Feminist Hermeneutics and the Babylonian Talmud // Marjorie Lehman and Charlotte Fonrobert

posted September 17, 2015

This past summer a group of scholars from North America and Europe, working in the field of Talmud and Rabbinics, gathered at the Katz Center to explore feminist hermeneutic approaches to studying the Bavli. Each of the scholars is working on a commentary on one of the Bavli’s tractates. The commentary volumes are part of the Feminist Commentary to the Babylonian Talmud series edited by Professor Tal Ilan and published by the German publisher Mohr Siebeck. Navigating the complex field of Jewish Feminist Studies, our goal was to broaden the definition of what it means to employ a feminist analysis of rabbinic texts as well as to explore the ways in which modern scholars can contribute to the age-old project of writing commentaries to rabbinic texts, one of the practices that has defined Jewish literary practice for centuries.

Feminist scholarship of the Babylonian Talmud has come into its own during the past few decades, having developed a variety of strategies of engaging with and countering the androcentrism of rabbinic culture. Such strategies range from excavating and foregrounding of women, women’s practices, and women’s experiences, to studying the variety of gender identities and dynamics, and the ways in which the rabbis of the Talmud themselves use gendered strategies to assert their authority. These approaches fundamentally change the way rabbinic texts are read and re-appropriated. Feminist scholarship in particular has made a crucial contribution towards the wider reception of the Talmud and rabbinic texts in contemporary Jewish culture. The contributors to the Feminist Commentary project came together to explore collectively the potential of organizing such scholarship and scholarly commitments in the form of Talmudic commentary. After an initial workshop in May 2014 devoted to discussing best practices of feminist Talmudic commentary, sponsored and organized by the Stanford Taube Center of Jewish Studies, Professor Steve Weitzman initiated the idea for a cooperation between the Katz Center and the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford, to enable collaborative scholarship on this particular project. Recognizing the potential of our project as well as our ability to make a far stronger contribution to the field of Talmud and Rabbinics by engaging in thoughtful discussions with each other and with scholars working on gender in other fields of Jewish Studies, the two centers initiated the summer collaboratory.

As a result, this past July we worked together intensively on a daily basis in order to discuss our varied feminist strategies of studying the Talmud, and the ways in which our approaches could shape the task of writing commentary. We thought together about the importance of defining particular feminist approaches as well as integrating them one with the other in our volumes. We examined criteria of selection for identifying Talmudic texts to comment upon and we talked extensively about what it means to study a Talmudic tractate as a coherent project with an overarching agenda. Additionally, we invited scholars who work in gender in other fields of Jewish Studies, including Talya Fishman, Laura Levitt, Miriam Peskowitz, and Beth Wenger to challenge us, prompting us to think further about what it means to read the Talmud in an effort to produce a feminist commentary.

Engaging in this collective endeavor to study strategies and best practices of writing talmudic and feminist commentary, we realized that the very act of joining together should function as a feminist paradigm of doing scholarship. The experience of working as a team of scholars, guiding one another, presenting our material and incorporating each others’ suggestions into our written work, sharing and discussing past scholarship in feminist studies, transformed the way we think scholarship can and should be done. Because we were engaged in the process of mutually redefining what it means to engage in feminist analysis in rabbinics, there is no doubt that our experience will enhance our scholarly output and our contribution to the field, but also the way in which we teach our students the study of Talmud.

Our month-long collaboratory concluded with a symposium designed as an interactive forum for the summer fellows to present the fruits of their collective labor. Shaped in a way that allowed for extensive conversation, we created yet another opportunity to discuss the contributions and challenges of using a feminist hermeneutic in writing Talmud commentary. We addressed issues such as: why it is important to write commentaries, why feminist analyses are so significant to our understanding of the Bavli (and rabbinic literature more generally), how we mine the Talmud for texts appropriate for writing a feminist commentary on one tractate, why it is significant to study one tractate in its entirely, and what we are adding to the field of Talmud and Rabbinics.

Participants in the symposium:
Co-convener: Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, Stanford University
Co-convener: Marjorie Lehman, Jewish Theological Seminary

Aryeh Cohen, American Jewish University
Naftali Cohen, Concordia University
Judith Hauptman, Jewish Theological Seminary
Jane Kanarek, Hebrew College
Gail Labovitz, American Jewish University
Sarra Lev, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, University of Virginia
Christiane Steuer, Freie Universitat Berlin
Dvora Weisberg, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (LA)

Tal Ilan of Freie Universitat Berlin, the general editor of the commentary series, attended and discussed the future of the project.