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Leonard Greenspoon
Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization, Creighton University

The Thirty-Second Annual Symposium on Jewish Civilization—Jews and Gender: Tradition and Change— takes place this year on Sunday, Oct 27, and Monday, Oct. 28. Our keynote presenter, Dr. Gail S. Labovitz, Professor of Rabbinic Literature at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, is uniquely qualified to speak on this topic. She is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 27, at 7:30 p.m. in the Theater of the Jewish Community Center of Omaha Staenberg Kooper Fellman Campus. Like all Symposium events, this is free and open to the public.

Dr. Labovitz earned her Ph.D. at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York City, from which she also received an M.A. and rabbinic ordination. Her undergraduate degree is from New York University.  Commenting on this, Labovitz quipped that she “mostly still considers myself a New Yorker living in exile. Let’s go, Mets!”
After receiving her doctorate from JTS, Labovitz initially stayed in the Northeast, where she was coordinator of the Jewish Feminist Research Group at the Seminary and senior research analyst for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University. Her subsequent research and publications have fruitfully combined her teaching and research interests in rabbinic literature; Judaism in Late Antiquity; feminist gender theory; and Jewish law, legal texts, and legal theory.

These can be seen in her published monograph, Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature, and in her feminist commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, on which she is currently at work.  Among her many journal articles and book chapters are The Hagar(s) of Rabbinic Imagining: At the Intersections of Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Genesis Rabbah, A Man Spinning on his Thigh: Gender, ‘Positive Time Bound Commandments,’ and Ritual Fringes, ‘Even Your Mother and Your Mother’s Mother’: Rabbinic Literature on Women’s Usage of Cosmetics, and Rabbis and ‘Guerrilla Girls’: Thematizing the Female (Counter) Voice in the Rabbinic Legal System. She is also a popular speaker, having made numerous presentations at the annual meetings of the Association for Jewish Studies, the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, among others. In addition, she has participated in two earlier Symposia on Jewish Civilization: in 2014 (It’s Complicated: Halachah and the Status of Relationships Outside Jewish Marriage) and 2005 (Is Rav’s Wife ‘a Dish’? Food and Eating Metaphors in the Rabbinic Sexual Vocabulary).

Speaking of food, Labovitz revealed: “I love to bake. A little over a year ago a friend gave us a bread machine, so now I make challah most weeks and post pictures on Facebook.”  Discussing some of her other interests outside of her teaching and research, Labovitz describes herself as “a very avid reader,” who also does some creative writing. She has published several short stories. In addition, Labovitz is “an avid crocheter.” She recalls that she used to make kippot when she was a lot younger, “but I don’t like working with string quite that fine anymore.” But she still brings projects to conferences, “so you all may see whatever I decide to make next.”

For her keynote presentation this year, Labovitz has decided on this title: Poskot in the Palace of Torah: A Preliminary Study of Orthodox Feminism and Halachic Process. In this talk, she will continue her exploration of  a dual commitment to traditional Jewish observance and to feminism and egalitarianism. As she observes, “What I am really seeking are ways to think of, and more importantly do, halachah in a feminist way. So this presentation is meant to bring Orthodox feminism into the conversation. My aim is to see how Orthodox feminist legal thinkers are actually going about, methodologically, the work of (re)considering and (re)interpreting Jewish legal texts and sources.” With this in mind, she will be posing questions such as: what constraints on their interpretive methods do these women feel obliged to abide by? What sources can be or can’t be invoked as authoritative? Do the methods of their halachic inquiries—or the outcome or both—differ from those found in legal analysis by male authorities? And what defines a process and/or outcome as feminist in their understanding?

For Labovitz, these considerations go beyond the classroom. As it happens, she is a member of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. In this capacity she regularly debates issues of Jewish law with her rabbinic colleagues.

Dr. Labovitz’s presentation caps off a full day of Symposium activities on Oct. 27. Sunday morning presentations, from 9-11:30 a.m., will take place on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Three presenters will offer insights on topics related to the Symposium theme in room 132D at the College of Public Affairs and Community Service on the UNO campus.

After a quick trip from the UNO campus to the campus of the Jewish Community Center, everyone is invited to a luncheon from noon to 1 p.m. Five additional papers, divided into two sessions, can be heard from 1 until 5 p.m.  The presenters in these sessions come from Israel and a number of North American university campuses. The subject matter of their presentations is equally wide-ranging.
An additional seven papers are scheduled for Monday, Oct. 28, when the Symposium is reconvened in the ballroom of the Skutt Student Center on the campus of Creighton University. The first four presentations are scheduled in two sessions from 8:30 until 11:30 a.m.

From 11:30 a.m. until 12:15 p.m., Symposium participants and members of the public are invited to another Symposium staple, a kosher deli luncheon. This event, as well as all other Symposium activities, is free and open to the public.

The final three presentations at Creighton take place from 12:20 until 2:30 p.m. This extended afternoon schedule allows community members to hear even more speakers than in the past.
The annual Symposium on Jewish Civilization has been a fixture of the community’s fall schedule for more than three decades. This fall’s Symposium is the 32nd in a series that is among the best-known annual conferences on Jewish Studies anywhere in the world. It is jointly organized and presented by the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization (Creighton University), the Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society (Creighton University), the Harris Center for Judaic Studies (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), and the Schwalb Center for Israel and Jewish Studies (University of Nebraska at Omaha).

The Symposium also benefits from the support of the Jewish Federation of Omaha, Creighton University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In addition, the Ike and Roz Friedman Foundation, the Riekes Family, the Javitch Family, the Henry Monsky Lodge of B’nai B’rith, the Drs. Bernard H. and Bruce S. Bloom Memorial Endowment and other supporters provide generous funding.

For further details about the Symposium, please check out the Klutznick Chair website at www.creighton.edu/klutznick or contact Colleen Hastings at 402.280.2303 or colleenhast ings@creighton.edu.