The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion begins its thirtieth year with some important changes in personnel. After eight years of superb leadership, Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre has stepped down as co-editor. During her tenure, she not only provided overall guidance for the journal but also streamlined the production side of the JFSR in such a way that it could be handed over with ease to the next editor. We bid a reluctant farewell to Melanie with many thanks for both her years of service and her help in facilitating the transition to new leadership. We look forward to continuing to work with her on the JFSR board. Traci West, Professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University Theological School, steps into Melanie’s place as co-editor and will be working with Judith Plaskow through the remainder of her term. We also welcome Veronica Golos as our new poetry editor. Veronica is a prizewinning poet with several books to her credit, including most recently Vocabulary of Silence.
A strong theme unites many of the articles in this issue: a focus on the body both as symbol and material reality with particular though not exclusive attention to female sexuality. Julia Watts Belser’s lead-off piece, “Sex in the Shadow of Rome: Sexual Violence and Theological Lament in Talmudic Disaster Tales,” shows how the rabbis of the Talmud used sexual violence as a dominant motif to express their horror over Roman destruction of the Temple. Drawing on Roman symbolism that linked imperial domination with sexual conquest but turning it on its head, they used rape narratives to show the moral degradation of the conqueror rather than the shame of the conquered. The trope of sexual violation constitutes a form of rabbinic protest against Rome, Watts Belser argues, but one that makes instrumental use of women’s suffering to articulate rabbinic and divine loss. The effect of this language is to erase the actual suffering of victims of assault by using rape as a marker of the nation’s vulnerability.
Michelle Fletcher’s “What Comes into a Woman and What Comes Out of a Woman: Feminist Textual Intervention and Mark 7:14–23,” begins by noting that much so-called gender-inclusive language is not necessarily experienced that way by marginalized groups. What would be the effect, she asks, of challenging such language by reversing gender in the biblical text itself, changing “he” to “she” and “man” to “woman”? She tries this experiment with a passage in Mark in which Jesus talks about what goes into and comes out of the body, a text that has generally been interpreted as addressing issues of purity and impurity in relation to food. When woman becomes the subject, Fletcher argues, the text suddenly opens up to refer to many other things that exit the body: menstrual flow, newborns, unnatural discharge. Gender reversal greatly expands the meaning of the passage, highlighting its many wordplays and allowing for reassessment of traditional interpretations and the acquisition of fresh insights.
In “Bearded Woman, Female Christ: Gendered Transformations in the Legends and Cult of Saint Wilgefortis,” Lewis Wallace examines the functions of gender blending and gender crossing in the cult of late-medieval Christian saint. Saint Wilgefortis, a young princess who prayed to be disfigured to avoid an unwanted marriage, miraculously grew a beard, and then was crucified by her angry father, who is imaged as a crucified virgin martyr that clearly retains her female identity yet is bearded like a man. Wallace suggests that the saint’s gender crossing was the key to her popularity, enabling her to be read on many different levels. For women, Saint Wilgefortis may have represented their ability to integrate the masculine and become Christlike, while men may have identified with her manliness. For both, the humiliation of bodily disfigurement becomes simultaneously ennobling and spiritually transforming, placing Jesus’s bodily marginality at the center of Christian self-understanding.
Kathryn Kueny’s “Marking the Body: Resemblance and Medieval Constructions of Paternity” addresses issues of embodiment from a very different direction, by raising the question of how medieval Muslims established paternity in an era before DNA testing. The key criterion for determining paternity, Kueny says, was the physical appearance of the child, but medieval scholars and physicians had a fairly sophisticated understanding of the workings of heredity and were aware that traits could skip generations. When a child did not look like the father, this was explained by a variety of factors depending on the character of the woman. If she was known to be morally upright, then nonresemblance would be attributed to heredity or the weakness of male sperm, which might cause the child to look more like the mother. But if a woman's moral behavior was suspect, then the child's features were seen as revealing her hidden lust or as pointing directly to the true biological father.
Veronica Strang's "Lording it over the Goddess: Water, Gender, and Human-Environmental Relations" sounds a different note from the other articles in this issue in that it looks at large-scale patterns across many cultural contexts that shed light on the connections between gender relations and treatment of the environment. Strang suggests that people's changing relationships with water—a crucial resource essential to human life—provide a key to understanding some of the links among cosmological views, sociopolitical arrangements, and material practices. The more directive water management practices that emerged with the development of agriculture, for example, were correlated with a shift from female to male deities, who were often imagined as slaying a female water monster. Conversely, people who have engaged in resistive spiritual and environmental practices centering on water are often concerned with equity and complementarity in both environmental and gender relations.
The vivid images of the poetry section bring us back to the body in all its physicality, both the materiality of the human body and the body of the world. Picking up "in a different voice" many of the themes that emerge in the articles, the poems form a powerful link between the first section of the issue and the roundtable on abortion. The roundtable revisits Beverly Wildung Harrison's groundbreaking book Our Right to Choose thirty years after it was published. The roundtable comes at a propitious moment in that the last three years have seen a dramatic rise in the passage of state ordinances restricting abortion rights. The five contributors to the roundtable argue that, in a hostile political environment, Harrison's nuanced moral argument for abortion becomes more important than ever. After Marvin Ellison's piece, which focuses on Harrison's distinctive methodological contribution to issues of reproductive justice, the succeeding essays explore the relevance of her arguments to a variety of social, national, and religious contexts: the contemporary political situation (Rebecca Todd Peters), the discussion in the Catholic Church (Kate Ott), debates in Israel in the 1970s (Michal Raucher), and the effects of antiabortion and anticontraception rhetoric on African American communities (Jennifer Leath).
Adele Chynoweth's Living It Out article functions on two levels: as an introduction to the work of Rachael Romero, an interdisciplinary artist who was confined as a teen in the Convent of the Good Shepherd in South Australia, and as a discussion of Chynoweth's own mistreatment when she tried to present Romero's work at a Vatican Museums conference in October 2011. The author draws a parallel between the conference organizers’ attempts to censor a number of the images in her paper and the silence surrounding children like Romero who were forced to work in the Magdalene laundries of Australia. Interestingly, the paintings that most disturbed the conference organizers were those of a crucified female—a motif Romero used to express the suffering she endured during her incarceration. This image, which Chenowyth sees as blurring the boundaries between male and female, sacred and profane, connects to Wallace’s discussion of the crucified Saint Wilgefortis and points to the power of the “Christa” figure to communicate multiple meanings.
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