Where Are the Women In Jewish Stud­ies?

Forward Magazine - - OPINION - Su­san­nah Heschel and Sarah Imhoff Su­san­nah Heschel is the Eli Black Pro­fes­sor of Jewish Stud­ies and chair of the Jewish Stud­ies Pro­gram at Dart­mouth Col­lege. Sarah Imhoff is As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor in the Borns Jewish Stud­ies Pro­gram and Re­li­gious Stud­ies D

The Smith­so­nian has cel­e­brated a new book, “Ha­sidism: A New His­tory,” edited by David Biale, as a land­mark. This col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort of eight men has been un­der­way for a decade, and the pub­li­ca­tion is mas­sive: 850 pages. All writ­ten by men. The pref­ace in­forms us that a distin­guished fe­male scholar of Ha­sidism par­tic­i­pated ex­ten­sively in the project, but she with­drew her name from au­thor­ship be­cause she had to leave the project early. While she is unique as a deeply learned scholar of Ha­sidism, she is not the only one. Where are the women? Even the after­word was given to a man. In this book, men write about re­li­gion, men write about pol­i­tics and men write about women in the Ha­sidic move­ment. Eight hun­dred and fifty pages of mansplain­ing.

And the book’s re­view­ers have not noted the ex­clu­sion of women. Per­haps the rea­son the book’s male­ness was not strik­ing is that it is not un­usual in the field of Jewish stud­ies. Just a few re­cent ex­am­ples show the ubiq­uity of this prob­lem: “Jewish The­ol­ogy in Our Time” in­cludes 24 ar­ti­cles, but only three by women. “The Weimar Mo­ment” in­cludes 20 ar­ti­cles, all of them by men. Of the 37 biogra­phies pub­lished thus far in Yale’s “Jewish Lives” se­ries, only five are biogra­phies of women, and only 10 of the books have been writ­ten by women.

Jour­nal edi­to­rial boards tell a sim­i­lar story: Mod­ern Ju­daism has two women on the 10-per­son edi­to­rial board; Is­rael Stud­ies Re­view has eight out of 35; the In­ter­na­tionale Rosen­zweig Ge­sellschaft has one woman of six; the Jewish Re­view of Books has four of 12.

Given the presence of cut­ting-edge women schol­ars, male-dom­i­nated projects raise an in­ter­est­ing cul­tural ques­tion. Nu­mer­ous women are on the fac­ul­ties of uni­ver­si­ties and are ac­tive as schol­ars, ju­nior and se­nior, in pre­cisely the fields men­tioned above. Women have by now as­sumed lead­er­ship po­si­tions in sev­eral Jewish aca­demic or­ga­ni­za­tions. Why, then, would women not be in­cluded in these projects? What sort of cul­ture pre­dom­i­nated, for ex­am­ple, in the four-year an­nual gath­er­ings of the male Ha­sidism schol­ars? As they spent their sum­mer months to­gether, dis­cussing their work at the Si­mon Dub­now In­sti­tute for His­tory and Jewish Cul­ture in Leipzig, did none of them find it strange to be in an all­male con­ver­sa­tion? If not, what does this say about the field?

In dis­cussing the prob­lem with fe­male col­leagues, both se­nior and ju­nior, what emerges is ex­tra­or­di­nary frus­tra­tion. Ev­ery woman can re­count ex­am­ples of be­ing marginal­ized, pa­tron­ized and ex­cluded by male col­leagues. Women’s schol­ar­ship is at times not cited by male col­leagues, even when those men “bor­row” di­rectly from women’s pub­li­ca­tions; women’s in­no­va­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tions are ig­nored or treated as in­con­se­quen­tial — un­til a man says the same thing and peo­ple lis­ten. As the sole woman at a con­fer­ence can tell you, to­kenism car­ries its own set of prob­lems, which is why gen­der par­ity, not the in­clu­sion of one or two women, is the goal.

Why does this mat­ter? Ex­clud­ing women is dam­ag­ing to their schol­ar­ship and ca­reers; it is also nasty and un­eth­i­cal. It af­fects hir­ing, salaries and grants — all of which have very tan­gi­ble effects on women’s ca­reers. Given the grow­ing num­ber of women en­ter­ing aca­demic life, for se­nior male schol­ars not to in­clude younger fe­male schol­ars in con­fer­ences and an­tholo­gies lim­its women’s ca­reer paths and will ul­ti­mately di­min­ish the de­bates that make a field vi­brant. More­over, the ex­clu­sion of women from so many ar­eas of Jewish stud­ies hurts the field: Not only do we in­tel­lec­tu­ally limit our­selves when we fail to hear from women schol­ars, but we also make the field of Jewish stud­ies look ridicu­lous in the eyes of our aca­demic col­leagues. Think of how the field of the New Tes­ta­ment has ben­e­fited by in­clud­ing Jewish schol­ars who bring knowl­edge of He­brew texts and a crit­i­cal voice to Chris­tian as­sump­tions about first-cen­tury Ju­daism. In sim­i­lar ways, omit­ting women’s schol­ar­ship hin­ders aca­demic progress in Jewish stud­ies.

This ex­clu­sion will also hurt the fu­ture of Jewish stud­ies. Women with an in­ter­est in en­ter­ing the field will won­der: Will I be wel­comed and men­tored by the men who dom­i­nate the se­nior lev­els of the field? And if I bring in­no­va­tive ideas and in­ter­pre­ta­tions, will they be dis­missed, or treated with re­spect? They will see many se­ri­ous, re­spected women schol­ars whose work is ad­mired by their col­leagues in ad­junct fields but too of­ten not cited, in­vited or pub­lished by men in Jewish stud­ies. If this is the state of the field, per­haps

Ev­ery woman in Jewish Stud­ies can re­count ex­am­ples of be­ing marginal­ized, pa­tron­ized and ex­cluded by male col­leagues.

we should urge women not to enter it. Af­ter all, one can study me­dieval Jewish his­tory, for in­stance, via ei­ther a Jewish stud­ies pro­gram or a me­dieval his­tory pro­gram.

The ex­tra­or­di­nary irony is that the field of Jewish stud­ies strug­gled since the early 19th cen­tury for its place at the aca­demic ta­ble. Jewish stud­ies schol­ar­ship is still too of­ten ig­nored within the aca­demic world and treated by col­leagues pre­cisely the way women are treated within Jewish stud­ies. Even as we in­sist that no com­plete un­der­stand­ing of his­tory, pol­i­tics, phi­los­o­phy, re­li­gion, lit­er­a­ture, cul­ture and ev­ery other topic is pos­si­ble with­out in­clud­ing Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence, we can­not claim to have a com­plete un­der­stand­ing within Jewish stud­ies if we ex­clude Jewish women as col­leagues and as top­ics of study. Stud­ies have not yet been pub­lished on the prob­lems faced by gay and les­bian, queer, trans and gen­der non­bi­nary schol­ars in the field, but there is good rea­son to think that both the prob­lems and the strate­gies out­lined here also have rel­e­vance for these schol­ars.

Let us be clear: Gen­der bias is not nec­es­sar­ily de­lib­er­ate but may of­ten be un­con­scious and re­quire de­lib­er­ate at­ten­tion to over­come. What is strik­ing is that many of the men who have not in­cluded women on their edi­to­rial boards or in their edited vol­umes are not right-wing, ul­tra-Or­tho­dox schol­ars who might have a de­lib­er­ate re­li­gious or po­lit­i­cal ob­jec­tion to work­ing with women col­leagues. On the con­trary, most think of them­selves as lib­eral and pro­gres­sive, and they are of­ten in­no­va­tive lead­ers in the field. Even women in po­si­tions of power can be guilty of ex­clud­ing and ig­nor­ing other women.

What to do? Look at a list of po­ten­tial speak­ers at a con­fer­ence, or con­trib­u­tors to an edited vol­ume or jour­nal, and see if there is gen­der par­ity. Speak up! De­cline an in­vi­ta­tion to par­tic­i­pate un­less there is gen­der par­ity. Keep in mind that gen­der bias is not lim­ited to men; women, too, need to be de­lib­er­ate in the in­vi­ta­tions they ex­tend and ac­cept. Pay at­ten­tion to lan­guage: When schol­ars use lan­guage of “good fit,” “stature” or “pres­tige,” these can of­ten sig­nal im­plicit bias. If you are part of an or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, push for ex­plicit cri­te­ria: Is “stature” about the num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions, the cur­rent aca­demic po­si­tion or some­thing else? Is “good fit” about match­ing re­search in­ter­ests, or is it a cover for invit­ing the good old boys? Once these cri­te­ria are on the ta­ble, it is much eas­ier to ad­vo­cate for invit­ing par­tic­u­lar women. Men­tor ju­nior women in your field and in­vite se­nior women to col­lab­o­rate on a project.

Foundations and pub­lish­ers should also stop sup­port­ing all-male con­fer­ences and pub­li­ca­tions. The Ha­sidism vol­ume, for ex­am­ple, thanks sev­eral foundations and in­sti­tutes for the im­por­tant fi­nan­cial sup­port that brought to­gether the eight men for four sum­mers of col­lab­o­ra­tive re­search; why did those foundations and in­sti­tutes not in­sist on gen­der par­ity as a con­di­tion of fund­ing, and why don’t pub­lish­ers ques­tion all­male sub­mis­sions? It is un­ten­able to claim that no qual­i­fied women were avail­able. If there is a lack of women in Jewish stud­ies, per­haps the field it­self is to blame. If male schol­ars can­not cor­rect the bias, per­haps pres­sure must come from out­side. It is time for grants to be de­nied to projects and con­fer­ences that are all or mostly male.

Con­sider the im­pli­ca­tions: By not in­clud­ing women schol­ars, you are de­lib­er­ately dis­tort­ing the state of the field, nar­row­ing the range of knowl­edge and in­ter­pre­ta­tion, and ex­clud­ing im­por­tant ar­eas of re­search and in­sight. To in­clude women means not sim­ply the presence of fe­male bod­ies, but of great minds, im­por­tant ex­pe­ri­ences and points of view that en­hance the qual­ity of schol­ar­ship. The an­swer: We are here. Lis­ten to us.

Foundations and pub­lish­ers should stop sup­port­ing all­male con­fer­ences and pub­li­ca­tions.

IS­TOCK

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