In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gender and Modern Jewish Thought

  • Introduction
  • Expanding the Canon

Jewish Studies Gender and Modern Jewish Thought
by
Andrea Dara Cooper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0204

Introduction

Modern Jewish thought has been largely a masculine discursive space in both its historical construction and its focus, which is reflected in the makeup of its accepted canon. Certain figures are generally included in edited collections and syllabi of modern Jewish thought and philosophy. The field’s medieval and early modern antecedents include 12th-century scholar Moses Maimonides and 17th-century thinker Baruch Spinoza. The 18th-century German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn is generally viewed as the “father” of the field. Beginning with the 19th- and 20th-century German philosopher Hermann Cohen, prominent 20th-century figures include the following: German philosophers Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber; French-Lithuanian thinker Emmanuel Levinas; American thinkers Mordecai Kaplan, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and Abraham Joshua Heschel; and post-Holocaust philosophers and theologians Emil Fackenheim, Richard Rubenstein, and Eliezer Berkovits. Other notable figures include founding Reform rabbi Abraham Geiger, Orthodox rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch and Abraham Isaac Kook, political philosopher Leo Strauss, Israeli Orthodox thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and American rabbi and philosopher Eugene Borowitz. Sometimes the political philosopher Hannah Arendt and feminist theologians such as Judith Plaskow are included, but the entirety of the canon is often male-dominated. Form tends to mirror content in the formation and maintenance of such canons. In these cases, male-dominated discourse, drawn from a network of male thinkers who operate in relation to one another, favors approaches that foreground and privilege the masculine. While this textual corpus has remained largely immune to critiques informed by gender and feminist analysis, important and groundbreaking contributions to the fields of gender and Jewish philosophy have been made. It is not simply a matter of adding women-identified and nonbinary voices to the canon (although any heterogeneity is preferable to none), but of attending to critiques informed by gender and feminist analysis in order to uncover viewpoints and frameworks that have been overlooked. This article includes sources that attend to this aim in a variety of ways and with differing methodologies: texts by women-identified writers and texts about women and gender (in many cases overlapping), texts that critically analyze the construction and preservation of sex and gender hierarchies, texts that uncover philosophical omissions by male-identified thinkers, and texts that philosophically reflect upon experiences and lived realities that have been largely neglected, including embodiment, emotion, affect, vulnerability, maternity, and a feminist ethics of care, among others. These interventions consider, among other foundational questions: Who is included or excluded from the canonical framework? What can contemporary theories of gender teach us about the use of gendered terms in Judaism? In what ways can feminist criticism identify the masculinist assumptions of texts and the hierarchical construction of masculinity and femininity? How does the historical construction of the field reflect exclusive social and political norms? These questions and demands can extend to the ways that we canonically (re)construct the field of modern Jewish thought. This article addresses developments and interventions in critical gender analysis in relation to modern Jewish thought, tracking these contributions in secondary literature to increase their visibility, with an eye to expanding the scope and inclusiveness of the canon in the future.

General Overviews of Modern Jewish Thought

Modern Jewish thought emerges in response to the Jewish encounter with modernity. To begin, it will be helpful to get a sense of the some of the questions animating the field. Among other framing questions, modern Jewish thinkers consider: How should sacred texts be studied and interpreted, and what grants them authority? How should theology be understood and constructed from a Jewish perspective? What is the role of the individual in relation to the community and the nation-state? Is philosophy inherently compatible with Judaism? A great deal was at stake socially and politically in this last question, which allowed those such as Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) thinker Moses Mendelssohn to make a case for the universality of Jewish ideas and to aim for the full inclusion of Jews in the civic life of the wider German society. Addressing these kinds of questions gives rise to major interrelated themes: revelation and redemption, authority and tradition, pluralism and inclusion, ethics and alterity, suffering and evil. Some of the following overviews refer almost exclusively to male thinkers and do not engage with gender analysis, such as Greenberg 2011, Levenson 2006, Morgan 1992, and Samuelson 1989 (all cited under Single-Authored Works). Batnitzky 2011 (cited under Single-Authored Works) briefly mentions the lack of attention to women and gender in the book’s male-dominated representation of the canon, while Katz 2014 (cited under Single-Authored Works) explicitly includes feminist analysis in an overview of the field. Recent collections, such as Hammerschlag 2018 (cited under Readers and Anthologies), foreground a number of female voices and thinkers. A note on language: references to modern Jewish “thought” as opposed to “philosophy” often signal a volume’s inclusion of figures who may at first seem to fall outside the more rigid, systematic category of Jewish philosophy.

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