Feminist Theology and Jewish-Christian Dialogue
by Marianne Grohmann
Feminist theology and Jewish-Christian dialogue are both
areas at the fringes of theology, which as a rule have little to do with each other: For
many men and women engaged in the Jewish-Christian dialogue the word "feminism" in
itself represents a red cloth, and in their heads some Christian feminist theologians
stubbornly hang on to the prejudice of a patriarchal Judaism. In the area of academic
theology both fields of study are considered outsiders. As contextual theologies they have
difficulties in conquering for themselves a place in the scientific discourse and are
tolerated at most as exotic subjects. However, they have little influence on the mainstream
The fact that feminist theology and Jewish-Christian dialogue somehow relate to each
other, first became clear in a confrontation: Towards the end of the 80s in the debate
around the anti-Judaism of feminist theology Jewish
theologians like Susannah Heschel and Judith Plaskow reproached Christian feminist
theologians, for adopting the anti-Judaism of Christian theology and giving it now a
Judaism becomes the negative background to Christianity in a twofold form: in the area of
the Old Testament, matriarchy research has been looking for matriarchal currents in the old
Orient, partially also in search of female divinities. Judaism was now reproached for
displacing matriarchy with its patriarchal social order and suppressing God's feminine side
with its male image of God.
Jesus, the new man?
In the area of New Testament studies Jesus, the new man and feminist, was painted in
luminous colors and set apart from the dark, patriarchal Judaism of his time. His God of
love was contrasted with the Old Testament God of wrath.
Since feminist theologians commonly pursue a "Christology from below", emphasizing
the humanity of Jesus more than his divinity and moving the earthly Jesus - especially in
the Marcionic representation - into the center of their interest, this person Jesus must be
presented as special, and that appears to be possible only in differentiation from Judaism.
Judaism as a dark foil
In both variants Judaism is examined only as a dark foil, it is described negatively in
order to set off one's own image of God positively against it and sources are frequently
handled in an unreflective manner by comparing texts from different eras - for instance
Talmudic sources with the New Testament. Such methods deserved the legitimate and serious
reproaches by Jewish women. The debate caused great bewilderment among feminist theologians,
and today the majority tries to pursue Christian theology without anti-Judaism.
For so young a theology as the feminist one, it is especially astonishing how quickly it
is ready for self-criticism and working on a revision of their conditions, which does not
operate at the expense of Judaism.
In order to avoid the error of commenting on "the role of the woman in Judaism"
in a prejudiced way it is necessary to start by listening to what Jewish women themselves
have to say.
At a closer glance a very diverse, pluralistic picture emerges: as in Christianity, there
never was and there is not now the one status of the woman but very different kinds of
self-images of women in Judaism: "The status of the Jewish woman is not something once
given and unchangeable, but has been subject to constant changes throughout history."
The sources from the Bible through to the Talmud and from medieval Bible commentaries to
modern times contain much and diverse material which can be rated as positive and negative
for women, depending on the weighting and present level of experience of the observing
A diverse picture
Even in present times the positions of women in individual Jewish streams and in diverse
geographical contexts are very dissimilar. The discussion revolves around questions such as
the rabbinate of women (in Reform Judaism officially accepted since 1972 and in the
Conservative movement since 1984) or the interpretation of the Halakhah: female secular and
Reform Jews look at the Halakhah rather critically, Conservative and Orthodox women
emphasize the central meaning of the Halakhah in Judaism and plead for changes of individual
commandments, but also for its retention as a whole.
"Again and again women have personally advocated an improvement of their position,
and their wishes were at least partially granted by the rabbinical authorities. It serves to
the disadvantage of women, that they personally have no power of decision and that the
codifications of the Halakhah occurred at times and places which were unfavorably disposed
towards women. As a consequence the present status of the woman in Orthodoxy is not in
keeping with our times in which there is a tendency towards equality of men and women.
Modern Orthodox women along with supporting rabbis are therefore demanding a change in their
status in the awareness that such changes have always occurred. Reform and Conservative
Judaism have to a large extent already realized this improvement of the status of the Jewish
woman with regard to her equality with the man."
A Christian feminist theology that is not anti-Jewish requires, on the one hand, a
sensitization to Christian anti-Judaism in general and to its feminist variant in
particular. The "hermeneutics of suspicion" involves facing one's own prejudices
and thinking patterns, which view Judaism as the evil patriarchy. On the other hand it
requires the acceptance of Jewish research, paying attention to what Jewish women themselves
- "Einander ins Sprechen hören. Feministische Theologie im jüdisch-christlichen Gespräch. Standortbestimmung und Ausblick" (Listening into Each Other's Speaking: Feminist Theology in the Jewish-Christian Dialogue. Determination of present positions and a look into the future). This was the topic of a conference of the "alumni" of Studies in Israel, which took place in Reinhardsbrunn near Gotha/Thuringia/Germany January 2-4, 1997. Keynote speakers were Marianne Wallach-Faller, Graduate in Germanic Studies, active member of die Jewish Reform Congregation in Zurich, Switzerland, and Marie-Theres Wacker, Catholic Old Testament scholar in Cologne, Germany.
- In German-speaking countries the debate was triggered in the BThZ 1986 by Katharina von Kellenbach's review of Gerda Weiler's book, Ich verwerfe im Lande die Kriege. Das Verborgene Matriarchat im Alten Testament, München, 1986. (I reject wars in the country: The hidden matriarchy in the Old Testament). The criticism concerning anti-Judaism in Christian feminist theology was discussed mainly in the magazine Schlangenbrut 1987 and is since then taken into account in most areas of feminist research. Summaries of the discussion have been presented by Kohn-Ley, Charlotte und Ilse Korotin (Hg.): Der feministische "Sündenfall"? Antisemitische Vorurteile in der Frauenbewegung, Wien, 1994. (The Feminist "Fall"? Antisemitic Prejudices in the Women's Movement). Schaumberger, Christine (Hg.): Weil wir nicht vergessen wollen ... zu einer Feministischen Theologie im deutschen Kontext, Münster, 1987. (Because We Don't Want to Forget ... Towards a Feminist Theology in the German Context). Siegele-Wenschkewitz, Leonore (Hg.): Verdrängte Vergangenheit, die uns bedrängt. Feministische Theologie in der Verantwortung für die Geschichte, München, 1988. (Suppressed Past that Oppresses Us: Feminist Theology In Responsibility for History).
- Compare, for example, Mulack, Christa: Die Weiblichkeit Gottes. Matriarchale Voraussetzungen des Gottesbildes, Stuttgart, 1986. (The Femininity of God: Matriarchal Preconditions of the Divine Image).
- Compare, for example, Wolff, Hanna: Jesus der Mann. Die Gestalt Jesu in tiefenpsychologischer Sicht, Stuttgart, 1979 (Jesus the Man: The Person of Jesus Viewed From a Depth Psychological Perspective) and: Neuer Wein - Alte Schläuche. Das Identitätsproblem des Christentums im Lichte der Tiefenpsychologie, Stuttgart, 1981 (New Wine - Old Skins: The Identity Problem of Christendom in the Light of Depth Psychology).
- Examples that stand for this re-thinking within feminist theology are: Jüngst, Britta: Auf der Seite des Todes das Leben. Auf dem Weg zu einer christlich feministischen Theologie nach der Shoah, Gütersloh, 1996 (On Death's Side - Life: On the Path towards a Christian Feminist Theology after the Shoah); Wacker, Marie-Theres und Luise Schottroff (Hg.): Von der Wurzel getragen. Christlich feministische Exegese in Auseinandersetzung mit Antijudaismus, Leiden, 1996 (Sustained by the Root: Christian Feminist Exegesis Struggling With Anti-Judaism); Plaskow, Judith: Und wieder stehen wir am Sinai. Eine jüdisch feministische Theologie, Luzern, 1992 (And Again We Stand at Sinai: A Jewish Feminist Theology). Of the extensive literature that exists mainly in the USA only a few "classics" shall be mentioned here: Heschel, Susannah (Ed.): "On Being a Jewish Feminist." A Reader, New York, 1983.
- Koltun, Elizabeth (Ed.): The Jewish Woman. New Perspectives, New York 1976.
- Wallach-Faller, Marianne: "Veränderungen im Status der jüdischen Frau. Ein geschichtlicher Überblick," in: Judaica 41/1985, S. 152-172, zit S. 152. (Changes in the Status of the Jewish Woman: A Historical Survey).
- Compare Rudnick, Ursula: "Miriam wird mit uns tanzen!" Jüdisch-feministische Diskussionen, in: Schlangenbrut Nr. 51, 13. Jg /1995, S. 14-18. (Miriam Will Dance With Us...).
- Wallach-Faller: S. 168