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Yes, exclusion of women in Jewish Studies is still a problem

To The Editor:

The Forward recently published an article by Marcin Wodzinski that was framed as a response to an article we wrote for the Forward more than a year ago about women’s underrepresentation in our field of Jewish Studies. Our original article expressed profound concern that a new 850-page history of Hasidism had no women among its eight editors. Wodzinski, one of those eight editors, argued in his response that gender discrimination was less of a problem in Jewish Studies than its dominance by Ashkenazi Jews from English-speaking countries.

We do not entirely disagree with his critique of Jewish Studies; as we all know, discrimination rarely targets just one group or category. That is why it is important to recognize the basic principle that biases co-exist and that we cannot target one without recognizing the underlying structures that affect multiple identities – for example, scholars who are female and not Ashkenazi or not Jewish.

Recognizing and analyzing the complexity of multiple categories of identity is the method called “intersectionality.” We, too, are concerned about the exclusion of non-Jews, for example, and worry about making Jewish Studies relevant for the academy at large.

In addition, Wodzinski writes about our gender critique of the volume, “Are they really aiming at combating exclusion of women or maybe at some other goals?” This question has a disturbing tenor. What other goals is he suggesting? Our critique is quite clear, and our stated goals are equally obvious: We are seeking greater inclusion.

Our concern is for the larger field of Jewish Studies, and we saw the volume as Hasidism as merely one example from prominent and well-regarded scholars. We were concerned that although there are many women who are competent scholars of Hasidism, only one was asked to work on this important volume (she later withdrew for personal reasons).

In addition, we noted that the book falsely implies women had little to do with the history of Hasidism, and that the authors pay no attention to the construction of gender in the texts of the Hasidic movement, one of the most gender- and sexuality-obsessed religious movements of Judaism.

The volume ignores the women who help finance the Hasidic movement, either with cash, property or their own labor. Changes in women’s religious practice, the role of their piety, differences in Hasidic marriages and relations between husbands and wives, interactions between women and the rebbes they consult, even the tremendous Hasidic concern with sexuality – there are so many gender-related topics central to Hasidism that were ignored by the volume’s authors with their dismissive suggestions that women played only supporting roles in Hasidism, a claim that is simply not true.

We argued that these gaps were reflective of a disturbing trend in the field of Jewish Studies: collective work and anthologies that include few women as authors and little attention to gender.

Our concerns are not limited to gender, but about the kinds of questions posed by the field of Jewish Studies, the methods we employ, and overcoming a parochial atmosphere. Jewish Studies should not simply be located at a university, but partake fully in its modes of inquiry, debates and collegial conversations.

Noting one omission does not need to exclude others; in fact, it gestures toward them. To take one example, the traditional religious study of Jewish texts was long a province of Jewish men. While that is gradually changing as opportunities for women and non-Jews are opening, its exclusionary impact on the field has been significant. Wodzinski seems to have missed this important point about the way discrimination often works against more than one group at a time.

The weaknesses in the volume about Hasidism prove our point: we believe a group of authors from diverse backgrounds, ages, genders and theoretical training would have been better able to present the multifaceted nature of a religious movement that spans more than 200 years, appeals to a vast range of people, and preserves its vitality despite radical societal transformations. Hasidism has been one of the most important and influential movements within Jewish history. Multiple perspectives and disciplinary training is precisely what gives academic analyses their depth and vitality; that is the goal we see as crucial.

Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. Sarah Imhoff is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Jewish Studies at Indiana University.

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