Boxing in Religion: Limiting Definitions and Exclusion
By Cia Sautter.
I read the relatively recent posts in the Feminist Studies in Religion blog’s Manthologies series on the lack of women scholars contributing to Jewish Studies anthologies. It is true that men hold a majority of posts in the field, and there are a lot of “manthologies” on Jewish history, culture, and textual studies. What I noticed though is that the authors of the posts were, mainly, in very traditional positions. As a creative, interdisciplinary scholar, I found the heart of the issue is strong boundaries placed on what constitutes Jewish and Religious scholarship. Until there is a wider, more inclusive scope of understanding of Religious and Jewish Studies, this issue will remain.
Okay, I’m odd. I am both a scholar and performer, and I know most like me end up in a theatre department, but my doctorate is in Religion. I prepared myself for the academic market by being a very competent generalist with a specialization in History of Religions, and research focus on performance studies. This allowed me to publish work dealing with ethnographic study of Judaism, and application of embodiment theory to how Jewish history is rendered. But writing time is a luxury as contingent faculty. I have been able to publish two monographs, but attaining a more permanent position has proven elusive. As one mentor told me, while interdisciplinary research may be respected, those who hire often exclude the interdisciplinary scholar. This is not specifically a gendered issue, but another possible hiring barrier for women who are interdisciplinary scholars.
Strong disciplinary boundaries set a “box” for Jewish Studies, and often center on textually based study of the Bible or Rabbinic Literature. Or there may be historical framing, such as Late Antiquities. For example, one section of a regional American Academy of Religion meeting even refused Jewish historical study for a “World Religions” unit, assuming Bible and Late Antiquities units were sufficient. In a more complex example, the Jewish Studies program at one University informed me that while their program included scholarship in Bible and Late Antiquities, other Jewish scholars at the school did not consider their work as Religious Studies. Kecia Ali’s @theTable blog post mentions how framing problems occur in Islamic Studies, where boundaries are set for journals, conferences, and publications, so the issue is not unique to Jewish Studies or hiring practices.
The result of such strict boundaries may be that a field becomes irrelevant as categories of study are removed from the realities of living in a world that integrates. For me, strong disciplinary boxes have limited employment opportunities, and meant that I focus so much on earning an income that I have had limited time and funds to attend conferences and network with those who might be interested in publishing my work.
Some of the most innovative and helpful Jewish studies I’ve seen come from those who do not have a textual focus, including the performance studies of Cantor Tamar Havilio and dance history work of Judith Brin Ingber. But frequently I read articles evaluating Jewish women of the past based on their ability to study texts. I encountered this attitude at a conference as a young scholar, where a Talmud specialist dismissed research on Jewish women’s performance as fluff. Yet she never looked at the integration of history, biblical and Talmudic study accomplished by the other Jewish women at the conference. While this may seem an isolated incident, I find it a still rampant attitude that affects learning. Students in a class I teach on Women and Religion often declare Judaism to be the most hateful of all religions. The reason for this is that their textbook chapter on Jewish women looks not at what they have contributed to the religion as strongly as portraying Jewish women of the past as helpless victims; such scholarship lacks a more integrated view of history. Carol Meyers wrote about this issue in her 2014 essay “Was Ancient Israel a Patriarchal Society.” Her earlier 1991 article on biblical women’s Drum-Dance-Song Ensemble integrated archaeological, ethnographic, and historical information, prompting much new scholarship on the significance of women’s leadership in Ancient Israel.
Scholarship from men or women that creates historical victims invalidates consideration of interdisciplinary studies of religion and culture, including the arts. When anthologies are created on Jewish or Religious history these methodologies may be considered tangential. As Susannah Heschel pointed out, the issue is about who is excluded. I find this includes interdisciplinary scholars, especially if they are women. I have seen many “annthologies”–women only anthologies–in dance scholarship and feminist studies, and they tend to be more interdisciplinary. But they also tend to receive less academic attention and celebrity.
Given the realities of the academic job market, the solution might be for those in positions of power to seek out independent and interdisciplinary women scholars from a broad range of methodologies for anthologies. Open calls through networks that reach independent and contingent scholars have allowed me to publish some articles, but definitely more are needed. It is the responsibility of those in privileged academic positions–men and women–to ensure that this occurs, and that the “boxes” open up to a wider range of study.
Cia Sautter received her doctorate from the Graduate Theological Union, and is a scholar and performer. Her research and writing examines the intersection of the arts, religion, and values. Whether dancing or acting, her performances often address issues of religion and culture. An innovative and enthusiastic instructor currently teaching for The College of St. Scholastica, she has taught a variety of classes at college, universities, and graduate schools on History of Religions and multi-faith perspectives, as well as Spirituality and the Arts. Her publications include The Performance of Religion: Seeing the Sacred in the Theatre and The Miriam Tradition.