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Abuse Lives On in the Jewish Canon

An announcement on social media in May that a new book, The New Jewish Canon, edited by Yehuda Kurtzer and Claire E. Sufrin, was anointing certain writers, thinkers and texts as powerful shapers of the Jewish present and future drew outrage, because at least three of the men represented in its pages have acknowledged their serious sexual misconduct.

That this compendium will elicit serious attention is clear. Here’s some of its advance publicity: “The New Jewish Canon is both text and textbook of the Jewish intellectual and communal zeitgeist for the contemporary period and the recent past, canonizing our most important ideas and debates of the past two generations; and just as importantly, stimulating debate and scholarship about what is yet to come.”

Reporter Danielle Berrin calls out what’s wrong here. It is incumbent upon any religious tradition which claims the mantle of moral authority to consider how they wish to see their most cherished values represented in the public arena. That [Leon] Wieseltier, [Ari] Shavit, [Steven M.] Cohen, and others like them are gifted men, there is no doubt. But they are also men who abused their power and committed sexual misconduct. Are their ideas worth more to us than the dignity of those they have hurt? Are their contributions to society so invaluable that we should make an onerous moral choice to promote them?

With The New Jewish Canon, we have Sufrin’s and Kurtzer’s answer. What we do not have from them is equivalent consideration for the cultural awakening spurred by the actions of these and other men. They say the book spans material published between 1980 and 2015, a few years shy of the birth of #metoo. But the concept behind #metoo is universal and timeless. Those who speak in the name of an ancient tradition should know that. As for the victims—who, despite being degraded, objectified, and abused, came out of the shadows of silence to expose a pandemic of injustice—well, disappointment is nothing new. Perhaps the next canon will be kinder.

DANIELLE BERRIN, “Canonizing Unrighteous Men: The Problem with The New Jewish Canon,” L.A. Review of Books, May 28, 2020.