Don’t Dismiss Steven Cohen’s Research
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Don’t Dismiss Steven Cohen’s Research

Studying fertility is a feminist and a Jewish enterprise.

Michelle Shain
Michelle Shain

I was not a victim of Steven Cohen.

I met Steven in 2007 when I was a first-year graduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, studying contemporary Jewry. He gave me my first paid job in the field: gathering paper copies of publications from the pre-digital era and scanning them into a database that later became the Berman Jewish Policy Archive. In the decade since, Steven involved me in research projects, introduced me to other scholars and helped me understand the complex process through which academic insights become policy change. I trusted his generosity, and I trusted him.

The recent revelations about Steven’s history of sexual predation shocked me to my core (“Harassment Allegations Mount Against Leading Jewish Sociologist,” July 19).

My heart aches for all the women in positions like mine who became Steven’s victims, and I welcome a public conversation about how to assure the dignity and safety of each member of the Jewish professional and academic communities.

Yet, in recent days I have been perturbed by an unexpected turn in this public conversation. There are those who have started declaring Steven’s body of work treif, who want to excise his books from our libraries and purge his insights from Jewish communal discourse. His research on marriage and fertility has come under particularly heavy fire. The idea that studying family formation patterns is sexist, exploitative, patriarchal or misogynistic is simply ludicrous.

As a feminist, I wholeheartedly reject the suggestion that marriage and childbearing stand in opposition to women’s professional success or control of our bodies. That is exactly the sort of zero-sum thinking that slows the march of egalitarianism. The truth is, survey data consistently shows that the vast majority of young American women want to marry and have children. Data from the Jewish Futures Project, a longitudinal panel study conducted by my colleagues and me at Brandeis University, confirm that young Jewish women are no different from their non-Jewish peers in this regard, a finding which has been corroborated in qualitative interview studies conducted by Prof. Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer. Health economist Benjamin M. Craig recently called the high prevalence of childless women who want a baby a “major public health concern.” Understanding the pathways and obstacles to contemporary marriage and parenthood benefits, not subjugates, Jewish women.

Yes, marriage and fertility are subjects of great interest to those who care about the future of the Jewish community, and deservedly so. The demographic vitality of the Jewish people involves the balance between two sets of factors: (1) births and deaths and (2) accessions and secessions. Advocating for programs and policies that will affect the balance of accessions and secessions while ignoring the realities of births and deaths is a fool’s errand.

Moreover, I believe that Jewish demographic vitality is meaningless unless it’s accompanied by a flourishing of normative Jewish values — including the mitzvah of procreation, the first commandment in the Torah. In the Talmud, tractate Shabbat (31a), Rava lists the questions that a Jew will be asked when facing final judgment. In the end, Rava says, our tasks in this world boil down to ethical behavior, the study of Torah, faith in God and having children. Helping the Jewish community understand the contemporary context for childbearing is a noble goal that is in no way consistent with sexual predation.

I was not a victim of Steven Cohen. Please don’t make me a victim of those who would address his personal failings by rejecting everyone who has learned from and built on his work.

Michelle Shain is an associate research scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.

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