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Yael Shemesh Feminist Biblical Research: Different Ways – A Common Purpose

I welcome this initiative of unifying forces among various denominations in the feminist camp stemming from the understanding that we all share a common goal.
Since I am an Orthodox Jew, I was probably invited to this panel as a conservative voice, but I will reveal to you that in a certain sense I also represent a radical voice, as I am an eco-feminist who believes that there is a link between feminism and animal rights.

Let us begin on the conservative side. In my article “Directions in Jewish Feminist Bible Study” (Currents in Biblical Research 14,3 [2016], 372–406) I presented two opposing directions in feminist Bible research. The first direction, which I named “Militant Feminist Scholarship,” goes against the ancient text which is incompatible with modern ideas such as gender equality. The intention of scholars belonging to this school of thought is to undermine the authority of the Bible as a culturally-formative text. The other direction, which I termed “Mediating Feminist Scholarship,” seeks to build a bridge between the ancient text and modernist feminist ideology by concentrating on the positive aspects of the Bible regarding women, perhaps in the hope that what one concentrates on will increase and proliferate. An exegete of this direction is Phyllis Trible (“Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” in Elizabeth Koltun, ed., The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives, Schocken, 1976, pp. 217–240; eadem, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Fortress Press, 1978).

As for my personal stance toward the Bible, with all my appreciation of it as a culturally-formative text, and with all my admiration for the literary and ethical peaks which it achieves, I cannot deny that the Bible includes some passages that arouse my intense resistance, such as the imperative to destroy the seven nations; the imperative to kill men involved in same-sex relationships; animal exploitation for worship and personal purposes; and, of course, women's social and legal inferiority. Even though I am an Orthodox Jew, I am not willing to subordinate my worldview to anything and everything that is written in the Bible, and to say that evil is good and that darkness is light (see Isaiah 5:20).

Naturally, religious feminists who regard the Bible with respect, whether Jewish or Christian, will tend toward the mediating direction, although obviously there is no dichotomous division here. I too prefer to emphasize that the Bible is not misogynistic, that is, the Bible does not describe women as inferior to men morally or intellectually, although it is, of course, patriarchal and androcentric, and depicts women as socially and legally inferior.

For example, Trible and others emphasize that the image of Eve in Genesis is not necessarily a negative one, of a woman who has inflicted a terrible disaster on humanity, but rather her character has positive sides: a desire to know, curiosity in the positive sense, independence, and readiness to take risks. The sin results not only in the traumatic expulsion from the Garden of Eden but also in gaining independence, the discernment between good and evil, and possibly, according to certain opinions, also in sexual relations and the ability to procreate.

I wish to make it clear that I fully understand the rationale of the militant feminist research, and under different life circumstances I might have found my place among its ranks. But as a religious woman teaching Bible at Bar-Ilan University, which is a religious university, and as the Director of the “Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism,” it seems to me that not only for my mental health is it preferable for me to focus on the mediating direction, but that, by so doing, I have a better chance to change things for the better from within.

This is also exactly how I feel about my activism on behalf of animals, and so now I will move to the more radical voice which I represent as well. I am a vegetarian since the age of 5, I realized then that meat and fish are animals who are killed. I became a vegan twenty-six years ago and have been active for animal rights for decades. In the struggle for animal rights I find the same opposing directions with regard to the Bible: there are those who blame the Hebrew Bible for the speciesism of Western culture and its terrible attitude toward animals. This is a legitimate claim, but as someone who conducts conversations with rabbis and religious Knesset members on issues related to the pain inflicted on animals in Israel (such as geese fattening which was done in the past but is prohibited now, the breeding conditions of laying hens, and the live transports of cattle and sheep from Australia) I am convinced that my contribution to this issue is more significant if I choose the opposite way of emphasizing compassion for animals in Judaism in general and in the Bible in particular. I emphasize the prohibition to hurt animals and the terrible suffering which is their lot in modern industries, suffering to an extent that our forefathers did not imagine. Of course, I also mention Judaism's plant-based diet originating in Genesis 1:29.

The reasons for my referral to the vegan agenda are:

  1. As I have mentioned, I find similarities in terms of tactics between the vegan agenda and the feminist agenda when considering what should be emphasized: the negative or the positive references in the Bible on the issues at hand.
  2. I believe that there is a correlation between feminism and veganism, and I also think that holistic feminism should strive for veganism.

In my view, the link between vegetarianism and feminist consciousness comes from a well-developed sense of justice and from one's uprising against discrimination and oppression. You may be upset by the implicit comparison between women and animals, but you should also remember that in the case of animals, the discrimination is, of course, much more severe, ending up in the wholesale murder of countless animals.

In my opinion, feminism should be part of a holistic worldview that does not ignore injustice toward any group of human beings or other sentient and sensitive beings. For example, since the dawn of the feminist movement there was a correlation between the struggle for women's rights and the struggle for the abolition of slavery. Elizabeth Cady Stanton represents this attitude. Many women in the feminist movement were also vegetarians (see Leah Leneman, “The awakened Instinct: Vegetarianism and the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain”, Women’s History Review 16,2 (1997), 271–287). I agree with Carol J. Adams’s eco-feminist theory as presented in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (Bloomsbury Academic, 1990). It makes a strong connection between the meat-eating culture and the patriarchal exploitation of women and women’s bodies.

As a woman, I protest against exploiting the reproductive organs of laying hens and cows. From early childhood we are taught that the cow gives us milk. A lie! We rob her of her milk. First, we inseminate her artificially (isn't that rape?) to cause pregnancy which results in her producing milk. Immediately after birth, the cow’s offspring is stolen away from her while ignoring both the mother’s and the newborn’s painful mooing. All of this is done to gain control of her milk, which is intended for the calf and not for us. It seems to me that any ethical person, and particularly women of feminist consciousness, should rise up against such extreme exploitation of a mother’s body. I hope that my words will not be rejected just due to habit or due to profits that the human race has been making from this habit. May my words inspire thought and possibly bring about change.

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Yael Shemesh Ph.D.,

is Associate Professor in Hebrew Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel, and the head of Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism. Her main fields of interest are feminist interpretation to the Bible, animal ethics, the poetics of biblical narrative, prophetic stories, and mourning in the Bible. Among her publications are Mourning in the Bible: Coping with Loss in Biblical Literature (in Hebrew; Tel Aviv, 2015).

© Yael Shemesh, 2020,, ISSN 1661-3317