I was reading Israeli Knesset Member Ruth Calderon's remarkable speech earlier today (which you should totally go and read right now) in which she reminds her audience that the Hebrew word for womb, rechem, becomes the root of the Aramaic word for love: rechumei. Those who know Hebrew will also recognize this R-H-M root in the word for mercy, rachamim. The same root appears in the Arabic, in the opening words of the first sura of the Quran, where God is described as rachmani, and rachim -- most gracious, most merciful. So in Semitic languages, the word that describes the most intimate function of womanhood comes to mean love itself, and mercy, and the quality of God that constantly forgives, understands, and sees with compassion.
Compare this (as Dr. Calderon points out) with the Greek word for womb, hysteros. What does this word give us? Hysteria. The word most profundly connected with womanhood gives us a word used to mean mindless, manic emotionalism. The roots of misogyny in Western culture are deep, so deep that we often fall into the error of thinking misogyny is ineradicable or worse, inevitable. A historian friend of mine once said that it was hard for her not to yield to despair, because in many cultures she had studied, race was a plastic concept, and there were in fact many in which racial discrimination was rare or unknown, but in every single culture she had studied, throughout every time period, sexism was present: our original sin, humanity's one incurable hatred. And yet that tantalizing rechem holds out another possibility, a world where hatred can be untwisted into respect.
I think this linguistic tug in opposite directions has enormous relevance for Christian history, built as it is on the bridge between Semitic and Greek understandings of the world. I think this opposition holds great promise, too. For if we say that Christianity is an essentially Semitic cult wrapped in Greek dressings, we are saying that the denigration of women common to Greek thought is not, in fact, native to Christianity, but is an uneasy import.
There's a prayer that devout Jews say every morning, a series of blessings in which God is thanked for clothing the naked, for straightening the bent, for opening the eyes of the blind. Blessed be God, who has made me Jewish; Blessed be God, who has not made me a slave. And then comes the kicker: Blessed be God, who has not made me a woman. (Yeah, chew on that one.) And what do women pray, while the menfolk are praying this terrifyingly offensive prayer? "Blessed be God, who has made me according to his will." But, see, here's the thing. There is an old tradition that explains the prayers thus: men thank God for their greater challenges, and for the opportunity to prove themselves, since they were born as men, and thus far from the will of God, whereas women thank God for creating them closer to his will, since women are, as everyone knows, naturally closer to the Divine nature. Sure, it's easy to dismiss this as a gloss on patriarchy, but what a gloss. It's almost impossible to imagine anyone but far-left feminist theologians saying something like that, in the Christian tradition. And yet this is Orthodox Judaism, not normally known for being all squishy when it comes to women's equality. I mean, women are literally back-of-the-bus in the traditional parts of the Jewish world. . . and yet this.
Greek linguistic misogyny is the new wine poured into the old Semitic wineskin, and it won't work: indeed, it hasn't worked. As far back as the fourth century of the Christian era, sternly misogynistic theologians were trying to write Mary out of salvation history by turning the Incarnation into an entirely male affair, and Mary into a pliable, irrelevant vessel. But it didn't work: the end was the proclamation of Mary as Mother of God, and her enshrining at the center of Christian faith and practice. Christologists for over 1600 years have understood that to adequately explain the nature of Jesus is to begin with his mother, and that you cannot have one without the other.
Despite that, the campaign to marginalize women and their spiritual gifts has not let up, and it seems it never will, in our particular corner of the world. But to no final avail, because Av HaRachamim, Father of Mercy, Womb Father, is the older idea of the Divine that lies under and behind our prim and narrow words, and the Womb of the Universe will in the end not be mocked by our small constraints and petty hatreds. The gates of hell shall not prevail.
Here, have a Salve Regina to wash down all that word study, sung by some kick-ass female voices. (I mean they literally can kick your ass, because they're Dominican nuns, which means after they kick your ass and tie you up they will explicate for you the reasoning behind your ass-kicking, and then counter-argue their own explication, while you are still picking your teeth off the floor.)