Constructing (Not Deconstructing) the Jewish Feminist Pantheon

What's going on behind the pillars of academia?

In 1978, Shelly Tenenbaum was 23 years old and applying to graduate school at Brandeis. She had just organized a lecture series on Jewish women in the Boston area and, trying to impress her interviewer, started to speak about the experience. As Tenenbaum, today an associate professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Clark University, tells it, the gentleman bent over, put his fingers on the bridge of his nose, shook his head and said, “Oh no. Not this Jewish women’s stuff again.”

Little did he—or Tenenbaum— know that “this Jewish women’s stuff” was about to take off.

In the 20 years since feminist activism inspired women to take a stand in the hallowed halls of the Academy, feminist theory has become a reigning discourse. It has introduced the question of gender into nearly every discipline, and Jewish studies has been no exception. The ranks of Jewish women scholars have swelled from a handful of activists to a field of academics. The dozens of women LILITH spoke with represent a range, but merely a fraction, of those who are creating Jewish feminist scholarship. Their books, once few in number, are finding willing publishers and space on library shelves. The Jewish Theological Seminary and Brandeis University now offer Master’s degrees in Jewish women’s studies. Even the once predominantly male Association for Jewish Studies, after some initial heavy opposition, boasts a Women’s Caucus with 250 members.

This quantum leap has been paralleled off-campus by a huge expansion of Jewish women’s participation in Jewish life, connected by many strands back to the scholars themselves. Whether it was Yale University professor Paula Hyman petitioning at the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in 1972, for women’s full participation in synagogue services; JTS professor Judith Hauptman searching the texts for evidence that would allow women greater rights in cases of Jewish divorce; or Judith Plaskow reconfiguring the patriarchal theology entirely, remarkable women scholars have helped create a revolution in the way the rest of us position ourselves—and are permitted to position ourselves—as women in relation to Judaism.

On campus recently, feminist scholars have also begun to reposition themselves, both in relation to activist feminism and in relation to the American university system. A disengaged and multi-faceted feminist theory has developed that discourages community-based concerns from overlapping with “purer” research. Even Yale’s Paula Hyman, known in the 1970s both for her Jewish feminist activism and her scholarship, says that today her work is her activism. Her marching days, she says, are over.

Participating fully in academia, a younger generation of Jewish feminist scholars are beginning to have their work read and respected throughout its academic disciplines. They are still likely to be marginalized in women’s studies as Jewish, in Jewish studies as women, and in all of the traditional disciplines as parochial. However, they have achieved a level of security in which some of the work done by activist Jewish women scholars in the late 1970s and early 1980s is critiqued, and sometimes quite severely, by the same scholars for whom the first wave helped pave the way.

In 1976, as she was finishing her graduate degree in Jewish history at Columbia University, Paula Hyman and two fellow students published The Jewish Woman in America, a book about American Jewish women’s history of the 19th and 20th centuries, through a non-academic publisher. The landmark book resonated with the public, but in academic circles, says Hyman, it was “resoundingly ignored.” So non-traditional was this book that when Hyman came up for tenure at the Jewish Theological Seminary, she hesitated before submitting it for consideration.

“We came into this as scholars from a background of feminist activism,” relates Hyman, who also in the late 1970s co-founded the Jewish feminist activist group Ezrat Nashim. From its initial study of Jewish texts on women, the group went on to spearhead the move toward a more egalitarian Judaism. “Feminist activism made us aware that we knew nothing about Jewish women.”

Judith Hauptman has taught Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s primary institution for training rabbis and educators, since the early-1970s and today writes of searching the traditional Jewish texts “for protofeminism and the outer limits of leniency.” It is the activist group Ezrat Nashim, and not an academic source, however, that she credits with her own feminist awakening. She had been “doing Talmud about women, but not from a feminist perspective” when Ezrat Nashim asked her to choose some passages for a text study. “I must say that although I chose the passages, they were the ones who raised my consciousness,” she recalls.

Rela Mintz Geffen, a professor of sociology at Gratz College, believes that access to the texts themselves radicalized those participants. “What mattered was that there was a woman who knew the sources and could go to the primary text.”

Says Hyman, “As the first generation, we really drew on our feminist sensibilities because we did not have mentors. We did have the feminist movement.”

Today there are mentors, there are peers, and there is theory, all of which build a wall of legitimacy around Jewish feminist scholarship. And academics are no longer called on, as they once were, to spur change in other arenas. “With the sheer number of women [participating in the Jewish community], it makes it easier for women in the academy to step back and say, ‘We’re not going to be activists,'” says Ruth Abusch-Magder, one of Hyman’s graduate students at Yale. “I have the luxury of concentrating on my studies and not forming a Rosh Hodesh group and I still know that there will be a Rosh Hodesh group to go to.” (She was planning to attend one that evening.)

But the new devotion to academia may not be simply a question of luxury but of survival as well. As Lynn Davidman, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Brown University, explains, “There are fewer jobs: they’re harder to get. Now, to get a job you have to do it in a way that is academically respectable, and political activism is not [considered to be] academically respectable.”

A copy of a book entitled Feminism and Religion: An Introduction arrived hot off the presses at the Lilith offices as this article was in progress. In the very first chapter, Rita Gross, professor of philosophy and religious studies at University of Wisconsin, argues for a rigid boundary between community and academia. “The study of religion,” she writes about her field, “has nothing to do with religious instruction, conversion or spiritual direction.” This signals a radical shift in the content of feminist writings. It is almost inconceivable, today, that a reader of new Jewish feminist scholarship would find a call like this one of Judith Plaskow’s in Standing Again at Sinai: “the connection between politics and spirituality requires the transformation of Judaism itself” The new research can’t be called “conservative”—it is filled with new perspectives on the texture and meaning of women’s lives—but the drive to confront and change society at large seems to be gone.

Naomi Seidman, an assistant professor at the Graduate Theological Union, put it succinctly, “We’re the feminists who aren’t a danger to our male colleagues— the people of my generation who really covered their tracks, who have a million footnotes, who don’t preface their books with a cry for revolution.”

Compare, for example, the work of two Jewish feminist scholars. Last year Judith Hauptman, one of the earliest pioneers, published a book on marriage and divorce in the Talmud. It was written for an “intelligent lay readership” and is intended to show that “nothing stands in the way today for male religious leaders to make Judaism totally egalitarian.” By contrast, the writing of Temple University assistant professor of religion Laura Levitt would be nearly impenetrable to the lay reader. In a snippet from “(The Problem with) Embraces,” an essay, she concludes, “I wish to maintain my voice even as I write about the interplay between familiarity, intimacy, and distance between me and these texts. Acknowledging these tensions as I read and write is part of what it has meant for me to engender Jewish knowledges.”

Although these two scholars certainly do not represent the whole range of writings of women of their respective cohorts, they are emblematic of a generational shift. Both have employed the techniques of feminism, implying a critique of “patriarchy” and seeking to recover women’s presence. Hauptman, however, is hoping to give non-academic women the tools they need to create a more participatory Judaism. Levitt is hoping to give academics a Jewish tool with which to hone their theory.

This distinction speaks volumes about how far Jewish feminist scholarship has penetrated the academic establishment. Just over a decade ago Judith Baskin, a professor of Judaic studies at SUNY, delivered a paper on the biblical character of Rahab the harlot to the Association for Jewish Studies annual meeting. She was interrupted by whispers and chatters from an uncomfortable audience that stopped her in mid-speech. Today, Levitt can publish a book entitled Ambivalent Embraces: Jems, Feminists and Home” ; Naomi Seidman can contend that Hebrew and Yiddish are gendered as male and female, respectively, in A Marriage Made in Heaven: The Sexual Politics of Hebrew and Yiddish, soon to be published; and Ruth Abusch-Magder, a Ph.D. candidate in Jewish history, takes her primary texts cookbooks written by German and American Jewish women, considering them as “books of halacha for Jewish women.”

This type of work reflects the innovative iconoclastic atmosphere of the university. These scholars are
treating day-to-day life as a serious historical resource: “material historians” like Jenna Weissman Joselit at New York University now examine clothing, housewares and unpublished letters to find evidence of how women lived. Assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Florida Miriam Peskowitz asks, “Can we find archaeological and other material culture, and when we do, what is it that we are finding? Do we look to those few and fragmentary samples of women’s writings? To papyrus documents relating the legal and economic transactions of specific women? To rituals enacted by women?”

With so many “assaults” on traditional scholarship, the borders between the disciplines— history, literature, philosophy, and so on—have begun to break down. Much Jewish feminist scholarship is being completed through interdisciplinary explorations. This distinction is more than just a question of where the courses are listed, which departments claim them or which texts are assigned. It is a radical shift in the way scholarship is being done, incorporating theory from many fields. It is a change that to the traditional academic might signal anarchy; to the young scholars, it signals the future.

Some of this interdisciplinary approach is a necessity. The academic job market has collapsed, and those who hope to find jobs are expected to be able to teach a wide range of subjects within their fields. This means that the Jewish feminist scholar working in sociology, for instance, may need to prove that her work is relevant to all students of Jewish studies and to the wider field of women’s and sociological studies as well.

Underlying this flight to other departments, however, is also a sense that has persisted since the inception of Jewish studies: that Jewish studies itself is marginal to begin with. “For a long time in the academy Jewish studies was a stepchild, and women’s studies was a stepchild, so you have the marriage of two stepchildren” in Jewish feminist scholarship,” explains Lori Hope Lefkovitz, who is heading the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s new Center for Women’s and Gender Studies.

The Jewish feminist integration into the larger academic community also is facilitated by a new comfort with being Jewish on campus. Riv-Ellen Prell, an anthropologist and American Studies professor at the University of Minnesota, writes in People of the Book: Thirty Scholars Reflect on Their Jewish Identity, that when she began to do research on Jewish women, she was warned that “my work would be read only by Jews and I would be forced to the margins of academia.” Prell, as her essay describes it, is now more comfortable with questions of Jewishness, and she is just one of 30 academics included in People of the Book who, some for the first time, are casting more than sidelong glances at their Jewishness, academically or personally. “This is a coming-out book,” says Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a professor of American studies and English at the University of Texas and itself provided space for feminist thinking, so it has been necessary to interrupt it in fairly dramatic ways.”

“Right now,” explains Peskowitz, “most of us aren’t actually hired in Jewish studies…. In a day-to-day sense, the conservatism of Jewish Studies is not of concern to me [because there are] all these places to be a Jewish intellectual. . . . Jewish Studies becomes so marginal because all the really interesting things are happening elsewhere.”

Listen to the voices of a new generation: tough, uncompromising, entitled. Socialized not to ask but to act. Trained to assume that their classes have a place in university course books, they speak freely about close-minded attitudes at Jewish seminaries and in Jewish studies programs; they speak openly about the shortcomings of their universities and, sometimes, even about the Jewish feminist scholars who paved the way for their arrival.

Now listen to the voices of those original scholars: critical, still, of the conservative Jewish academy they helped to crack, but gentler in tone. Working, still, in Jewish women’s scholarship, yet aware that the hardest work of breaking down resistance may be over. And hurt at the way their early work is criticized by women they helped bring into the world of Jewish feminist scholarship.

This internal conflict among some Jewish feminist scholars represents more than a sort of Electra complex, although “the killing off of the mothers,” as more than one “older” professor put it, may certainly be playing a role. The roots of the divide lie in the very different eras in which these two generations of scholars developed their work.

From one view, Peskowitz’s, “it’s all about certain women really feeling like they struggled and not feeling appreciated either by their male colleagues or the younger women.” (She says she considered writing about the generational divide with Levitt, her colleague and friend.) From another view, Plaskow’s, it’s all about the younger scholars “needing to define their own path and their own voices.”

Either way, “It’s painful for those of us who were pioneers,” volunteered Judith Baskin, whose book, Jewish Women in Historical Perspective, has become something of a primer for the student of Jewish women’s history. “It may be that younger people take for granted the validity of gender studies. . . . They bring a much more sophisticated framework of questions than those of us in the past, [but] I think it’s only civil to see us as part of the process.” As a group, academics don’t emote easily, so the bitterness that seeps through is striking.

Naomi Seidman, who like many other recent Ph.D.’s says that the “more successful” younger scholars like herself “owe a lot to the [earlier generation],” tells a story about her own oversight of the pioneer generation. Looking over a book she was just completing, she realized with regret that she had credited the well-established scholars and books but had neglected to footnote a woman, Irena Klepfisz, whose work had inspired her and who had struggled for years to be accepted by the academy.

Seidman’s gratitude is evident, but so is a certain distancing from the first group of scholars. “We’re standing on their shoulders but—they may hate me for saying this—the scholarship is a lot better. The ignorance that scholars were working on even ten years ago is astonishing. . . . The work that they did is basically obsolete.”

Their work, however, has not disappeared. Books that came out of that first, impassioned wave of scholarship are still being read and passed around. Out of those first attempts to find “leniency in the texts,” as Hauptman put it, women have become involved in traditional ritual life, and have developed their own set of rituals—Rosh Hodesh groups, feminist Passover seders, simchat bat (a feminine parallel to the bris). They have been touched by the attitude that Plaskow embodies when she says, discussing the “post-modern theory” and “deconstruction of texts” that is an courant, “I myself really don’t understand the value of Jewish feminist scholarship if it is not accessible.”

And there is still a demand that the new scholarship be communicated to the lay reader for use in her own life. “They want it in a way that is palatable,” says Lori Lefkovitz, who hopes that the RRC’s new center will train professionals to communicate to a wider audience. “They want to see how this stuff can be used in lifecycle rituals.”

Which, in Jewish—and not academic— history, may be among the most enduring affects of the scholarship after all.