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Christina von Braun I Symbolic Gender Relations in the three Religions of the Book


Each of the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, stands in reference to the other two. This is also true of the oldest of them, Judaism, in historical if not theological terms. By living among adherents of other religions in the Diaspora – usually as a minority – Jewish communities and scholars were repeatedly confronted with the developments undergone by the other two religions. This in turn affected how they interpreted their own faith, as is especially clear in the secularization process that proceeded from Christian society and which in Jewish society led on the one hand to orthodoxy, yet also to a new definition of non-religious identity which the historian Yerushalmi describes as that of the "Psychological Jew". The two younger religions each confronted their counterparts in both theological and historical terms. While Christianity viewed itself as the 'New Covenant' that superseded the 'Old Covenant' between God and the people of Israel, Islam regarded Judaism and Christianity as 'forerunners' of the 'true religion' represented by itself. Despite reference to a common origin – and despite the fact that all three religions arose in the eastern Mediterranean (although Christian theology then developed to a large extent in the western Mediterranean) – sharp demarcations were drawn between the three religions which are evident not only in their respective messages of salvation but also in their different rites and their portrayals of the relation between the earthly and the divine.

Gender relations have played a recurrent and significant role in these encounters. From the perspective of the three religions, one of the main functions of symbolic gender relations appears to be the way in which they reflect the relation between God and man. That is, the symbolism in gender relations is derived less from the biological features of male and female bodies – for if that were the case, it would hardly differ among the various religions – than from its function as a reflection. Social relations – or how gender relations are actually lived – are of course also influenced by regional, historical and economic factors and conditions which often give rise to a completely different social 'reality' and sometimes even affect the respective theologies. For example, when a universal literacy campaign was introduced in Russia in the 19th century, which meant that girls too were to have access to education, many Jewish girls were keen to enter the state-run schools. Excluded from religious instruction in their villages, they hoped to acquire the benefits of education in this way. Secular thought thus filtered back into Jewish communities and helped set the process in motion that led to Reform Judaism in the latter part of the 19th century. This in turn led not only to new theological interpretations in the 20th century, but also to women being admitted to rabbinical training. That is one example of how social relations and/or historical events can have a reciprocal impact on theology itself. In discussing the symbolic gender relations in the three religions of the book below, I will be treating these religions as characteristic types. It is beyond the scope of this talk even to attempt to address regional and cultural differences and the many theological differences within these faiths. Gender relations in Judaism do not display the condemnation of sexual gratification that has dominated Christian thought in many eras. In David Biale's laconic formulation in Eros and the Jews, "Jewish culture gives no merit badges for celibacy". Sexuality is regarded as part of the conditio humana. As a necessary condition for procreation (and thus solely with reference to heterosexuality), it offers a means to counter the sting of death. In the Kabbalah and Hasidic teachings, it even becomes one of the 'gateways' to encountering God and the sacred. "In my flesh I shall see my God," is how a Hasidic text describes the man who delves into the study of the Torah. The same passage goes on to expressly compare coitus, "the greatest of all pleasures", with intensive study of the holy text. On the other hand, however, sexuality is also that which differentiates man from God. Sexuality is considered a symptom of human imperfection and of the difference between man and God.

According to Jewish studies expert Tikva Frymer-Kensky, the God of Israel "is only male by gender, not by sex. He is not at all phallic, and cannot represent male virility and sexual potency. Anthropomorphic biblical language uses body imagery of the arm, right hand, back, face and mouth, but God is not imagined below the waist. ... God is asexual, or transsexual, or metasexual (depending on how we view this phenomenon); but he is never sexed." Nor does God behave sexually. Although "God is the 'husband' of Israel in the powerful marital metaphor", this sexual metaphor refers to his relation to the community – Israel as 'God's bride' – not the individual. The fact that Hasidic Jews can compare their study of Torah to sexual practice demonstrates the positive associations of sexuality, not the crossing of a boundary from human corporality to divine immortality. Because God "does not model" human sexuality, adds Frymer-Kensky, the rituals also feature a strict separation between the sexual and the sacred, which is anchored in religious law and requires e.g. that believers wash themselves after sexual intercourse before entering the house of God. In other words, the purity and ritual laws of Judaism have the function of maintaining the strict separation between divine eternity and human mortality. If the difference between God and man in Judaism is reflected in the fact that God appears as 'metasexual', the 'imperfection' of mortal man finds its expression in the emphasis on sexual difference. The repeated ritual and cultural prominence accorded to sexual difference underlines the strict separation between man and God. Circumcision serves to symbolically inscribe male incompleteness and vulnerability into the male body, while the laws of niddah concerned with female blood (menstruation and post-partum bleeding) stress the exceptional status of the female. Both fundamentally emphasize the difference between the sexes. The term niddah means ‘extinguished’, but has the same root as nadad, which has the meanings of 'removed' and 'separated'. The laws of niddah are often translated as purity regulations and interpreted as disparaging the female body in menstruation and after parturition. It makes no sense, however, to assume that a religious tradition in which offspring and reproduction are among the greatest goods (in the orthodox interpretation, at least, unmarried men are not allowed to exercise rabbinical or liturgical functions in the synagogue) would attach negative associations to precisely those moments when women have given birth or when their bodies display the ability to bear children. The fact that married men live by the rhythm of female separation and that rabbis are intimately familiar with the functions of the female body has prompted the American Jewish studies expert Susannah Heschel to ask, "Whose vagina is it? Or is the vagina to be understood as a sign, perhaps in parallel to the phallus, namely a sign laden with the emotional significance that shapes gender identity? […] The laws of niddah make the vagina into a transcendent sign of gender identity and Jewish status." Symbolic gender relations in Christianity are based on quite different premises. Because the Christian god assumed a human body in his son, the difference between God and man is effaced. This is the Christian message of salvation, which is solemnly celebrated in the Eucharist, i.e. in the union of the divine and human body at the Last Supper. This doctrine was only established gradually, in parallel to the divine status of Jesus, which was not accepted until the third century. With the doctrine of transubstantiation in 1215, the host and the wine, which were initially considered symbols of the Savior's body, became the 'actual' body and blood. This was accepted by Luther as well. By the time of Zwingli and Calvin, however, the reformed Church had replaced the literal understanding with a more symbolic approach. The message of the Christian Eucharist was in turn reflected in gender relations. By becoming man and flesh, the Christian god also took on a sex – or more precisely two of them, with the female sex representing human mortality and the male sex representing the triumph over death. I will show this with help of the dispute between the medievalist Caroline Walker Bynum and the art historian Leo Steinberg on the 'sex of Christ'. But before going into this, I will first briefly address the general symbolism of the cross in order to elucidate their arguments. The cross is found as a symbol in all religions. Generally speaking, it represents the encounter or intersection between the here and the hereafter, the worldly and the transcendent. Christians hesitated for a long time before accepting the cross as the symbol of their faith because it was the most shameful form of execution, used almost exclusively on rebellious slaves. It was not until the fourth century, after Constantine the Great abolished this form of execution, that the symbol became established – in parallel to acceptance of the theological concept of the divinity of Christ. One does not find any portrayals of the crucifixion in early churches, only the simple cross – which symbolized both death and resurrection. This conflicting symbolism is known as the 'paradox of the cross'. Gradually, portrayals of the crucifixion also became established – with an ever greater focus on the suffering and corporality of Christ. This in turn led to a development that I would like to illustrate via the dispute between the two American scholars. It shows that the image of the Christian savior – in contrast to that of the god of Israel – by no means ends at the waist. In a series of images from the Middle Ages, Bynum shows that the crucified body featured the full insignia of femaleness. The sacrificial blood was shown as a female lactating breast. Such images corresponded to statements by holy women and nuns such as Catherine of Siena, who wrote that "we must do as a little child does who wants milk. It takes the breast of its mother, applies its mouth, and by means of the flesh it draws milk. We must do the same if we would be nourished. We must attach ourselves to that breast of Christ crucified, which is the source of charity, and by means of that flesh we draw milk." In many images, the wounds of Christ also took the form of a bleeding vulva. The crucifixion was presented as the moment of parturition, in which the self-sacrifice of Christ becomes a delivery. Thus Marguerite von Oingt could write, "My sweet Lord, ... are you not my mother and more than my mother? ... For when the hour of your delivery came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross ... and your nerves and all your veins were broken. And truly it is no surprise that your veins burst when in one day you gave birth to the whole world." The figure of Jesus was therefore accorded the female/maternal abilities to give birth and reproduce. By contrast, the art historian Leo Steinberg presents numerous images of the crucifixion that emphasize the maleness of the Savior. These accentuate the genitals. The further the story of the Passion progressed, the more clearly did these images display the male 'potency' of the crucified one. Steinberg speaks in this context of an equation between 'erection' and 'resurrection'. He concludes that these images transfer the significance of the phallus in antiquity – as a symbol of power, fertility and postmortem revival – to the figure of the Christian savior, albeit in altered form. On the one hand this was a matter of the spirit overcoming the body; whereas on the other, the image of sexual potency also served to show a generative power of the spirit which could overcome death itself. These two interpretations of the gender symbolism in crucifixion images are in principle irreconcilable. Yet if viewed from the perspective of the paradox of the cross, it is clear that a split has taken place. Death, mortality, suffering, and the wound are associated with femaleness, whereas resurrection and the overcoming of death are viewed as a sign of male potency. The two sides find expression in the figure of the Savior, and complement each other. Like in Judaism, this means that in Christianity too, a sharp demarcation has been drawn between the sexes. Yet instead of reflecting the difference between God and man, here it reflects an ideal union in which divine eternity and human mortality enter into a symbiosis. Paul expressly compares the relationship between Christ and the Church with that of the institution of marriage. As Christ is the head of the Church and the believers are its body, so the man forms the 'head' and the woman the 'body' in marriage: "So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself." There is hardly a clearer statement of the law of the indissolubility of marriage – found in Christianity alone among all the world's religions – than the image of a head that marries its own body. The elevation of marriage to a sacrament, the indissolubility of marriage in the Catholic Church, the Pauline metaphor of marriage with the Church as the bride of Christ – these are expressions of the mutually reflective nature of religious content and gender relations, as Paul also writes in one of his letters. In the First Epistle to the Corinthians, he calls for women to cover their heads when in church (Christianity, by the way, is the only religion to have ever made this type of demand), and justifies it by saying that the man need not cover his head "forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of the man." The relation between the original and the copy also presupposes a symbiotic relationship in which the religious content reflects a union between the transcendent and the earthly. Like in the Kabbalah, religiosity acquires a quasi-sexual charge in Christian mysticism as well. Yet while the texts of the Kabbalah and Hasidism and the Song of Songs proceed from worldly sexual relations that can lead to God, religious experience as described by Meister Eckhart, for example, is that of an encounter with God presented by means of sexual images. The mystic describes the sacrament of holy communion with words that could also serve to describe the sexual act: "For in Him will you catch fire and burn, and in Him will you be sanctified and with Him alone will you be joined and united...; and strengthened by His body will yours be renewed…, so that what is His will be ours and all that is ours will be His, our heart and His are to be one heart, and our body and His one body." Meister Eckhart's accounts of marriage and love between the sexes clearly indicate that the parallels drawn between the union of man with God and the union of the two sexes are deliberate. "For love by nature arises and flows from two quite simply as one. Never in twain: for as two love does not exist! Yet two as one yields love innately and inexorably, full of passion and fervor and desire." Even the Scholastics (who opposed Meister Eckhart) underscored the analogy between sacred and earthly 'communion'. It was right, said Thomas of Aquinas, for the woman to be made from a rib of man, for this signifies the unity of man and woman. Symbolic gender relations in Islam reveal some aspects that also characterize the other two religions of the book. Like in Judaism, the emphasis is on difference – as manifested in the call to preserve modesty between the sexes, for example, which the Qur'an requires no less from men than it does from women. Yet while in Judaism the difference is inscribed in the body itself – via circumcision and the laws of niddah – Islam has an 'extra-corporeal' separation between the sexes symbolized among other things by the veil. The word for veil – hijab – actually means curtain. The symbolic significance of the veil is no less powerful than an inscription in the body. At the same time, however, it is clearly also a symbolic gender code, as opposed to the quasi-biological variant that crystallized in the thought of the West. Ludwig Ammann interprets the segregation or separation of women in Islam as having declared the female body a 'sacred space'. The harem and the veil are expressions of the sacred quality ascribed to the female body. Following this interpretation, the basic difference between Islamic and Christian gender relations could be described as follows: In Christianity, marriage is elevated to a sacrament – and in Islam the female body is rendered sacred (whereas it has anything other than a 'sacred' status in Christianity). The sacred nature of marital union in Christianity would later give rise to the ideals of 'marriage for love', symbiotic union between the sexes, and the Western notion of the nuclear family, which we continue to view as sacred today without recognizing their lengthy Christian prehistory. Segregation of the sexes in Islam draws on a completely different justification than it does in Judaism, and its connection with social order – in law as well as in urban architecture – also explains the fact that Islam gave rise to not only a religious but also a political community from the very start. This was Muhammad's expressed aim – and in later eras of Islam the political has often assumed a higher profile than the purely theological perspective. According to the historian Leila Ahmed, "There appear... to be two distinct voices within Islam, and two competing understandings of gender, one expressed in the pragmatic regulations for society..., the other in the articulation of an ethical vision." With respect to gender relations, therefore, conflict can easily arise between the law and the religious message contained in the Qur'an. Many passages in the holy text display an egalitarian notion of gender, such as sura 33:35 in which women are addressed on an equal basis with men as the vanguard of the faith. As Ahmed notes, "The unmistakable presence of an ethical egalitarianism explains why Muslim women frequently insist, often inexplicably to non-Muslims, that Islam is not sexist. They hear and read in its sacred text, justly and legitimately, a different message from that heard by the makers and enforcers of orthodox, androcentric Islam." This variant reading of Islam, which is needed for a new exegesis of the Qur'an and Islamic doctrine, derives from accounts of the religion's inception. The pre-Islamic period known as jahilia is usually considered a time of ignorance, darkness, falsehood and impurity. Yet others see jahilia as the precursor to a brief, 'true' age of Islam. In the pre-Islamic period, Arabia formed "the last remaining region in which patrilineal, patriarchal marriage had not yet been instituted as the sole legitimate form of marriage." There were many different variations of gender relations, such as matrilineal (genealogy defined by the maternal line) or uxorilocal (the family lives with the wife's tribe of origin). Some men had multiple wives, but conversely, "some wives might have been visited by different husbands." Examples of polyandry are known from both Mecca and Medina. In general, the children belonged to the tribe of the mother. This 'sexual permissiveness' for women, which later became equated with 'whoredom' in Islam, did not necessarily mean that women had more power. But the variety of ways of conceiving the institution of marriage do "correlate with women's enjoying greater sexual autonomy than they were allowed under Islam." In light of these structures, the Scottish scholar Montgomery Watt, who devoted a long period of study to early Islam, reached the conclusion that paternity was of little or no significance in pre-Islamic society in Arabia. Both marital partners could request divorce, and both divorce and re-marriage occurred frequently. Women also participated in public life, including the waging of war. But Watt also notes that the increasingly prosperous Arab society was undergoing a transition from matrilineal to patrilineal at the time of Muhammad, and that some of Muhammad's laws mitigated the associated drastic consequences for women's rights. It was not until the formulation of an 'Islamic codex' – i.e. a political interpretation of the Qur'an – that women's rights were substantially restricted. During the actual formative period of Islam, conditions were different. Muhammad's first wife, Khadija, was a wealthy widow who dictated her terms of marriage to Muhammad including the condition that he not take a second wife or concubine as long as she lived. The high estimation accorded Muhammad's later wives after his death, including the much younger Aisha, also attests to a different role for women than that which subsequently became established in Islam. Aisha and the other widows received considerable monetary support from the community and were viewed as authorities – more of the 'authentic transmitted accounts' in the hadith come from Aisha than from any of the Prophet's other companions. Muhammad was buried in Aisha's room (in which she continued to live) her house thus becoming a holy place. These structures were already changing during Muhammad's lifetime, for part of Islam's message was "the institution of a type of marriage based on the recognition of paternity." Because of the difficulties in proving paternity, this meant introducing strict monogamy (for women) and monitoring their sexual activities. Although Muhammad did away with all other forms of marriage, this does not necessarily imply that women were oppressed or excluded from society. Under Muhammad there were female imams, and he even called one to his own home. After his death, Aisha and Umm Salama, another wife of the Prophet, also acted as imams. Aisha's father made her responsible for the distribution of his property after his death. Such functions indicate a role for women that can hardly be reconciled with the ensuing gender hierarchy in Islam. In brief: Islam, too, lends itself to a strict segregation of the sexes. And here too this segregation reflects the strict delineation between man and God. Like the god of Judaism, the god of Islam is invisible and may not be portrayed. Like the god of Judaism, his name may not be spoken out loud. There is no bodily contact between God and man. And this strict separation finds expression in the segregation of the sexes. Yet the fact that segregation does not necessarily entail oppression or disparagement is shown by Judaism. The combination of segregation and discrimination against women is a product of political Islam. We thus have three different types of symbolic gender relations in these three religions, which are irreconcilable if only for the reason that they are much more than social structures, namely, they reflect different religious content. But if that is so, it would stand to reason that secularization is the solution for peaceful coexistence in Europe. Unfortunately, however, the answer is not that simple. It was not a coincidence, after all, that the process of secularization arose from Christian society. Why was it not a coincidence? Because the doctrine of incarnation – the doctrine that Christ is 'God become flesh' (which is reflected in the ideal of symbiotic union between the sexes) – is inherent to the Christian religion as such and implies less a turning away from Christianity than a turning toward the world, or secularization. We can thank the process of secularization for many developments such as social justice, a belief in science, and economic progress. But at the same time we should not forget that each one of these advances can always turn into its converse: social justice can turn into totalitarianism; a belief in the power of science can lead to biological racism, weapons of mass annihilation, and destruction of the environment; and economic progress can become faceless and merciless capitalism. Still more important: We also should not forget that secularization is a product of Christian theology, and that its message of salvation – which effaces the boundary between the transcendent and the worldly – had less to do with turning away from God (die Abwendung von Gott) than with God turning into the world (die Weltwerdung Gottes). Whatever one's position here may be – precisely this concept is not merely alien to the other two religions of the book but diametrically opposed to them. Under these circumstances, is coexistence possible at all? The answer to this question will depend not least of all on the influence of women. The Jewish religious community has responded to the pressure placed on it by the Christian process of secularization by developing its own, worldly form of Jewish identity. This will presumably also be the case for Islam, which currently finds itself in a similar situation to that of Jewish communities in the early 19th century. Yet a transformation has also taken place in the religion itself. There were female rabbis even before the Protestant Church ordained its first female ministers. Female imams are currently being trained in Morocco and Egypt. Religions refer to a transcendent, eternal truth – yet it appears they still have the ability to move with history.

// May 2008
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