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Rabbis blast Jewish Studies scholars for attempts to rehabilitate Steven M. Cohen

More than 525 rabbis have signed a letter criticizing a recent series of scholarly conversations involving Steven M. Cohen, the sociologist who was shunned by much of the academy and Jewish world after allegations emerged three years ago that he had sexually harassed and assaulted female colleagues for decades.

“As Jewish clergy, we know that actively participating in the rehabilitation of unrepentant abusers is not value neutral, and we know that lifting up the work of unrepentant abusers is not value neutral,” reads the statement, which calls Cohen an “unrepentant perpetrator of sexual abuse.”

The letter follows a Forward article published on Tuesday that described how senior professors at Brandeis University and the Jewish Theological Seminary had been inviting colleagues to join at least four “off-the-record” conversations with Cohen about the “current state of American Jewish life” since the start of the year. The organizers described the sessions as private conversations among old friends, but several feminist scholars, including one of Cohen’s accusers and the women’s caucus of the Association of Jewish Studies, expressed outrage over the invitations, noting they had come via university emails and that people might have felt pressure to participate.

Alongside the rabbis’ statement, a similar one signed by rabbinical students was also posted on social media Thursday afternoon. Signatories include students from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Jack Wertheimer, one of the academics who spearheaded the rehabilitation efforts, teaches.

Earlier this week, Cohen declined to comment on these gatherings but said that, “In general, I have avoided all public appearances” since allegations against him became public in 2018.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, scholar in residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, said she drafted the statement after reading the Forward’s report.

“From my perspective, it is less about one person and more about the decision of other people to participate in these attempted rehabilitons of Cohen,” she said. “I hope the larger message communicated by our statement is that one person’s ideas are not more important than the pain of the people they have harmed.”

She posted the statement, which has been signed by rabbis from all Jewish denominations, on her Facebook page Thursday with a nod to Passover, which begins Saturday night. “This is not a solution, but it is a step in our journey towards liberation, ridding our lives of hurtful Hametz and embracing sacred opportunities.”

Cohen was forced out of his tenured position at Hebrew Union College in 2018 after five women came forward with allegations of sexual assault and harassment that dated back decades. He did not contest the allegations at the time, but expressed remorse and intentions to apologize to his accusers.

Keren McGinity, a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and one of the women who accused Cohen of misconduct, said this week that Cohen has “yet to apologize in any way” and that the invite-only conversations among scholars “pours salt on an open wound.”

Hannah Dreyfus is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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