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Dorothea Erbele-Küster Cultivating Relationships in the Face of the Other

The invitation to the panel by Susanne Scholz challenged me to take up a stance while looking for bonds with other women as responsibility implies the relational tie to others. It has been first of all an act of cultivating relationships. This hints to my main argument: We must recognize our own standpoint and social location while facing the other. This seems crucial in this neoliberal age which ignores differences under the guise of global consumerism and capitalism. My tripartite statement as European Old Testament scholar is informed by my exegetical work, my teaching in different languages and settings as well as my intercultural and interreligious encounters. It is the encounter on the panel which pushes me to disclose my links to neoliberal structures and to think last but not least about my European context; likewise, the encounter confronts me with my whiteness.

Gender Trouble and Justice as Intrinsic to the Biblical Tradition and the European Heritage

These days when clear-cut answers and homogenous positions become compelling it is important to highlight the multivoiced Jewish-Christian tradition which though promotes justice. This is the underlining principle of a recent intergenerational ecumenical translation project within the German speaking research community I have been participating in: Bibel in gerechter Sprache.[1] It is the first inclusive German Bible translation. At the same time, it is highly committed to the Jewish rootedness of the scriptures and post-Ausschwitz theology. The name of the Bible translation could be paraphrased as a Bible which promotes justice as the translation tried to foster justice as a relational concept: in terms of gender and social justice. Bibel in gerechter Sprache has stirred up the discourse and caused (gender) trouble. The panel stimulates me to commemorate this with others. This indebtedness to the Jewish-Christian dialogue of the translation project is due to the German and European background. I write this statement shortly after Jom Kippur, the day of reconciliation, which has been violated by a deadly attack in Halle/Germany (9th of October 2019). In his open statement the shooter intermingled antifeminism and antisemitism. Facing the new rise of Anti-Semitism and hate speech we need to decipher it and cultivate a counter-language and memory.

Rereading Shared and Contested Traditions on Trauma

The Sarah-Hagar tradition is a prominent example of a common heritage which give rise to contests and may provide us likewise with tools for cultivating bonds. My rereadings of the story go back and forth between facing the other while trying to find my own position. It is a hermeneutical and existential struggle which asks for a critique of oppression and harmful readings of the story. During my studies in the 1990ies we were empowered by Irmtraud Fischer’s Die Erzeltern Israels as we discovered Sarah’s role as matriarch over against Abraham, the patriarch.[2] When I got to know the Mexican theologian Elsa Tamez and her interpretation of this story[3] I had to realize how my reading was restricted by my European middle class context. Nevertheless, I have often sensed likewise the inclination to identify with Hagar, the Egyptian slave, the mother of Ismael. Years later when I presented the interpretation of Elsa Tamez in a Jewish-Christian study group, one of the Jewish colleagues felt offended and defended Sarah while stressing Hagar did wrong. Then in a Dutch-Indonesian Christian Muslim encounter, I myself ended up lifting the Jewish voice of Sarah. Hagar in this setting no longer belonged to my Christian tradition alone; the Muslim woman next to me identified with her. These struggles are crucial to the issue of the panel. Neoliberalism avoids taking up stances. This is dangerous as it does not face conflicts and hence is not provided with hermeneutical and critical tools to react to violence and racism with a counter-discourse.

The authoritarian age implies that there is one single perspective or authority. However, this is not the case as the Sarah-Hagar tradition shows us. We have to cultivate joint readings of this story even if we contest in our readings. In my readings I try to build bridges between post-colonial hermeneutics and the Jewish-Christian encounters.[4] A student of mine, Lena Moeller, gave the Hagar story a new twist in her master thesis while reading Hagar in the context of the European refugee crisis and modern slave trade in Africa. She combined impulses from divergent earlier readings, namely womanist perspectives such as Dolores Williams, Renita Weems and the literary critical voice of Irmtraud Fischer. This gives hope amidst the (neo)liberal fatigue. Still, the question is open about the way and the possibility to read as Sarah together with Hagar in the wilderness. It seems only viable if Sarah confesses! In a recent Trauma conference,[5] which I have been co-organizing, we discussed the relation between victim and perpetrator. I argued that German speaking theologians while addressing the role of the perpetrator stress the issue of reconciliation. However, are we willing to confront the trauma, we as Europeans, have inflicted and are inflicting on others? Indeed, Sara has to confess and to abstain from going on privatizing water and drinking water bottled by capitalist global companies.[6] It is time that she learns from the survival strategies of Hagar in the wilderness.

Cultivating Recognition of the Other and Turning Vulnerability into Strength

My concluding point deals with the recognition of the other, of ourselves, hence of our human vulnerability as expressed in the command to love the other as yourself in Leviticus 19. The recognition of oneself includes the recognition of the other. Love serves as a means for it. To love the other as yourself hints to the interdependency of the relation to ourselves to our relation to the other becomes obvious. Judith Butler describes this interconnectedness between the recognition of oneself and the other as follows:

When we recognize another, or when we ask for recognition for ourselves, we are not asking for an Other to see us as we are, as we already are, as we always been, as we were constituted prior to the encounter itself. Instead, in the asking, in the petition, we have already become something new, since we are constituted by virtue of address, a need and desire for the Other.[7]

I consider this ongoing process to recognize one another as a strong habitus of resistance to neoliberalism. We make us vulnerable in the process of recognition through the other. As a single subject vulnerability becomes weakness in an authoritarian age, however, if vulnerability is linked to the recognition of the other in compassion this may turn into our strength.


[1] See and

[2] Irmtraud Fischer, Die Erzeltern Israels. Feministisch-theologische Studien zu Genesis 12-36, BZAW 222 (De Gruyter, 1994).

[3] Elza Tamez, “The Woman who Complicated the History of Salvation Threefold Oppression of Hagar,” in New Eyes for Reading: Biblical and Theological Reflections by Women of the Third World, edited by John S. Pobee and Bärbel von Wartenberg-Potter (World Council of Churches/Geneva, 1986), 5–17.

[4] Dorothea Erbele-Küster, “Towards a Poetical Ethics of Interreligious Reading in the Face of Sara and Hagar,” in Muslim Christian Relations Observed. Comparative Studies from Indonesia and the Netherlands, edited by Volker Küster and Robert Setio (Evangelische Verlagsanstalt Leipzig, 2014), 281–297.


[6] I even belong to those privileged people who have access to clean water from the tube.

[7] Judith Butler, “Violence, Mourning Politics,” in Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence (De Gruyter, 2004), 19–49, 44.

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Dorothea Erbele-Küster Ph.D.,

is holding a position as Senior Scholar in Biblical Literature, Gender, and Diversity at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Her research focuses on biblical ethics and anthropology, feminist and intercultural biblical hermeneutics, interreligious dialogue. Among her publication are Body, Gender and Purity in Leviticus 12 and 15 (2017). As co-editor of a new series, Theologische Interventionen, she has recently published on the intersections of ethics and aesthetics in Verführung zum Guten (2019).

© Dorothea Erbele-Küster, 2020,, ISSN 1661-3317

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