Course examines Judaism’s intersection with current issues

Professor Ági Vetö is teaching Queering Judaism: Contemporary issues this semester. Photo By: Central Queens Y
Professor Ági Vetö is teaching Queering Judaism: Contemporary issues this semester. Photo By: Central Queens Y
Professor Ági Vetö is teaching Queering
Judaism: Contemporary issues this semester. Photo By: Central Queens Y

College courses, especially at a liberal arts schools like Vassar, give students the opportunity to either explore topics that are completely new to them or delve deeper into a subject they have encountered before.

This semester, a new course cross-listed with the Jewish Studies and Religion departments, brings two topics into a new focus. Queering Judaism: Contemporary Issues explores what happens when the traditional tenets of Judaism come face-to-face with current events and emerging questions of gender, sexuality and family and social life.

Professor Ági Vetö teaches the 200-level class and noted that many of the course’s major themes have personal resonance.

In an emailed statement, she explained, “My own odyssey to the study of Jews and Judaism is complicated, since I am the child of a Jewish father who converted to Catholicism and raised me as a Catholic in Socialist Hungary.”

Growing up in this political climate meant that Vetö and her family had to keep their religious identity hidden. She wrote, “We were not supposed to talk about religion—we were doing it in a whisper.”

Even though Christianity was also part of her background, Vetö added, “I’d always been aware of my Jewish background but it became more and more important to me, and my path ‘in’ to Jewish life was through Jewish learning. The traditional sources appealed to me tremendously, both the languages and the texts, texts about which there is a lot to talk, but at which few in my environment, and almost no women, were adept.”

She spoke to teaching this course at Vassar, adding, “I am so pleased at being able to transmit that knowledge (in translation, of course!) to students.”

She went to Israel for three and a half years to study the Talmud and then came to the United States to write her Ph.D. Vetö said, “I am writing about the male body, the conceptualization of what is the male body in Judaism.”

Nonetheless, Vetö added, “My other interest was always feminist theory, and related to that, queer theory.”

Many factors contributed to Vetö’s construction of Queering Judaism’s curriculum. For students who have grown up with Judaism as a prominent part of their upbringing, Vetö said she hopes to create a new framework though which to think about those traditions and experiences.

She described her vision, saying, “I’d also like to help people to make them think about something that they are familiar with, by a path which is unfamiliar to them.” Jews and Judaism are often a topic of study and discussion at universities, but a new light is shed on the subject when it is analyzed in combination with gender and sexuality.

Vetö said her own studies were influenced by intellectuals including Lacan, Derrida, Irrigaray, Sedgwick and Butler. “As a result, I sought places in which this very traditional Jewish textual learning coincided with, interpreted, challenged and was challenged by this very cutting edge theoretical material,” she elaborated.

She continued to talk about how the particularity of this moment in academia can make it difficult to develop a curriculum that speaks to students.

“It’s a very hard time in history where the humanities can be undervalued, to interest students in anything old, even when the material is…about postmodern issues,” lamented Vetö. Despite these broader limitations, Head of Jewish Studies Professor Peter Antelyes maintained that the course is invaluable to the department. He stated, “It doesn’t only enable us to include a generally neglected perspective toward Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism; it also unsettles the field of Jewish Studies more generally.”

In addition to emphasizing a less-studied aspect of Judaism, Vetö explained that she hopes her students leave with a broadened understanding of religion in general and what its potentialities are for one’s identity. She wrote, “What I want them to see is that religion, a tradition in general, is very wide.”

People less familiar with religion often see it as a set of rules, a way of life or laws that must be followed, but Vetö hopes to complicate those assumptions. Though theory and academia can be helpful, Vetö said, most of all, it requires honesty.

She elaborated, “While we have to be honest about the limitations a tradition imposes we should strive to see the possibilities these traditions can potentially offer.”

As such, Antelyes noted that the class will raise some difficult but important questions. He elaborated, stating, “It raises so many central questions: What does it mean to be a queer Jew and what does queer Jewishness have to teach us about normative, institutionalized Jewishness? What roles does/did, and can/should, queerness play in Judaism? What connection might one make between queerness and Jewishness as angles of vision and subject positions?”

While this course focuses on Judaism as it pertains to the relationship between queerness and religion, Professor Vetö stated, “We should be talking about how another religion queers and how Judaism queers, both are very important.”

Though the course focuses on contemporary issues, Vetö stated that she believes Queering Judaism deals with the same issues that have been rampant and recurrent throughout history.

She continued, “I think that it’s a good class at any university, especially at a liberal arts college. I think that is because queering is such an important topic. Gender, sexuality, what is queer, who is queer, how do we queer someone, and how religion queers someone. It’s very important for us just as it was a hundred years ago.”

To compose the curriculum for this course, Vetö said, “I conceived of this course as a way to join together material and topics which students are interested (gender, sexuality, feminism, politics, contemporary sociology) with texts that are truly ancient and yet have resonance for contemporary Jewry.”

Though the course combines a number of different branches of knowledge, Vetö maintained that it is the interdisciplinary theory that provides the common thread.

“The glue that holds it all together is the theory, both gender theory, feminist theory, and queer theory, and literary and historical approaches to studying an integrating the ancient literature,” she wrote.

Ultimately, Professor Vetö said she hopes students leave her class prepared with the tools to think about Judaism as something current and evolving, rather than as something trapped in history textbooks and religious tomes.

She concluded, “What I hope students get from my course is a really rigorous and text-based introduction to some very ancient, traditional material in a way and applying to topics that are as fresh as today’s newspapers and blogs.”

One Comment

  1. As a Vassar grad (BA, History, 1986), I try to keep an open mind. Vassar does not make it easy. It’s hard to say that one thing is worth studying and another isn’t, but seriously — “Queering Judaism”? Really? Is that the best Vassar can do?

    As the child of Hungarian jews/Holocaust survivors (actual, non-converted, albeit assimilated jews) who spent a good part of my youth On Wesselenyi Utca in the Jewish section of Budapest, just across from the Great Dohany Utca Synagogue (the biggest and grandest synagogue in all of Europe), I take some issue with this course. At some level (maybe every level), I’m judging a book by its cover. That said, I’ll nevertheless venture into these shallow waters.

    First of all, while Ms. Veto may be well-meaning, she obviously brings her own baggage into the debate. The reality is that in so-called “Socialist” Hungary — which is a sorry misnomer for communist Hungary — religion of any variety was officially nonexistent. There was no religious teaching in schools and religion of any faith was more or less frowned upon, That said, one did not have to keep her or his religious identity “secret.” People were not persecuted for their beliefs, although it was a “bad point” for a Party Member to be actively religious. Churches and Synagogues, however, were not shut down. If someone wanted to participate in a religious service, she could do so. Also, Hungarian Jews were highly assimilated and it was relatively common for Jewish families to convert to the more “official” Hungarian Catholicism for any variety of reasons. If a person chose to keep her conversion secret, that was a personal decision, and was not a function of institutionalized discriminatory effect (which is not in any way to disavow the active and very real anti-semitism in Hungary, either then or now, in any way). Of course, if Ms. Veto grew up outside of Budapest, where antisemitism was even sharper, that may be a different story.

    Second, and more to the point, this course underscores the many ways in which the atomization of education into teeny islands of so-called learning overlooks the bigger picture. There are many urgent historical and current political issues facing Judaism that would be excellent choices for the curriculum. The choice to provide what can only be characterized as a pandering and overtly politically correct course offering is not among them. While being the world’s expert on “queer judaism” may be used to make one’s academic bones (credentials), the course simply occupies space that could be used for broader discourse. A discussion of how “judaism queers someone” is nonsense — and I don’t have to take the course to know that. Ditto for the concept raised by the head of department regarding “What queer jewishness teaches us about normative, institutionalized jewishness.” This is simply ivory tower-speak for the relationship of sexuality to being Jewish, or, in the broader sense, to being religious at all. With so much active anti-semitism today, in Hungary, in the U.S. and, in particular, at Vassar, I can only repeat my opening question: is this really the best Vassar can do?

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