Jewish Feminist Scholarship Comes of Age

Lauren Granite, a doctoral candidate in the Religion and Society Program at Drew University in New Jersey is preparing to do her dissertation on the impact of feminist thinking on Jewish women’s religious expression in Israel. She does not suffer from lack of guidance or fellowship from professors at her university. On campus, there are three Christian feminist religious scholars who not only taught Granite, but also actively encouraged her to work with the feminist Jewish theologian Judith Plaskow of Manhattan College in New York.

Granite is fully aware of her serendipitous arrangement. “The women I study with are the pioneers. They made real sacrifices so I can do what I’m doing. can take entire courses in feminist theology. I can trust — as my mentors couldn’t — that there will be career opportunities for me teaching feminist material in a department of religion,” she says.

The ease and optimism that Granite experiences is a recent phenomenon. Twenty years ago, feminist Jewish scholarship simply did not exist. When Ellen Umansky of Emory University was in graduate school in the ’70s, she was actively discouraged from using feminist methodology. When she chose to write her dissertation on Lily Montagu, the early 20th century English Liberal Jewish leader, she was urged to choose a “real topic” instead, like, says Umansky, “a man’s biography or Jewish institutional history.” Umansky persisted in her thesis, but without the active support of her advisor.

Deborah Dash Moore of Vassar College recalls that even a short ten years ago, when she was assembling materials for a groundbreaking course on women in Judaism, teaching aids hardly existed. “There was so little scholarship available. You had Glueckel of Hameln to represent all of the medieval period, (Conservative Rabbi) David Feldman’s book on birth control and Elizabeth Koltun’s anthology {The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives). That was about it!”

Now, as Moore prepares for a similar course, she has the advantage of an explosion of original scholarship by women on women: works by Rachel Biale of Berkeley CA, Judith Romney Wegner of University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Chava Weissler of Lehigh University, Susannah Heschel of Southern Methodist University to name but a few. Beacon Press in Boston is publishing four Jewish feminist books this season alone. Judith Plaskow and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza of Harvard Divinity School edit the five-year-old Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. In short, the field is blooming, coming of age.

Also new for feminist Jewish scholars is a sense of professional community. At the 1986 meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies in Boston, Ellen Umansky and Susan Shapiro of Syracuse University were keenly aware of their shared sense of isolation. Umansky and Shapiro posted a sign: “All women interested meet …” resulting in the formation of the now 75-member Women’s Caucus. Besides their annual breakfast and discussion meetings that act as a forum for both the scholarly and the personal, the Women’s Caucus has had an influence on the larger conference. In 1988, they sponsored a panel which included Sharon Pucker Rivo of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, who discussed the images of Jewish women in Jewish film, and Barbara A. Schreier of University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who analyzed attitudes toward dress and acculturation in Jewish American fiction in the early 20th century.

At the 1989 conference, five “mainstream” panels featured women’s issues in theology, sociology and popular and sacred literature, and two panels sponsored by the Women’s Caucus itself dealt with women’s writing of the Holocaust and the integration of gender into Jewish studies curricula.

Another important forum for feminist Jewish scholars is the Jewish Women’s Caucus of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA). Here presentations by feminist Jewish scholars tend to be interdisciplinary and innovative, especially in their feminist conviction that it’s legitimate to interweave personal and scholarly concerns. This is different from the Association of Jewish Studies, where the male model of distancing the scholar from the subject still tends to hold.

One panel sponsored by the NWSA caucus was entitled “Feminists Transforming Judaism” and included Martha Ackelsberg of Smith College, Faith Rogow of State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton, Evelyn Torton Beck of University of Maryland and others discussing not only feminist theory, but their own experiences as Jewish feminists. The NWSA mainstream conference offered a panel called “Negative Stereotypes of Minority Women” in which American women of Jewish, African, Mexican, Indian and Chinese extraction gave presentations . Judith Arcana of Loyola University in Chicago talked about the Jewish mother and Jewish princess archetypes.

What exactly is feminist Jewish scholarship? Sharing many of the tenets of secular feminist scholarship, which came of age in 1970 with the establishment of the first women’s studies program at San Diego State, feminist Jewish scholars are academicians in diverse disciplines — history, film, drama, religion, sociology, folklore, anthropology, Jewish studies — who bring feminist interest to the Jewish materials with which they work.

Looked at broadly, feminist Jewish scholarship can be said to fall into three main categories.

First, there are scholars who fill in historical lacunae, giving us new information and documenting the lives and work of Jewish women, both the famous and the unknown. For example, Marion Kaplan of Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York has researched the life of Bertha Pappenheim (1859-1936), founder of the Jewish feminist movement in Germany and believed by some historians to have been the real-life model for Sigmund Freud’s “Anna O.” At the other end of the spectrum, Ellen Kellman of the YIVO Institute has investigated Jewish prostitution in American Yiddish popular literature.

Judith Baskin at SUNY Albany comments that although a variety of relevant documents on women’s lives have always existed, they had not piqued the interest of non-feminist scholars.

Where texts don’t exist because women’s experience was not deemed important enough to be recorded or because women themselves did not have the tools to record their own experience, many of these scholars have had to be resourceful in reading between the lines. Judith Baskin, for example, in her research on the education of medieval Jewish women, looked at Christian women of similar class and economic status in order to reconstruct data on the lives of Jewish women of the period.

Neglected data was used by Deborah Hertz at SUNY Binghamton for her research on German Jewish women who had converted to Christianity. Not only did she rely upon published and unpublished memoirs, novels, biographies and court cases, but she tapped into less conventional sources. Hertz explains, “While still working on my dissertation, I discovered the Judenkartel in a church archive in West Berlin. This is a series of small notebooks containing a complete record of roughly 15,000 Jews who converted to Protestantism in Berlin between 1645 and 1933.”

Feminist scholars have also chronicled the political roles and the institutional histories of Jewish women’s organizations such as the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah and the Juedischer Frauenbund in Germany. Their work highlights the powerful impact Jewish women have had on the Jewish community as volunteers, organizers and philanthropists.

The second category involves feminist revision — looking at known facts in a different light. That is, even when others were writing about women, they weren’t necessarily asking the right questions.

Judith Hauptman, the first woman to teach Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, says, “Now we have the tools. I can read Aramaic. I can look at a text and find out what the rabbis who wrote it hundreds and hundreds of years ago actually meant. They left their tracks right in there for us to see how laws that are now restrictive upon women can be reinterpreted. Until now women just didn’t have the scholarship to be able to go into these texts and look at them from a different perspective.”

An example of a feminist asking different questions in an already established field comes from historian Joan Ring-elheim of New York, an independent scholar formerly associated with The Institute for Research in History. She studies women’s unique strategies of survival in the Holocaust, emphasizing how women’s friendship patterns and the gender-specific interpretation of their experience differs from those of men. Another example is Deborah Weissman of the Hebrew University, who deals with how women were educated in the Bais Ya’acov schools in Poland, which never had been examined for their educational strengths.

The “buzz word” among scholars is “gender as a category of analysis”~the assumption that female experience is different from male experience and that these differences are worth examining.

Taking this approach one step further, Evelyn Torton Beck stresses the fact that not all women share the same experience. “Studies of Jewish women need to be inclusive. Just as not all women are white, Christian and heterosexual, not all Jewish women are of Ashkenazic descent. We need to talk about Sephardic women and Jewish lesbians too.”

One aspect of inclusion is a redefinition of the term “scholarship” in particular an integration of the personal and the scholarly. Two important examples of this are Heschel’s anthology of essays On Being a Jewish Feminist (New York: Schocken, 1983) and Plaskow’s new collection of essays edited with Carol P. Christ, Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989). Literary revisions, like those of New York-based E. M. Broner, Marcia Falk of Stanford University, and New Jersey poet Elizabeth Socolow (all of whom have appeared in LILITH) fall into this category too. As formulated by Paula Hyman at Yale (about whom one scholar says, “All roads lead to Paula”), “Feminist theory and women’s history have challenged the paradigm of ordering human experience according to male norms.”

A final category of Jewish feminist scholarship involves new texts, radical revisions of old ones and unexamined aspects of women’s lives. A look at course syllabi reflects how Jewish feminist scholars have questioned the traditional canon and the way knowledge has been compart-mentalized into disciplines. Chava Weissler, for example, has discovered hundred of tkhines, supplicatory prayers in Yiddish, that were recited by European Jewish women. In her analysis of tkhines, she has taken a typically feminist interdisciplinary approach, drawing on literature, folklore, history and theology, to gather material about the spiritual life of the women who used them.

Katherine Hellerstein of Haverford College has opened up the world of women Yiddish poets through her translations and literary analyses of such previously neglected writers as Malka Heifetz Tussman, Miriam Ullnover and Kadya Molodowky. Ellen Umansky has brought to light forgotten sermons and letters which reconstruct the spiritual concerns of Jewish women. Maurie Sacks, a folklorist at Montclair State College in New Jersey, explicates the roles of Orthodox women by observing women-centered rituals such as sending packages of food — shalach manot — at Purim time. Paramount in the category of re-visioning old texts and rituals are the state-of-the-art reworking of Biblical tales from a feminist perspective being done by Alicia Ostriker of Rutgers University. (See her “You’ll Never Read the Bible the Same Way Again” in LILITH, Fall 1989.)

It is no longer a lonely business to be a Jewish feminist scholar. The women in a number of different departments who are doing various forms of Jewish feminist scholarship are, by and large, able to transcend the traditional boundaries of their disciplines in order to communicate in a nurturing way with each other and share methodologies. Collegiality among other feminist-Jewish scholars is a real perk: Ellen Umansky says of her valued network of feminist-Jewish scholars, “We don’t always agree, but we’re in constant dialogue with each other.”

Vanessa Ochs book, Words on Fire: One Woman’s Journey into the Sacred, about women in Jerusalem who are learned in sacred Jewish texts is due out this spring from Har-court Brace Jovanovich.