The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust

By Melissa Raphael | Go to book overview
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A mother/God in Auschwitz

‘Comfort, oh comfort My people, Says your God. ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem …’

(Is. 40:1) 1

Maternalist perspectives on post-Holocaust theology

Jewish feminist anthropology’s central observation has been that Jewish women’s perspective is derived from an ‘alternative reality’: a female ‘subculture’ or ‘second world’ to that of men. ‘Cross-culturally’, Susan Starr Sered observes, Jewish women who are excluded from the male systems that confer prestige have found ‘other ways of striving to be moral beings’. Women’s own religious modes, operative within the ‘little tradition’ as opposed to the sacred, written, masculine ‘great tradition’, are normative for themselves. Sered summarizes traditional Jewish women’s religiosity as being ‘more to do with love, death, and human relations, than with abstract theological concepts’ (a religiosity which she has especially begun to respect since becoming a mother herself). 2 Consequently, ‘in diverse cultural situations, women modify theologies that ignore the suffering of children in this world.’ 3

I do not think that post-Holocaust theology has ignored the suffering of children. Fackenheim and Greenberg, to name but two, have been much preoccupied with it. For Greenberg, the screams of children thrown into the fire pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 are the only index against which theological claims might be justifiable and sayable. What post-Holocaust theology has ignored is the experience of those children’s mothers and the theological possibilities of maternalist language and values. Maternal experience and the ethical difference that produces has been an important focus of second wave feminist scholarship. It is this, and Sered’s analysis of Jewish women’s traditional concerns with ‘love, death and human relations’, that contextualizes my situating the experiences and tropes of motherhood at the centre of the feminist theological enquiry in ways that will challenge, modify, and finally alter the character and substance of the post-Holocaust project. In particular, I am convinced that a feminist theological reading of women’s narration of broken (and sometimes preserved or restored) familial relationships during the Holocaust shifts our conception of God’s presence among European Jewry between 1933 and 1945.


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