I am writing from Oxford, England, where I am privileged to be staying this summer while attending an institute on the theme of “Otherness” in medieval Judaism. Our readings have focused on a variety of topics, including: the development of Christian anti-Jewish polemics; the development of Jewish anti-Christian polemics; the development of medieval Christian visual representations of Jews; and the European medieval expulsions of Jews. The well-planned program, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, has been illuminating for all – speakers and participants alike, I think. It has also been, at least for me, an occasion of intellectual sadness. It is not that I am surprised by how ugly polemics, pictures, and history can be. It is that I feel myself coming to a deeper appreciation of the dangerous power dynamics in religion, driven by political and economic aims, that strike me as the underlying cause of practical conflict, yet cloaked as principally theological tensions.
If it were not manifestly obvious that procurement and retention of resources, goods, and position drive personal/familial commitments and tribalistic frameworks for meaning and ultimacy, one of the clues – at least for me – has been the repetition of charges and accusations across polemical perspectives. And, what is more, one unmistakable commonality in the charges and indictments seems to be the accusation of effeminacy. This accusation need not be directly stated, such as, “Your people think like women,” or the like. It comes across in the overlap, speaking specifically concerning Christian writings, between discussions of women and discussions of Jews. The phenomenon, though, is not unilaterally Christian.
I saw it first in the proto-orthodox Christian Athanasius, in his Orations against the Arians, when he accuses the “heretical” Christians of being effeminate and flippant in their singing. Here, Medieval Christian polemicists accused Jews of a profound irrationality (since they did not accept presumably self-evident Christian logic), to the point of questioning Jewish humanity. Jewish polemics rebutted Christian belief by arguing that it is inconceivable that God would be so defiled as to become incarnate in the base innards of a woman’s womb. Not to be outdone, Christians developed a myth accusing Jewish men of menstruating.
Irrational minds, moral weakness, physical baseness, association with women’s blood – all these charges used to discredit religious “others” are classically attached to women and used as explanations and justifications for the debased social, ecclesial/religious/ritual, and professional/economic status of women. It seems that such charges had/have useful application to other groups as well.
We find ourselves with a few theological options when evaluating this line of thought. One option is to accept as some combination of a priori, a posteriori, and revealed fact that women brought or bring defilement or ruination upon the world and ought to be punished, hidden, silenced, marginalized, subordinated, and so on. It flows from this that womanish things or ways are inherently corrupt, and it is best not to be, or not to be like, women. All men and women who accept this logic can thus appropriate androcentric norms as properly human norms. To be woman, here, means to be aberrant. To be a man that acts like a woman or to be in a religion that compels its adherents to act like or to rely on a woman is therefore to be even more aberrant.
But, if this does not resonate with our experience of real, living women (along with perhaps other modes of revelation and reason than those advanced by the dominant traditions), we must ask why this line of argumentation, especially when invoked in inter- and intra-religious disputations against other religious men. What end does it serve?
One might answer that the real problem is not women but irrationality or uncleanness. In these cases, women and religious others (male and female) are simply exemplary of deviance from human normativity or goodness. Presumably, religiously other males don’t have to be like women, even though women are basically stuck being women unless they can conform themselves sufficiently to male norms. It is hard to determine which is worse – to be a woman by accident or to be like a woman by choice. In any case, one answer to the question of why this line of argumentation could be that irrationality, uncleanness, and so on are simply and legitimately bad, and women/heretics/religious others/etc., just happen to manifest these problems.
But, there is also the answer that these accusations against women justified their subordinated and demeaned status, and so too these same accusations are useful to justify the subordination of other social sets. The dominant power, moreover, may have not only the right but also the sacred duty to maintain order! Here’s the rub, yes?
I am left to conclude that women categorically represent the “other” since opposing forces see their opponents as essentially feminized, stained by, or marked by traits stereotypically indicative of women. This also leads me to conclude that these medieval polemics were not so much about salvation or truth as they were about power and disempowerment, which led quite literally to life alterations and sometimes death for so-called witches, heretics, and Jews. In short, to cast the other as woman-like was to cast and justify the other as subjugated or demeaned in socially measurable ways. Such thinking betrays its purveyors, no matter how righteous they perceived themselves to be.
Today, while certainly not ubiquitous and frequently beset by conflict on the world stage, some advancement has been achieved in many Catholic/Christian-Jewish and Christian-Catholic dialogues. I am not sure, however, whether women are any less definitionally and religiously “other.” If such anti-woman thinking could be completely excised from these traditions, one wonders what would remain…
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.