Last week, more than 500 rabbis and cantors signed a letter condemning Jewish academics and leaders for including sociologist Steven M. Cohen in their Zoom discussions. In 2018, Cohen was accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and inappropriate touching.
He was forced to resign his tenured positions.
On the same day as the letter’s online publication, two academics confronted their inclusion of Cohen and other prominent Jewish thinkers who have been accused of sexual harassment in their book “The New Jewish Canon: Ideas and Debates, 1980-2015.”
At a Zoom talk hosted by American University’s Center for Israel Studies and Jewish Studies Program, co-editors Yehuda Kurtzer and Claire Sufrin responded to criticism of the choices they made of what constituted a new canon of Jewish thought, and their presumption that there is a new Jewish canon.
The book is a collection of 70 essays and related commentaries. It includes two works Cohen co-authored: 2006’s “Whatever Happened to the Jewish People” and 2000’s “The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America.”
Leon Wieseltier and Ari Shavit are two other prominent Jewish public intellectuals who have been accused of sexual misconduct. Wieseltier is a longtime Washington resident and was the literary editor of The New Republic from 1983 to 2014. Shavit is an Israeli reporter and writer.
“We were accused through this book of trying to rehabilitate the reputations of these men,” Sufrin said. “And we were quite taken aback. Really we felt personally attacked in some ways by some of the comments. But they were all being done entirely on the basis of the table of contents of our book with very little understanding of what the book was trying to do.”
Kurtzer said “The New Jewish Canon” doesn’t go as far as to say that the ideas in each essay are correct, only that the works were influential and widely discussed when published. And each text included in the book is accompanied by commentary from an academic offering context and critique of the work.
“You can’t understand the period of American Judaism between 1980 and 2015 without engaging with these individuals and their work,” Kurtzer said. “So to say we’re simply going to excise [the work] from this process, I really felt would have been irresponsible historical work.”
Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and Sufrin is an associate professor and director of Jewish Studies at Northwestern University. The two got the idea for the book after attending a conference on post-Holocaust Jewish thought and noticed that the discussion focused on works published before the 1980s. So the two set out to create the kind of textbook they would have wanted to use in exploring more recent ideas.
Sufrin said they chose the word “canon” due to the “authoritative status” of the works included in the book. She said one can’t be involved in Jewish studies without either reading or hearing about these works. She said these ideas have also filtered out beyond the academic world and into the broader Jewish community.
Included in the book are intellectual heavyweights from the present and recent past. Historian Jonathan Sarna writes a commentary on Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s “Letter to the Jewish Community of Teaneck, 1981.” Dara Horn comments on Ruth Wisse’s “How not to remember and how not to forget,” from 2008. And Sarah Anne Minkin comments on Cohen and Jack Wertheimer’s “Whatever Happened to the Jewish People,” from 2006.
If they were to do the redo the book today, Sufrin said she’d include pieces by more Jews of color — for example, “Kimchee on the Seder Plate,” a short autobiographical essay by Angela Warnick Buchdahl, the first Asian American to be ordained a rabbi. The piece was published in 2003, but Sufrin only learned of it after “Canon” was published.
Sufrin said she would have included more Sephardic and Mizrachi voices. Despite the controversy, she still would have included Cohen, but just one appearance in the book instead of several.
Kurtzer agreed, adding that he would have included a text relating to Soviet Jewry, although he’s not sure exactly which text that would have been.
Kurtzer said choosing the cutoff date of 2015, while arbitrary, turned out to have been an interesting choice. He said Donald Trump’s election the next year changed much of the American Jewish conversation.
“It actually changed the agenda in such significant ways,” Kurtzer said. “So it was useful to stop before that and to notice that four years on our conversations have evolved so differently.”