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Prof. Brooten awarded honorary doctorate in theology

Bernadette J. Brooten, the Myra and Robert Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies, was recently awarded an honorary doctorate in theology from the University of Bern. Brooten (NEJS/CLAS/WMGS) is the founder and director of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis. Her work focuses on religion and sexual ethics, as well as their relationships to slaveholding and feminism. Brooten is currently in Jerusalem as a fellow at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University.

Professor Brooten’s work tackles a diverse and often challenging range of topics, including meaningful consent and female sexual pleasure. She explained what inspired her to pursue these issues through the creation of the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project in an email with The Brandeis Hoot.

“I wanted to bring together Jewish, Christian and Muslim feminists to do research that could revitalize these traditions and improve the lives of women, girls and, ultimately, of all people. Until religions definitively promote the full dignity of persons of all genders, gender inequality will remain,” Brooten explained.

She sees the challenges in her research as linked to an unwillingness to discuss certain topics. “Writing, speaking and teaching about slavery, sexual violence and the historical religious hatred of women who sexually desire other women is difficult emotionally. Many people do not wish to hear about these topics,” Brooten said.

In spite of the inherent difficulties, she finds her work very rewarding, saying that she feels “privileged to be able to do in-depth academic research on topics that have been taboo for so many centuries.”

Though the topics Brooten explores in her research are very sensitive and complex, they are also very important, Brooten explained. Her feminist ideals explain why Brooten sees her work as so critical.

“Feminists take a much broader view and think about the structure of society in which individuals make decisions. For example, we see promoting meaningful consent and sexual pleasure and preventing sexual violence as ethical issues,” Brooten argued.

She links her work to slavery both historically and in modern times. “We found that, historically, where there is slavery, there is sexual coercion and violence, and we were troubled that, for most of their history, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have tolerated slavery. We want for these religious traditions to move fully beyond the values that allowed slavery to be tolerated for so long,” Brooten wrote.

The Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, based at Brandeis, aims “to create Jewish, Christian and Muslim sexual ethics rooted in freedom, mutuality, meaningful consent, responsibility and female (as well as male) pleasure, untainted by slaveholding values.” Brooten serves as the director and principal investigator of the Project, whose advisory board also includes professors from across the country. The Project’s website gives details about research subjects including “sexual assault, race and difference,” and Muslim, Christian and Jewish sexual ethics.

Brooten’s Project has hosted conferences like the 2012 “Disrupting the Script: Raising to Legal Consciousness Sexual Assaults on Black Women” conference featuring Anita Hill. Brooten explained that the conference “helped the public to see that sexual violence is never separate from race or ethnicity, that it happens in all communities, but differently in each.” They have also held two training conferences here at Brandeis on sexual violence at college campuses.

Brooten’s academic background is rooted in theology, especially that of the New Testament and post-Biblical Judaism. She has worked and studied in a variety of countries and has learned about topics related to the Talmud and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and about the New Testament at the University of Tübingen in Germany. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University with a dissertation titled “Inscriptional Evidence for Women as Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue.”

The diversity of Brooten’s experiences has given her unique insight into sexual violence in different parts of the world. “I now live in the Middle East, where there is a high level of violence, and I have lived in Norway, which has very successfully reduced violence. I would love to bring together international insights and experience,” Brooten wrote.

Brooten is currently working on a book about enslaved and slaveholding early Christian women. She is already a published author, having written several books including “Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism,” which won the Shilts/Grahn Award for Gay/Lesbian Nonfiction and the Lamba Literary Award for Lesbian Studies from the Lamba Literary Foundation. She has been awarded numerous academic awards and honors, some of which include a MacArthur Fellowship in 1998, a Liberal Arts Fellowship in Law from Harvard University in 1999 and the Outstanding Service in Mentoring Award from the Society of Biblical Literature in 2001.

“I want to continue to work to prevent sexual violence on our campus so that all students can benefit fully from their Brandeis education,” Brooten said about her goals for the future. “I especially want for religious leaders to become involved in preventing such violence. I am concerned about racial bias on college campuses and fear that students of color may be less likely to report problems.”

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