AUTHORS/ Behr-Sigel, Elizabeth
Elisabeth Behr-Sigel was one of the last major figures of what is sometimes called the "golden age" of Orthodox theology in the West, the period ushered in by the Russian Revolution. Behr-Sigel saw the forced migration of so many Russian Orthodox to the West, especially to France, as entirely providential, opening the way for a fruitful interchange between the Orthodox Christian tradition and the modern world.
Behr-Sigel was born in 1907 in Alsace, then part of the German Empire, to a Protestant father and a Jewish mother. She became an active Christian and was one of the first women admitted to read theology at the University of Strasbourg. She was later appointed assistant pastor in the Reformed Church (1931-32). By this time, however, she was already a member of the Orthodox Church, having first been captivated by its worship and theology. Her official ministry came to an end on her marriage to a Russian émigré, André Behr.
Her early years as an Orthodox were marked by her contacts with some of the most eminent religious philosophers and theologians of the time, most notably Nikolai Berdiaev and Father Sergius Bulgakov. The greatest single influence on her, however, was Father Lev Gillet, a former Benedictine who became an eloquent witness to the universal character of Orthodoxy, one demonstration of which came with his founding (with Behr-Sigel's help) of the first French-language Orthodox parish.
Behr-Sigel found inspiration in the life and work of Mother Maria Skobstova. Mother Maria ran an unusual monastic household in the rue de Lourmel in Paris, taking in the unemployed, prostitutes and the poor. She also welcomed intellectuals and theologians, making the monastery into a hybrid of soup kitchen, refuge and salon.
During the Nazi occupation, Behr-Sigel did her utmost to protect Jews. She and her husband would take in Jewish children for whom Father Lev would provide false certificates of baptism. Mother Maria was arrested for similar activities and was killed at Ravensbrück. She was canonized by the Orthodox Church in 2004.
After the war, Behr-Sigel rapidly emerged as an accomplished Orthodox theologian. She produced several major studies on Orthodox themes, for instance Prière et sainteté dans l'Église russe (1950), Alexandre Boukharev (1977), and a biography of Father Lev Gillet (1993). She taught and lectured widely - for example in Paris at the Institut St Serge and Institut Catholique and, more recently, at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge. She is best known for encouraging much-needed reflection on the place of women in the Orthodox Church, and was forceful in calling for an end to the notions of ritual impurity attaching to menstruation and childbirth.
She also argued for the possibility of re-establishing the ordained ministry of the deaconess - a ministry still in evidence well into the early medieval period and even, very occasionally, in modern times.
She sought to re-imagine what she called a "new humanism" - one that would not only fully embrace the feminine dimension of human experience but also balance and correct the "aggressive masculinity" that tends to dominate human affairs.
A sparky, indomitable and tiny woman, Behr-Sigel lived in a modest flat in a shabby Paris suburb. She is survived by three children. Her husband predeceased her in 1968.
Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, theologian, was born on July 21, 1907. She died on November 26, 2005, aged 98.