Judaism, Gender, Secularism, and Religion (Cornell University)


Kudos to Cara Rock Singer for organizing Gendering and Embodying the Jew: Judaism, Secularism, and the Politics of Difference, a workshop held yesterday at Cornell. Alongside the intensive look at gender, most interesting for me is the way religion was woven into the discussion about “the secular,” and the openness around Jewishness.

Here is the statement, below which you’ll find the presenters and their paper-titles:

Jewish difference has been an essential feature of modern political discourse, at the center of debates about European emancipation, Zionism and nationalism, and acculturation and assimilation. European emancipation and American acculturation were predicated on the assumption that Jewish difference was redeemable because it was abstractable enough for citizenship in secular states. Meanwhile, anti-Semitic discourses have targeted “the Jew” as the epitome of abstract and unproductive financial labor. In these formulations, the subject is always implicitly a male figure. By contrast, both Jewish and non-Jewish discourses often cast Jewish women and Mizrachi/Sephardi Jews as material, emphasizing elements of embodiment, sexuality, and reproductive labor while rendering them invisible as political subjects.

This one-day workshop will explore the gendered Jew as a religious and secular subject. Bringing together scholars working at the intersections of Judaism, secularism, and gender and sexuality in American, European, and Middle Eastern contexts, it will probe how the consideration of sexual, bodily, and racial difference refigure “the Jew.” What might the study of the gendered, embodied, and raced Jew, in turn, reveal about the social, political, and religious hierarchies and structures of power within Jewish communities, and within Jewish Studies? Finally, what might the study of the gendered Jew, in conversation with scholarship on the Muslim other, contribute to debates about the normative structures of post-Protestant secularism?

Cornell Jewish Studies Workshop

“Gendering and Embodying the Jew:

Judaism, Secularism, and the Politics of Difference”

March 17, 2019

9:00 am                        Coffee and Tea at A.D. White House

9:30 am                        Opening remarks by Janet Jakobsen

9:45 am                        Daniel Boyarin, “What is the Jews? Towards an Older Future”

10:35 am                      Cynthia Baker, “Centering Differences”

11:25 am – 11:40 am      Coffee Break

11:40 am                      Sarah Imhoff, “Secularism and Jewish Women Zionists”

12:30 – 1:30 pm            Lunch at A.D. White House

1:30 pm                        Cara Rock-Singer, “The Negative Genealogical Spaces”

2:20 pm                        Laura Levitt, “Is this God’s Country?”

3:10 – 3:30 pm              Coffee Break

3:30 pm                        Vincent Lloyd, “Alice Walker as a Jewish Writer”

4:20 – 6:00 pm             Closing Remarks and Discussion led by Janet Jakobsen

As for my own takeaway, I’d share these thoughts as they reflect my own particular interests. The question about and as to “religion” as a contested category was raised most critically by Daniel Boyarin, who rejects the term as a Christian construct that does not speak to “Jewish doings” and Jewish group identity. But religion appeared throughout the morning and afternoon, popping up here and there, often unannounced, and then it resurfaced in the concluding discussion arranged and led by Janet Jakobsen. There was the question, asked by one person at the table (not me), with a certain frustration perhaps. What is is religion? Is it social form? That which we value? There was some hemming and hawing along the lines of Emile Durkheim and Kathryn Lofton. The idea that religion was something like football seems to have been rejected. But even Daniel Boyarin came sort of around to religion in a round-about way.

At one point, a guest at the table noted that the missing term was “the gods” and mentioned EB Tylor and the notion that religion “is” encounter with “spiritual beings,” in part if not in whole, in one way or another, and very specific to different cultural contexts. It was noted that this turn to “religion” reflected a certain narrowing in the discussion. And yet, to this guest, “spiritual beings” and other spectral presences were most manifest in the papers presented by Rock-Singer and Laura Levitt relating to loss, mikveh, trauma, and memory traces, not to mention the ghostly and antique feel of a turn of the last century mansion in Central New York on top of a hill overlooking a lake in late winter light.

Please understand that I am misrepresenting the work of the group by simplifying the discussion around the figure of religion, By right, the discussions were more wide-ranging. If religion was included in that range, it was not in terms of a vertical or hegemonic axis of attention and value, but situated, as I think is true of Jewish culture and Jewish Studies in so much of their expression, along a horizontal axis. On a horizontal access, the religion of spiritual beings is one thing next to other things, sometimes a thing that crops out and sometimes some thing obscured, certainly not as the essence of Judaism.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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