header icons

Anti-Judaism in Religious Feminist Writing: Scapegoating on Patriarchy Distorts Theology

Who among us has not heard from feminist writers that Jesus was unique for his time in his concern for women, in contrast to all other Jews?

Who among us has not heard from feminist writers that the Hebrews, the Hebrew Bible, the Jews are responsible for patriarchy, where women are treated badly, a practice later continued by Christians?

Have we not heard about the Old, inadequate Covenant, made with the Hebrew patriarchs, the epitomy of bias against women, and symbol of legalism and justice as opposed to love?

Who has not heard that the Hebrew Scriptures are responsible for our male images of God? Has one heard the new accusation that male names for God from Judaism increase violence against women (Lord, King, etc.)?

We may not all have heard that some hold the Jews responsible for killing the goddess–and that monotheism is one of the worst contributions the Jews have made to history.

Has anyone not heard the new myths about the time of the goddesses when everything was ideal for women?

These images are pervasive in many discussions pertaining to women and the church.

Perhaps it has not occurred to most of us that these impressions, constantly suggested, constantly building anger, contribute to anti-Judaism, the dismissal of Judaism as a world religion worthy of respect. Even worse, whether intentionally or not, these
generalizations which project patriarchal features onto Judaism contribute to anti-Semitism.

In a new book, Anti-Judaism in Religious Feminist Writing (American Academy of Religion Cultural Criticism Series) Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994, Katherina von Kellenbach, a German immigrant to the United States, tells of her journey to studying and understanding this problem. In her introduction von Kellenbach, a Lutheran woman studying to be a minister, recounts meeting a Jew for the first time, a fellow student in the religion department of Temple University. She found it incomprehensible that a Jewish woman would want to study to become a rabbi in a religion which was “utterly male identified, patriarchal, sexist and chauvinist,” as well as being tied up with meaningless laws and restrictions. The experience of coming to know this Jewish woman and learning that her stereotypes of Judaism were not accurate impacted von Kellenbach in a profound way, particularly because she had been
confronting anti-Semitism in her own family–including a relative’s complicity in the cruel deaths of many Jews during the holocaust in Germany.

A feminist, von Kellenbach points out that Christian theology over the centuries has often been tainted by anti-Semitism. While her study is of anti-Judaism in feminist writings, von Kellenbach makes it very clear that this is not the only theology which has the problem. As a feminist she does not want her book to be used to undermine the search for
respect for women in the churches. But she feels she must challenge feminist theologians who, whether wittingly or unwittingly, contribute to anti-Judaism.

It is interesting to note that this is not a completely new issue. As early as l978 articles began appearing on the topic in feminist literature. There has been an attempt at a response among feminist theologians. But von Kellenbach interprets most changes as cosmetic and challenges feminist writers to teach respect for Judaism as the only way to avoid anti-Semitism. The book includes a critical evaluation of how Judaism has been depicted in major U.S. and West German feminist theologies, including the writings of Rosemary Radford Reuther, Carol
Christ, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel and many others.

Through careful research von Kellenbach shows that many images of Judaism so often an object of scorn in religious feminist writing do not have an accurate historical or religious base. Judaism continues to be presented by many as synonymous with patriarchy.

Was Jesus totally different from his contemporary Jews in his attitudes toward women? Were his views and actions unparalleled and unprecedented, “puzzling,” “striking,” “revolutionary,” “a radical break,” “radically shocking to his contemporaries?” Were his attitudes un-Jewish, as often described in feminist writings? Some writers go so far as to say Jesus was killed by other Jews because he defended women.

Von Kellenbach points out that a study of the Gospels themselves disproves many of the hypotheses of Jewish treatment of women in the first century. Gospel accounts show women moving freely in the streets, present and visible in the synagogues and the temple, engaging in public conversations, visiting other houses and receiving visitors, and following Jesus. And the anger directed toward Jesus by his Jewish contemporaries focuses not on women, but on issues such as “breaking the sabbath, associating with outcasts, lepers and prostitutes, healing,
raising from the dead and forgiving sins.” She asks, “Could it be that his attitudes were not that strikingly different from those of his adversaries?”

Regarding other customs so often quoted as archaic, patriarchal and anti-woman in Judaism, such as separating menstruating women, not giving women equal eduation, and statements about giving thanks for not being born a woman or a beast or a barbarian, von Kellenbach discovers that these are all present in gentile (e.g., Greek) society in an equal way during this historical period.

Von Kellenbach also points out that there is no written historical record in any culture to suggest that there was a time of goddesses when women were in a kind of paradise. The evidence rather suggests that in cultures where there were female goddesses, women were not given a greater role in society–in fact, the goddesses themselves had a lesser role than the gods.

Even though there is no reference to the killing of a goddess in the Hebrew Scriptures, some feminists blame “biblical monotheism” for the death of the goddess. According to von Kellenbach, this is quite surprising, since in other Near Eastern Mediterranean cultures, “myths
of murder, rape and marriage of goddesses abound.”

Some feminists argue that “male monotheism” is worse than polytheism, because of the male images of God as Lord, King, Warrior, transcendent Creator and Father. Judaism is identified only with war and an eye for an eye and contrasted with the New Testament ideal of love. Attention is called to the opposition between war and peace, and “Judaism is
identified with the former.” This portrayal ignores the fact that the Jewish tradition and the Hebrew Scriptures incorporate both sides. As von Kellenbach phrases it, “True, the people of Israel use military force to attain a land which has been promised to them by Yahweh. But
the biblical vision is one of peace and justice, specifically for the oppressed.”

And those who speak so disparagingly of the male monotheism of the Jews ignore the female images for God in the Hebrew Scriptures and in Jewish tradition as interpreted by the rabbis.

As von Kellenbach emphasizes, there has been a long history of problems with anti-Judaism in Christian theology. It is unfortunate that in the newer theologies it has again appeared. In von Kellenbach’s anaylsis, those feminist theologians (and all theologians) who work with the idea of one covenant, or the fulfillment of the Covenant which has not been abrogated, instead of a stark contrast between two different covenants, are much more successful in avoiding all evidence of anti-Judaism in their writings.

Raymond Brown, respected Scripture scholar, writing in the April l issue of America magazine cautions all Catholics to be careful not to let anti-Judaism creep into their reading of the Passion narratives in the Gospels. He reminds us also that Paul’s phrase, “the Jews who killed
Jesus” was restrictive to one group of Jews and that Paul himself was a Jew, as were so many of the first Christians.

In its “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions,” the Second Vatican Council promulgated guidelines on Religious Relations with the Jews, noting that the step taken by the Council “finds its historical setting in circumstances deeply affected
by the memory of the persecution and massacre of Jews which took place in Europe justbefore and during the Second World War.”

The Council asks Christians to “strive to acquire a better knowledge ofthe basic components of the religious tradition of Judaism,” adding that “they must strive to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experiences.”

The Council reminds us that “Judaism in the time of Christ and the Apostles was a complex reality, embracing many different trends, many spiritual, religious, social and cultural values.”

“The Old Testament and the Jewish tradition founded upon it must not be set against the New Testament in such a way that the former seems to constitute a religion of only justice, fear and legalism, with no appeal to the love of God and neighbor (cf. Deut. 6:5, Lev. l9:l8, Matt.
22:34-40).” The Council asks for respectful dialogue and study of Judaism.

May we all, faithful laity and theologians alike, on this anniversary fifty years after the horrors of Auschwitz, approach the Scriptures with reverence and respect for our Semite roots and our Jewish sisters and brothers, in order to follow Pope John Paul II’s cry for this
anniversary, “Never again anti-Semitism!”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XV, No. 4, May-June 1995.