her father had notified his four children, before they could even read and write, that they were freethinkers and could choose or refuse a religion when they reached the age of 21." This statement is false. Rita's father was probably a Freemason, but he attended the family's celebrations of Passover and the High Holidays. After being thrown out of her job at the University of Turin, after being prohibited from practicing medicine, after living underground, after refusing to follow advice she received in the United States to drop Levi from her name, all because she is Jewish, there is no question about Rita's firm identification as Jewish.

3. "Depressed by the impotence she experienced with the service, she decided never again to practice medicine." Rita was both doctor and nurse with the Allied Medical Service in Florence. The impotence she experienced was not with the service, but with the many whom she could not help and who died because of the abdominal typhoid epidemic that resulted from contaminated water and the lack of antibiotics.

4. "The volume of the sensory and the sympathetic ganglia was much larger than normal, that sympathetic fibers had invaded the organs." You didn't describe the functions of the sensory and sympathetic ganglia, and of the sympathetic fibers; you didn't explain how the much larger volume of the sensory and sympathetic ganglia "confirmed her hypothesis about the humoral nature of the substance." You rejected my clear explanations of simpler processes.

These were only the worst of the errors made under my name.

Ruby Rohrlich, Washington, D.C.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

It was with pride and grief that I read Phyllis Chesler's powerful article The Mystery and Tragedy of Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome [Spring 1997]. Pride in seeing Chesler "out" the anguish of her illness without apologies or appeals for pity but rather rage and frustration. Grief, thinking of all the anguish this illness has caused and continues to cause for its victims.

Aviva Rahmani, Vinalhaven Island, Maine

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