Women and Religion, Reading 2
Another trip to the past
Religion underwent monumental changes when our human ancestors, after having been hunters and nomads, became city dwellers.
The rise of agricultural societies and patriarchy
About 10,000 B.C. a revolution took place in the history of humankind: our ancestors discovered the possibilities of agriculture and changed over to a settled existence. This change-over seems to have taken place in more than one continent at roughly the same period. The first permanent settlements were established precisely where we would expect them, viz. in the low lands bordering on large rivers. The valleys of the Indus, the Ganges, the Euphrates and the Nile provided the fertile, easily irrigated river banks which enabled families to find a living while staying in the same place.
People had been engaged in some agriculture for tens of thousands of years before, mainly in the form of reaping natural crops. The new development consisted in the fact that they now learnt the art of sowing the seed and so procuring the crop themselves. This kind of agriculture soon proved a more reliable means of securing food than hunting. It also enabled larger groups to stay together.
But switching over from hunting to agriculture as the principal source of food procurement entailed some other drastic changes.
Human families now had to stay in one location. They had to build permanent shelters, and so they invented huts and houses. They also needed new and better tools which led to the development of skills and crafts. There was the need for storing things from harvest to harvest, and the need for keeping objects in the home. The first vessels were made of straw, then of straw covered with clay. Then people discovered the art of baking earthenware pottery from mixtures of clay and finely cut straw. Someone invented the wheel and the axle. Women devised new ways of weaving cloth from agricultural products. In sites of the most ancient cities such as Jericho we can follow the rapid transformation from hunters to craftsmen with amazing precision. [Further Reading 1]
One important consequence of the new life style was the social structure it produced, viz. the polis the township. The accumulation of wealth in the homes of the new agricultural community made it a ready prey for thieves and robbers. People had to organize themselves against such attacks from within and without. This they did by electing a leader who would fight for them against their enemies. The leader soon acquired definite rights. Exact boundaries of land were demarcated. The homes of the community were surrounded by a protecting wall. The rights and duties of citizens were laid down. In this way the small kingdom, the township, arose.
By this new way of life people acquired one great advantage: stability and continuity. Human thinking was led into a new direction. Instead of being exclusively concerned with the day-to-day struggle for survival, people could now devote themselves to an exploration of other talents. The birth of town civilizations brought about the first flourishing of all the arts: of music, with the invention of scales and instruments; of painting, with increasingly daring artistic creations; of sculpture and architecture; of writing and literature. People invented the sports and the games, the celebrations and rituals with which they could fill their newly found time of leisure. Because of the stability of their existence people could now spend time on the building up of wealth and culture.
In their old existence as hunter-gatherers, people had undergone life in a somewhat passive way: it was as if things happened to them rather than that they themselves took an active part. But now it was different. They began to organize their own life, to order, to plan, to fit things together and to construct. They learned by experience the two processes of construction: the break-down of material into manageable components, and their re-assembly into new structures. People's thought followed the same pattern: analysis and synthesis; abstraction and re-integration in logical frameworks.
Although the dominance of men existed also in many pre-historical societies, it is undeniable that male dominance now became firmly embedded in the new social structures. For it was men who took military command, who seized political power, who laid down laws, who controlled the sources of wealth and ruled families. Womens rights were severely restricted in almost every sphere of life. Thus emerged full-blooded 'patriarchy', a hierarchical system of social organization whereby men hold positions of power over women. [Further Reading 2]
Organized religion and women
The new organization of society implied also a new vision of the world and a new understanding of divinity. From reverting attention to the earth and the power of birth people began to see the world as a large city created by supreme powers. All the creation myths of the religions of agricultural societies that are known to us speak of a strong male god who created the world by bringing order to chaos. Such male gods were now considered to reign supreme. They were thought to rule from heaven, to display their power as warriors and supreme craftsmen. Marduk of Mesopotamia and Wodan of the Germanic tribes have the same traits. Fertility too was understood in a new light. It was no longer the female but the male animal carrying the seed that was considered the symbol of fertility. The bull, not the cow, came to be worshipped as the giver of life in the Middle East.
To analyse different aspects of organised religion and their effects on women I will use the example of Hinduism. Present-day Hindu religion was shaped by the Aryan agricultural societies that lived in the Indus and Ganges valleys. In Hinduism men dominate even though traces of a pre-Aryan more matrifocal past can still be found. The symbol for India is the cow, not the bull. The country is the motherland (mâtrubhûmi), not a fatherland. A feminine supreme power, Adiparâshakti, controls all gods and goddesses. In rural villages small road shrines to the mother goddess can still be seen today. Once a year the women of the village come in procession to the shrine, carrying decorated earthen pots on their heads which contain boiled rice mixed with blood or red dye. In some places a chicken is slaughtered in sacrifice. But such remnants of the past fade against stark religious patriarchy.
popular image of Sita in exile
If we stay with Hinduism as an example, we observe womens dependent position in all characteristic features of an organized religion. This is well illustrated by the position of Sita in the Râmâyana epic that is dramatised all over India every year, as well in adapted versions in Indonesia. Thailand and Campuchea. Yes, the two protagonists, Sita and her husband Rama, display a romance of love. But Rama acquires her as a property at the wedding. She remains totally subject to him, either at court or during their exile. When she has been abducted by the monster Ravana, Rama fights for her delivery, but on freeing her according to all classic versions - he refuses to take her back as his wife even though Sita is cleared of any wrongdoing with Ravana. Sita remains dependent in everything. [Further Reading 3]
1. Men control worship and its pattern of fixed and structured rituals. These include an elaborate calendar of feasts, a network of temples and places of pilgrimage, rites for initiations, weddings and funerals, standard prayers and incantations. Official ceremonies are presided over by male ministers. In India it is priests from the Brahmin caste who conduct temple worship. Other Brahmins, the purohîts, perform the rites for weddings and funerals. All of them are men. Another class of leaders are ascetics and holy men (sanyasis) who function as teachers and spiritual guides (gurus). Though some women can be found in the latter group, they form a minority.
2. Hindu beliefs and practices are preserved in sacred writings. The most authoritative writings for Hinduism are the Vedas, an ancient collection of hymns, prayers and rituals. The inferior status of women is already enshrined in them: Lord Indra [the god of heaven] himself has said that a woman has little intelligence. She cannot be taught - Rig Veda 8/33/17.
3. Everyday rights and duties are regulated by ethical and social laws. The religious code of Manu makes warfare, government, business and religion the domain of men. And at home women are totally subject to their husbands.
- No girl, no young woman, not even a senior woman may do anything on her own, even in her own house - Manu 5,147.
- In childhood a female is subject to her father; in youth to her husband; when her lord [= husband] dies, she is subject to her sons. A woman must never be independent - Manu 5,148.
- No sacrifice, no vows, no fasts must be performed by women on their own apart (from their husbands). Only if a wife obeys her husband she will be exalted in heaven - Manu 5,155.
Ancient practices, such as female infanticide and sati, the burning of a widow on her husbands funeral pyre, have been curbed by modern legislation. [Further Reading 4]
In all organised religions the status of women was negatively affected because, what started off as cultural customs favouring men now became sacred traditions embedded in religious institutions.
Revealed religions and women
A special group of organised religion are those that claim to have been founded on a direct revelation from God. The main contenders are Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as all other church communities, denominations and sects that derived from them.
A distinctive feature of revealed religions is their promoting monotheism, that is belief in one God. Prophets play a key role, persons who received messages from God and who were authorised to communicate those messages. Gods words were laid down in inspired writings. The revealed religions evolved to have their own structures, creeds and moral laws. Revealed religions generally hold that people who die appear before God as their ultimate judge who rewards the good in heaven and condemns sinners for punishment to hell.
Christianity stands out by its belief that in Jesus Christ God himself somehow was present among us in human form. This event is known as incarnation.
In revealed religions the position of women often worsened when, frequently through a misinterpretation of the sources, the inferior status of women was directly attributed to a decision by God. And you cannot argue with God who is both the omnipotent Creator and the ultimate Revealer of all truth. God himself note his masculine gender! was invoked to justify and validate discrimination against women.
In Christianity, for instance, what defence does a woman have
- when her presumed inferiority is ascribed to the Creator? - I do not allow a woman to teach . . . . for Adam was created first and Eve afterwards (1 Timothy 2,11-15).
- when all leadership in the Church is reserved to men because Jesus himself only chose men to be Apostles? (Matthew 10,1-4)
- when the role of women is claimed to be enshrined in unalterable sacred Tradition?
Such claims, of course, depend a lot on the interpretation of the sacred sources which was the domain of religious scholars. [Further Reading 5]
Philosophers, scripture scholars, theologians
Religious scholars have played a central part in organised religions and continue to do so.
A good example is found in India where the Nyaya and Vaisesika schools of philosophy deepened the understanding of God. The Buddhist thinker Dharmakirthi (A.D. 600-660) and the Hindu scholar Trilocana (about A.D. 800) contributed substantially to the correction of crass polytheistic notions of the divine. It led to profound insights such as the recognition that, if there is a God, who has to surpass all created things in his/her deepest being.
In the beginning, my dear, there was Being alone, one only without second.
Some people say: In the beginning there was non-being alone, one only, without second.
From that non-being, being was produced.
But how, indeed, my dear, could it be thus? said he.
How could being be produced from non-being?
On the contrary, my dear,
In the beginning there was Being alone, one only, without second.
All these creatures, my dear, have their root in Being.
They have Being as their abode, Being as their support.
Chandogya Upanishad VI 2,2; 8,6
Such religious philosophers examined sacred traditions critically and tried to develop a systematic understanding of the beliefs contained in them. [Further Reading 6]
Jewish scholar in Russia
In revealed religions a special place was reserved to scripture scholars whose task was to preserve and interpret the written texts that contained the Word of God.
Judaism shows us how complex this process can be.
- The inspired scripture itself was divided into the Torah (the Pentateuch), the Nebiîm (Prophets) and the Kethubîm (other writings). The Torah was the most authoritative part. Early Aramaic interpretations of the Torah are known as the Targum.
- Scribes studied the text and offered opinions on their interpretation which they taught orally to their disciples. From about 200 AD these interpretations were written down in the Mishnah. The scribes quoted in the Mishnah are known as the Tannaîm. The Mishnah became an authoritative book in its own right.
- The Mishnah itself was made the subject of commentary (200 500 AD). Various versions of this commentary were published as the Talmud. The scribes quoted in the Talmud received the name of Amoraîm.
- Meanwhile the preservation of the original Hebrew text was looked after by scribes, the Sôferîm who began to count the verses and discuss possible faulty readings. From the 6th century AD this work was perfected by scribes known as the Massoretes who counted and numbered every single letter, added vowel signs and provided text-critical comments in the margin of the text.
Regina Jonas, the first Jewish Rabbi, ordained in Berlin in 1935
In many ways Jewish women in Europe had more rights and privileges than Christian women before 1900 AD. But Jewish women too were under male domination. In traditional Judaism women were excluded from access to public authority and power. This deprived them from participation in religious service, communal study of religious texts, and the execution of judgments under Jewish law. The exclusion was based in rabbinic literature on womens assumed negative traits. Women were linked with witchcraft, foolishness, dishonesty and licentiousness, among a number of other inherent negative qualities. At times the secondary and inferior creation of women is cited as explaining their disagreeable traits; elsewhere Eves culpability is blamed for introducing death into the world. [Further Reading 7]
In Christianity it has been the theologians who played a key role in interpreting the message of scripture and tradition. Unfortunately for women, their view was heavily clouded by the patriarchal cultures of their time.
fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1471
Thomas Aquinas (1224 1274) may serve as a test case. He has been called with reason the most influential theologian of the Middle Ages. Thomas was a genius who attempted to build a consistent and logical infra-structure for Christian faith. Much of his work is still valid today. But, dependent on Greek and Roman writers as he was and swayed by the popular prejudices of his own time, he perpetuated many errors about women as if they are part of Christian religion.
- God created man first making him the origin of the rest of humanity. Only man was created in Gods image in the full sense of the term. Women only reflect Gods image to the extent that they too have a mind.
- In procreation only the mans seed carries the future offspring. A woman does no more than provide a womb for the foetus to grow in. So women are not complete human beings. Their birth as women comes about through a shortcoming at the time of conception.
- Women are naturally subject to men. For a mans intelligence is superior to that of a woman and a man naturally commands authority. That is why Paul forbade women to teach men or to have any power over men.
- Women cannot preside at the eucharist because a priest has to represent Christ who was a complete human being. Only men, by being men, signify eminence in human nature. [Further Reading 8]
Among the thousands of original women thinkers and writers only the voices of a few were heard. Among them we find the theologian Gertrud of Helfta (1256-1302) who wrote about her mystic encounters with Christ in The Herald of God's Loving-Kindness  and Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) who defended women's dignity in Letter of the God of Love , The Tale of the Rose , Letters on the Debate Concerning the Romance of the Rose [1401-1403] and The Book of the City of Ladies .
Modern scholarship challenges the androcentric [= 'man centered'] theologies of the past. It has a vast agenda:
- reclaiming women's heritage by retrieving lost sources and the suppressed experiences of women;
- deconstructing [i.e. critically examining and dismantling] the male-centered framework of perspectives that underlie theological interpretation;
- reconstructing an understanding of the Christian message and Christian tradition in a way that includes both men and women as full participants.
As organised religions are trying to resist, or adapt to, our modern age, the position of women becomes a focus of both controversy and reform.
Typical issues are:
* How to distinguish cultural accretions from the essence of a religion?
* Who has the authority to introduce change in religious belief or practice?
* What restrictions should be placed on the force of tradition?
* How does one come to distinguish what is truly the will of God?
REFERENCES FOR FURTHER READINGS
Classic: V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself, Mentor, New York 1951 (pgs.114-142). For the growth of a typical city 10,000 - 2,000 B.C. read: J. Garstang and J.B.E. Garstang, The Story of Jericho, London 1948; K. M. Kenyon, Excavations at Jericho, London 1960; about the Harappa culture in the Indus Valley, A.L. Basham, The Wonder that was India, Orient Longmans, Calcutta 1963; D.D. Kosambi, The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1965.
The exact origin of patriarchy remains disputed, not its stranglehold on pre-industrial organised societies. A selection from an avalanche of publications follows: Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation, Beacon Press, Boston 1973; Peggy Reeves Sanday, Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1981; Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy, 1986; Micaela di Leonardo, Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era, University of California Press, Berkeley 1991; M. Harris, The Evolution of Human Gender Hierarchies, 1993; Sherry Ortner, Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture, Beacon, Boston 1996; Sarah Milledge Nelson, Gender in Archaeology: Analyzing Power and Prestige. Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press, Walnut Creek 1997.
Todays replays of the Ramayana and contemporary film and TV versions of the epic try to temper the image of female subjection to the male. The traditional image still predominates. Sudhir Kakar, The inner world: a psycho-analythical study of childhood and society in India, Oxford University Press, Delhi 1981; Aruna Gupta, Ânanda-Râmâyana: a Cultural Study, Eastern Book, Delhi 1984; Carol E Breckenridge, Consuming Modernity: Public culture in a South Asian world, University of Minnesota Press 1995; Mandakranta Bose (ed.), Faces of the Feminine in Ancient Medieval and Modern India, Oxford University Press 2000; The Râmâyana Culture. Text, Performance and Iconography, DK Printworld, New Delhi 2003.
R. C. Majumdar and A. D. Pusalker (eds.), The History and Culture of the Indian People. Volume I: The Vedic age, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay 1951; Jeane Fowler. Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices, Sussex Academic Press, Brighton 1954; Barbara Stoler Miller, Sex and gender hierarchies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (UK) 1993; Tanika Sarkar, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism, Permanent Black, New Delhi 2001; C. J. Fuller, The Camphor Flame: popular Hinduism and society in India. Princeton University Press , Princeton 2004.
To give an impression of the vast literature generated by these topics, read on 1 Timothy 2,11-15: P. W. Barnett, Wives and Womens Ministry (I Timothy 2:11-15): Evangelical Quarterly 61 (1989) 225-238; B. Barron, Putting Women in Their Place: I Timothy 2 and Evangelical Views of Women in Church Leadership: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 33 (1990) 451 459; A. L. Bowman, Women in Ministry: An Exegetical Study in I Timothy 2:11-15: Biblical Studies 149 (1992) 193-213; R. Falconer, I Timothy 2,14.15. Interpretative Notes: Journal of Biblical Literature 60 (1941) 375 - 379; G. P. Hugenberger, Women in Church Office: Hermeneutics or Exegesis? A Survey of Approaches to I Timothy 2 :8-15: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35 (1992) 341-360, H. Huizenga, Women, Salvation and the Birth of Christ: A Reexamination of I Timothy 2:15: Studies in Biblical Theology 12 (1982) 17-26; S. Jebb, Suggested Interpretation of I Timothy 2,15: Evangelical Theology 81 (1969/70) 221-222; D. R. Kimberley, I Timothy 2:15: A Possible Understanding of a Difficult Text: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35 (1992) 481 486; S. L. Love, Womens Roles in Certain Second Testament Passages: A Macro-sociological View: Biblical Theology Bulletin 12 (1987) 50-59; A. Padgett, Wealthy Women at Ephesus. l Timothy2:8-15 in Social Context: Interpretation 41 (1987) 19-31; G. N. Redekop, Let the Women Learn: I Timothy 2 :8-15 Reconsidered: Studies in Religion 19 (1990) 235-245; R. R. Ruether, Women and ecclesiastical Ministry in historical and social perspective: Concilium 12 (1976) 17-23; A. D. B. Spencer, Eve at Ephesus (Should women be ordained as pastors according to the First Letter to Timothy 2:11-15?): Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 17 (1974) 215-222
The Upanishads, transl. by F.M. Mueller in 1879; Dover Publications, New York 1980; C.H. Hartshorne and W.L. Reese, Philosophers Speak of God, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1953. About the birth of philosophy in Greece, see J.C. Stobart, The Glory that was Greece, Nicholls, London 1962; F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy, New York 1962; F.M. Cornford, Before and after Socrates, Cambridge University Press 1968.
The rabbinical texts quoted can be found for instance in Mishnah Avot 2,7; Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin 4, 66b; Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 33b; Genesis Rabbah 17,8; 18.2 & 45.5); Mishnah Sotah 3,4, and Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 65a). For modern literature see Rachel Biale, Women and Jewish Law: The Essential Texts, Their History, and Their Relevance for Today, Schocken Books, New York 1984; Judith Romney Wegner, Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah, Oxford University Press 1988; Judith Hauptman, Rereading The Rabbis: A Woman's Voice, Westview Press, Boulder 1998; Judith R. Baskin, Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature, Brandeis University Press 2002.
The main quotes from Thomas Aquinas can be found in these works: Summa Theologica I, qu. 92, art. 1; art. 1, ad 1; art. 1, ad 2; art. 1, ob. 1; art. 3; art. 4, ad 1; Summa Theologica I, qu. 93, art. 4, ad 1; Summa Theologica III qu. 83, art. 1; art. 1, ad 2; art. 1, ad 3; Summa Theologica Supplement , qu. 28, art. 3 ad 1. See also: Kristin Mary Popik, The philosophy of woman of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome 1980; James F. Keenan and Susanne M. DeCrane, Aquinas, Feminism and the Common Good , Georgetown University Press 2004.
Among the vast amount of literature, see especially: Rosemary Radford Ruether (ed.), Religion and Sexism. Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, Simon & Schuster, New York 1974; Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of Reason. 'Male' and 'Female' in Western Philosophy, Methuen, London 1984; Mary Jo Meadow and Carole A. Rayburn (eds.), A Time to Weep, A Time to Sing: Faith Journeys of Woman Scholars of Religion, Winston Press, New York 1985; June Steffenson Hagen (ed.), Gender Matters. Women Studies for the Christian Community, Zondervan, Grand Rapids 1990; Mary Stewart V an Leeuwen et al. (eds.), After Eden. Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1993.