Nina Paley, Censorship and ‘Seder-Masochism’

by Phyllis Chesler

Last week, out-of-the-blue, a very decent, committed, and radical feminist scholar asked me what I thought about Nina Paley. Apparently, Paley has been de-platformed, harassed, and death threatened for her view of the transgender cult. And so I checked Paley out. There is no doubt: Paley is a brilliant and creative feminist animator but her work makes me uneasy, unhappy, and afraid.

Here’s why.

Paley’s “Seder-Masochism” depicts the prophet Moses as well as all Jewish men as directly responsible for murdering “the” Goddess. In Paley’s view, the Golden Calf was not about the longing of former slaves to return to slavery but was really about the longing of former Goddess-worshippers to return to “the” Goddess.” 

This misses the point entirely. Slaves cling to slavery, coming to terms with the demands of freedom is a long process. Pharoah’s Hebrew slaves did not worship Goddesses. They were Jews, not pagans.

She presents Jesus at the Last Supper, which we all believe was a Seder. Paley slightly Arabizes the Aramaic of the Haggadah turning “Ha Lachma Anya” into “Al Ahbar Anya.” One must wonder why. Is this in line with the propaganda that Jesus was a Palestinian Arab—Muslim? Or is this merely playful, comical?

Whimsically, significantly, Pharaoh’s voice is that of an African-American man singing the blues. We are not meant to fear, despite, hate Pharoah. But why? 

The Hebrew women are wrongly depicted as burqa wearers—who are then liberated into Goddess-like nudity. The formerly Hebrew male slaves sing a catchy popular tune to the naked Goddess-Ladies: “I love you now and forever….Woman, I never meant to cause you sorrow or pain.” Oddly, despite the legendary Prophet Miriam having led the newly freed female slaves in both song and dance, no Hebrew women join in this song. 

Moses then descends from Mt Sinai, destroys the Ten Commandments—which is followed by Paley’s personal father-God singing: “I used to love her but I had to kill her.” “The” Goddess is then visually split in two before our eyes by a large animated male figure who quickly and literally dons her skin.

Paley then uses the theme song from the movie “Exodus” (“This land is mine”), about the creation of the modern state of Israel, to depict the non-stop murder of each and every tribe by each and every other tribe over the millennia until a black, winged Angel of Death rises slowly and ominously to sing, exultantly, “This land is mine.”  

If Paley did not feel the need to blame and desecrate only Judaism, she might have had some other theme songs to accompany the massacres by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, early Christians, Turkish Ottomans, medieval Christian Crusaders, and Europeans, especially the British, all of whom occupied and devastated the Holy Land.

She closes her “Seder-Masochism” with an African American Gospel song about returning to that Old Time Religion—but Paley fails to criticize Christianity as a murderous monotheism. Perhaps she sincerely believes that Baptists worship “the” Goddess.

Her animated story is sarcastic, simplistic, reductionist, illiterate, and perhaps, a bit blasphemous—but perhaps not. Clearly, Paley is trying to work out her own anger and anguish about the patriarchal nature of her religion-of-origin which was Judaism. She is entitled to her clever little revenge—but given her enormous talent, I would have welcomed a more sophisticated and more religiously literate critique of Jewish patriarchy, perhaps one that creatively and utterly reinterpreted the stories, laws, commentaries, in short, the treasure that Talmudic and Rabbinic Judaism represents. Others have done so. But it requires enormous Jewish religious literacy.

I have known many feminist Goddess worshippers of whom I am truly fond. I believe in religious freedom. As a psychologist, I support the desire to explore and proclaim God’s also-female nature. Religious scholars of all persuasions are doing so. 

But I am also aware of the work of those feminist anthropologists and historians who have documented the lives of ordinary women in eras where multiple Goddesses were worshipped. Despite such worship, at the time, female lives were cheap. Most women barely survived as slaves and concubines; they were forcibly married as children, often into polygamous marriages and, like most men, lived lives of unbearable poverty. 

Paley herself, in another very creative retelling of the Hindu Ramayana, depicts many Hindu Goddesses—but they, too, exist in a culture where honor based violence, honor killing, caste-based cruelty, and dowry burnings also exist. Formerly, Hindu girls and women, even the young and newly married, were expected to throw themselves on their aged husband’s funeral pyre to fulfill the practice known as Suttee. The very Christian Brits ended all that. 

It grieves me to criticize Paley, who is a very creative artist and whose views on other feminist issues align with my own. But what else can I do? I would welcome a conversation with her.


2 Responses

  1. I think the professor is too kind. But that is that nature of one so well versed in language as well as history. Nina Paley is simply numb as a boot and dead from the neck up. ‘Oh dear’ I didn’t mean to be so pointed, but the stupidity of Paley’s history is as the poet might say’beneath the plywood’.
    Which translates in common language as ‘numb as a boot’.
    I guess Paley thinks her own facts about the religon, the tenets and history are her privilege. Wrong.
    Professor Chessler oh so gently points out her errors, but Prof Chessler doesn’t wish too see the venom that Paley possesses to erase the actual history and tenets. I take exception to liars who lie and hurt like Paley wishes to do under her freedom of misinformation act.
    I think of the matriachs and such as Devorah, whom ‘the children of Israel had to go before her for judgement’. This was 3000 yrs ago. And this was a women who sat not in the building provided for the previous judges but outside under a tree- simply because she felt that her role as the judge was supposed to be filled by a man, but of course, G-d, simply had other plans for her.
    No, Paley is a beastly one, and I reject niceities when such people use language to parlay viciousness and hatreds into historically false narratives. A pox on her house, and her mask of the benevolent ‘goddesses’ of the world.

  2. Being a Pagan myself, I can assure you that Paley has seriously mis-read the studies by the archeologists et al. I’d recommend Merlin Stone’s seminal work, “When God Was A Woman” for clarification. Yes, before Moses took them out of Egypt, the Jews *were* Pagans. They may have put Yahweh first (“thou shalt have no other gods *before* me”), but they definitely continued to worship other deities secondarily. Chief among these was the Great Mother Goddess (of many names) who was commonly worshiped among all Pagan societies. Judaism was first organized by Moses (or, more accurately, by his brother Aaron) as a hierarchical and patriarchal religion, but goddess-worship hung on for centuries thereafter — or else why did the prophet rant so furiously about “the women wailing for Tammuz” on the very steps of the great Yahweh temple in Jerusalem? The war between matriarchy and patriarchy lasted a very long time, and is indeed worthy of a lot of literary and dramatic work, but Paley’s contribution is just plain wrong.

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