Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
I have a long history of confronting ideologies and deconstructing them. It began when I was about 10 years old and was asked to leave my religious school classroom for challenging the ideological position of my teacher. Thirty-five years later, I’ve met many modern Orthodox teachers and rabbis who have taught me, inspired me, and have shared ideas that are nuanced, contextualized and thoughtful – enough to know that the limitations of the teacher I encountered as a young student don’t represent an entire segment of Jewish thinking. Then, as now, what I reacted to was the insistence on fully buying an ideological position when there was clear evidence or examples that could be easily brought to light that challenged the ideology.
When I was 10, the ideology that had been presented to me was the infallibility of the rabbinic tradition; the idea that rabbinic Midrash was as factually and historically true as other parts of Jewish tradition. Today, I have come to love the creativity of rabbinic tradition, and Midrash especially, for providing a technique for making the biblical text timeless by extrapolating from it some core aspects of human behavior that can continue to speak to us in any era. But, presented as factual truth that I had to fully accept, wholesale, I rejected the whole project as propaganda and it took me decades to revisit and reclaim the wisdom that was a part of this genre of Jewish literature.
Later, as a young academic, I found some of the thinking that was growing in prominence in sociology and culture studies (and my field, which was a British hybrid of these disciplines – Cultural Geography) to be similarly lacking. Perhaps aligned somewhat with liberation theology (although the secular professors in the field would never have admitted a religious foundation to their thinking), I found myself working in a field where researchers were declaring that one could not legitimately research a group of people of which one was not a part – to do otherwise would be a form of colonial oppression and claiming to speak for “the other.” I found myself in a field where all inequality could be explained as a struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed, with the former always being the focus of critique and the latter always being the voice we needed to raise up to be heard and validated. Context is everything. When I look at the history of the African-American in the United States, there is much in this ideology that can help us better understand and respond to the ongoing realities of racial prejudice and inequality here. When I study the complexities of the history of the Middle East conflict, not only looking at the Palestinian and Israeli narratives, but also at the larger context of international politics within which this struggle has been played out for more than a century, the story and the resulting analysis is more complex and multifaceted.
And this brings us to today’s ideological buzzword – Intersectionality. According to Olena Hankivsky (2004), the term “intersectionality” was coined in 1989 by American critical legal race scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (1989). She provides the following working definition of the term:
Intersectionality promotes an understanding of human beings as shaped by the interaction of different social locations (e.g., ‘race’/ethnicity, Indigeneity, gender, class, sexuality, geography, age, disability/ability, migration status, religion). These interactions occur within a context of connected systems and structures of power (e.g., laws, policies, state governments and other political and economic unions, religious institutions, media). Through such processes, interdependent forms of privilege and oppression shaped by colonialism, imperialism, racism, homophobia, ableism and patriarchy are created.
She summarizes this idea thus: … “inequities are never the result of single, distinct factors. Rather, they are the outcome of intersections of different social locations, power relations, and experiences.”
As a sociologist, I recognize the truth in this statement. Having had a former, short career as a researcher, I know that the work I did highlighted how the daily experiences of pre-adolescent children were shaped by ethnicity and socio-economic status, both of which were interrelated and both of which impacted where a child may live and what kind of access they might have to open space (relevant to my work on environmental experiences).
So let me be clear. This is not a rejection of the validity and importance of intersectionality as a theoretical or ideological approach to understanding social inequality. It is an important contribution to scholarly thought and social movements that has a great deal to offer as we seek to understand our society better. However, like all theories and ideologies, when applied with religious zeal without nuance or an in-depth understanding of the specific identities and histories that are being discussed, the result can be a distortion of the realities that the individuals involved are experiencing. There is no single theory or ideology that is adequate or sufficient to explain all aspects of social reality.
This is what happened at the Dyke March in Chicago. It is a fact that, as a democratic country with a strong, secular Supreme Court and justice system, Israel is the most progressive country in the Middle East with respect to the day-to-day experience and civil rights of LGBTQ people. That is not ‘Pinkwashing.’ That is a measurable and verifiable fact. It is one that LGBTQ people, of which I am one, should be most thankful for. One cannot simply raise the flag of intersectionality to dismiss the truth of this fact because it inconveniently does not jive with a belief that the Palestinians are an oppressed people.
Furthermore, anyone who is a true student of the Middle East, including Jews (of which I count myself as one) who deeply empathize with the Palestinian narrative and yearn for a way for these two peoples to find the path to a compromise that honors multiple narratives and needs, knows that it is a gross simplification and distortion of both history and current affairs to present that situation as one in which the Palestinian people are the victims of the Israelis are aggressors. The reality is far more complex and involves international players who have manipulated the situation and not only the Israelis and the Palestinians.
When a sociological theory becomes an ideology that is applied in unsophisticated broad strokes to explain every social situation where suffering is evident, it is bound to fail. I do not tar those who apply theory in this way as anti-Semitic; only as having grabbed onto something that they believed could help to explain the complex world in which we live more easily and provide an unequivocal and clear path toward making a difference in this world. Unfortunately, we, as human beings, and the many identities that we claim and worlds that we live in, are much more complicated than that.