The problem of anti-Judaism in Christian feminist biblical interpretation: some pragmatic suggestions

The problem of anti-Judaism in Christian feminist biblical interpretation: some pragmatic suggestions

Sarah J. Meicher

My intention in this essay is to make some pragmatic suggestions for engaging in feminist biblical interpretation that does not perpetuate, reinforce, or create anti-Jewish theological constructions. My suggestions are not always easy to put into practice, but they constitute concrete recommendations for a feminist approach to interpretation that honors Judaism and its adherents.

I address the issue of anti-Judaism in Christian feminist interpretation from my own social location as a Christian feminist biblical scholar. My deep personal concern with the existence of anti-Semitism dates back to my tenth year, when I viewed a television documentary on the Holocaust. I was devastated by what I saw and have been concerned about anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism since that time. Because of my persistent concern with this form of prejudice, I accepted a teaching position at Xavier University, a Jesuit, Catholic University with a commitment to interfaith dialogue. This can be seen in the establishment of the Edward B. Brueggeman Center for Dialogue in 2000, a center dedicated to the promotion of interreligious dialogue. In fact, I was hired as a professor at Xavier in part because of my interest in interreligious dialogue. I serve as a member of the advisory board for the Brueggeman Center.

I am an enthusiastic participant in Jewish-Christian dialogue. I am also an earnest Christian. I am an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It is from the perspective of these multiple commitments that I wish to explore some serviceable principles for engaging in feminist biblical interpretation that honors Jewish persons and the way they live out their faith.

First, I would suggest that an interpreter familiarize herself with the literature about anti-Judaism in Christian feminist interpretation. A few publications which address anti-Judaism in feminist interpretation are: Edna Brocke, “Do the Origins Already Contain the Malady?”; Susannah Heschel, “Feminism and Jewish-Christian Dialogue”; Katharina von Kellenbach, Anti-Judaism in Feminist Religious Writings; Judith Plaskow, “Anti-Judaism in Feminist Christian Interpretation”; and Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz, “The Discussion of Anti-Judaism in Feminist Theology–A New Area of Jewish-Christian Dialogue.”‘ There are many other publications that address the issue of anti-Judaism in Christian feminist interpretation, but even from this small sample, some patterns emerge.

It is evident from these and related publications that Christian feminism has long struggled with the inclination to deny Christianity’s complicity in patriarchal oppression and to vindicate Christianity by making unfavorable comparisons with Judaism or by placing blame on Judaism for such tendencies. This inclination toward anti-Judaism in feminist interpretation has been a problem for more than a century To illustrate the longevity of the problem, Plaskow recounts Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s distress when the leadership of the 1885 Annual Convention of National Woman Suffrage Association changed some wording in Stanton’s resolutions to that body. Her resolutions were critical of Christian theology because of its teachings on women. In order to make her resolutions more palatable to the Convention, the leadership substituted language that, in Stanton’s words, “‘hand[ed] over to the Jews what [she] had laid at the door of the Christians.” (2) Generally speaking, the action of the leadership at the 1885 Conventio n marked the formation of a new antithesis among Christian feminists: “Judaism equals sexism, while Christianity equals feminism.” (3)

Each of these publications on anti-Judaism in feminist interpretation emphasizes different patterns of anti-Judaism, but they have in common two main features: (a) they point to some motif(s) of feminist denigration of Judaism; and (b) they suggest the importance of considering multiple forms of oppression when interpreting. For example, Heschel discusses two anti-Judaic motifs: blaming Judaism for the introduction of patriarchy into the world and claiming first-century Christianity as less sexist when compared to Judaism of the first century. (4) Heschel points out that those concerned about eliminating anti-Judaism sometimes engage in sexism, while feminists sometimes incorporate anti-Judaism in their interpretations. She suggests that the two groups should work together. (5) Plaskow, on the other hand, stresses the rule of Judaism as antithesis as the most characteristic anti-Judaic motif used by feminist interpreters of the Christian Testament. (6) Yet she, like Heschel, recommends that interpreters exami ne the multiple forms of dominance that shape women’s lives. (7)

Since these publications bear witness collectively to the multiple forms anti-Judaism can take in Christian feminist interpretation, it is important to read several of these publications. Several of the authors note that feminists use anti-Judaic motifs unconsciously. The more aware we become of these motifs, the less likely we are to repeat them automatically.

After acquainting herself with the specific problem as it occurs in some feminist interpretation, an interpreter could very well expand her understanding more broadly with books and articles about anti-Judaism in Christian biblical interpretation or theological reflection. (8) The more aware the interpreter becomes of the problem and how it is manifested in specific interpretations, the more likely it is that she will avoid those tendencies in her own work. Historically, the tendency among Christian theologians to incorporate anti-Judaic themes has shown a remarkable versatility. Anti-Judaism adapts to particular political and historical circumstances by taking new forms or by rejuvenating old ones. By reading broadly about anti-Judaism in Christian theology, the interpreter can avoid substituting one form of anti-Judaism for another. In this way feminist interpreters can avoid repeating the anti-Judaic motifs that have been used in the past by other Christian interpreters. General treatments on anti-Judaism in Christian theology will inform the reader of anti-Judaic motifs that have not yet been used by Christian feminists.

As a Christian interpreter explores the issue of anti-Judaism in Christian theology or biblical interpretation, it is advisable for her or him to put aside defensiveness as much as possible. Or, more practically, an interpreter is well advised to work through his or her feelings of defensiveness before responding to a particular criticism. This article assumes that many Christians are committed to reforming our theological practices so that our theological constructions will be emancipating for us, but simultaneously life-enhancing to persons of other faiths. If we do indeed wish to engage in theological reflection that enriches interreligious relationships, then we must be willing to examine some of our most widely held and ancient convictions. For example, Brocke refers to the “inner strength” that Christians will need in order to explore the effect which canonization of the Christian Testament has had on Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible. According to Brocke, this canonization “closed down” the interpretation of the “Old Testament” except within certain well-defined limits. She suggests that Christians open up on the possibility of “multiple appearances” of the deity. (9) Brocke’s statements have broader implications for those Christians concerned to eliminate anti-Judaism from theological reflection. Anti-Judaism in Christian biblical interpretation is a problem that is and has been deeply entrenched within the church. Biblical interpreters have employed anti-Jewish rhetoric and constructions in its theology to the point where such formulations are second nature to us. The reformation of Christian theology in this regard will require profound self-examination on the part of the church.

Ultimately, the Christian biblical scholar who wants to interpret biblical passages in a way that honors Judaism must be receptive to possible criticisms. Those who publicly engage in Christian theological reflection that is intended to be accountable to Jewish-Christian relationships or dialogue will have to be prepared to take risks and to accept mistakes. I have been encouraged by Fr. Joseph A. Brown S.J. to take risks in another area; that is, in studying and teaching African-American biblical interpretation. Author of To Stand on the Rock: Meditations on Black Catholic Identity, he suggested in a public lecture that theology in general had much to learn from African-American theology. (10) He encouraged those outside African-American religious traditions to take risks: to study African-American culture and theology and to teach others what we learn. Brown said that those of us outside the African-American religious tradition are likely to make mistakes as we learn and teach. Nevertheless, the exploration of African-American culture and religious heritage is important to Christian theology and should not be avoided because of the fear of mistakes. His comments were important to me and encouraged me to pursue this line of study and teaching. I mention his comments because of the general principle involved. If we would engage in theological reflection that is free from anti-Judaism, we must be willing to take risks and to be receptive to criticism. To learn from our mistakes and to move beyond them is a pragmatic goal for biblical interpretation f rom an emancipatory perspective, whether one is engaged in the study of African-American biblical interpretation or in the study of anti-Judaism in Christian theology.

I recommend that Christian interpreters concerned about anti-Jewish tendencies in biblical studies become students of Judaism. An interpreter is better able to discern anti-Judaism if he or she is knowledgeable about that faith. Of course, reading books and articles about Jewish beliefs and practices is helpful. It is also beneficial for an interpreter to visit a synagogue to experience Jewish worship first hand. This can make a great difference in helping the biblical interpreter to gain an appreciation for Judaism and its practices as well as challenging any misconceptions he or she may have about Jewish worship services. As one gains knowledge of Judaism, one develops an appreciation for Judaism’s rich interpretive heritage, its liturgical beauty, its capacity for shaping a meaningful way of life, and its positive contributions to global ethics.

Developing a global ethics is particularly important to humankind’s collective future, according to Brennan R. Hill, Paul F. Knitter, and William Madges. They suggest that global responsibility can serve as “common ground” for interreligious dialogue. (11) Judaism’s message of optimism and hope, its emphasis on ethical responsibility, and its concern for enacting justice are themes that can make substantial contributions to a global ethics. (12)

Engaging in the study of Judaism helps challenge stereotypes that the interpreter has held, either consciously or unconsciously. Popular conceptions of a religious faith held by those outside the faith are sometimes mistaken or distorted. Such popular views of a religious tradition may be influenced by anti-Jewish trends within culture. A serious study of Judaism will counter such mistaken impressions or anti-Jewish trends.

When an interpreter wants to critique patriarchal tendencies in biblical literature, it is advisable to focus such a critique on what is germane to the interpreter’s religious tradition only. For instance, in my own case, if I want to critique the patriarchal or androcentric qualities of a biblical passage or book, I do so because of its status as a canonical text within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and because of its influence on the practices or theology of that denomination.

I make this suggestion out of respect for one of the major tenets of interreligious dialogue. The tenet is that one can speak only for one’s own experience and from the context of one’s own religious tradition. There is a related issue in that one cannot presume to speak for others. One can be aware of another’s concerns, through dialogue with that person, and be motivated out of a desire to enhance the other’s interests, but ultimately one can only speak for oneself. It is especially important to avoid the presumption that another faith, other than one’s own, is in need of reform.

It is perhaps advisable to make the reader aware of one’s own faith commitments when doing a feminist reading of a biblical passage. In doing so, the interpreter owns the passage in question as part of his or her own tradition. In that way the reader is made aware that the interpreter is dealing with a dilemma inherent to her or his own faith.

When offering a feminist critique of a passage from the Hebrew Bible, if an interpreter wishes to contrast it with a passage that is more favorable to feminist interests, it is best to make that contrast with another Hebrew Bible passage. To draw contrasts between a passage in the Hebrew Bible and one in the Christian Testament can easily lead to the formation of an antithesis. There is ample material in the Hebrew Bible that can be used to support emancipatory interpretations for women. For example, Judges 4-5 could be used to challenge a patriarchal passage. Both Deborah and Jael are represented there as strong female characters, who deliver Israel from foreign oppression. Song of Songs serves as another example of a Hebrew Bible passage that can be used as a contrast to an overtly patriarchal passage. Songs of Songs depicts women as full partners in romantic, sexual relationships. Passages in the Song of Songs can be used to deconstruct more patriarchal visions of human sexuality in the Hebrew Bible. By m aking a comparison within the Hebrew Bible itself, one avoids the old formation of anti-Judaism made by contrasting the “Old Testament” with the “New Testament.” Christian interpreters have fostered polarizing attitudes toward Judaism by making comparisons of early Christian motifs and practices over against the supposed motifs and practices of the ancient Israelites (or ancient Jews) that are unfavorable to the latter. In this regard, Kellenbach theorizes that “three rules of formation” govern the distortion of Judaism in Christian interpretation: Judaism as the antithesis of Christianity; Israel or Judaism in a scapegoat role; and Judaism as the prologue of Christianity. (13)

Indeed, it is preferred that an interpreter avoid making any comparisons between Christianity and Judaism that is unfavorable to the latter. Some Christian interpreters have contrasted Jesus’ attitudes toward women against the supposed background of contemporaneous Jewish attitudes and customs concerning women. (14) Amy-Jill Levine has done a thorough and persuasive job of debunking this approach in her article, “Second Temple Judaism, Jesus, and Women: Yeast of Eden.” (15) There is no clear evidence that Jesus took a different approach to women than the various Judaisms of that era. (16) Levine critiques the tendency of interpreters to use the Mishnah as an indicator of Jewish restrictions on women’s behavior in Jesus’ day. Embedded within the tractates of the Mishnah are the “androcentric idealizations” of their rabbinic authors/compilers. (17) Levine recommends, instead, that a great variety of ancient documents be consulted on the question of women’s status in Palestine of the first century C.E. On the b asis of her broad familiarity with many written resources, canonical and non-canonical, she successfully challenges the notion that Pharisaic Judaism was the dominant form of Judaism in Jesus’ day.

Thus Levine challenges a particular form of triumphalism in Christian biblical interpretation. She points to the problem and critiques it from a methodological standpoint. I would suggest even more broadly that the Christian interpreter refrain from making any comparisons between Jesus and his supposed Jewish background or between Christianity and Judaism that consciously or unconsciously suggests the superiority of Christianity.

Within the history of Christian biblical interpretation, Jews have been imagined as “scapegoats” that is, as those who introduced patriarchy within the world or as those who were guilty of deicide. (18) Blaming the Jews for the introduction of a variety of social ills or for the death of Jesus on the cross are long-lived themes in Christian interpretation. Neither theme can be empirically supported and the motivations behind such scapegoating are highly questionable. The Christian interpreter who wishes to avoid anti-Judaism within his or her own work will give such themes a wide berth.

Another familiar motif of anti-Judaism found in Christian interpretation is that which Kellenbach characterizes as “reducing Judaism to the status of a prologue of Christianity.” (19) In this case, Christian theology represents Judaism as an unfulfilled prologue to the full realization of God’s will in Christianity. Judaism or the “Old Testament” are represented as outdated and superseded by Christianity and the “New Testament.” (20) An interpreter who wants to enhance Jewish-Christian dialogue will avoid “supersessionist” arguments, which characterize Christianity as somehow “higher” or “superior” to Judaism.

Biblical scholars who are concerned about global justice issues and the ethical ramifications of their work, will naturally want to adopt a critical stance and methodological approach that serves global justice. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, in her presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature, challenges biblical scholars “to engage in a disciplined reflection on the public dimensions of our scholarly work” so that we could become significant participants “in the global discourse seeking justice and well-being for all.” (21) She calls for a level of critical reflection by biblical scholars that addresses both an ethics of critical reading, which “changes the task of interpretation from finding out ‘what the text meant’ to the question of what kind of readings can do justice to the text in its historical context,” and an ethics of accountability, which “stands responsible not only for the choice of rhetorical interpretive models but also for the ethical consequences of the biblical text and its subsequent interpretations.” (22) The critical framework that Schussler Fiorenza envisions allows the biblical text to say something other than what we want or expect. The text may still ruffle our feathers or prick our consciences. Nevertheless, her critical rhetorical approach encourages the biblical scholar to examine the political and social effect of the biblical text and its contemporary and historical interpretations. In such a way, the biblical scholar can avoid perpetuating unreflectively the devaluing or oppressive tendencies of the past.

Schussler Fiorenza has long advocated a rhetorical approach to biblical scholarship that takes into consideration multiple emancipatory aims; that examines various intersecting kinds of oppression based on class, race, gender, culture, and religious affiliation. (23) She is a feminist biblical interpreter who recognizes the historical and social particularity of women’s experience and the historical and social particularity of forms of oppression that impact women. (24) The question of anti-Judaism in Christian feminist biblical interpretation calls for just such a multi-faceted consideration of oppression. As Schussler Fiorenza observes, biblical interpretation that seeks to be accountable must serve the goal of “justice and well-being for all.” (25)

Finally, a biblical interpreter is wise to use her or his creative imagination in order to project what the repercussions of a published or public interpretation might be when viewed from the perspective of another religion. Irving Greenburg, in his essay, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire,” argues that theological statements should meet the command of the Holocaust to radically value all human life and to completely respect the image of God in the other. In other words, when evaluating a theological statement or biblical interpretation, we should ask the following question as a criterion for that statement’s or interpretation’s validity: “Would the statement or interpretation be credible in the presence of burning children?” (26) Thus, in our reformation of Christian biblical interpretation, I would commend to biblical scholars that we learn to jettison or rewrite any practice or interpretation that does not radically value human life or completely respect the image of God in the other. Our criterion for the adequacy of new theological statements could be, “Would I utter this belief or express this position at Auschwitz or Birkenau?”


(1.) Edna Brocke, “Do the Origins Already Contain the Malady?” in A Feminist Companion to the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament; The Feminist Companion to the Bible, vol. 10, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996). 349-43; Susannah Heschel, “Feminism and Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” in Introduction to Jewish-Christian Relations, ed. Michael Shermis and Arthur B. Zannoni (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), 227-46; Katharina von Kellenbach, Anti-Judaism in Feminist Religious Writings, American Academy of Religion Cultural Criticism Series, no. 1 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1994); Judith Plaskow, “Anti-Judaism in Feminist Christian Interpretation,” in Searching the Scriptures, Vol. One: A Feminist Introduction, ed. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (New York: Crossroad. 1993), 117-29; Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz, “The Discussion of Anti-Judaism in Feminist Theology-A New Area of Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 7 (Fall 1991): 95-98.

(2.) Plaskow, “Anti-Judaism in Feminist Christian Interpretation,” 117. Plaskow cites Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences 1815-1897(1989; reprint, New York: Schocken Books, 1971), 381.

(3.) Plaskow, “Anti-Judaism in Feminist Christian Interpretation,” 119.

(4.) Heschel, “Feminism and Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” 232-33.

(5.) Ibid., 228.

(6.) Plaskow, “Anti-Judaism in Feminist Christian Interpretation,” 119.

(7.) Ibid., 118.

(8.) Since space precludes a full listing of such works, I will only suggest a few of them here: Dan Cohn-Sherbok, ed. The Future of Jewish-Christian Dialogue (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999); William R. Farmer. ed. Anti-Judaism and the Gospels (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity International Press, 1999); Howard Clark Kee and Irvin J. Borowsky, eds, Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit (New York: Continuum, 1996); Charlotte Klein, Anti-Judaism in Christian Theology, trans. Edward Quinn (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978); Sarah Pearce, “Attitudes of Contempt: Christian Anti-Judaism and the Bible,” in Cultures of Ambi valence and Contempt Studies in Jewish-Non-Jewish Relations, ed. Sian Jones, Tony Kushner, and Sarah Pearce (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1998); Sigfried Pederson, “Anti-Judaism in John’s Gospel: John 8,” in New Readings in John: Literary and Theological Perspectives. JSNT Sup. 182, ed. Johannes Nissen and Sigfried Pederson (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 172-93; Pheme Perkins, ” The Destruction of Jerusalem and Christian Anti-Judaism,” Biblical Interpretation 8 (2000): 194-204; Tim Perry, “The Historical Jesus, Anti-Judaism, and the Christology of Hebrews: A Theological Reflection,” Didaskalia 10 (Spring 1999): 69-78; Rosemary Radford Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of AntiSemitism New York: Seabury Press, 1974.

(9.) See Brocke, “Do the Origins Already Contain the Malady?,” 352.

(10.) Joseph A. Brown, To Stand on the Rock: Meditations on Black Catholic Identity (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis. 1998).

(11.) Brennan R. Hill, Paul F. Knitter, and William Madges, Faith, Religion, and Theology: A Contemporary Introduction (Mystic, CT.: Twenty-Third Publications, 1997), 202-07.

(12.) Ibid., 236-37,

(13.) Kellenbach, Anti-Judaism in Feminist Religious Writings, 41-55.

(14.) Heschel, “Feminism and Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” 236-40.

(15.) Amy-Jill Levine, “Second Temple Judaism, Jesus, and Women: Yeast of Eden,” Biblical Interpretation 2 (Mar 1994): 8-33, Reprinted in A Feminist Companion to the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament, The Feminist Companion to the Bible, vol. 10, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 302-31.

(16.) Luke Timothy Johnson points out that there were many competing Jewish groups in first century Palestine, hence the designation “Judaisms.” See his “The New Testament’s Anti-Jewish Slander and the Conventions of Ancient Polemic,” Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (Fall 1989): 419-41.

(17.) Levine, “Second Temple Judaism,” 310.

(18.) Kellenbach, Anti-Judaism in Feminist Religious Writings. 47-50. On the issue of “the Jews” being responsible for the death of the goddess, see Heschel, “Feminism and Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” 232-36.

(19.) Kellenbach, Anti-Judaism in Feminist Religious Writings, [41], 51-55.

(20.) Ibid., 51.

(21.) Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, “The Ethics of Biblical Interpretation: Decentering Biblical Scholarship,” in Rhetoric and Ethic: The Politics of Biblical Studies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 17-30 [301. This essay was first published in the Journal of Biblical Literature 107 1 (1988): 3-17.

(22.) Ibid., 27 and 28.

(23.) See, especially. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, “Introduction: Transforming the Legacy of The Women’s Bible,” in Searching the Scriptures: Vol. 1, A Feminist Introduction, ed. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza with the assistance of Shelly Matthews ( New York: Crossroad, 1993), 1-24.

(24.) Ibid., 13.

(25.) Schussler Fiorenza, “The Ethics of Biblical Interpretation,” 30.

(26.) Irving Greenburg, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity after the Holocaust,” in A Holocaust Reader: Responses to the Nazi Extermination, ed. Michael Morgan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 102-115.

Sarah J. Meicher is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Xavier University. She has published several articles including: “Lacan, the Phallus, and the Construal of Intergenerational Kinship in Genesis-Numbers”; “Kinship and Enculturation: Shaping the Generations in Leviticus 18”; “Visualizing the Perfect Cult: The Priestly Rationale for Exclusion”; and “The Holiness Code and Human Sexuality.”

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