No, Studying Jewish Continuity Doesn’t Encourage Sexual Harassment

April 15, 2021 | Mijal Bitton
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When the “Me-Too” movement eventually caught up with Jewish studies and Jewish communal institutions, some academics and journalists put forth a novel argument: that discussions of Jewish continuity—which necessarily involve the topics of intermarriage and marriage and fertility rates—endorse “surveillance over women’s bodies,” viewing them as “objects to be controlled and policed” based on the belief that “women’s primary role in Jewish continuity” is to produce babies. These attitudes, the argument goes, are somehow connected to sexual harassment. As one writer claimed, “it becomes very hard to disentangle the sexism of the alleged abuse from the patriarchal agenda” endorsed by a particular abuser.

Mijal Bitton rejects this line of reasoning:

Critics of American Jewish continuity who see it aligned with “patriarchy” argue or imply that a mostly male communal authority attempts to coerce women to procreate. Yet lost in this critique is the fact that communal pro-natalism aligns with and reflects the desire of most American Jewish women to have children. [Moreover], a concern for Jewish fertility rates is relevant for the thriving of the Jewish people. For the critique of Jewish continuity to be taken seriously, it would have to put forth a robust alternative vision for a Jewish future independent of biological continuity.

Finally, many critics make a broader and particularly erroneous set of assumptions: that there is some sort of coherent linkage between the bad actions of specific men and their advocacy for Jewish continuity; that the continuity agenda reflects an obsession with “other people having sex, with other people having babies,” . . . and that this obsession is “sexist and homophobic.”

Yet . . . the “Me Too” movement has shown that there are actors who abuse their power in nearly every arena, even in fields deemed “liberal” or “feminist.” . . . [T]he unfortunate pervasiveness of sexist behaviors does mean that such actors are either a reflection of all fields or no field in particular. There simply is no intrinsic link between male actors in the field who behave badly and the validity of the arguments put forth in defense of the field of Jewish continuity. On the contrary, many female scholars have both advocated Jewish continuity and adopted a pro-natalist discourse.

Bitton then turns to more personal reflections, as a mother, scholar, and Jew, concluding: “I have 21st-century values ensconced in a body like the ones women have inhabited for millennia. We can talk about gender equity all we want, but our bodies are out of sync with our beliefs.”

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