Opinion | Debating the Jewish Canon

Do writers who are #MeToo offenders deserve to have a place in it?
By | Nov 10, 2020
2020 November/December, Opinion

One day last spring, I got a call from a woman I didn’t know, asking if I objected—as she did—to a work of mine being included in The New Jewish Canon: Ideas and Debates 1980-2015 along with works by men identified as notable abusers by the #MeToo movement. The book, not yet published, had already drawn plaudits and attacks. Edited by Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and Claire E. Sufrin, a Northwestern University scholar of religion, it collects and evaluates works by 86 writers, rabbis, scholars, theologians, historians and other intellectuals.

Stunned to learn of my own inclusion, I’d never thought to ask who else was in the Canon. Like many readers, I’m uncomfortable with the very concept of a canon, suspicious of its hegemonic use and inevitable misuse and vaguely hostile to those who presume to dictate who’s in and who’s out.

As I delved into the anthology, though, I was grateful to the editors for distilling so many of the literary, political, intellectual, religious and communal controversies of my adult life—for excerpting influential works and finding the right commentators to critique each one. I had some quibbles. A few excerpts are too brief to convey a work’s essence. This is true for my book Deborah, Golda and Me, which is presented in a snippet about my parents’ inconsistent religious observance, when it’s really about my struggle to reconcile Judaism and feminism. And seismic works such as Blu Greenberg’s On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition and Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective were slotted in the section entitled “Identities and Communities,” when, given their broad and deep impact on the core beliefs and practices of modern, mainstream Judaism, they should have appeared under the more weighty “Religion and Religiosity.”

That said, I found almost every chapter illuminating and informative: from Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize speech to The Complete Artscroll Siddur; from Ruth Calderon’s Knesset address to Rachel Adler’s essay about menstruation and ritual purity; from Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People to Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust.

The phone call, however, made me focus on the #MeToo question. Some feminist activists and academics were appalled by the induction into this Jewish pantheon of three offenders—Steven M. Cohen, a Jewish-American sociologist; Ari Shavit, an Israeli journalist; and Leon Wieseltier, a U.S. critic and magazine editor—all of whom had publicly admitted to engaging in various types of sexual misconduct, or in some cases even assault, against dozens of women. Those women will feel re-victimized, my caller argued, when they see their abusers elevated in this prestigious compendium of what its editors call “our most important ideas and debates of the past two generations.”

These issues are addressed forthrightly in the Canon, not papered over. The essayist assigned to evaluate Wieseltier’s thesis debunks it in scathing terms but emphasizes that he engaged with the writer’s ideas rather than judging “his behavior, his punishment, or his rehabilitation.”

By contrast, essayist Alan Brill, critiquing Cohen, merges the man and the work, admitting that he used to teach the book but no longer does because the #MeToo revelations exposed a correlation between Cohen’s behavior toward women and the previously unacknowledged biases in his research.

Editors Kurtzer and Sufrin, in a nuanced introduction, describe their struggle to do the right thing. They name the three abusers, express support for the #MeToo movement, pledge to call out abusive behavior in the Jewish community, analyze their decision to include the three men and apologize for the pain it may cause.

“We recognize that the power and charisma that allowed [the abusers] to succeed professionally and to promote their ideas is the very same power and charisma that they are accused of abusing in their predatory actions. We recognize and regret that the continued publication of the works of these individuals risks rehabilitating their reputations.” Why include them, then? Because “…we believe that the ideas they express and the pieces included here were central to the Jewish communal conversation in the years 1980-2015…and that we cannot understand the period without reckoning with this material.”

I found myself nodding. Clearly, Cohen, Wieseltier and Shavit influenced the thinking of many Jews, especially on three major issues: respectively, intermarriage, Jewish cultural illiteracy and Israel’s behavior in the 1948 war. Erasing that influence will leave an information gap, muddling history and hobbling future scholars and policymakers. Just as Meir Kahane, a violent extremist, left his mark on his era and must be reckoned with, so did these three men; reprehensible as their acts were, they belong in the book.

Meanwhile, the rest of us need to interrogate our own choices: Are we still listening to Wagner, Hitler’s favorite composer? Still reading professed anti-Semites T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound? Still watching Woody Allen’s or Harvey Weinstein’s movies? Is it better to understand our history, both the noble and the shameful, or be ideological purists?

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is currently at work on her twelfth book, Shanda: A Memoir of Shame, Guilt, and Secrecy

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