Feminist Perspectives on Jewish Studies

Considering the role of gender in producing knowledge about Judaism.

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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.