Feminist Perspectives on Jewish Studies

Considering the role of gender in producing knowledge about Judaism.

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Reprinted with the permission of Yale University Press from Feminist Perspectives on Jewish Studies.

Gender Hierarchies

Feminist scholarship in Jewish studies builds on and contributes to feminist knowledge in the mainstream disciplines. 

The authors [discussed] in this [article] begin with the basic assumption that gender implies a hierarchy of values in which males have more power, their activities are seen as more important, and their traits are privileged. These differences are socially constructed rather than biologically determined. The authors show that although gender arrangements in Jewish life are rooted in classical sources, they are also shaped by the structures and culture of the larger societies in which Jews live.

Not All Patriarchies Are Equal

By specifying how Jewish patriarchy in its various incarnations is linked to the gender hierarchies of the surrounding cultures, they sometimes conclude that Jewish culture is actually less patriarchal than is typically assumed. This assertion is particularly important in light of Christian feminist arguments that the ancient Hebrews are responsible for the death of the Goddess and therefore for the origin of patriarchy.

For example, [Tikva] Frymer‑Kensky writes that "one of the significant results of feminist studies of the Bible has been the realization that the biblical text itself, read with nonpatriarchal eyes, is much less injurious to women than the traditional readings of Western civilization." Compared to the texts of other cultures in the ancient world, such as Assyria, the Bible was clearly not the worst perpetrator of patriarchy.

In chapter 3, [Judith] Hauptman similarly challenges the feminist notion that the Mishnah is a thoroughly androcentric [that is, male-centered] document. In fact, she claims, the framers of the Mishnah attempted to "abandon the Torah's extreme androcentrism and view women as members of the Jewish community who have the capacity to assume religious responsibilities but who function at a lower level of religious obligation than men."

woman studying a bookDespite their recognition of the patriarchal nature of these texts, Frymer‑Kensky and Hauptman conclude that the texts must be interpreted with an awareness of the factors that shaped them: the religious texts of surrounding cultures, the patriarchal nature of other major historical civilizations at that time, and the intentions of the framers of the texts, which were often to advance women's rights.

In contrast, [Judith] Plaskow's chapter emphasizes that the Torah is "itself in bondage to patriarchy," and argues that the "feminist relation to the Torah begins in suspicion, critique, and the refusal to assign revelatory status to the establishment and reinforcement of patriarchy."

The Question of Objectivity

By its very being, feminist scholarship challenges the idea of objectivity in scholarship. Feminist scholars in all disciplines have demonstrated that although mainstream scholarship has purported to study basic human experiences and to reflect on universal texts, their definition of what is worthy of attention has reflected the standpoint of the male producers of this knowledge. Claims of objectivity and universality serve to reinforce the status quo and provide excuses for ignoring the experiences of groups of people who thereby are defined as marginal (such as people of color and white women) and for not incorporating their writings into literary canons.

The authors in Feminist Perspectives on Jewish Studies similarly criticize the false claims of objectivity in their own disciplines by showing that putative scholarship about Jews was actually focused on male Jews. Uncovering this androcentrism led to a questioning of how knowledge was produced‑‑a concern with research methodology that has also been central in feminist discourse for the past fifteen years. Scholars who seek to illuminate women's lives have questioned whether the traditional methods in the disciplines, those that produced conventional scholarship, would suffice to create a new knowledge of women's lives and shape the development of new paradigms.

Interdisciplinary Dialogue

A prominent methodological and theoretical innovation of feminist scholarship is its interdisciplinary nature: "By asking questions in terms of women (and not in terms of a particular framework such as psychology or history, for example) feminists moved beyond some of the limitations which are imposed by 'compartmentalization' " (Dale Spender, Men's Studies Modified).

To discover the realities of Jewish women's lives, about which there are few historical records and limited contemporary studies, the authors in this volume combine insights that emerge from such disciplinary approaches as archaeology, history, political science, literary theory, sociology, anthropology, psychoanalytic theory, and cultural studies. Questions raised by examining gender in any one study inevitably spill over into Jewish studies as a whole. By working across disciplines, feminist students of Jewish life can better understand the complex linkages between gender and Judaism.

Since the classic texts provide only a sketchy portrait of women's lives, feminist scholars engaged in the study of the Bible, rabbinics, Jewish theology, and history must work to uncover hints about women's experiences that may be embedded in unusual sources, such as "narratives, prophecies, or legal texts focused on other matters" [Plaskow]. The understanding of ancient texts can be supplemented by evidence from archaeological discoveries, the writings of nonrabbinic groups, and any literature by women dealing with religious themes.

Where no sources can be found, the tradition supplies its own innovative methodology: the creation of midrash (a reinterpretation of Scripture). Plaskow writes that we can draw upon midrash "received" by contemporary women to help us fill in the gaps, and Naomi Sokoloff suggests that feminist literary studies can study "how women [writers] have sought out precursors by conjuring foremothers and rewriting biblical tales."

The Social Construction of Meaning

Jewish feminist scholars in the humanities have incorporated postmodern understandings of the dynamics of "reading" and interpretation in order to suggest new methodological approaches in their disciplines. As Sonya Michel describes in her chapter on film studies, contemporary scholarship suggests that the meaning of texts does not simply reside within the texts themselves but rather is created through the interaction of texts with their readers (or audiences, in the case of films).

Therefore, she, along with the authors of the chapters on Hebrew literature, American Jewish literature, Bible, and theology, suggests that the interpretation of Jewish cultural products and the analysis of their effect on the shaping of ethnic‑religious identities cannot be based simply on close textual analysis. Rather, scholars must take into account how the various factors of the social location of audiences-‑both Jewish and Gentile‑-shape their reading and interpretation of any cultural product.

New Modes of Scholarship

In history, anthropology, and sociology, the authors suggest that beginning with women's experiences and focusing on gender as a major analytic category will involve creating new methodologies or refocusing established ones. Techniques of social history that explore the everyday lives of ordinary individuals increase our understanding of Jewish women's lives over time and in various social classes.

As Paula Hyman writes, one can discover new sources by asking new questions of old material, or by recognizing as historically significant experiences that were previously "not seen," even when they were documented. Oral histories, in‑depth interviewing, and ethnographic methods are techniques that often give voice to those who have not been heard, and capture the experiences of those who have not been seen as worthy of attention.

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Shelly Tenenbaum

Dr. Shelly Tenenbaum is Associate Professor of Sociology at Clark University.

Dr. Lynn Davidman

Dr. Lynn Davidman is Professor of Judaic Studies and American Civilization at Brown University.