Review of April DeConick, "Holy Misogyny," and Daphna Arbel, "Forming Femininity in Antiquity"

At the SBL meeting in November, 2013, I participated in a review session of two books: April DeConick's Holy Misogyny and Daphna Arbel's Forming Femininity in Antiquity

Something that I found valuable in both books was the realization of how the characterizations of Eve and indeed all women as inferior to men, based in ancient religious language that justifies the unequal treatment of women, is still foundational for how women are regarded in some parts of contemporary society. The example brought by April in the introduction of her book of how women’s very faces are erased in some ultra-Orthodox Jewish publications is a signal example – in this case of how a discourse of modesty leads to the erasure of women from the public sphere. This particular example also highlights that these ancient and modern discourses have changed over time due to particular social, economic, and political changes. The erasure of women’s faces from ultra-Orthodox publications is something new, and may be due to the threat that the editors and writers of these publications (in addition to the rabbis who give their approval to the publications) feel from the increasing participation of women in the public sphere in both Israel and the United States. I believe that the erasure of women from the public space of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper is not something that has occurred due solely to immanent developments within the ideology of modesty, but that it is due to a competition with the contemporary world with women’s increasing struggle for an increased role in the public sphere.

It seems to me that in the case of the developments noted by April in her book that a similar case can be made for Christianity in late antiquity. There were women involved in leadership positions in the many varieties of early Christianity in a way that would not have been acceptable in the Roman world. Christianity began as a movement outside the margins of acceptable religious activity in the Roman Empire, without the respect afforded to Jewish beliefs and practices by a conviction of their antiquity and official imperial approval. The process of making Christianity acceptable to the Roman authorities was in part accomplished by the suppression of women’s independent leadership and the conformation of the Christian household to the hegemonic Roman household. I was thus also discouraged as I continued to read your book about how the leadership of women in early Christianity was gradually suppressed by the building of an image of women as evil and inferior to men, thus making women unfit for leadership. In my own work I have contrasted the presence of women’s leadership in spiritual experience in early Christianity with the suppression of such leadership by the nascent rabbinic movement, but I find now that this was really a parallel process – in developing rabbinic Judaism and orthodox Christianity male leaders both did their best to exclude women from the public sphere, from positions of leadership, and from spiritual experiences.

Some remarks on each book, what struck me and what I found most interesting to explore further.

In Daphna’s book, her use of Bakhtin’s idea of “heteroglossia” to discover the “hidden voices” in a text – using this method to highlight the many voices speaking in the Greek Life of Adam and Eve, from the voice that blames Eve for sin and for death, and the voice that lifts her up as acting like the angels in her care for Adam’s body and then in her mystical ability to perceive the angelic chariot coming for Adam’s soul and the angelic liturgy and ritual practice in the upper world.

In Daphna’s book, I was struck again by the peculiarity of the second biblical account of creation, in which a man takes on the female role of birth and from whose womb comes the first woman – with the male God acting as the midwife. This is in contrast to the ancient Babylonian myths where the “womb goddesses” are responsible for forming by their hands seven pairs of the first human beings. In this connection, it is interesting to compare the priestly account of creation, when both women and men are created at the same time by the divine word. Perhaps this is just as patriarchal as the second creation account in Genesis, but on the other hand it does not subordinate the first woman to the first man. This priestly chapter may indicate that we cannot blame the ancient Jewish priests who put together the final version of the Pentateuch for destruction of the female goddesses who still peek out from under the redaction of the Bible. I think that in maintaining this April’s book falls into a common error – found in some non-feminist and feminist works alike – of blaming Judaism for the aspects of Christianity that the author does not like. In some feminist works this has taken the form of dislocating Jesus from his Jewish context and seeing him as a feminist, over against patriarchal, misogynist Judaism. Such a contrast ignores the evidence of women holding leadership positions in early Judaism, as documented most prominently by Bernadette Brooten in her book on women leaders of the ancient synagogue.

In April's book, what I found the most interesting was that the only way that ancient women could be active participants in the process of redemption was by losing their femaleness, and being celibate virgins – “becoming male” as it is said in the Gospel of Thomas. This accords with my analysis of some ancient Jewish texts, like the Testament of Job, Joseph and Aseneth, and Philo’s On the Contemplative Life – virgins, before, after, or instead of partaking in marriage and child-bearing, are the only women who can experience divine visions of revelation.

Like April, I found Eve’s angelic visions one of the most interesting and surprising features of the Greek Life of Adam and Eve – Daphna is very well justified in highlighting this aspect of the text’s image of Eve. If we paid attention only to the dominant narrative of women’s sin, we would quickly pass over Eve’s spiritual abilities that manifest themselves in the extreme situation of Adam’s death. As Daphna points out, the daughters of Job in the Testament of Job possess similar spiritual capabilities that also enable them to see the angel in the chariot who also comes for the soul of Job. In the Testament of Job this angelic vision is restricted to the daughters of Job – none of the men with them, including Nereus, see the angel.

Daphna – alternative traditions of Eve were shaped within narratives of everyday life. These traditions are not really “counter-traditions.” They shape a polarized model of women’s characteristics through the lens of a male-centered ideology. Representations of the “good” Eve were meant to promote a distinct view of accepted and rejected femininity from a male-centered, orthodox perspective.

From my own research on the figure of Lilith/s in both rabbinic literature and the Babylonian incantation bowls, it is clear that Lilith functions in the same way as the negative depictions of Eve – as a figure who defines the limits of acceptable feminine behavior. Lilith operates outside the margins as the “anti-good mother and wife” figure – she injures and kills children and divides husband and wife from each other.

The negative depiction of Eve can continue to function in this way to define what appropriate femininity is. The Tsena U-reno, a Yiddish commentary on the Torah with an intended female audience, first published in 1622, contains a meditation/ritual surrounding the etrog (citron) that is part of the ritual of Sukkot. The etrog, together with a palm branch, willow branch, and myrtle branch, is waved during the seven days of the holiday. The etrog must be carefully guarded so that its tip is not damaged – if it is, the etrog can no longer be used in the ritual. Women, according to the Tsena U-reno, would take the etrog on the last day of the festival, when it was no longer needed, tear off the tip, and recite this tekhine – prayer: 
Since she did not eat from the apple, may the woman give birth to her child as easily as a hen lays an egg, without pain.
"Lord of the universe, because Eve ate the apple, we women must suffer the terrible fate to die in childbirth. Had I been present there, I would not have derived any benefit from it, just as now I did not want to make the etrog ritually unfit. It was used for the fulfillment of a commandment for seven days, but now on Hoshanah Rabbah, the commandment is ended. I am not quick to eat it, and just as I have little benefit from the tip, so did I have little benefit from the apple that you forbade."
This ritual appears to be an attempt to undo Eve’s sin, with the woman dissociating herself from Eve and proclaiming that had she been in Eden, she would not have eaten from the forbidden fruit, unlike Eve, and thus would not have brought dangerous and painful childbirth upon women.

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