Feminism starts with the notion that women are full human beings, endowed with spiritual subjectivity, moral agency, and political rights. The world’s scripture-based religions are patriarchal and relegate women to the reproductive realm of the family and the household, their sexuality subject to male control. Women are generally invisible except as mother of, wife of, daughter of, sister of, or temptress of some man. Despite this textual and historical distortion, women have always been active participants in religion. In history, there are exceptional women who enjoyed literacy and access to religious instruction, such as queens or nuns, daughters of famous rabbis or wealthy women who left some traces in the records of religious traditions. But their presence is not enough to speak of Jewish-Christian women’s dialogue. And there certainly was no feminist Jewish-Christian dialogue among these exceptional women, because they did not subscribe to feminism. The idea of feminism, argues historian Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, involves the quest for women’s equal rights to education, political and religious representation, as well as personal and sexual autonomy. Feminism presupposes awareness of women as a “caste” and commitment to solidarity across religion, race, class and nationality (Daly 1973). This idea of gender equality has galvanized women across all religious traditions and become a global movement beginning in the nineteenth century.
The first wave of the women’s movement is historically associated with the campaign to abolish slavery in the United States and the emancipation of Jews in Europe, while the second wave grew out of the civil rights movements, anti-colonial liberation movements, as well as post-Shoah Jewish-Christian dialogue and the peace movements during the 1960s. Racism, antisemitism, and sexism are linked ideologically and enmeshed politically as structures of entitlement and inequality. Structurally, Blacks, Jews, and women occupy positions of inferiority and marginality. Misogyny, the hatred of Jews, and contempt for blackness are correlated. But they also intersect, which means that Jewish women can be racist, Black women harbor antisemitic sentiments, and white women carry “invisible knapsacks” of privilege that erupt in contempt and condescension (McIntosh 1989). Solidarity amongst these different groups has always been fragile and fractured by betrayal: Already in the 19th century, the abolitionist coalition collapsed when Black men received the suffrage in 1870 and white suffragists advanced racist arguments in support of white women’s enfranchisement. The earliest Christian feminist writings, such as Elisabeth Cady Stanton’s Women’s Bible (1895, 1898) and Mathilda Gage’s Woman, State and Church (1893) used not only anti-Jewish tropes in their argumentation but also racist claims.
The first wave of feminists built political alliances but did not consciously engage in Jewish-Christian dialogue: for instance, the English Jewish League for Woman Suffrage (JLWS) was co-founded by Lily Montague in 1912 and organizationally integrated into the “National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies,” led by her sister, Henrietta Franklin. But these political alliances did not encourage dialogue across religious affiliations. The Bund Deutscher Frauenvereine was founded in 1894 and included the Jewish Women’s League under Bertha Pappenheim, as well as the German Protestant Women’s League, and the Catholic Women’s Federation as an affiliate. But here as well, these women’s associations seemed not intent on creating greater inter-denominational and inter-religious solidarity and understanding. Rabbi Regina Jonas, as far as we know, never reached out or received support from her Protestant and Catholic fellow graduates with university degrees in theology and philosophy seeking religious office and ordination in the churches. When Regina Jonas wrote her halakhic master’s thesis Can A Woman Hold Rabbinic Office in 1933, she used biblical precedent and legal hermeneutics that could have been useful for Christian women pursuing ordination in the Protestant churches. But as far as we know, they remained unaware and uninterested. This kind of feminist collaboration blossomed only after the Shoah in the second and third waves of feminist theology.
The second wave of feminist theology evolved in a more religiously pluralist and inclusive spirit of exploration. Jewish and Christian female scholars collaborated early on and explored strategies to challenge legal restrictions, reinterpret biblical texts, and dispute conventions that proscribe women’s equality in religious communities. One early anthology, Womanspirit Rising (1979), was co-edited by post-Christian feminist Carol Christ and Jewish feminist Judith Plaskow, who affirm in their Introduction: “The fundamental commitment that feminists in religion share to end male ascendancy in society and religion is more important than their differences.” Feminist theology demands and seizes the right to speak, create, interpret, and contribute to the conversation about God. When Jewish and Christian feminists read sacred texts, develop hermeneutic approaches, design legal strategies, and experiment with the poetry of prayer, learning and exchange happens across the traditions. For instance, feminists exchange hermeneutic strategies to confront toxic passages in the sacred scriptures that ordain women’s silence, constrain women’s movement, control women’s sexuality, and prohibit women’s public authority. The Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Mishnah and Talmud, and the Quran contain nuggets of misogyny that portray women as vain, seductive, slanderous, deceitful and unworthy of authority and credibility. How such passages can be contextualized and reinterpreted becomes knowledge that circulates among feminists of different religious communities.
Debates over the presence of antisemitism and racism in the women’s movement in general, and of anti-Jewish theological patterns in Christian feminist writings in particular, erupted in the 1970s and early 1980s. Jewish feminists, such as Judith Plaskow, Annette Daum, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and Susannah Heschel raised the alarm. Christian feminists responded in conferences and publications that remained separate from and parallel to the institutional structures of Jewish-Christian dialogue. In Europe, Jewish feminists travelled from Israel and the United States to attend feminist conferences in the shadow of the Shoah, which had destroyed vibrant Jewish communal life across European nations, along with the memory of the Jewish women’s movement. In the United States, concerns over antisemitism were usually framed in the context of racism as matters of diversity and inclusion. Out of these debates emerged the concept of “intersectionality” in feminist theory that reframes patriarchy beyond binary gender inequality to an interwoven system of subjugations that involves multiple and intersecting ideologies of marginalization (Crenshaw 1988). Patriarchy refers not only to the rule of men over women but to complex structures that allocate power and prestige, authority and expertise along lines of class, race, religion, sexuality, ability, and other markers of identity.
The supposed low status and oppression of women has long been used in polemics to denigrate other religions and cultures. Some of these tropes have found their way, sometimes deliberately and sometimes inadvertently, into the writings of White, European, Christian feminist scholars and activists. Misconceptions of “oriental” women (Said 1979) as veiled, silenced, and submissive have found their way into feminist descriptions of Judaism. The adoption of Galatians 3:28 as a feminist anthem revives medieval Christian triumphalism that boasted of the Church’s gender equality in the sacrament of baptism by contrast to the Synagogue’s circumcision of boys. As Shaye Cohen has argued in Why Aren’t Women Circumcised (2005), the rabbis were forced to defend against accusations that the Jewish tradition discriminates against women, although the medieval church was far from a haven of feminist equality. Such religious apologetics use the status of women to score points. In the Western Christian tradition, the position of the denigrated Other has long been occupied by Judaism and the Jews, as David Nirenberg has shown in Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (2016). As heirs of this tradition, feminist Christian theologians and exegetes adopt anti-Jewish patterns to obfuscate internal Christian theological inconsistencies and to prove the validity of feminist claims by projecting patriarchy onto Judaism.
Judith Plaskow called on Christian feminists to “begin systematically to problematize anti-Jewish patterns in the Christian tradition as part of the feminist analysis of Christian texts.” Knowledge of the form and function of anti-Judaism and of the history of Christian anti-Jewish polemics must be integrated into the “feminist critical hermeneutic of suspicion,” originally proposed by New Testament scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1985. This hermeneutic principle cautions that certain Biblical texts and traditions “could be dangerous to your health and survival,” a caution that should be expanded to include, what Jules Isaac has called, “the teaching of contempt.” Theological anti-Judaism is not benign but threatens the safety and vitality of Jewish communities. When a team of fifty-one German Christian feminist exegetes decided to undertake a new translation of the Bible into German, they adopted three distinct critical hermeneutic principles to guide their collaborative project: gender justice, social justice, and respect for the Jewish roots of Christianity. Their 2007 translation Bibel in gerechter Sprache reflects the feminist recognition that mischaracterizations of Jews and Judaism are dangerous and must be of integral concern to Christian feminist theology and exegesis. Their new translation avoids conventional distortions (e.g. of the Pharisees) that mischaracterize Jewish piety and that establish a supersessionist account of the “New” testament that replaces the “Old” Testament.
By the mid-1990s feminist exegetes were routinely collaborating across the Jewish-Christian boundary. Most anthologies on the Hebrew Bible, such as the multi-volume The Feminist Companion to the Bible (1993–2001), edited by Athalya Brenner-Idan, include Jewish and Christian feminist exegetes and scholars. The same is increasingly true for the New Testament, which has been “integrated” by prominent Jewish feminist New Testament scholars, such as Amy-Jill Levine, Adele Reinhartz, Pamela Eisenbraun, Tal Ilan, Claudia Setzer, Paula Fredriksen, Ross Kraemer, to name just a few. Feminist Bible scholarship has moved beyond “dialogue” into a familiarity and intimacy that would have been inconceivable to earlier generations. The friendships and working relationships forged in institutions in which Jewish and Christian scholars co-teach and team-teach has facilitated new depth of understanding and what Krister Stendahl called “holy envy.”
Meanwhile, the official vectors of Jewish-Christian dialogue regularly overlook such feminist scholarship and networks. Dominated by ordained representatives of religious communities, Jewish-Christian and interreligious dialogue is notorious for “manthologies” that include no female authors and “manels” indifferent to the lack of women at the table. Interfaith initiatives, such as Sarah-Hagar dialogue groups in which Jewish, Christian, and Muslim women meet to discuss at the local, national, and international level often remain below the radar of official dialogue settings that rely on properly accredited patriarchal leaders. The official history of Jewish-Christian dialogue is often written as a sequence of high-level clerical meetings and official documents signed by religious councils and institutional dignitaries. Such histories ignore feminist concepts and contributions as well as the influence and leadership of individual women, such as Christian scholars Alice Eckardt, Eva Fleischner, Charlotte Klein, Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz, or women religious from the order of the Sisters of Zion, and Jewish scholars such as Judith Banki and Debbie Weissman, to name only a few. The erasure of women from the historical record distorts the insight that interfaith dialogue is always a relational project. Trust and respect are built in relationships that also pulse at the heart of religious life. The feminist attention to women’s experience foregrounds the personal dimension of religious life as well as the embodied quality of respect. For instance, Mary C. Boys and Sara S. Lee place dialogue into their autobiographical journey of friendship and Learning in the Presence of the Other (2006). It is the relational labor of care that builds and sustains relationships of trust that carry through the inevitable conflicts and painful differences that must be negotiated.
While the principle of intersectionality is now widely accepted in third-wave feminist theory, the creation of genuine intersectional alliances remains fraught. For instance, the Women’s March which formed in the aftermath of the election of President Donald J. Trump in 2016 splintered over issues of racism and antisemitism. The “unity principles” originally articulated by the Women’s March explicitly listed solidarity with “Black women, Indigenous women, poor women, immigrant women, disabled women, Muslim women, lesbian, queer and trans women,” but failed to mention Jewish women. This, it turned out, was not an accidental omission but reflected some of the leaders’ commitment to the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement and solidarity with Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, who is notorious for his vile antisemitism. The explosive rise in antisemitic violence in the wake of right-wing demonstrations in Charlottesville in 2017 and the massacre in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 exposed the absence of Jewish women from the leadership team of the Women’s March. The coalition crumbled. When one of the leaders, Linda Sarsour, issued an apology, she echoed previous regrets over feminist failures to repudiate antisemitism:
While the third wave of feminism has become much more diverse, the dialogue across these differences has not become any easier. As womanist, mujerista, Asian, African, and postcolonial Christian feminist voices become more prominent, the field of Jewish-Christian dialogue is faced with its conspicuous reality as a predominantly Euro-American, aka “White” project. The teaching and learning of theology, including Jewish-Christian dialogue, remains entrenched in structures that disregard Black and Brown people’s cultures, religions, and politics.
Trying to dismantle oppression, while working within systems of oppression, is hard. We are deeply invested in building better and deeper relationships with the Jewish community [...]. We are trying to build an intersectional women’s movement. That is a monumental task that is hard, it is messy.
How Jewish-Christian dialogue manages to address and uproot the pernicious entanglements of Christianity, colonialism, racism and antisemitism will affect its ability to confront the vectors of transmission of anti-Jewish tropes as they are translated and exported, recycled and reabsorbed into different national, ethnic and religious communities across the globe (Levine 2004). Jew-hatred is no longer exclusively a European Christian problem. But its presence and relevance in nonwhite, non-European communities requires nuanced analysis of the intersectionality of multiple oppressions. In some progressive and feminist circles, antisemitism manifests as loathing of Zionism and condemnation of the state of Israel. Progressive political rhetoric turns Jews into scapegoats for European colonialism: the Jewish return to the land of Israel is portrayed as an instance of European imperialism, Zionism is compared to white racism, and Israeli-Palestinian relations are identified with apartheid in South Africa. This Manichean narrative of good and evil, oppressor and oppressed, strong and weak assigns the Jews, predictably, to the side of evil. But the “Whiteness” of Jews is fragile and comes at the price of further marginalization of Sephardi and other Jews of color. Antisemitism does not neatly align with any “black and white” analysis of racism or colonialism. Jews are sometimes granted honorary membership in the “Judeo-Christian” civilization, but can become just as quickly orientalized and expelled from White, “European” (aka Christian) culture. The principle of intersectionality requires persistent attention to the conflictual dynamics between the ideologies of antisemitism and racism, misogyny and the exploitation of the poor.
For all of its flaws, feminism is not one ideology but a code for a global vision of gender justice that engages women and men in solidarity across religious, national, racial, sexual and gender differences. As a movement, feminism has struggled with “difference” and deep-seated conflicts of interest and contested identities that divide women into different families, upper-class from working-class women, racial and religious minorities, and various political and national agendas. Feminist theory navigates impossible contradictions that can never be entirely resolved. In that respect, feminism and Jewish-Christian dialogue are kindred spirits. Both involve the theological and political commitment to the creative cultivation of teachings of respect amidst irreconcilable differences: Jewish-Christian dialogue develops new theological models of covenantal “intersectionality” that reframe unity and conflict, familiarity and difference in a new key. But more than difference, it is the unequal distribution of power and privilege that is at stake: Jews and Christians, Black and White, female and male do not meet as equals in a vacuum, but bring different experiences and expectations to the table of who is seen and heard, who is respected and remembered. Until the powerful side is willing to renounce the privilege (to lecture, to mischaracterize, to convert, to ignore), the struggle goes on.
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