The Future of Jewish Feminist Scholarship
Association for Jewish Studies 2004
by Danya Ruttenberg

Copyright Danya Ruttenberg 2004. Reproduction without permission of the author is strictly prohibited.

I’m going to talk a bit about what I see from my perspective as a Third-Wave feminist, as a rabbinical student, and as someone whose work is, for the most part, outside of academia. I’ll start with a couple of directions that strike me as still ripe for exploration, and then I’ll speak a little bit about some other issues inside and outside the academy.

One emerging trend I see is an increase in rigorous application of some of the more radical recent gender theory to Jewish studies. The work of folks like Judith Butler, Leslie Feinberg and Anne Fausto-Sterling suggests that we can not only study the roles of Jewish women and men but actively seek ways to interrogate those categories and, ultimately, to unseat or at least resist them.

Some Jewish feminist thinkers have been addressing these issues—Daniel Boyarin, Sarra Lev and, it seems, Lori Lefkowitz among others—but I think there’s much more room yet to play, and ways that cross-fertilization between gender theory and Jewish studies may yet surprise us. For example, one rabbinical student I know suggests that one’s religious gender might be “Jewish butch” or “Jewish femme” based on which mitzvot provide fundamental spiritual gratification. The notion of “Jewish butch” arose in a somewhat playful way, but to articulate these religious orientations as gender categories in and of themselves, entirely distinct from one’s gender identity in other respects opens up new space in which to envision within the self a multiplicity of gender.

In some ways, the absurdity of this religious binary (butch/femme) points to the arbitrary nature of these categories in the first place. At the same time, it opens up some room for play, permission to ask our questions from a new perspective. Just as the rise in transgender visibility has caused feminists in the larger conversation to have to think through and articulate anew what “women’s space” is, so too could these issues have a dramatic impact on our reading of Judaism. If we read gender as less fixed and more constructed, more fluid, who would be exempt from positive time-bound mitzvot, and why? Would it change how we understand the purpose of hilchot niddah, the laws pertaining to menstruants? I’m not sure I have the answer, but I do believe that focusing feminist work on non-binary understandings of gender could at the very least force us to understand what we believe and do and why in a more sophisticated light, and could, potentially, provide the tools to transform our culture so that each of us gets to be a person first and a gender second.

Another tendency I’ve been seeing increasingly is the reclaiming, on feminist terms, of parts of tradition that had been initially discarded as a necessary part of the feminist process. I see this impulse in many aspects of Third Wave feminism in general—the recent creation of feminist knitting circles or feminist burlesque, for example. This reclaiming may be even more pertinent to those of us engaged in Jewish Studies, as our tradition gains much strength from the assumption that a text may simultaneously have problematic meanings and/or implications AND also rich spiritual depth. What concepts in Judaism and Jewish tradition that, though problematic in historical usage, contain the potential for great human and spiritual value? What devices have we, over the last several generations of feminist scholarship, developed to invert and recontextualize them?

Those are some theoretical thoughts. In terms of practical, real-life politics, there’s also a lot going on. I see an increase in acknowledging how much privilege and power some of us do have as Jewish feminists. This, in turn, enables us to welcome and connect with the explosion of voices from feminist Jews who are working-class and poor, Sephardi and Mizrachi, Jews of color, or from one of the many other points of the Jewish sociocultural map, and it creates opportunities for this work to illuminate and affect a conversation that’s already happening. And, as a recent conversation with an Italian Jewish friend who is often asked if he is Sephardi or Ashkenazi (the answer, of course, is that he’s Italian, with traditions from neither Spain or Germany) reminded me that these categories themselves are hardly absolute and perhaps worthy of interrogation.

In terms of the relationship between activism and scholarship—much, I believe, hangs, on the emergence of community across generations and disciplines. I’ve found that, while there are some institutions that might theoretically fund and create space for young Jewish feminist thinkers, access into the high echelons of institutional life– academic departments, in the media, at research institutions, at nonprofits and in a host of other venues—is still limited. As sociologist Tobin Belzer’s research has shown, Gen Xers who are actively engaged and seeking ways to engage in the Jewish meet much resistance, often from the structures and institutions that claim to be most concerned about the future of Jewish life and Jewish scholarship.

This generational disconnect—which persists despite the great and overwhelming generosity of many, many individuals—hurts our whole community. Many before me have worked and fought and sweated for basic access to basic resources in academia, in the pulpit, in the nonprofit sector, in the media. Still, feminists of my generation all too often find themselves expending significant time and energy retracing steps that have already been taken. In some ways, it’s not surprising—our country has swung way to the Right in recent years, and we’ve all been hit by it. Everyone, it seems, is fighting for pieces of a smaller pie, and it’s tempting not only across generations, but amongst colleagues to fall into a scarcity mindset. But it’s more important now than ever for all of us to choose an ethic of generosity—there is a lot at stake now, and this will be only more so the case as the next four years unfold. And yet, while we have to be vigilant during these dark times to preserve and maintain the gains that have already been achieved, we can’t afford to expend all of our energy on basic defense. Rather, we must continue to push the envelope further, to open new questions and areas of discourse together.

We must, as we acquire positions of privilege, access and power within academia and the Jewish world, find ways to share that power—by mentoring younger Jewish thinkers and activists, legitimating their work in our fields, and by helping them get access to resources and opportunities. Of course, every generation must find its own way to some degree. My greatest fear, though, for the future of gender studies, and Jewish gender studies in particular, is that a lack of mentoring and institutional support will force young feminists to expend important time and energy attempting to reinvent wheels rather than, simply, doing their work. Cross-generational connections are even more vital for those in institutions in which feminist and queer work and perspectives are still not always welcome with open arms, and in which much institutional sexism, homophobia and gender-discrimination lingers on. I’d love to see more formal and informal networking and idea-sharing happening among scholars and thinkers on a local and regional level, and concerted efforts by those of us who have some privilege and power to invite emerging voices into these conversations.

In terms of the long-range future of Jewish gender studies, I agree with Chava that ideally, the discipline itself will simply make itself obsolete, that feminist questions and theory will be so well-integrated into life in the rest of the academy that there will be no need for a separate space in which to discuss them. And yet, as long as we live in a world that, Jewishly and more generally—does not reflect our feminist ideals, we desperately need this common space, both as thinkers—to understand how these issues play out in our constantly-changing world, and to envision alternatives—and as activists, to mobilize and create change. Without doubt, the role of Jewish gender studies as a discrete entity will continue to change, and it will hopefully continue to inform work across Jewish studies. But we have not yet evolved, I believe, out of the need to have a place—a common room, of sorts—in which to address the commonalities and differences of Jewish feminist work across disciplines, and departments, and to cross-fertilize, and to address questions that may be difficult to delineate neatly as a part of another department. How we define Jewish gender studies may shift and change along with Jewish intellectual life and American political life, but it’s important to continue to insist that we do define it, somehow. This, of course, does not mean that we shouldn’t resist the temptation to ghettoize, to rest comfortably only in Jewish feminist conversations or even just in the conversations within Jewish Studies—rather, we should use the common space of Jewish gender studies as a launching pad from which we can go forth into broader conversations. Our historians and our sociologists are so often in Jewish Studies programs rather than basing themselves in History or Sociology. Latina or South Asian studies are often regarded as sexy and multicultural in a way that Jewish Studies often is not. How can we share the value of what we do with others, and how can we engage in more external conversations that can refuel and reinvigorate what we do over here?

There are a lot of exciting possibilities for us and a lot of new and important directions in which we can head. Of course, change is always a little bit scary, but through the process of critical investigation and reflective self-awareness, we have the potential to secure and expand the future of Jewish gender studies not only among those already for those of us already in this conversation, but for those just emerging into it. What other choice do we have, really?

Copyright Danya Ruttenberg 2004

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