A Feminist Metaformic Thea/theology

by | Feb 18, 2024 | D'vorah Grenn's Writings and Research | 1 comment

A key piece of my doctoral work was the metaformic thea/theology I constructed, which grew out of Judy Grahn’s metaformic theory/philosophy, which posits that women’s rituals created and maintain culture, indeed that they teach us what it means to be human. While Grahn talks about women as sacred, and our relationship with Nature in a way that could certainly be described as a relationship with divinity, my spirit, mind and senses could not fully grasp the deep and far-reaching aspects of her theory until I had framed it for myself as a thea/theology. This has been published as an article in the academic journal “Metaformia: A Journal of Menstruation and Culture,” www.metaformia.com

From “For She Is A Tree of Life”:

Theological Framework

The theological part of this research was for me the strongest, working in concert with but often overshadowing my theoretical framework and questions.

How did these theoretical and theological frameworks affect my choice of methods and procedures? My feminist epistemology has been made up of feminist theory, postmodern and critical theory. As this combined in practice, with my religious beliefs and daily spiritual practice, I developed the metaformic theology—grounded in Judy Grahn’s metaformic theory—described in the next section. This theology became a strong part of my methodology, a guiding light through the most difficult stages of the work. My feminist standpoint influenced my choice of methodologies and methods from the beginning; my values and belief systems also led me to shape the procedures, craft the research design and formulate the questions as I did.

Methodology and Procedures

This section will describe my research methodologies and explain why I chose organic and participatory methods. It also discusses how the metaformic theology developed, what sets it apart from other forms of inquiry and how I applied it as a methodology.

I operated out of a transpersonal paradigm in doing this work, as stated earlier, and from that framework did the research through the combination of methods described below.

Research Methods

I chose to use qualitative instead of quantitative methods because I remain more interested in women’s experience of ritual and prayer than in how many women practice a specific ritual, how many feel closer to God when they do a ritual and so on. The things I want to know are not, for me, meaningfully expressed by measuring quantities. I also like the flexibility of qualitative methods; while they hold the researcher to a higher ethical standard, as noted, they also allow for adaptation to human factors as one moves through the research. As opposed to quantitative methods, which seek a more positivist outcome, they make one evaluate more closely one’s intentions throughout the project—in terms of how the inquiry can help improve people’s lives, what questions to ask and how to involve the researched group more as participants and less as “subjects”. Organic inquiry became one of my methods because it is based on these principles, and because it views research as a sacred process, holding our own experience as both valuable and validating.

“Where most qualitative research insists that the researcher identify and bracket her or his assumptions and presuppositions to achieve a state that is free of personal judgment, organic inquiry depends on the researcher’s ability to hold her or his personal experience, both of the topic and of the progress of the research itself, in the foreground as the data are gathered and analyzed and to consciously use it as the vehicle for analysis of the data” (Clements et al. 1998). In addition to wanting to do a respectful study that would be as accurate as humanly possible, I also included a form of participatory research, by asking Dr. Rudo Mathivha to be my co-researcher in South Africa.

My own questions, described in the Introduction and at the beginning of this chapter formed the basis of this inquiry not only in an academic but in a very personal sense. They drove me, nagged at me and frustrated me most when they refused to be answered easily and instead only gave birth to new questions. I gradually learned to accept many of those moments as rewarding, since it was at those points that the inquiry often deepened.

My own questions about life, God, religion in general and Judaism in particular, the need for any god and definitions of spirituality, the shape of different women’s ritual and prayer practices—all of these inspired the inquiry, came to the fore at unexpected times and places, and shaped my own practice and the way I asked questions of others. My expectations shifted as I understood the impossibility of getting complete answers to any of my questions, and I began to see how intensely personal and sensitive my topics were.

In talking to people from both Africa and the United States during the project, I discovered that both God and religion are topics many do not want to discuss. To do so calls into question one’s role in the world. Perhaps these questions also cause people discomfort because the questions require that people examine areas they may normally avoid. Both subjects touch on people’s deepest feelings about who they are, and where they are in their own lives.

Another component of organic inquiry that made it fit well with this project is the natural process of storytelling, which the organic method shares with the storytelling that is so core to both the Lemba and European-American Jewish cultures.

Metaformic Theology Becomes Methodology

Acknowledging the importance of personal experience as a source of wisdom and truth, the feminist theologian leads others to discover, sharing [Rabbi] Laura Geller’s sentiments…that there is a “Torah of our lives as well as the Torah that was written down. Both need to be listened to and wrestled with: both unfold through interactive commentary”.

Ellen M. Umansky, Jewish theologian (in Dorff & Newman, 1999, 143)79

Metaformic theology shares the belief that theology/thealogy begins in experience, as discussed by Linda Hurcombe (Hurcombe, 1987), Carol Christ (Christ, 1997), Luisah Teish (personal communications, 2000-2002) and other feminist clergy, writers, scholars and theologians. And so this part of my research—the embodied theological piece—began by taking a ritual bath, and continued in and out of newly constructed women’s spirituality temples, in churches and synagogues, at academic conferences and classes, at oceans and rivers.

I realized that metaformic theology, an expansion of Judy Grahn’s metaformic theory (1993, 1999) was also becoming a methodology as I moved through this work. One night as I was deeply involved in watching a videotaped conversation I had had with twenty women at Hamangilasi it occurred to me that not only was the theology a means of finding deep connection with God; it was also a research method. I was doing something beyond looking at women’s rituals as the metaforms Judy Grahn first identified—themselves a source of endless fascination, inspiration, and cross-cultural connection.

Metaformic theology itself was serving as one of my methodologies, a thread running throughout the research that helped me explain and evaluate what I was finding. At the same time, it gave me the passion I needed to remain committed to the work. The connection to deity that became more embodied through an awareness of metaforms provided me with a way to understand the importance of my methods that moved beyond self. I believe ultimately the theology as methodology gave me a larger sense of my relationship with my spiritual and other communities.

I began to understand the connection I had with other women through a shared history of our bodies’ cycles, and this has impacted much of my process throughout the work. Even if I had not been involved in religious rites such as the mikvah, I certainly had been through the ritual of dealing with monthly cycles. I learned that women share a power and a knowledge no one else can interpret for us; despite the imposition of many mikvah ‘rules’ by men, the essence of the ritual cannot be taken away from women. The more I study the mikvah, the more I think women invented the whole ritual—for seclusion, rest, and spiritual renewal—many thousands of years ago, long before the concept of Judaism even existed. This brings us right back to the idea of the mikvah as metaform.

Before studying metaformic theory, I had not seen or acknowledged this connection with other women, this shared wisdom because I had not shared other aspects of biology and sexuality which women usually share. I had never been pregnant, nor did I feel I could share my sense of sexuality with other women, either because I was too embarrassed or too socially bound—it was something “nice girls” didn’t talk about much.

To learn that it was women who created the calendar, through their unique connection to a cosmic source of timekeeping, the moon, and that it was women who invented agriculture, weaving and so many other aspects of culture was exhilarating. That very knowledge held the potential for connection to spirit; indeed, it gave menstruation a spiritual dimension no one had ever told me about, but about which other women are now also writing. Suddenly I was proud of my body and its functions, beyond its appearance and sexuality. It was a short leap to understanding how much of our innate power and sense of self gets stolen, co-opted by the age of eleven or earlier through the language of shame, through the secrecy and embarrassment which accompany menstruation in this culture, through the lack of celebration and community acknowledgment—all factors solidified by organized religion.

As a feminist epistemology, metaformic theology—like metaformic theory—asks that I connect with my own body as a source of valid and valuable, indeed undeniable information. This has allowed me to see myself as sacred, making my own divinity clear to me.

When the concept of a metaformic theology first hit me, returning from a women’s spirituality conference at the University of Ottawa, I felt more clearly than I ever had this sense of divine immanence. My belief had been taken out of the realm of academic study, wishful thinking or conjecture about prehistoric societies80; it was suddenly set apart from the intellectual and theological debates over whether there was any such thing as a Goddess-worshiping culture in ancient times. A deeper connection had been made, and my own body and spirit were the proof.

I could no longer disbelieve these sources, for to do so would have been to ignore my own intelligence, to continue the very scenario a patriarchal culture had spoon-fed me since birth, the very paradigm I was critiquing and trying to deconstruct. This was a paradigm to which I owed no allegiance; it had lost value and meaning for me once I realized it caused me to assign little value or meaning to women’s words, deeds, opinions—including my own.

At that moment, as I traveled home from Canada, I was no longer male-identified. I had learned to define myself, and after that “decided to accept as true my own thinking.”81 In seeking—and finding—cross-cultural menstrual connections among women, between ritual practices82, I came to a stronger sense of women’s power, and so God’s presence. These connections, perhaps more than anything, allowed me to feel the very real in-dwelling presence of Shekhinah, not just the abstract religious construct of an external, transcendent, unforgiving male god.83

A metaformic theology provided an internal, embodied way of viewing the world and my role in it, a way of talking to and living in each day. Metaformic theory led me to the theology, giving me new eyes, and new language to express women’s relationships with God and the cosmos.

One tenet of the theory which I do not elaborate on at length here, cultural obversity (Grahn 1999)84, also gave me more tolerance with which to view other cultures, especially the more traditional, religious branches of Judaism. Grahn defines this concept by noting that cultural differences, or “othering”, gain their intensity from the fact that seclusion’s principles are obverse, resulting in a paradox; what one people revere or worship may be viewed as filthy, shameful or deadly by another (Grahn 1999).

I had some skepticism when I first learned of metaforms— enacted or embodied ideas which derive from menstrual or related rites—in a class taught by Judy Grahn in 1998; metaforms gradually became an endless source of fascination and inspiration, however, and a part of how I view the world. As I went about my field research, both at home and abroad, they gave me a way to see and feel connections with other cultures more deeply than I might have otherwise. Best of all, they led me to a theology and to a new way of conversing, both with God and other women.

79 Also see Umansky’s earlier work, Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality (Umansky and Ashton, eds., 1992.)

80 As my friend and colleague Cosi Fabian once wrote, “I accept the impossibility of even imagining the state of mind of our foremothers. For example, “worship” – how relevant [would that have been] to a group immersed in the Divine?” (Fabian, personal communication, 2002).

81 Thanks to Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) for making this eloquent statement.

82 I include the use of amulets in the United States and red ochre in South Africa—both often used in a prophylactic context, to avert evil—in this phrasing.

83 Not having undertaken extensive Talmudic or Kabbalistic studies prior to this work, I did not know how deeply ingrained Shekhinah is in sacred Jewish texts. I had sometimes heard Her name offered by men defending a male-centered liturgy, as a quick explanation for how the concept of a female deity “really is a part of Judaism”; since She is never mentioned in traditional temple services, I found this to be mere lip service. If She were really present, why were we not occasionally saying “Our Mother, Our Queen” in synagogue? A number of people have been extremely active in bringing Her back to our midst, however. For additional material, see the work of Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (1995), Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi (1997), Rabbi Arthur Waskow (1996), Rabbi Elyse Goldstein (1998), Rabbi Geela Rayzel-Raphael, Chochmat Halev, a Jewish renewal congregation in Berkeley, Phyllis Berman of Elat Chayyim Center, New York, poet Alicia Ostriker (1993) and other Jewish renewal and reconstructionist sources.

84 See Judy Grahn’s dissertation,Are Goddesses Metaformic Constructs?” (Grahn 1999).

The Politics of Acceptance and Cultural Identities – “Who Is A Jew?”

I invite comment from readers on the following excerpt from my doctoral dissertation:

“Who Is A Jew? Shared and Contested Identities”

Click on this link for the text: PDF/Diss for Site.pdf


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