Women in Jewish Studies: Conversations from the Periphery
By Susannah Heschel.
In childhood, this was my learned experience: not that I am a female, but that I am not a male. Maleness was not just about boys and men, but about a domain of life and I was to stand at its periphery. This awareness began when I was quite little – perhaps five years old – in the Orthodox synagogue services of the Jewish Theological Seminary where my father taught. It was here where the Talmud professors adopted the little boys of the community and tutored them in the Talmud. Little did I know this experience of exclusion would continue through college, graduate school, and my early years of teaching. I kept thinking, once I am a full professor, things will change. Yet even though I hold an endowed chair at an Ivy League university, I continue to experience and witness women relegated to the periphery.
During college, all my professors were men. The same was true during my graduate studies, except when I took some classes on medieval Christianity. Overt sexual behavior from male professors was not the problem; rather, it was the condescension by male fellow graduate students and the patronizing attitudes of senior scholars in Jewish Studies. Some were not hesitant to say quite forcefully that they opposed having women faculty in Jewish Studies, while others were more subtle, suggesting that it would be impossible for women to acquire the requisite knowledge of rabbinic texts since they did not attend yeshivot starting at age six. In either case, they wanted to preserve the realm of Jewish Studies as male, with women on the periphery.
And why does it matter that we are on the periphery? It’s about the conversations we are excluded from: the guys in the department getting together for meals, the male grad students and their wives invited to spend Shabbat at the home of male advisors, the men hanging out over lunch or drinks or readings texts together or discussing their work. In short, they are keeping scholarship a manly enterprise. What hidden nuances are present in the field, what are the implicit negations of women’s intellect and the value of our insights? Has the atmosphere changed? Yes, in some places, although not everywhere.
It’s also about the conversations that don’t happen: just imagine what it was like trying to introduce a feminist analysis to that community. When I suggested during a graduate school seminar a feminist interpretation of a vivid, gendered metaphor in a theological book, or argued for the significance of Gluckl’s description of her dying husband’s refusal to embrace her because she had not gone to the mikveh, or pointed out the implications for women of male sexual fantasies in kabbalistic literature – all were deemed irrelevant by male professors and male fellow students. No conversation. Nonetheless, feminist theory was crucial for my analysis of nineteenth-century male Jewish scholars trying to enter the academic world that was under Christian hegemony.
And it’s about the conversations where we are forced to stay silent: when I finished my doctorate, there were very few women professors in Jewish Studies, and I found them utterly unsupportive. One of them, who claimed to be a feminist, told me privately that she had spent her whole career trying to be a “good girl” to win acceptance from the men and that I should not rock the boat – in this case, by my suggestion that Abraham Geiger was a more creative scholar than Heinrich Graetz. Another time, while walking with a male colleague, we bumped into a senior professor from a major university. I told him how much I admired a recent publication of his. Rather than engaging with me, he turned to the male colleague and discussed that publication – and at one point, turned back to me and said, “you wouldn’t understand this.” I wonder if the male colleague at my current university who won’t speak to me makes the same stupid assumption – an assumption that is, of course, his wish for his own superiority by fantasizing about my inferiority.
Then there are the manthologies. Some are widely assigned in our teaching: Back to the Sources! Cultures of the Jews! Orientalism and the Jews! Hasidism! Nothing there on women, gender, or feminist interpretation; the editors of major anthologies are men. For instance, the distinguished Cambridge History of Judaism series has eight volumes, published between 1984 and 2018, with ten editors, all men. Volume Two has 18 articles, one by a woman; Volume Four has 40 articles, four by women; Volume Six has 31 articles, six by women. This sends a familiar signal: Jewish Studies is a male domain and women scholars remain on the periphery. How can the publisher permit this?
I like reading acknowledgments in books and counting the number of women colleagues who are thanked; too often, too few or none at all. And then there are the footnotes. Time and again when I read books and articles written by men who are senior to me, my work is not cited, even when it is obviously relevant (e.g., modern Jewish understandings of Jesus) and supports the point being made (e.g., Jewish critique of Christianity). When the man is of my generation or younger, I am nearly always cited. Perhaps that should be reason for some optimism: are things beginning to change?
To move women off the edges and into the conversations ought to be a collective effort.
When invited, I will not give a paper when I am the only woman on the conference program, or one of a small minority of women included in an edited volume. I suggest the names of women colleagues, especially younger ones, as contributors who might be invited as conference speakers or authors in collected volumes. I make sure to ask questions and encourage other women attending lectures to do so. At seminars around a table, I make sure that I and other women take seats up front, and I interject in a discussion if a woman’s question is not being treated with respect. At conferences, I invite younger female colleagues and graduate students to have meals and coffee, to help them feel integrated into the community of scholars.
Yet the exclusion often continues, as if we are still back in the Orthodox synagogue of my childhood, with women at the periphery, watching the male domain. What should we do when the guys gather for drinks and discussion at the end of the day and the two or three women speakers are not included? Or when senior male colleagues stand up and walk out when a feminist speaker walks to the podium to give her paper? Or when the women scholars are placed in a separate section of the conference to speak on “gender” and the male scholars skip that session? Are we excluded because we have fresh, new ideas that might challenge them and demand a new approach? Can they really be so intimidated by us? How sad for them, living in a lost world, for the world of scholarship is no longer male, and women are no longer on the periphery. If Jewish Studies wants to be of the university and not simply at the university, its ethos has to change.
Yes, it is about the conversation. Time to get it going!
Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor and Chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus; The Aryan Jesus: Protestant Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany; and Jüdischer Islam: Der Islam und Deutsch-Jüdische Selbstbestimmung.