- Peskowitz and L. Levitt,Judaism Since Gender (Routledge, New York: 1997) pp. 229.
When I was younger, I did not know. I thought that everyone fit neatly into the neutral category. “He” meant women and men, and “mankind” included all of humanity. Now, when I read my earlier work or when I read the books of our late and revered teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, I know what was meant, but I do not hear it the same way.
The feminist movement sharpened my ears and made it clear that “he” was a masculine, not an inclusive, pronoun. Feminist method also taught me that everyone, including myself, writes from within an autobiographical context. I am white, male, middle class, middle-aged, intellectual, Jewish, and heterosexual. I can really only speak for myself and, perhaps, for those like me. If I want to speak to others, I need to be much more consciously inclusive. Further, if I claim to speak for others, I need to be very careful that I know what I am talking about. Further, I need to be very cautious not to appropriate their voices. Laura Levitt was among the first to help me learn these lessons.
Now, Laura Levitt has, together with Miriam Peskowitz, published a book of essays on feminism as a method of reading and writing Jewish scholarship. Judaism Since Gender began with an excellent essay by Miriam Peskowitz and a series of questions by both editors which were sent to the contributors. Some wrote short responses and others more extended studies. The result is a series of essays which deal with feminism as a method, especially those by Miriam Peskowitz, Beth Wenger, Ellen Umansky, Riv-Ellen Prell, Sara Horowitz, and Laura Levitt. This grouping also includes a response by Rebecca Alpert which critiques the whole enterprise. (Is it an accident that this counter-essay is exactly in the middle of the book?)
The result also includes a series of essays which are feminist praxis, that is, they examine Jewish subjects using feminist methodology: Jesus (Susannah Heschel), women survivors of the shoah (Sara Horowitz), Maimonides (Susan Shapiro), New Testament studies (Amy-Jill Levine), rabbinic Judaism (Judith Baskin), ultraorthodox women (Tamar El Or), and sephardi women (Joëlle Bahloul). There are also two essays which use feminist methodology on subjects which are not directly concerned with role and place of women: Zionism (Laurence Silberstein) and Wissenschaft des Judentums (Robert Baird).
What, then, is feminist method as I understand it? It begins with the recognition that traditional scholarship organizes knowledge in ways that claim to be “objective” but which, upon closer analysis of language and analytic categories, reveal assumptions which privilege the perspectives of men, of the middle class, of heterosexuals, of the enlightenment as an ideology, and so on (3, 18-19). This does not happen in one sweeping attack but, like a backstitch, advances by looping backward. Thus, I began my own discovery of feminist method by examining so-called neutral pronouns. That led to a consideration of the tendency toward bipolar analysis, itself only one way of seeing the world, which characterizes certain modes of thinking practiced by men for many centuries. That, in turn, led to an analysis of the tendency to value universalization and resist particularization, again a praxis that is not absolutely good but a product of its own cultural environment. It also led me to see clearly the tendency to favor history over theology as a mode of discourse. The more I have traveled this path, the more I have come to see clearly the assumptions of language and culture inherent in all writing and reading.
One of the best tactics for exploring this critical view of the way one reads and writes is to ask the questions, where are the women’s voices in this passage? What are the ignored and the suppressed voices in this incident? In the beginning, I was tempted to “add women and stir,” that is, to talk about “women and …,” or “women in …,” or to add on a section dealing with women to the previously existing analysis or discussion. This “add women and stir” approach, popular as it was a decade ago, nonetheless reflects the basic assumption that something other than women is “normal” and women need to be “added.” This is hardly a responsible scholarly approach, nor is it ethically proper (18-22).
If I cannot simply “add women and stir,” what, then, constitutes the method of feminist scholarship? There are several ingredients. First, each one of us must grow to recognize that all scholarship, reading and writing, takes place in an autobiographical context. Everyone reads with, and writes with, assumptions; and each one of us must be honest about the assumptions of others and of oneself (215).
Second, each one of us must locate and name the assumptions in the reading and writing of others and of oneself. We must recognized the masculinist or feminist thrust of our language and analytic categories (23, 114, 153). To speak of “engendering” Judaism or Jewish studies, for instance, already presupposes that there is an existing normative gender — male (30). Each one of us must also locate and name those places where other assumptions are made: that the male pronoun denotes an area where gender and class do not count (79), that the enlightenment with its attendant assimilation was good and valuable because it would correct the wrong assumptions about Judaism made by non-Jews (86), that there are a set of “classic” texts that are the canon of Jewish civilization, that Hebrew is “better” than Yiddish (40-48), etc.
Third, each one of us must juxtapose new and old knowledges, setting the results of feminist scholarship next to the earlier studies. Whether the subject is women and men, or Jews and Jewishness, or Christianity, or the enlightenment, there is more than one way to construe the data on these subjects and more than one set of assumptions that motivates scholarship on these topics. Feminist method is committed to “problematizing” the older commitments and displaying the new commitments and insights (3). It is dedicated to asking, how did the old knowledge come to be knowledge in the first place? What is the story being told, who is telling it, and who benefits from the way it is told? (23-24).
Finally, feminist method is determined to ask, are we conscious of what we are doing? Have we fully explored the unstated assumptions, even in our own work? Have we been sensitive to the silenced voices, to the gaps in the various types of texts we study? Have we listened to what has not been said? And, have we responded to the inarticulated communication inherent in all presentation? (200-12). My own work tries, sometimes with greater or lesser degress of success, to embody this methodology.
Much of feminist method, it seems to me, derives from the work of Foucault whose presence hovers in this book. He was among the first to explore the relationship between power and knowledge. Knowledge is arranged by those who order it, and they have vested interests even where those interests are not evil. Whose interest is represented in this work of art? in this history? in this canon? in this law? Whose interest is served by this language? by these images and metaphors? These are the questions that have been developed quickly and effectively by feminism in relationship to women but which also have relevance for all “colonial” thinking which tries to imposed assumptions of one class or culture on others.
Miriam Peskowitz’s introductory essay, “Engendering Jewish Religious History” and Sara Horowitz’s essay, “Mengele, the Gynecologist, and Other Stories of Women’s Survival,” are very fine essays. The first sets forth the problematic of feminist method very clearly and the second embodies it with great sensitivity. Among the other fine essays in this book, everyone will have a favorite essay; my own is Susannah Heschel’s “Jesus as Theological Transvestite” (188-99). Drawing on queer theory, Heschel points out that heterosexuals are disoriented and uncomfortable with the transvestite, a person who dresses like the opposite sex. The transvestite disrupts the binary categories of male-female; he/she destabilizes the usual gender signs within which the rest of humanity lives. The transvestite is a “third category,” one that does not fit the binary others.
Without being disrespectful in the least, Heschel goes on to point out that Jesus is both fully a Jew and also the first Christian. He is, thus, both and yet neither. He bridges two worlds and, as such, disrupts and destabilizes the firm boundaries that divide Jews and Christians, Judaism and Christianity. As Heschel so aptly puts it, “Jews dress him [Jesus] as a rabbi and Christians dress him as a Christian” (192). I suppose I had always known this but it was only with the benefit of a feminist use of queer theory that I was able to see it so clearly and also to account for the disquiet which I and many others feel when we deal with the person of Jesus.
This model of understanding Jesus illuminates several other scholarly attitudes and postures. It accounts for Christian scholars who gladly acknowledge Jesus’ Jewishness but vilify the Judaism of which he was a part, specifically Pharisaic Judaism and rabbinic Law. Such a stance allows the reader-writer to affirm Jesus’ Jewishness and yet see him as one who “transcended” or “purified” the tradition of which he was a part, thus rendering it — and the Christianity to which such reader-writers adhere — “better.” It also helps us understand the fear Jews have of Jesus for, if a good Jew can become a Christian, so could any Jew. And, the fear Christians have of Jews for, if a good Christian can “slide into the morass of Jewishness,” so can any Christian. Finally, this analysis also accounts for the deep ambivalence in both Jewish and Christian circles toward Jewish scholars who write on Jesus. For the former, such a Jew is somehow disloyal; for the latter, such a person is a trespasser. This is not unlike the man who writes about women, or the woman who writes about men. The “very gaze of the scholarly eye” is destabilized.
Judaism Since Gender is a book that should be used in all graduate courses. It orients even as it disorients, and that is part of the work of all true scholarship.
This appeared in Nashim, 2:173-77.