The Marginalized and Academic Jewish Studies

Earlier this year, I engaged in a debate about English Literature in which I argued in favor of the classical canon. In an understandable effort to include more minority authors, many contemporary universities minimize the study of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Dostoevsky. Even when studying Shakespeare, the focus often turns to how the bard portrayed women, Jews, and Moors at the expense of other themes such as Hamlet on indecision, Macbeth on ambition, and Lear on authentic family loyalty. I think this approach mistaken as it ignores a lot of what makes great literature worth reading.

The current spirit of the humanities also impacts on Jewish Studies as some scholars dedicate their attention to rabbinic writing about women, minorities, and the disabled. The rabbinic corpus does include troubling statements about women (Kiddushin 80b) and blacks (Kiddushin 49b) but no reason exists for these questions to dominate academic Jewish Studies as much of rabbinic literature has nothing to do with minorities. Furthermore, analysis of a few examples of academic Jewish Studies about the marginalized raises questions about the methodology involved.

Professors interested in these topics tend to frame every issue in terms of white, straight, males in power using their discourse to exclude others from normativity. This reductionist approach fails to leave room for other values and ideas exerting influence. Secondly, starting with the conclusions mailed in ahead of time, namely the politics of exclusion, does not represent sound methodology. Thirdly, this approach may deny the existence of compassionate behavior to the disadvantaged by casting it as those in power patronizingly helping in a fashion asserting their social dominance.

In May 2023, Harvard University sponsored a conference titled “What is Talmud” with thirty-five different scholars speaking about a wide range of topics, illustrating that study of minorities does not currently dominate academic Talmud (Recordings available at However, listening to academic study of the marginalized manifest in three presentations from that conference demonstrates the cogency of my concerns. Tal Ilan, professor emeritus of Jewish Studies at the Freie University of Berlin and editor of A Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, lectured on “Feminist Approaches to Talmud.” Julia Watts Belser, professor of Jewish Studies at Georgetown University, delivered a paper on “Disability Studies and the Talmud” and M. Adryael Tong, assistant professor of Early Christian Scriptures at The Interdenominational Theology Center, spoke about “Queer Approaches to the Talmud.”  The talks reflect the methodological problems raised above.

In a Fall 2001 article in Nashim (p. 12), Ilan writes: “A feminist approach begins by unearthing the patriarchal nature of literatures like that of the rabbis. It proposes to reveal their prejudiced, unsympathetic, suspicious, often hostile attitude to women.” This does not seem quite fair as such scholars approach texts with their conclusion well in hand. Ilan’s assertion rules out the possibility of discovering classical Jewish texts with rabbis sympathetic to women. Her paper at the Harvard conference also exhibits a narrowness of vision.

Menahot 29b tells the famous story of Moshe Rabbenu attending the shiur of R. Akiva and not understanding it. After Moshe witnesses R. Akiva’s painful death and asks “This is Torah and this is its reward,” God responds “Be silent. This Intention arose before me.” In contrast, when the angels question the death of R. Akiva, God answers them (Berakhot 61b). These powerful Talmudic tales seem unconnected to women’s issues. Ilan quotes approvingly from the commentary of R. Dr. Dvora Weisman who draws a parallel to a gemara in which R. Eliezer refuses to answer a matron’s question about the golden calf episode because he does not teach Torah to women (Yerushalmi Sotah 3:4). Both Moshe and the matron are treated as outsiders whose questions can be dismissed. A “feminized” Moshe remains on the periphery.

This feminist angle insists on seeing everyone whose question is not answered as an excluded member of society but one could offer other explanations for God not answering Moshe. Perhaps the rabbis want to resist any theodicy explaining evil or they want to emphasize the inscrutability of God. If so, bringing in power politics only obscures the discussion. Rigid adherence to only one possible conclusion hinders the quest for deeper understanding.

Watts Belser focuses on the first mishna in Hagiga which exempts various groups from the thrice annual pilgrimage obligation. Those exempt include the lame, the blind, the sick, and the elderly. I would have thought that the law here reflects an understanding that it is simply too difficult for these people to navigate the hilly trek to the temple. Prof. Watts Belser discerns a conversation of exclusion. She notes that the Talmud (Hagiga 4a) also frees someone with a prosthetic limb from the pilgrimage, proving that the rabbis even exclude those who could make the journey. An easy alternative explanation could suggest that even those with prosthetic legs will find the trip quite difficult.

Hagiga 3a tells the story of two mute individuals who frequented the Beit Medrash of Rabbi and make various gestures. When Rabbi prayed for them and they were cured, the rabbis discovered that these two were amazingly erudite in Jewish learning. This would seem to be a story about Rabbi’s compassion and a discovery of the capability of mutes. Prof. Watts Belser locates a number of problems. The two are cured without consent, the happy ending depends on the eradication of their disability, and the cure serves the need of the rabbis. This is not a very charitable reading of the tale. We can recognize the impressive abilities and accomplishments of the disadvantaged and still assert that it would be better for them to have all their physical faculties intact. The mutes were clearly not able to communicate with the rabbis before the cure so they could hardly be consulted. In this analysis, sensitivity to the disabled encourages lack of generosity towards one’s rabbinic ancestors.

Prof. Tong uses a mishna in Shabbat (19:3) to illustrate the rabbis’ binary division between male and female and their prizing of maleness as normative. The mishna rules that we do not perform a circumcision on Shabbat for a safek (a doubtful case) or an androgyne. R. Yehuda disagrees in the case of the androgyne. For Prof. Tong, the first position indicates the desire to only value unambiguous maleness. This analysis confirms one of our above concerns – note the absence of other values in her discussion including how much the Sages prized Shabbat observance. For example, they do not allow circumcision on Shabbat for a baby boy born through a Caesarian section or when the brit is not on the eighth day. Prof. Tong points to other leniencies in this mishnah to showcase how unusual it was for them to prohibit Sabbath circumcision for the androgyne. However, the same chapter includes Shabbat stringencies. R. Akiva forbade carrying the knife through a public area or making a knife on Shabbat for the sake of a circumcision (19:1). Apparently, the rabbis cared about Sabbath observance even when maleness was not an issue.

Hopeful that this approach will start to have more influence in Jewish studies, Prof. Tong wants to “displace the old and tired conversations on philology, archeology, ritual studies, and legal theory.” I for one still find those other Talmudic conversations interesting but, even if not, her statement illustrates the potential narrowing of academic vision in scholarship about the marginalized.

In a response to the papers in the session with Watts Belser and Tong, Prof. Max Strassfeld, associate professor of Jewish Studies at Arizona University, complains that the session in which these two papers were delivered was called “New Directions in Talmud Study.” The term “new” indicated that this focus on power, normativity, and the politics of exclusion still needed to be justified in a way that other academic methodologies did not. Based on the admittedly few examples we investigated, his inference may be correct and the quality of these interpretative methods does require more scrutiny. We need to develop an approach that shows great sensitivity to the excluded and marginalized but does so in a way that avoids reductionism, maintains a high quality of scholarship, and treats the classical rabbis with fairness.

I have a request for any potential critics of this post. Feel free to harshly criticize my arguments but please do not deal with this brief essay by calling me “misogynistic,” “transphobic,” or the like. There is no justification for such name calling and it does nothing to advance the intellectual conversation. Part of really making it involves the ability to handle criticism and respond with substance.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.