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Terror in the Bible: Rhetoric, Gender, and Violence

Dr Robyn Whitaker is Coordinator of Studies – New Testament at Pilgrim Theological College and Senior Lecturer within the University of Divinity. She specialises in the Book of Revelation with particular attention to the visual culture in which the text emerged and the visual rhetoric of biblical literature. Robyn frequently writes on issues relating to gender, sexuality, politics, and the Bible in popular and mainstream media outlets. Here she discusses her new book, which she has co-edited with Dr Monica Melanchthon.

We are thrilled to have Terror in the Bible: Rhetoric, Gender, and Violence out in print with SBL press. This volume of essays builds upon the iconic world of Phyllis Trible, whose Texts of Terror was ground-breaking for naming the terror of gendered violence in the biblical text and reclaiming women’s voices and perspectives in the text.

Our volume emerged from a conference organised by the Australian Collaborators in Feminist Theologies in 2018. We asked speakers to reflect on the state of biblical scholarship and what has changed in the almost 40 years since Texts of Terror was published. Some presented readings of texts not covered in Trible’s book including passages from the New Testament. Others re-examined some of the passages she addressed but with new perspectives. To those conference papers we added further essays from those unable to be present that day.

What has emerged is a wonderfully diverse collection of essays that engages intersectionally with the issues of gendered violence in the biblical text. These intersectional lenses bring economic concerns, caste, ethnicity, domestic violence, and queer perspectives, to name a few, into conversation with more traditional feminist hermeneutics. For example, Jione Havea writes letters that explore Pasifika perspectives when it comes to daughters’ land rights;  Karen Eller reads Numbers as a queer Australian; Gerald West draws upon African women’s experiences; and Monica Melanchthon reads Judges from the perspective of the Indian caste system. Others take more historical approaches. Adela Yarbro Collins traces the evidence for women’s leadership in early Christianity and describes the silencing of such women and evidence for them as a kind of terror.  Several essays also give attention to the roles men play in these stories as either perpetrators, bystanders, or allies with implications for contemporary men to consider.

As the volume took shape, we asked Phyllis Trible if she would consider writing a foreword. I will be forever grateful she said yes as her work informs so much of the book and many of us feel indebted to her.

As one of the editors, it was a rewarding experience to work with both well-established scholars and to incorporate the work of emerging scholars.  Not only do these essays demonstrate the kind of insights that can emerge from being intersectional, they also break down the divide between biblical scholarship and justice-making by reading the text with an eye to contemporary issues that plague society, such as domestic violence or economic slavery.

My hope is that those who often find themselves on the margins of “traditional” biblical scholarship or the church may find something of their experience reflected in these essays. No volume is ever perfect though. I’m conscious that we do not have the voices of indigenous Australians nor those who work in the area of disability. Both would add enormous value.

I end with a quote from the introduction to the book:

“This book challenges readers to recognize how the Bible and its interpretations can reinforce the structures that underlie and renew systems of violence – systems that marginalize, dehumanize, and subjugate. While it seeks to raise awareness and engender resistance among those who are victims of violence, it also, on normative grounds, questions those who perpetrate  and perpetuate violence. In doing so, this book is a modest but critical endeavor that seeks to assign political participation and agency to biblical studies and interpretation, rarely recognized or allowed an interventionalist role in everyday life.”

Please note, you can order paperback and hardcopies of the book from SBL press (there is currently a discount for SBL members).  The ebook is available for free download to make it as accessible as possible.

Terror in the Bible: Rhetoric, Gender, and Violence, ed. M. Melanchthon and R. Whitaker  (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2021)

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Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo

Miryam Clough’s book, Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo is part of the Routledge Focus series (Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible) and it hits the bookshelves this week! In her work, Miryam interviews survivors and church leaders to explore the impact of clergy sexual misconduct on women’s careers and vocational aspirations.

Tell us about yourself, Miryam

I am a Postdoctoral Fellow at St John’s Theological College in Auckland (New Zealand) and a tutor at Ōrongonui, the regional training programme for Te Hui Amorangi ki te Tai Tokerau – a diocese of Te Hāhi Mihingare (the Māori Anglican Church). I have two adult daughters and recently was present at the birth of my first granddaughter in Australia via video call from lockdown here in Aotearoa. Prior to the pandemic I’d lived in the UK since 1990, where I was practicing as a homeopath and working in homeopathic education. I completed a PhD in Theology and Religious Studies at Bristol University/Trinity College Bristol in 2014.

How did this book come about and how does it relate to your work as a whole?

I’d published my first book (Shame, the Church and the Regulation of Female Sexuality) in 2017 and was looking for another theology project. A couple of conversations got me thinking about my experience of the church as a young person with a sense of vocation and I decided to explore this further. I was offered a visiting scholarship at St John’s College in early 2019 and was subsequently invited to return in 2020. I didn’t anticipate writing about clergy misconduct – my project was about the experiences of women in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa more broadly – but this subject kept coming up as being pivotal for me and a factor in the lives of other women in the church. Once the book title ‘landed’, I felt compelled to run with it.

In terms of my work overall, my key academic interest is shame – the subject of my PhD – both in terms of how it affects the lives of those who are susceptible to it, and how it is utilised in groups, organisations, and even on an international scale as a means of control. The book is part of a wider research focus on shame in Aotearoa, with particular application to the church and gender violence in various forms.

I realised during my doctoral research, which focused on an Irish Catholic setting (the Magdalen laundries), that it was necessary to look at the national shame caused by colonisation to understand the shame that was inflicted on women in the socio-religious context. In Aotearoa, colonisation continues to be a huge source of shame and intergenerational trauma and some of this is expressed very clearly in gendered relationships and gender violence, including within the church.

Several things particularly captivate me about shame. One is that it is a primary cause of aggression and violence on micro and macro levels (James Gilligan (2003) and Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger (2001) write about this); another is that it signifies a breakdown in social relationships – which is why it is so debilitating; and a third is that it pulls us away from the things that really matter to us – it can set us on the wrong path. Silvan Tomkins (in Sedgwick and Frank 1995) describes this as an interruption of interest. Each of these aspects of shame is prevalent in the ongoing trauma of both colonisation and gender violence. On a positive note, shame is healed when we are brought back into relationship and this is where churches have a key role to play through restorative action and fostering right relationship.

What are the key arguments of your book?

Essentially, I see clergy abuse as a structural issue which affects the church’s credibility in an increasingly secular world, so I look at the contexts within the church that allow abuse to flourish and at the wider public perception of the church.The church sees itself as welcoming and inclusive, but it has often been adept at pushing people away, especially over issues related to gender or sexuality – whether that’s been women with vocations, members of the LGBTQ+ community, unmarried mothers, or victims of abuse. This is totally at odds with the Gospel and what Jesus was about. While churches will often deny that they are excluding people, the lived experience of those people who feel hurt and unvalued is very real. There’s a fear of contamination of all kinds that underpins much of the church’s thinking throughout history and this goes hand in hand with a kind of moral superiority or self-righteousness. Both fly in the face of the inclusiveness modelled by Jesus in the gospels.

I left the church after a period of clergy abuse because of my own sense of shame and failure, which was fuelled by the way some people in the church reacted to this abuse. Some years later, one of my daughters said to me, “Mum, the church didn’t just lose you – they lost our whole family”. I think this is often the case when people are hurt and leave – others leave with them. When we treat people badly or exclude them, we’re not just hurting those individuals, our actions also affect those who care about them. Certainly, that’s been the case for many victims of clergy abuse, and it’s been similar for women and for the LGBTQ+ community. People are disillusioned with churches because they see churches taking the moral high ground and they see people being hurt. If churches want to build up their membership and have more of a role in contemporary society – and I think it’s essential now, more than ever, that they do – they need to be transparent about who they are and demonstrate that they are working hard to put things right. They also need to be truly inclusive. There’s no room for discrimination. There’s a tendency to a kind of self-satisfaction when churches make tiny steps – look, we’ve done this (ordained a woman as bishop or agreed to bless the relationship of a gay couple), so we can rest on our laurels and go back to business as usual, forgetting that the gender balance in our leadership and governance groups is still heavily skewed in favour of men, that gay clergy are expected to be celibate, that gay couples can’t marry in church, that lay women are overworked and undervalued, and that we’re still, in some of the language of the church, sons of God and brothers in Christ irrespective of our gender. All these issues, which also include clericalism, complementarianism, and purity culture, feed into and support what is essentially a culture of toxic masculinity that enables sexual abuse to go undetected, and to not be adequately addressed when it is disclosed.

The book also speaks to the integrity of the Anglican Church here in Aotearoa in wanting to address the issue of clergy abuse and to change, not least in that two of its bishops, Bishop Te Kitohi Pikaahu and Archbishop Philip Richardson, have actively supported my research. I think this demonstrates an impressive openness, both personally and on behalf of the church, to move forward with this issue. Archbishop Richardson, for example, was willing to give me some concrete examples of situations he is aware of or has had to manage that really demonstrate how attitudes and responses can and have changed, and how our approaches need to be and can be considered and compassionate. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. We need to keep the humanness and fragility of all parties to the fore and be open to exploring what’s really going on, while also holding abusers to account in clear and appropriate ways. In the past the approach has been to silence and ostracise victims, protect abusers, and try to keep the topic out of the public square, and this does no one any favours.

The book has felt timely as Aotearoa is in the middle of its Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, so churches are having to rethink their approaches and to be upfront about their history. It’s really common for survivors to take many years before speaking up about abuse, and this has been my experience, too. I think having that distance gives perspective and we can be kinder to our younger selves when we are able to be more objective and analytical about the factors that shaped the society we were part of back then. Hearing other people’s stories helps significantly.

Towards the end of the book, I talk about what I see as the way forward – that is, the importance of respectful relationships. Conversely, the absence of respect shows itself in prejudice of all kinds, in theologies that privilege men over others, in purity culture which defines women through a sexual lens, in clericalism which continues to privilege clergy over lay people and gives them a kind of moral immunity. Some of the book concentrates on describing how this plays out, including how I saw it play out in Aotearoa when I was a young ordinand in the 1980s. Paradoxically, in some respects, little has changed.

It was really helpful for me to explore the broader context of my own experience as a young woman in the church and to realise that this was very much a shared experience. So, I focus a lot on language – the language and discourse that shapes our theologies and our actions. Having left Aotearoa in the late 1980s when we were making inroads into the language of the church becoming more inclusive, it was a real surprise to return in 2019 and find a significant slippage in this area, particularly among younger people.

What do you hope your readers will take from this book?

One emphasis which is articulated very clearly by both Archbishop Richardson and Dr Emily Colgan, who I interviewed for the book, is the need for education and training across church communities. Policy changes alone won’t make a difference. In Aotearoa there is some excellent training available through the programme that Dr Colgan discusses in the final chapter, and I hope the book may prompt more churches to take it up.

One of my main hopes for the book is that it will promote more honest and open discussion about the nature of the church and its shortcomings, as well as about its aspirations and strengths. The exciting thing about this book for me is the interviews. They model this honesty and openness so well and I hope this will be encouraging for people.  People’s stories illustrate the main concerns of the book so beautifully. The interviews are pretty much verbatim, and the stories and experiences are really evocative. You get the immediacy of the situation in the way that a more theoretical perspective can’t deliver. So really, this has been a collaborative project with some amazing people, and I’m so grateful to them for being willing to share their stories and perspectives. They’ve helped me to work through my own experiences and I think they will help others too. We’ve tended not to talk publicly about abuse in the church. I think it’s vitally important to be open about this issue, or nothing will change. We also need to be honest about our failings because people outside the church see what’s going on and don’t appreciate the hypocrisy.

Give us one quotation from the book that you think will make a reader go and read the rest.

It’s a bit harsh, but I quite like this one:

When we put real women into the frame and examine their experiences in the context of a theology and ecclesiology that continues to undermine them, and that makes women primarily responsible for sex, including sex that is coercive or non-consensual, we begin to gradually chip away at an edifice that has cloaked the liberating message of the gospel in a miserable shell of misogyny and dishonesty.

For me it sums up the systemic nature of clergy abuse and this is the crux of it. We need to acknowledge that clergy abuse is absolutely systemic and that it is the product of toxic masculinity. It’s supported by the language, theology, and structure of the church and until this changes, abuse will be with us. When people speak out about their experiences, as several – women and men – have generously and courageously done in this book, they help to create a better future.

References:

Gilligan, J., 2003. ‘Shame, Guilt, and Violence’. Social Research 70:4, 1149–1180.

Scheff, T.J. and Retzinger, S.M., 2001. Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts. Author’s Guild Backinprint.com ed. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.com.

Sedgwick, E.K. and Frank, A. (eds), 1995. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Christmas, Mary, and the new Nationality and Borders Bill

Today’s post is by Tasia Scrutton, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Leeds. Tasia’s research lies in the intersection between religion and human experience, including experiences of mental illness, bereavement, and displacement. Her most recent book, Christianity and depression: interpretation, meaning, and the shaping of experience came out with SCM Press in 2020 and you can find out more about it here. Outside of her academic work, she enjoys walking her dog Lola. She also volunteers with an asylum seeker charity, BEACON, whose work you can find out more about here: Bradford Ecumenical Asylum Concern (beaconbradford.org)   

Kelly Latimore, Our Lady of the Journey (jpg purchased from the artist and reproduced with kind permission: kellylatimoreicons.com)

Kelly Latimore’s icon, Our Lady of the Journey, depicts the episode early in Matthew’s Gospel in which Mary, Joseph and the newborn Jesus flee to Egypt to escape the persecution of an oppressive government (Matthew 2:13-23). While many paintings have depicted the ‘Flight into Egypt’ in relation to the plight of refugees, one of the most striking features of this icon for me is the way it highlights the experience of Mary, and especially her fear.

In this respect the icon is realistic, since the fear of asylum seekers who are women and girls is very real, and very well-founded. Women who attempt to flee their country of origin in hope of better, safer prospects are at risk from the same very-real threats to life that men experience, as was devastatingly laid bare with the recent Channel crossing drownings (see here). But women who flee their countries of origin are also vulnerable to additional dangers: to rape, to sexual trafficking, and to other forms of sexual exploitation, both on their journey, and in the place where they seek refugee status. In the words of one woman, who fled from Cameroon, where homosexuality is illegal:

“I came to the UK because I was raped, beaten and locked up in my country because of my sexuality. When I arrived, I didn’t know where to go or what to do and I had never heard of asylum. I thought I was coming to a country where I would be accepted for who I am but that was not the case.

Being a refugee in a new country, you don’t trust people easily, especially if you have been through so much hatred, so much abuse. It took me a while to trust people who told me about the asylum process. When I applied, it was a very long journey of stress and struggle. The Home Office said they didn’t believe my story and refused my asylum claim. I was depressed and had nowhere to go for support. I had to sleep on the bus and the only way to survive was to have sex to get food. It was traumatic and degrading.” 

(‘Anna’, quoted in Women for Refugee Women : Legal Opinion: The Nationality and Borders Bill will harm women)

Detail from Kelly Latimore’s Our Lady of the Journey

In addition to the sexual violence and exploitation they face, women are also more likely to be travelling with children, whose presence makes the journey harder, and the stakes even higher – since women asylum seekers are risking not only their own lives, but also the lives of their children. And especially if the children are girls, they too are vulnerable to violence and hardship, including sexual violence and exploitation.

These dangers might make one wonder, why would any woman take these terrible risks? The answer, of course, as ‘Anna’s’ story highlights, is that the things that make women risk all these things are yet more terrible and fearful still.   

The way in which female asylum seekers are especially vulnerable – what we might call the ‘gendered aspect’ of asylum seeking – makes the UK government’s Nationality and Border Bill, passed by the House of Commons last week, all the more cruel and unjust. Briefly, the Bill allows the government to deprive a person of citizenship, without even notifying them. This can be done, either if the Home Office does not have the person’s contact details, or if notifying them is ‘not reasonably practical’ (see here).

In addition, the same Bill criminalises anyone taking part in the rescue missions in the English Channel. To put this another way, it means that the people we regard as heroes for helping persecuted people escape torture and death (for example, people who smuggled Jewish children to the UK during the Nazi regime), would be regarded as criminals in the UK, according to the new law.

Although it doesn’t explicitly target women, the new Bill is, in practice, misogynistic, since it will disadvantage women and girls especially. This is for a number of reasons, but I will highlight just three here. First, the new Bill will introduce a ‘two-tier system’ that discriminates especially against asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via what the Home Office considers illegal means, such as in small boats. People coming from Afghanistan are among those asylum seekers especially likely to arrive in small boats – and women and girls from Afghanistan are highly likely to be fleeing, because of the newly-installed Taliban regime, which has, since the 2021 offensive, severely constrained women’s and girls’ movements, including access to education. In other words, the new Bill won’t discriminate against women explicitly and directly, but by virtue of discriminating against people who come via ‘illegal routes’ on small boats, it will effectively discriminate against people who are forced to flee from places such as Afghanistan, for gender-based reasons. 

Second, the new Bill will mean that there is a ‘heightened standard of proof’ expected of asylum seekers, and that cases will be considered at a more rapid rate (see here for the Executive Summary).  But women and girls who have frequently experienced rape and other forms of sexual torture are often traumatised to the extent that they do not have a coherent narrative about what has happened to them. Narratives of trauma often emerge only long after the traumatic event itself, because victims of sexual violence and exploitation experience guilt and shame, because being a victim of sexual violence is still a cause of stigma in many cultures, including our own. The asylum process is stacked against them. And asylum seekers are oftentimes interrogated without sensitivity about the violence and torture they have experienced.

Third, as human rights lawyers have pointed out, the new Bill’s clauses about modern slavery and trafficking will make it harder for women and girls who are victims of trafficking and modern slavery to be identified and protected. This is contrary to the UK’s obligations according to international law. In addition to that, the much swifter process that will lead a woman or girl to be deported may well mean that there is not enough time for trafficking claims to be determined (see here, for the Executive Summary).

I could go on about the other ways in which the new Nationality and Borders Bill will harm female asylum seekers, not just because they are asylum seekers, but (additionally) because they are women and girls. But those who are interested can read more about the reasons here.

So instead, I want to return to where we started – to the Bible – and provide just a few passages for reflection about the way the Scriptures encourage us to show solidarity with the oppressed, and hospitality to asylum seekers in particular. At the very end, I suggest four  ways in which we can help.

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21).

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:34).

You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 24:22).

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and she will repay her for her deed (Proverbs 19:17).

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute (Psalm 82:3).

 Learn to do good;
 Seek justice,
 Rescue the oppressed,
 Defend the orphan,
 Plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another (Zechariah 7: 9-10)

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:34-40)

Four ways you can help:

  1. Join, donate, or volunteer for Women for Refugee Women: Women for Refugee Women
  2. If you are in the UK, write to your MP and oppose the Nationality and Borders Bill. You can find out who your MP is, and how to write to them, here: Find out who your MP is / mySociety . If you’re stuck for what to write, you can copy or adapt the template here: #antirefugeebill (asylummatters.org)
  3. Sign up to receive campaigning news and opportunities from Asylum MattersHome | Asylum Matters
  4. Encourage your church and any other organisations with which you may be involved to join the Together with Refugees coalition: Join the coalition – Together With Refugees
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16 Days of Celebrating Activism… Resisting Domestic Violence and Abuse: A White Rose Collaboration

Today we celebrate the UK’s Domestic Abuse Act, which received Royal Assent in late April 2021–though we have some reservation (see below). This Act is likely to protect millions of victims and survivors of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) who are disproportionately female. Alongside this, we celebrate the significant contribution that nuanced understandings of spiritual abuse, and of religion and religious studies, can make in DVA prevention and safeguarding.

Small grants can make a big difference. We hope positive action will grow from a new collaboration funded by the White Rose Consortium. The White Rose Consortium is a group of three northern universities: the Universities of York, Sheffield, and Leeds. The consortium’s Collaboration Fund provides the means for researchers from all three universities to pool knowledge, expertise, resources, creativity, and energies, in a common cause.

From the White Rose University Consortium website (white rose.ac.uk)

The Shiloh Project has had earlier success with this scheme (see here and here). Earlier this year, White Rose funding has been awarded for a project with the title ‘Domestic Violence and Marginalised Communities’. Why? Because, while prevalence of DVA is fairly consistent across various groups (including different religious denominations), marginalised minority individuals and groups experience also additional inequalities, vulnerabilities, and risk factors. 

Black women and women from ethnic minorities, for example, frequently experience multiple additional barriers to escaping DVA and finding support. These barriers can arise, for instance, from systemic inequalities, economic dependency, cultural and religious expectations, and, in some cases, language barriers. The lockdowns and social isolation measures implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, have exacerbated pressures, increasing stress, economic difficulties, disruption in social networks and to normal life, and, along with that, risk to those vulnerable to or experiencing DVA. (Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, has reported a huge 700%+ increase in calls, compared with pre-lockdown figures.) The impacts of DVA on those from marginalised groups, therefore, warrants particularly urgent attention in research, policy, and practice.

Unfortunately, the UK government, in passing the Domestic Violence Act, failed to adopt the amendment which would have explicitly secured protection for migrant DVA victims and survivors. Moreover, the Act failed to implement reforms to the payment of Universal Credit, thereby risking situations where perpetrators of DVA have total control over the income of an entire household. This, in turn, can enable economic abuse. (For a fuller description in a news release by Refuge, see here). These shortfalls, affecting women from migrant communities and from socio-economically deprived sectors particularly harshly, accentuate the significance of the focus aims of this White Rose Domestic Violence and Marginalised Communities project.

The project leads are Parveen Ali (Professor in Health Sciences) and Michaela Rogers (Senior Lecturer in Social Work), both of the University of Sheffield. They are supported by postgraduate intern, Moninuola Ifayomi. 

Michaela Rogers, Senior Lecturer in Social Work (University of Sheffield), Project Co-Lead

(There’s a podcast episode with Parveen here: it’s Episode 16 of the superb podcast series ‘Talking Research’, where Asmita Sood interviews academics across many disciplines who all research sexual violence. Parveen discusses gender-based violence and health inequalities, with particular focus on marginalised women.)

Parveen Ali, Professor of Nursing and Midwifery (University of Sheffield), Project Co-Lead

Given that DVA has many layers and contributory factors that intersect cultural, religious, gender and ethnic boundaries, solutions, too, need to be multifaceted. Hence, alongside Parveen and Michaela, other researchers involved in the project come from a diverse range of disciplines: Criminology and Criminal Justice, Social Policy and Social Work, Urban Studies and Planning, International Development, Management, Geography, Law, and Sociology. Emma Tomalin (one of our 2018 activists) and co-director Johanna Stiebert are contributing expertise from the area of religious studies. 

The collective working on this project will focus initially on two topics: first, the methodological complexities of addressing DVA alongside or within faith communities; and second, how to assist interpreters supporting victims of DVA. The aims of this are to highlight DVA experiences in marginalised communities, and to facilitate support through the exchange of knowledge and identification of gaps in current policy, practice, and research.

The collaboration has got off to an energetic start. We are motivated by our common purpose. DVA is a distressing social problem on a vast scale, but it has been fabulous to learn more from the other participants about other factors, reasons for and consequences of DVA, as well as to feel we are working towards something meaningful.

Great things can happen when good people work together – and that is worth celebrating. 

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16 Days of Celebrating Activism… Shiloh’s Routledge Focus series!

Today we celebrate our Routledge Focus book series. The Shiloh Project was the inspiration for the series and the series title—‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’—is the same as the sub-title for the Shiloh Project. 

Routledge Focus volumes are concise, no more than 50,000 words in length. Each volume In our series, consequently, is sharply focused. Each represents research-based activism on a theme within the orbit of religion and rape culture. While unified by this larger theme and purpose, the published and forthcoming volumes evidence considerable variety.

We endeavour to publish around three volumes per year. This year, two volumes appeared and a third is due out in January. (The publication of the third volume was delayed on account of its sensitive content, which had to be carefully vetted by Routledge’s legal team—more on that shortly.)

The first series volume of 2021 is by Shiloh co-director Caroline Blyth (profiled as one of our 2017 activists). The title of her volume is Rape Culture, Purity Culture, and Coercive Control in Teen Girl Bibles. Caroline examines several bibles marketed to teen girls and demonstrates how they perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes including rape myths at the heart of rape culture. It’s a searing read that will have you questioning how on earth such publications can justify their claims of helping young women grow in faith, hope and love. Caroline demonstrates the damage perpetuated by purity cultures, and systematically peels back how some teen girl bibles echo or affirm the strategies of coercively controlling parents or intimate partners. It’s brilliantly done. (To hear Caroline talk about her book in an episode of the Shiloh Podcast, see here.)

Excerpt from p.3 of Caroline’s book

The second series volume of 2021 is Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar’s Trafficking Hadassah: Collective Trauma, Cultural Memory, and Identity in the Book of Esther and in the African Diaspora. Ericka’s book identifies the enterprise of rounding up girls from across the empire for the Persian king’s harem, as constituting sexual trafficking on a huge scale. After refuting claims that this is some light-hearted biblical story about a beauty contest, Ericka highlights parallels between sex trafficking in the book of Esther and the cultural memories, histories, and materialized pain of African(a) girls and women during the Maafa, or slave trade. The book is a powerful call, both to responsible Bible reading and to action in the face of human rights violation. (Ericka, too, is featured on the Shiloh Podcast: hear Ericka talking about her book here. For a short Q&A with Ericka, see here.)

‘Slavery’, by quadelirus (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 and available @CreativeCommons)

The third volume has a publication date of 18 January 2022 and is available for pre-order now. This one is by Miryam Clough and has the title Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo. Miryam’s book begins by pointing out that sexual violence is systemic in many workplace settings, including in Christian churches. From here, she focuses on how, among many other devastating consequences, this can destroy women’s careers and vocational aspirations. Because Miryam’s study draws on empirical evidence, including personal stories from survivors of clergy abuse, it required scrutiny by the Routledge legal team. The book is an intense and often painful exposition of clergy sexual abuse of adult women, the conditions that support it, and the pain left in its wake. Bringing testimony into dialogue with theoretical perspectives, the book also makes constructive suggestions for theological models that can heal a broken Church.

‘Devil and Praying Women’, Linde Church, Gotland (from CreativeCommons)

We are delighted with the seven published series titles and excited about the further six that are under contract and due for release over the next two years. 

The volumes are making a timely and important contribution to scholarship on sexual and gender-based violence in religious texts and contexts. They are also ideal for teaching, given their compactness and their availability in affordable e-book format. 

If you, or someone you know, is interested in publishing in our series, please contact series co-editor Johanna (j.stiebert@leeds.ac.uk). Volumes for the series can be sole-authored, co-authored, or edited collections of essays. Proposals are peer-reviewed, and manuscripts must meet Routledge’s criteria for academic rigour and marketability. Routledge prides itself on a prompt production process and on being in the forefront of publishing cutting-edge research. All volumes are copy edited to a very high standard. Titles appear first in hardback and e-version and, sometimes, later, in paperback, too.

We’d love to hear from prospective contributing authors, and also, from anyone with feedback on volumes in the series, or on topics you’d like to see represented.

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16 Days of Celebrating Activism… the Statement by the Wijngaards Institute!

Today we celebrate ‘The Academic Statement on the Ethics of Free and Faithful Same-Sex Relationships’, which was guided and published by members of the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research. The Statement was launched in May 2021. You can find it here. (Shiloh followers will see some familiar names among the signatories.)

If you are homosexual or same-gender-loving and devout, to be told the faith community, spiritual leaders, sacred scriptures, or deities you hold dear condemn who you are and whom you love is violence.

Such condemnation has caused significant harm to untold human lives over a considerable span of time. 

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian Church, the largest religious denomination, and the oldest and largest continuously functioning international institution, with around 1.5 billion members worldwide. It has also contributed significantly to this harm, which can rightly be called a form of religious violence or spiritual abuse

(Courtesy of Shutterstock Images)

The aim of the Statement, which exists in multiple languages (with more translations under way), is first, to alert Vatican authorities and Catholic bishops across the world to the disconnect between papal teaching, on the one hand, and recent academic scholarship about human sexuality and sexual orientation, on the other. Second, the Statement aims to bring rigorous scholarship to the endeavour of creating and promoting inclusive Christian communities. 

The Statement is of value particularly to those who desire a robust theological and scriptural foundation when they challenge and confront homophobia that is generated by Christian figures, or that uses Christian scripture or theological concepts.

The Statement is not the last word on the matter. However, it makes a positive contribution towards challenging the sexualised toxicity, violence and discrimination that is homophobia. 

There are more conversations that need to continue alongside the Statement. These include conversations about the problematic content of biblical and other religiously authoritative texts and what best to do with and about such content, about abusive theologies, and abusive and abuse-tolerating religious institutions and hierarchies, and about the possibility of fulfilling relationships that may with integrity reinterpret the word ‘faithful’ to mean something other than ‘monogamous and life-long’.

The Statement is meticulously researched and makes its case persuasively and powerfully. We hope it will be widely read and disseminated. Above all, we hope it will achieve its aims and reduce homophobia and the suffering homophobia brings.

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Meet Erin Sessions

Our post today is an interview with Erin Martine Sessions, the Quality and Inclusion Officer at the Australian College of Theology, and a PhD candidate working on violence and the Song of Songs.

Tell us about yourself and about how your work is compatible with the aims of the Shiloh Project? 

The first thing to know about me is I do things in the wrong order. Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day; if it’s not at breakfast time. I make trees out of old books (see the picture!). And I haven’t had a “traditional career trajectory.” That last one might resonate with a few of you. My Doktorvater jokes I’m not keeping balls in the air, I’m juggling chainsaws. And they’re on fire. The complete chaos of single parenting, sessional lecturing, fitting my thesis into the interstices, going for ordination, and harbouring not-so-secret desires to be poet laureate (even though Australia doesn’t have one), makes for the opposite of order. But actually, it’s less “things in the wrong order” and more gatekeeping, middle-aged white men telling me I do things in the wrong order…

This year I found myself in possession of the holy grail of higher education employment (especially for the disordered* with unfinished PhDs): a permanent full-time job! Thankfully, the thesis and the job intersect, and both align with the objectives of the Shiloh Project. I’m currently working on a training module for students and staff which targets first, the prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment (SASH) and, second, when it does occur, a response that is appropriate and effective. Preventing SASH looks a lot like preventing domestic and family violence (DFV), and that’s what my thesis is devoted to (but more on that later). For now, I want to unequivocally say that I am committed to dismantling rape culture—that is, dismantling gendered power structures that sideline and discredit women and minority groups, dismantling societal systems that foster and perpetuate inequality, and calling out the blaming of women and minorities for the very systems and structures that victimise and disempower them. 

*pun intended, I’m neurodivergent.

Can you tell us more about rape culture and religion in the context of Australia?

Allow me to give you some context by (briefly!) answering this question in two parts: first, addressing rape culture in Australia more broadly, and then looking at the relationship between rape culture and religion, particularly Christianity, in Australia. 

We know that rape culture exists the world over: beliefs and practices which regulate and shame women and gender-diverse people, that promote, accept, minimise, or ignore violence, and then trivialise the resulting trauma. This violence is perpetrated against women and girls regardless of age, dis/ability, ethnicity, level of education, location, religion, sexuality, or socioeconomic status. Australia is no different. Yet, we also know that along with the gendered drivers of violence come reinforcing factors which make certain minoritised people groups—like Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander women—more likely to experience abuse. 

Rape culture in Australia is particularly pernicious with its potent combination of: high rates of violence, shocking inaction, our history of (colonial) violence, and a lack of data and research. Australia has significantly higher prevalence rates of intimate partner violence and sexual violence than western Europe or North America. It’s a well-worn statistic that one woman a week is killed by a current or former partner, and we’ve become complacent. Even though DFV is a national crisis, and even though each egregious act of violence is followed by vigils, intense discussions, and calls for reform and further research, there is little change. 

Early on in my research journey, my psychologist gave me a fittingly crass (and memorable!) lesson: “Abusers have the same toolkit, but their choice of tools varies, and the way each victim-survivor gets screwed is personal.” The same can be said of rape culture. Instructing us women to change the way we dress, speak, and walk home at night, with no equivalent instructions for men (to take responsibility for their behaviour) can be observed almost universally, but each context, community, and individual will have their own unique experiences.

Much like my disordered career (chaotic calling?) might be similar to yours in some ways, I’m willing to bet you also recognise these all-too-familiar failings of (Christian) faith communities: wives being told to submit to their husbands—irrespective of abuse and with no mention of mutual submission; women being urged to forgive their abusers—often at the expense of their safety and without corresponding compunction for the perpetrator to stop abusing; and victim-survivors being re-traumatised by (male) leadership who do not understand the dynamics of, or what constitutes abuse and are ill-equipped to refer women at risk to specialist services. This Lausanne piece (July 2021) has the title “Gender-Based Violence and the Church.” One thing that makes it so poignant is that it has global relevance and urgency.

So, what makes the relationship between rape culture and religion unique in Australia? Up until recently, I would have (again) cited shocking (church) inaction and a lack of research (into religion and violence), especially when compared to similarly developed nations. The tide is slowly turning as more research is being done in, with, and by religious organisations, and as they work to redress the damage done, and to prevent further violence. But there is still a long way to go. Recent studies suggest that the incidence of DFV is higher in the Anglican church than in the general population. And, devastatingly, we (Australians and the church) have not reckoned with Australia’s violent history and church culpability in violence. The racist, heteropatriarchal cultural legacy—as Gender Violence in Australia: Historical Perspectives makes clear—is a country that has rationalised violent behaviours over time and allowed rape culture to flourish.

Why and how do you read the Song of Songs alongside gender-based violence?

I love this question! Churches don’t include the Song of Songs in their services too often, and the Australian church is none too fond of talking constructively about gender-based violence. So, as you can imagine, my invitations to write and speak on the Song and violence aren’t exactly bursting through my door like letters from Hogwarts. The long story short is victim-survivors stated that using religious texts to promote gender equality will prevent gender-based violence in faith communities. What better text to use than the Song of Songs, where the poetic protagonist is a woman of colour, who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to speak truth to power? 

This topic is at the heart of my ongoing PhD research. I have published an article on this question, too, with the title “Watching the Watchmen: How Does the Violence in Song of Songs 5:7 Speak to Australia’s Problem with Violence against Women and vice versa?” Journal for the Academic Study of Religion 34/1 (2021), a special issue on Religion and Violence.

You can read more of Erin Martine Sessions’ work on the Song and violence here and you can email her: esessions@actheology.edu.au   

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New Book!

We are thrilled to announce the imminent publication of a new book in the Routledge Focus series ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’, a series inspired by the Shiloh Project. The author is Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar and her book has the title Trafficking Hadassah: Collective Trauma, Cultural Memory, and Identity in the Book of Esther and in the African Diaspora. 

This is a searing book, that turns its direct and unwavering gaze to some of the most pressing and distressing gendered and racialized atrocities of our time. Moreover, it roots these atrocities in both ancient and more recent history and urges us to break harmful cycles that inflict disproportionate suffering on African(a) girls and women. (The word ‘African(a)’ refers to both African persons and persons who are African-descended.)

Trafficking Hadassah is available for pre-order and is shipped from 12 November 2021. The book is available in hardback and eBook versions. (Find out more here.)

We also have an interview with Ericka and a sneak-peek at an excerpt from the book.

Tell us about yourself, Ericka. 

I’m Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar, Visiting Professor of Hebrew Bible at Payne Theological Seminary, Wilberforce, Ohio, in the USA.

How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about?

The book sheds light on sexualized and gender-based violence, specifically against African(a) girls and women across ancient and contemporary contexts. This project is an expansion of my scholarly-activist work of children’s advocacy and activism to dismantle intersectional violence and oppression. 

This book is a condensed version of my doctoral dissertation.   

What are the key arguments of your book?

I interpret the first two chapters of the biblical book of Esther through a contemporary lens of sex trafficking. I argue that sexualized and gender-based violence are initiated in the first chapter with the treatment and abuse of Queen Vashti. This systematic abuse is expanded to include large-scale legalized sexual trafficking of young virgin girls who are gathered from locales across the Persian Empire, which spans from India to Ethiopia. I then put this interpretation into dialogue with the sexual abuse and enslavement of African(a) girls and women during and after the Maafa,* identifying the abuse as a collective, cultural trauma. I identify and critique social and cultural attitudes that have been embraced and asserted to justify such abuse and outline physical and psychological consequences of sexual trafficking on individual and collective bodies and identities. Additionally, I challenge biblical readers to engage in morally and ethically responsible biblical interpretation by giving attention to intersectionality, polyvocality and the euphemisms and silences often embedded in both texts and traditional interpretations of texts. 

*The word ‘Maafa’ is derived from a Swahili word meaning something like ‘Great Calamity’. It refers to the atrocities of the slave trade and slavery.

What do you hope your readers will take from this book?

I hope that readers will begin to apply intersectionality and polyvocality as frameworks for reading and interpreting biblical texts like the book of Esther, so that their analyses of what is depicted can be deepened and expanded. I hope that readers will wrestle with discerning meaning for those who are embedded within but not often considered in interpretations of this story. I hope they will come to consider how minoritized identities are impacted by the story and by subsequent interpretations of it. I truly hope that people will wrestle with the portrayal and meaning of such widespread and largely uncontested sexualized and gender-based violence in the ancient context and allow this wrestling to inspire action to dismantle and eradicate it in contemporary contexts.

Give us one quotation from the book that you think will make a reader go and read the rest.

“When the treatment of the virgin girls depicted in the second chapter [of the book of Esther] is assessed alongside the treatment of Vashti, it becomes clear that gender and ethnicity intersect and play a major role in othering foreign, minoritized females. Othered, these girls are rendered exploitable and consequently trafficked. Accordingly, the king’s dismissal of Vashti is only a first step in a more elaborate process of imperially sanctioned patriarchy that also feeds sexual trafficking. By this process, the seeking out of girls is legitimated, as is their transport, custody, subjection to a year-long beautification process, and sexual abuse and exploitation by the king (2:1–9). The Persian king and his imperial team target African and other virgin girls for sexual trafficking. In its deployment of this political strategy, the text depicts Africana girls and women as expendable, commodifiable, and rapable. Such intentional displacement, colonization, and sexual exploitation of Africana girls and women are not, however, restricted to the pages of this biblical text, but have been practiced throughout much of history, leading to collective cultural trauma.”

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Thank you, Ericka. We hope your book will find many readers and much acclaim and lead on to inspire effective resistance to the multiple and widespread oppressions and exploitations to which you draw attention. 

Please help us spread the word about this important publication and please order a copy for your library.

Picture update (10 December 2021)

Ericka S. Dunbar with her new book – hot off the press. (Images courtesy of Ericka)

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Disobedience: Reading the Sacred Text Otherwise

Today’s post is by Yael Klangwisan, Senior Lecturer in Education at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand.  In this post she reflects on the violence of a sacred text towards the lesbian community through the lens of Naomi Alderman’s novel “Disobedience”, and the 2017 film directed by Lelio. 

Disobedience: Reading the Sacred Text Otherwise

[Rav]: In the beginning Hashem made three types of creatures.  The angels, the beasts and the human beings.  The angels He made from His pure word.  The angels have no will to do evil.  They cannot deviate for one moment from His purpose.  The beasts have only their instincts to guide them.  They, too, follow the commands of their maker.  The Torah states that Hashem spent almost six whole days of creation fashioning these creatures.  Then just before sunset, He took a small quantity of earth and from it He fashioned man and woman.  An afterthought?  Or His crowning achievement.  So, what is this thing?  Man? Woman?  It is a being with the power to disobey.  Alone among all the creatures, we have free will.  We hang suspended between the clarity of the angels and the desires of the beasts.  Hashem gave us choice, which is both a privilege and a burden.  We must then choose the tangled life we live. (Opening lines of “Disobedience”, Lelio, 2017)

The relation of tradition and sexual freedom is a tangled space, particularly for those identifying as LGBTQ+. Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel Disobedience explores this space, and particularly the signal themes of faith, truth, and freedom in the context of lesbian desire. In 2017, the cinematic realisation of the novel was directed by Sebastián Lelio. Like other films of its kind, Lelio portrays the disconnect between the frum (religious) world and the secular world and traces the personal cost of this divide in terms of sexuality with great effect. Alderman’s novel has a striking point of difference to the film, and this is the strangely affirming arrangement of each chapter around the Torah and the interpretive writings of the sages as the plot evolves. This positioning rests subtly on the wings of a particular kind of creative, resistant reading of the sacred text.  It is a compilation and interpretation of sacred texts in such a way that their violence against women expressing same sex desire is disempowered.  In Alderman’s novel, and similarly in Lelio’s film, the role of speech in defining and realising women’s sexual freedom, is at the fore.  Alderman’s presentation of this real struggle as the narrative progresses is heart-rending. The twist is when freedom to realise one’s true sexual self is incarnated from within the very texts and traditions that repress it. 

Alderman’s novel is set in an orthodox Jewish community in North London and begins with the death of the revered Rav Krushka, which is then followed by tumult over the appointment of a successor. This appointment is a contentious process that is cast into further disarray when the Rav’s estranged daughter Ronit returns from New York for the Hesped (her father’s eulogy).  Ronit stays with her cousin Dovid, the ascendant rabbi, and is surprised to find that he has married her best friend and first love, Esti.  Ronit finds herself falling in love again with Esti and this presents a crisis for them all. 

Joseph Nacino of Lesbian News describes Lelio’s film Disobedience as “a transfixing consideration of love, faith, sexuality, and personal freedom” (2018). Stephanie Zacharek from Time Magazine describes the two female protagonists, Ronit and Esti, as “circling each other warily, each cautious about disrupting the pattern of the other’s life” (2018). For Zacharek, these very patterns and cycles of orthodox Judaism bring comfort but can also lead to alienation and intense loneliness for those who are estranged.  Zacharek describes Rachel Weisz’s character Ronit as assertive yet dreamily wistful, and Rachel McAdams’ character Esti as subdued and pragmatic about her life in the orthodox community. Esti has kept her true desires and sexual identity tamped deeply down and this fiercely suppressed part of herself is about to burst out.  

In the film, Alessandro Nivola plays the character Dovid.  Dovid is deeply observant and, in terms of tradition a good husband. However, for Esti, Dovid’s generosity, patience and benevolence are suffocating.  Captivation and care are entangled. As Zacharek notes, “In Disobedience, three people reckon with the cost and meaning of freedom. Everybody pays. But if it were free, what would it be worth?” (2018). Joel Streicker, who reviews the novel for the journal Shofar, suggests that “the novel’s sympathies shift from Ronit’s anger and bitterness to Esti’s unfolding self-understanding and self-assertion” (2008). While Ronit seems to have found a certain troubled freedom in New York, and certainly one on her own terms, Streicker points out that for Esti, it is in fact God who makes space for every creature’s freedom to disobey tradition—though one “cannot escape the consequences of disobedience” (2008, 204).  There will always be a price. This is the crux of the theology both in the film and the novel—God might be an ally.  For Streicker, Alderman’s novel enacts “a reconciliation between Orthodoxy and lesbianism, between individual desire and collective constraints on it” (2008, 205).

Lesbianism is not strictly considered a breaking of the law in Judaism.  It is not mentioned in the Hebrew bible and only became a concern to the sages in later periods.  Thus, in Sifra, the midrash on Leviticus, in its commentary on Lev 18:2-3, there is reference to a prohibition against lesbianism or mesolelot.  In the Talmud (Nashim) Yevamot 76a, the sages consider whether lesbians could marry priests and try to answer the question of whether lesbians are “virgins”.  The Mishnah contains the text of a debate over whether lesbianism is a minor or major infraction for the Jewish community.  And in probably the strongest denunciation, in the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides associates lesbianism with an ambiguous Torah reference to the “practices of Egypt” and prescribes flogging.  Maimonides says in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Biah 21:8:

It is forbidden for women to enmesh [play around] … with one another and this belongs to the “practices of the Egyptians” [of] which we have been warned: “you shall not copy the practices of the Land of Egypt” …  However, a flogging for disobedience (mardut) should be given, since they have performed a forbidden act. A man should be strict with his wife in this matter, and should prevent women who are known to engage in this practice from visiting her, and prevent her from going to them.

Lesbianism was outlawed by the sages primarily because it is considered a danger to the community, to men’s control of their marriages and symptomatic of the apparently rebellious nature of women. It is ironic that while clearly not a capital offence, it does, for the sages, make a woman impure for a period of 12 days and at the end of this time, she is considered “straightened out” enough to return to her husband, children and community.

While in the novel Alderman does quote the sages on “the practices of Egyptian women,” this is not where she begins what could be a futile battle against tradition’s status quo.  She begins in the unlikely place of the Shabbat service with the most unlikely companions of Genesis and creation.  She begins with an exploration of wonder in a portion of prayer from the Mishnah Tamid 7.4 chanted in the Shabbat morning service: “And on the Shabbat, the priests would sing a song for the future that is to come, for that day which will be entirely Shabbat and for the repose of eternal life” (Alderman 2006, 1; also Neusner 1998). On the theme of the creative power of speech, Alderman offers the possibility that one might create her one’s own world through speech and does this through the old Rav’s drash (exegesis) on Genesis 1. 

“Speech,” said the old Rav. “If the created world were a piece of music, speech would be its refrain, its recurring theme. In the Torah, we read that Hashem created the world through speech. He could have willed it into existence. We might have read: ‘And God thought of light, and there was light.’ No. He could have hummed it. Or formed it from clay in His hands. Or breathed it out. Hashem, our King, the Holy One Blessed Be He, did none of these things. To create the world, He spoke. ‘And God said, let there be light, and there was light’. Exactly as He spoke, so it was. … The Torah itself. A book. Hashem could have given us a painting, or a sculpture, a forest, a creature, an idea in our minds to explain His world. But He gave us a book. Words … What a great power the Almighty has given us! To speak, as He speaks! Astonishing! Of all the creatures on earth, only we can speak. What does this mean? … It means we have a hint of Hashem’s power. Our words are, in a sense, real. They can create worlds and destroy them. They have edges, like a knife.” (Alderman 2006, 7-8)

Alderman recalls that the sages compare the Torah to the primordial water that covered the world (Gen 1:2). Without it, they say the earth would be nothing but a desert.  In a way, these waters of the Torah serve as a mikvah (ritual pool) for the world.  As a mikvah, Alderman hints that the very impurity that is created and attributed by the sages, for example, the laws that magnify Esti’s feelings of guilt, can also be washed away by the sages’ own sayings.  Here Alderman celebrates the sacred without allowing the strictures of a violent text to cultivate shame regarding a woman’s desire for another woman. 

“Without Torah, man too would be only a shell, knowing neither light nor mercy. As water is life-giving, so Torah brings life to the world. Without water, our limbs would never know freshness or balm. Without Torah, our spirits would never know tranquillity. As water is purifying, so Torah cleanses those it touches. Water comes only and forever from the Almighty; it is a symbol of our utter dependence on Him. Should He withhold rain for but a season, we could no longer stand before Him. Just so, Torah is a gift which the Holy One Blessed Be He has given the world; Torah, in a sense, contains the world, it is the blueprint from which the world was created. Should Torah be withheld only for a moment, the world would not only vanish, but would never even have been.” (Alderman 2006, 18) 

Yet while water covered the earth, chaos exists too.  Even from the beginning God wrested between order and chaos, life and death.  In tohu vabohu and the ruach elohim (Gen 1:2) there are tensions and balances that all beings are fated to navigate, as God did too in the beginning—that this very tension is written into the fabric of the world. Alderman takes the reader to the shacharit morning prayer: “All say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who did not make me a slave. Men say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who did not make me a woman. Women say: Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who made me according to His will. from shacharit, the morning prayer.” (Alderman 2006, 58). This prayer and its troubling gender binary invokes a certain kind of violence, but Alderman links this prayer to the story of the Sun and the Moon and deconstructs the presumed inequity from within the tradition.  As in that first great chapter of Torah, on the fourth day the sun and the moon were made by God, just as man and woman were made (as per what is written) and were originally of equal status, a mirror image of each other: 

“For it is written, ‘And God made the two great lights.’ But the moon complained at this, saying, ‘Two rulers may not use one crown.’ And Hashem replied, saying, ‘Very well, since you ask for one to be lesser and one to be greater, your size shall be diminished, and the size of the sun increased. Your light shall be one-sixtieth of its previous strength.’ The moon complained to Hashem at her plight and, so that she should not remain utterly without comfort, Hashem gave her companions – the stars.” (Alderman, 2006, 58).

In this story, at the end of days, the Moon will be returned to her former glory, and be once more equal with the Sun.  Alderman suggests that one might learn from this that God listens to creatures and these creatures can sometimes be in the right. “In the first place, we learn that the moon was correct, for Hashem hearkened to her words” (Alderman 2006, 58-59). But also, we learn that Hashem is merciful – that this God recognizes the plight of those considered lesser and gives comfort to those in need. Esti muses that the stars are God’s gift to the moon. Ronit and Esti’s girlhood love and desire are as a gift of Hashem, as if the Moon (the motherless and abandoned Ronit) was given Esti, who was like a constellation of stars to her.  As the narrative of Ronit and Esti winds through Alderman’s bricolage of the Torah and the sayings of the sages, Alderman reminds the reader of God’s propensity to hear, to listen and to change God’s mind. In the whimsical stories of the sages she offers the possibility that God hears and answers the cry of the soul (Ps 66:19).

“God instructed the moon to make itself new each month. It is a crown of splendour for those who are borne from the womb, because they are also destined to be renewed like her. from the kiddush levana, recited every month after the third day of the lunar cycle and before the full moon What is the shape of time? On occasion, we may feel that time is circular. The seasons approach and retreat, the same every year. Night follows day follows night follows day. The festivals arrive in their time, cycling one after the other. And each month, the womb…” (Alderman 2006, 101)

Alderman describes a beautiful scene that relates to the haftarah readings (cycle of readings from the prophets) associated with the new moon.  What is felt here in the writing is the rhythmic constancy of the Jewish calendar, its unceasing movement, as if the cycle of readings was tidal.  These patterns of practice are deeply embodied, finding kinship in the lunar rhythms of the womb.  These cycles are thus interior and hold the observant reader in a cultural and maternal embrace.  There is a sense that these cycles cannot be held back from their return. They are as inevitable as the seas and, just as these same cycles draw forth Jewish practice, Alderman wants to suggest they will inevitably draw forth the truth of oneself.  Esti is sitting in the sabbath service in the balcony reserved for women, and the Haftarah is to be read.  The reading happens to be from 1 Sam 20. It is as if even the seasonal readings from the Tanakh arrive as gifts to support Esti’s realisation of her desire for Ronit and what that might mean regarding for the elemental truths of her sexuality and moreover, her own community’s failure of love: “The tones of the Haftarah, more melodic and more poignant than those of the Torah reading, speak so often of faithlessness and betrayal, of Israel’s failures of love towards God.”(Alderman 2006, 101)

Esti is pictured following the English story of 1 Sam 20 with her eyes. She is captivated when Jonathan says to David “Tomorrow is the New Moon, and you will be missed because your seat will be empty.” (1 Sam 20:5).  Jonathan is the son of the mercurial King Saul, but also in a deep and abiding relationship with David (1 Sam 20:17).  David is King Saul’s favoured musician. In the Haftarah reading, King Saul’s anger at David inexplicably grows, and the King’s increasing aggression has the courtiers on eggshells. Incredibly, Jonathan, the King’s own son, has made an escape plan with David. He cautions David to hide in the countryside nearby. David would miss the start of the feast to celebrate the new month. Jonathan would wait to see how Saul took it. If all was well, Jonathan would send word that David could attend after all. But as it turns out, Saul was incensed, and when Jonathan tried to calm his father, Saul humiliates his son in front of the entire court: “Do you think I don’t know that you have chosen this David, son of Jesse, to your shame and the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” (1 Sam 20:30).

In Esti’s recounting of this tale, she notes the Haftarah reader was talented, that he could even reproduce King Saul’s rough and anguished voice.  It speaks to her and Esti wants it to speak to Ronit. “Do you remember? she whispers. “It’s Machar Chodesh. Tomorrow is Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. Do you remember what you told me once about this day?” Through the cadences of the reader’s voice, low and melodious, Ronit and Esti remember David and Jonathan’s meeting in the fields outside the city, telling of a love which the sages record, was the greatest that had ever been known. Alderman writes, “the notes fluttered up and down the scales, falling like tears and rising like an arrow sprung from the bow … Machar Chodesh. When we read about David and Jonathan…” (2006, 108-109).

In a later chapter Ronit will reflect on this same text again with Esti. It has a central meaning for Esti and her initial reasons for choosing to marry Dovid.  She had been trying to sublimate her desire for Ronit through the only legitimate avenue available to her, by marrying Ronit’s own cousin.

“‘Do you remember “tomorrow is the new moon”? The story of David and Jonathan?’ I nodded. ‘And do you remember how much David loved Jonathan? He loved him with “a love surpassing the love of women”. Do you remember?’ ‘Yes, I remember. David loved Jonathan. Jonathan died in battle. David was miserable. The end.’ ‘No, not the end. The beginning. David had to go on living. He had no choice. Do you remember whom he married?’ … ‘He married Michal. They weren’t very happy. Didn’t she insult him in public, or something?’ ‘And who was Michal?’ It clicked. I understood. Michal was Jonathan’s sister. The man he loved with all his heart died and he married his sister. I thought about that for a moment, taking it in. I wondered whether Michal and Jonathan had looked anything like each other. I thought about King David and his grief, his need for someone like Jonathan, near to Jonathan…”. (Alderman 2006, 210)

Esti finds within the cycle of synagogue readings that these have nurtured a kind of liminal journey to the truth of herself, though it has taken years of such cycles.  The novel and the film coalesce at this point.  The Haftarah of Machar Chodesh, and the intimate meeting of Jonathan and David in the field, coalesces with scenes from the Song of Songs.  In Lelio’s film, Dovid appears in a scene with his religious students quoting and commenting on the Song of Songs 1:13-15.

[Dovid]: “A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, that lies all night between my breasts.  My beloved is to me as a cluster of henna blooms … in the vineyards of Ein-Gedi.” 

[Talmid]: “Is it about sensuality? That is, the way in which true love manifests itself?”

 [Dovid]: “But it might also be that between a male and a female, there is something higher than that?”

[Talmid]:  But isn’t it that the references to sensual pleasures celebrate physical love here?  The enjoyment of that love becomes, in this context, the highest …

[Dovid]: “See, you are fair, my love.  You are fair.  Your eyes are doves.  See, you are handsome my beloved, yea, pleasing, and our bed is verdant.”

This scene segues into the next on the image, “Our bed is verdant.” This image then acts as a foil when Dovid and Esti appear in the intimacy of their home with the words “our bed is verdant” still drifting in our minds.  We see Dovid’s and Esti’s careful attention to one another, as if the other was so fragile they might break. The ground between them is a desert.  Even with their attentiveness and extraordinary care for the other, they both seem to know there is little flourishing there, that they are the companions of the other’s slow grief—two fig trees that never bore fruit. As if to intensify the contrast, there is a lovers’ interlude in Hendon, the grassed space of Golders Green in North London. The parkland is transformed via the elemental passion of Esti’s and Ronit’s love into the gardens and wild spaces of the Song of Songs, true joy.  Esti and Ronit walk down dark paths, and into a wintery domain, into the somber North London streets in the evening, as if they were the Song of Song’s lovers searching for each other in Jerusalem’s alleyways (Son 3 & 5).  Ronit and Esti share the intense beauty of their remembrances, their secret places, the scent of hydrangeas.  They listen at the door of their hearts for one another, revel in the rising of desire, searching the other out.  Eventually the inevitable culmination of their renewed relationship takes place.

As in chapter 5 of the Song of Songs, there is danger too in the shape of watchers, guardians of the community’s way of life, those who seek to maintain a certain way of life, those whom Alderman might suggest have misunderstood the Torah all this time.  Thus, pressure is brought to bear on Dovid by a community of brothers and uncles.  Dovid will need to keep the order of his own house and to “straighten out” the outré sexuality of his wife if he wants to lead the community.  What transpires, then, is a scene between Esti and Dovid reminiscent of Moses before Pharaoh in Exodus (9:13). In the film, the narrative of freedom is a spoken thing.  Esti, as the supplicant Moses, asks for her freedom – that is, the freedom to live in the dignity of who she is, to live and love truly – and Dovid grants it.  In the novel, Alderman also draws on Exodus and the Moses narrative when she has Ronit dream of the Passover, but in this dream, Ronit is the angel of death who flies over the city (2006, 253).

Alderman concludes her novel with the curious Talmudic tale called the “The Caving Walls of the Study Hall.”  The story itself is based on an interpretation of Deut. 30:11-14: “this instruction … is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” Found in Talmud Baba Mesia 59:2, the tale is set as a classic debate on Torah, and concerns theology and the proper interpretation of the law.

On a certain day, regarding a certain interpretation of the law, Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but the other sages kept rejecting them. Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, may the carob tree prove it.” The carob tree was uprooted from its place a distance of 100 cubits. But the sages to him: “One cannot prove anything from a carob tree.”

Said [Rabbi Eliezer] to them: “If the law is as I say, may the river prove it.” The water in the river began to flow backwards. But they said to him: “One cannot prove anything from an river.”

Said he to them: “If the law is as I say, then may the walls of the house of study prove it.” The walls of the house of study began to cave in. But Rabbi Joshua rebuked the walls and said to the walls, “If Torah scholars are debating a point of Jewish law, what are your qualifications to intervene?” The walls did not fall, in deference to Rabbi Joshua, and nor did they straighten up, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. They still stand there today at a slant.

Then said Eliezar to them: “If the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!” There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: “What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer — the law is as he says…”

But Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: “‘The Torah is not in heaven!’1” … We take no notice of heavenly voices, since You, G‑d, have already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to ‘follow the majority.'” (Ex 23:2)

Rabbi Nathan subsequently met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: “What did G‑d do at that moment?” [Elijah] replied: “He smiled and said: ‘My children have triumphed over Me, My children have triumphed over Me.

“The Caving Walls of the Study Hall” is a profound text that holds the matter of the love of Esti for Ronit gently, and even more gently, Esti’s journey of self-realisation and sexual liberation. The delicate turn in reading here is in the image of a Hashem that smiles.  It is as if Hashem is at this very moment the embodiment of Ronit’s father, raised up with face alive with mirth:  “My [daughters] have triumphed over me”.  What is striking in the novel (and also in the film), is the way in which the narrative calls on the Torah and the Talmud, as allies on behalf of Ronit and Esti and their desire.  These two women are, each in their own way, alienated and estranged from their community.  They have also been a precious awakening to each other.  This is regardless of Ronit’s separation from her father, cousin and community and Esti’s attempt to live an observant life as a rebbetzin, frum wife and a teacher.  This love is made even more challenging in a sheltered community that cannot accept the truth of the otherwiseness of Esti’s desires.  “I have always felt like this,” Esti says to Dovid in Lelio’s film (2017), “I will always feel like this.”  The way in which the film and novel draw upon the sacred text to frame Esti’s untangling and unfolding acceptance of herself and her sexuality is deeply moving, similarly the resolution of Ronit’s quandary over her troubled love for Esti and the community of her childhood.  This connection is tender and honouring of an age-old and beautiful set of sacred texts and traditions, without forfeiting the sacred human right to dignity, freedom and the expression one’s whole self in ways otherwise to that tradition.  It is in this kind of reading that Alderman finds a liberating trajectory of scriptural interpretation on behalf of lesbian desire, that is, the possibility of finding sexual freedom in the very texts that violate it.

REFERENCES

Alderman, Naomi. Disobedience. London: Penguin, 2006. Kindle Edition.

Harding, James.  The love of David and Jonathan. London: Routledge, 2014. Kindle Edition.

Neusner, Jacob. The Babylonian Talmud :  A Translation and Commentary. Hendrickson, 2005.

Neusner, Jacob.  The Mishna: A New Translation. New Haven: Yale University, 1988.

Lelio, Sebastián. Disobedience. Film4, FilmNation, Element Pictures, et al, 2017.

Nacino, Joseph. “Love as disobedience,” Lesbian News (April 2018): 10-12.

Steicker, Joel. “Review of Disobedience,” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, 26, no. 3 (2008): 203-205.

Zacharek, Stephanie. “Forbidden lovers seek grace in Disobedience,” TIME Magazine, 191, no. 19 (May 21, 2018): 54-54.

Image: Charles Landelle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Noirthern

Shiloh directors have been busy with their day jobs, but work goes on and there are some great posts in the pipeline…

If you haven’t already, please check out Noirthern – the magnificent blog and podcast on crime fiction in Scottish and Northern English settings. Given that the hosts are none other than Caroline Blyth and Katie Edwards, the (wide-ranging and wonderful) conversations often veer into the territories of rape culture and religion. But it’s far from relentlessly grim.

Shiloh followers might appreciate particularly Episode 4, ‘Saints and Saviour Syndrome’ (focused on Durham) and Episode 5, ‘Tartan Noir’ (focused on Glasgow and Liam McIlvanney’s The Quaker, which draws inspiration from the notorious and unsolved Bible John case).

We hope to have some exciting updates soon… including about restarting suspended research project activities and a call for papers for a fabulous publication.

Watch this space!

[The feature image is adapted from artwork by Melody Clark. Please see: https://www.etsy.com/people/mellyemclark? ]

Noirthern is funded in part by a grant from AHRC/UKRI.

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