Religious Boundaries for Sex, Gender, and Corporeality

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Alexandra Cuffel, Ana Echevarria, Georgios T. Halkias
  • New York, NY: 
    , July
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religious Boundaries for Sex, Gender, and Corporeality presents a variety of approaches to the study of the body and embodiment through case studies representing diverse religions, historical periods, and geographical regions. The essays were selected from a 2014 conference whose organizers are also the book’s co-editors. The introduction, written by Georgios Halkias, is well written and reminds the reader of the challenge of bringing together an assortment of texts and traditions on the body. Following the introduction are twelve chapters written by scholars specializing in a variety of religions including the Hebrew Bible, Sinhala Buddhism, Mongolian Buddhist monasticism, Daoism, Islamic and Jewish mysticism, and Lutheranism. This anthology is not arranged with any specific order nor divided according to any categories such as “Asian” or “Abrahamic” religions. The case studies offer insights into the rich category of the body in religion, illustrating the ways that the “body” defines gender and sexual power relationships even as it challenges the coercive power of religious institutions.

The first chapter offers a study of sexualized and gendered religious discourse in the Hebrew Bible by which dualistic identities are constructed of those who “whore” after the wrong god, on the one hand, and the Israelites, on the other. Another chapter examines the inequity of women in the religious life of medieval Muslim communities, stemming from male elites’ judgements of the female body and its close identification with bodily discharges. A chapter on the body in Hekhalot mysticism, an early Jewish mysticism, focuses on gender disparity, wherein the female body is once again stigmatized for its repugnant smell and menstrual blood, and therefore is incapable of ascent to heaven in order to engage in rituals that were the purview of men who attained the knowledge of the divine names.

In contrast to such degrading views of the female body is a chapter that ascribes the body with a constructive role in worship. The author examines medieval Islamic hagiographic texts that reveal the spiritualized bodies of Sufi females, and males’ “weeping body” that serve to inspire the worship of their adherents. Another author examines conceptualization of the body in 18th-century Lutheran texts, which offer a positive assessment of the body and positions it against the arrogance of the Enlightenment’s philosophical mind.

Liberal notions of the physical body are discussed in a chapter on medieval Sinhala Buddhist poetry, where the ideals of power and physical beauty are inscribed into the bodies of Sri Lanka kings. Such portrayals follow the pattern of earlier Buddhist texts in which the physical beauty of the masculine Buddha and the Boddhisatva are extolled. Yet unlike early Buddhist texts, Sinhala poetry does not adhere to notions of renouncement. Instead, it is highly erotic in its depictions of the pleasures and physical delights of courtly life. Influenced by Sanskrit court poetry, Sinhala poetry also eroticizes the bodies of dancing and bathing girls who serve to entertain and fulfill the desires of the local kings. Thus, the poets of this genre convey the beauty of the physical body and its power to gain influence by attributing it to their local kings who can, through the gifts of their beauty, also lure others into their political and personal spheres.

Another discussion of the sexualized body in pre-Buddhist nomadic and pastoral Mongolian society highlights the social value of male sexual virility, which is identified with political prowess. Sex in Mongolia from the Qing period through the present has been viewed leniently, and polygamy, polyandry, and adultery were acceptable, as witnessed by an American explorer visiting the area in the early 20th century. Conversion into Buddhism did not alter this underlying cultural perspective. The author indicates that monks continuously disregarded the vow of abstinence and had sexual relations with women despite Mongolian codes of laws which prescribed punishment against such transgressions. While drinking liquor is admonished and punished according to these rules, sexual misconduct and the prevalence of married and sexually promiscuous monks does not lead to their removal from the monastery. The author’s methodology includes analysis of legal material as well as ethnographic research that supports the persistence of this trend in present-day Mongolia.

As many of the chapters in this volume indicate, the male body has defined social power and control, whereas the female body, as demarcated by religious male elites, has been relegated as a site of contamination, precluding women from accessing religious knowledge or reaching spiritual enlightenment. While this trope is well known to scholars of religious studies, the humanities, and the social sciences in general, the contributors to this volume succeed in expanding our database of documentation and analysis of embodiment and the body crossculturally.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yudit Kornberg Greenberg is the George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Endowed Chair of Religion and Founding Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Rollins  College.

Date of Review: 
January 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexandra Cuffel is Professor of the history of Jewish Religion at Ruhr University, Germany. Her work focuses on Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle Ages, particularly in the realms of inter-religious polemic and gender. She has written articles on gender in Jewish mysticsm, inter-religious polemic, Arabic epics, and shared religious practices, and has published a monograph, Gendering Disgust in Medieval Religious Polemic (2007). She is currently leading a project, "JEWSEAST" (Jews and Christians in the East: Strategies of Interaction from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean) and co-directing a project "The Ten Lost Tribes" A Cross-Cultural Approach".

Ana Echevarria is Profesora Titular of Medieval History at UNED, Spain. She works on relations between Muslims and Christians, especially interreligious polemic, Muslims living under Christian rule, and crusade. Among her books, Knights in the Borders. The Moorish Guard of the Kings of Castile (1410-1467) (2008) and The City of the Three Mosques: Ávila and its Muslims in the Middle Ages, (2011). She has been Visiting Fellow in several US and German universities, and has finished a project about "Mudejars and Moriscos in Castile".

Georgios T. Halkias is Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies, The University of Hong Kong. He specializes on Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhism and inter- and intra-religious contacts in Central Asia. Currently Co-editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Buddhism (OUP) he has worked on several editorial projects including Principle Editorfor Tibetan and Central Asian bibliographies on Buddhism and as co-editor for Contemporary Visions in Tibetan Studies. He has many publications including Luminous Bliss: A Religious History of Pure Land Literature in Tibet. He has recently completed a project at the Centre of Buddhist Studies titled "Entangled Histories between East and West: Sources and Interpretations for the Development of Buddhism in Hellenistic Central Asia."


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