September 16, 2019

A Usable Past, a Useless Present

A Piece of Kvetch

By Galina Zelenina

On a gloomy October day in Saint Petersburg, I was having coffee with a local LGBT activist at a half-clandestine queer studies conference. Just a few months before, the State Duma Deputy, Yelena Mizulina, had authored her infamous ban on “gay propaganda” (whatever that means). At the time, I was working on a series of essays for an independent internet journal, one of the few respectable venues in the Russian internet that straddles the boundaries between academic and socio-political debate. The series were supposed to delve into parallels between the queer discourse and homophobia in the USSR and that in contemporary Russia; my column on the Saint-Petersburg conference was meant for that series. In the end, the editors cancelled the project. “This is not our war,” they explained apologetically.

Now, sitting together in this coffee shop, I listened as this LGBT activist began praising academic work as a form of activism: “You don’t have to take to the streets or go out to Marsovo Pole (a usual venue for unpermitted protest marches in the city)—instead, you can make a bigger difference by just publishing an article.”

During my time as a scholar-in-residence at HBI, I have had a pleasure of attending two events Brandeis hosted recently. The first was an annual Simon Rawidowicz Memorial Lecture given by Elisheva Baumgarten of Hebrew University in Jerusalem who spoke on matchmaking in medieval Ashkenaz. The second was a panel discussion on how race, ethnicity, and religion intersect with sexual violence, organized by Bernadette Brooten, the Kraft and Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis.

Highly regarded for her invaluable achievements in scholarly activism (most importantly for her search for a usable past for Christian lesbians in her book Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism), Brooten organized the discussion to initiate a talk on the influence exerted by religions on people’s views on and practice of sexual crimes. Although religions change over time, becoming more sensitive, old laws still matter, and we need to study religious past in order to improve the present.

The timing of this discussion, part of Brooten’s ongoing Feminist Sexual Ethics Project, could not have been better as it coincided with the wave of recent accusations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein and several other “males of influence” followed by the hashtag campaign #MeToo flooding social media with stories of sexual harassment and assault.

Interestingly, this is not the first campaign of its kind. In spring 2015, the #NotGuilty campaign was launched in the British social media, and in 2016, a Ukrainian feminist kickstarted a similar Flashmob on Facebook under the hashtag #яНеБоюсьСказати (“#Iamnotafraidtospeak”) that went viral, spreading to Russia and Belarus. Judging by my social media newsfeed, the campaign attracted enormous attention, and was perceived as having potential for making a difference and leading to social change. Ironically, the only tangible response it has invoked in Russia was a law decriminalizing domestic violence, passed by the State Duma in the early 2017.

Unlike the participants of the #яНеБоюсьСказать campaign who predominantly shared their experiences of rape, the women responding to the #MeToo movement started in response to the Harvey Weinstein scandal have posted accounts of sexual harassment and assault. The importance of the campaign in bringing the conversation of sexual assault into the mainstream cannot be underestimated.

After Brooten’s panel discussion about the intersectionality between sexual violence and race, ethnicity and religion, evaluation forms were passed out so that participants could “strongly or somewhat” agree or disagree with the assertions that both religious past and ethnic context influence sexual violence. While the degree of influence and other details may be subject to debate, there seems to be general agreement about one fundamental question: issues of sexual violence must be addressed.

Refuting the Karaites’ contention that frequent disagreements between the Talmudic sages rendered the rabbinic tradition untrustworthy, medieval Jewish scholar Abraham ibn Daud claimed that the sages disagreed not over commandments in principle, but only about details: “They did not dispute whether or not it is obligatory to light the Shabbat light. What they did dispute was with what it may be lit and with what it may not be lit.”

Blessed are those who are disputing the details once they have achieved general agreement on fundamental issues.

The lecture by Elisheva Baumgarten, although seemingly much less burning and time-sensitive, actually deserved no less attention by social-minded students. Not only because she is such a brilliant scholar. (I know one influential politician in Israel, likely to become a PM someday, who—to make the long story short—left academia for politics because he had always admired Baumgarten’s academic career and had finally faced the fact that he could never achieve an equal measure of success.) The true reason is that, being thoroughly medievalist, her lecture was nonetheless relevant for and connected to the present.

Unlike her predecessors in the study of medieval rabbinic responsa on family issues, Baumgarten takes a feminist stand, arguing and proving that women used to be much more active, powerful, influential and independent in medieval Judaism than later, in modern Orthodoxy. In her lecture, she discusses whether medieval Jewish parents, on a regular basis, married off their daughters as minors, or whether the daughters still had the final say. After considering responsa, moral exempla, and tales (and keeping in mind that all three genres, being written by learned men, represent the male perspective), she concludes that non-halachic genres offer a more realistic picture than the responsa and that we may assume that in medieval reality, girls had more choice, freedom, and final say than we are led to believe.

Baumgarten seems to belong to the same scholarly trend whose main spokesman, Daniel Boyarin, a talmudic scholar, Orthodox Jew, liberal, feminist, and LGBT advocate, refutes the common view of talmudic culture as androcentric and misogynist, purposefully and consistently discovering a usable past for his liberal Orthodoxy in rabbinic texts.

Blessed are those who search for a usable past once they have a usable present.

I highly doubt that in Russia, any Orthodox Jew wants to hear of medieval Jewish women playing “traditionally male” roles of rabbis, circumcisers, or ritual slaughterers. It seems even less probable that any Russian Jewish community would be willing to learn about the specifically Jewish masculinity and the long tradition of homoeroticism and homosociality. Queer scholarly activism is a risky affair in the city where, alongside the recently unveiled bike lanes—the unmistakable sign of a modern, civilized society—a chain of food stores displays a “No Entry for Sodomites” sign in its windows. But at this point, this is precisely where the activism is probably needed most.

Galina Zelenina is a 2017 Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar in Residence at HBI and an associate professor at the Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies at Russian State University of Humanities in Moscow.

Comments

  1. Shulamit Reinharz says:

    Galina’s beautifully written HBI blog post reminds me that I was formerly told that there were no scholars in Russia dealing with the intersection of Jews and gender. I had asked the question after noticing that we were not getting many applications from Russia and the FSU by individuals wishing to be Scholars in Residence. After a 3-year experiment to see if providing travel fare and a stipend would unearth people who did work on such topics, we discovered many marvelous scholars – men and women. I am delighted that although our funding was discontinued after 3 years, we now have the HBI Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar in Residence Program that is designed to bring brilliant researchers, activists and artists from all over the world. Mazal Tov, Galina on a well argued piece.

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