Susannah Heschel is Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. She is the author of several books and many essays on topics ranging from Jewish feminism and American Jews and multiculturalism to the Jewish Jesus and the Aryan Jesus. Currently, she is working on a study of European Jewish scholarship on Islam.
Heschel is the daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), one of the most important Jewish theologians and philosophers of the twentieth century. His books include The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (1951). Professor Heschel will speak at Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin on Sunday, February 23, at 7 p.m. (cost: $10 per person).
She is interviewed here by Julia Lupton, professor of English at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and a Congregation B’nai Israel (CBI) board member.
You’ve received a Guggenheim Fellowship. What are you working on? What’s the best thing about having a year to devote to your research? I am thrilled to have won a Guggenheim Fellowship, but I have postponed it a year, because I’ve just now returned to Dartmouth after a year at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, an institute for advanced study. The topic I worked on in Berlin and hope to complete during my Guggenheim fellowship is a study of European Jewish scholarship on Islam. I am intrigued that so many Jews flocked to the study of Arabic and Islam, starting in the 1830s – and most of these were young Jewish men from Orthodox homes who had received traditional Jewish education in Hebrew texts. For them, it was startling to see the parallels between the Qur’an and rabbinic literature – Mishnah and Midrash. By the 1920s, Jewish scholars came to dominate the field of Islamic Studies in Germany, a field that was basically destroyed by Hitler by expelling Jews from the universities. It has taken quite a few decades since the war for Germany to rebuild the field.
My curiosity is sparked by this sudden Jewish interest in Islam, which was not shared by non-Jewish German scholars. Jewish scholars admired Islam and devoted great energy to pointing out both parallels and Jewish influences on Islamic thought and religious practice. Islam was portrayed by them as a religion that was rational, insistent on strict monotheism, rejecting all anthropomorphism and adhering to a religious law that was highly ethical. Indeed, Islam was called a religion of “ethical monotheism” just as Judaism is.
Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with your father, Abraham Joshua Heschel? I was very, very close to my father and still feel very close to him. He was a very loving, gentle, empathetic father and an extraordinary human being. His contributions were enormous in many fields. For example, he inspired Jews around the world to understand that Judaism commands social engagement and serious political commitment, at the same time that he inspired Jews to study, appreciate and regain their religious traditions. He was brave and walked firmly when other Jews hesitated or hid, marching at Selma, meeting with Vatican officials, including the pope, during the Second Vatican Council, fervently opposing the war in Vietnam, speaking out on behalf of Soviet Jews and much more. He was frequently isolated, often attacked by colleagues, even by friends and former students, for the public positions he took. After his death, some of his self-proclaimed disciples insisted that he would have become a Republican had he lived longer – which is nonsense, of course.
What do you consider to be your father’s most enduring contribution to modern Judaism? So many changes in Jewish life have been inspired by my father – but also in the Christian world. Christians who read my father’s writings tell me that they now see Judaism differently, and I constantly see theologians, popes and presidents quoting my father. Indeed, President Obama told me, “Your father is our hero,” and that he has my father’s books on his shelf and quotes from them. So the range of my father’s influence is great, even if the goals he longed for – an end to poverty, no more war, gentler hearts – have not yet been reached.
From where you sit, what do you think are the most urgent and interesting developments in Jewish studies and Jewish life right now? Jewish Studies has become a vibrant field, which is wonderful. As someone who has theoretical dimensions to my work – for instance, postcolonial theory in my study of Abraham Geiger, queer theory in my study of Christian and Jewish views of Jesus – I am delighted that theory is increasingly brought to bear in the writings of younger scholars. If I have worries, they would be that Jewish Studies should be better integrated into the intellectual life of the academy, a problem that has to be addressed by both sides. Jewish Studies is too often manipulated by the wealth of donors, rather than the interests of students and the requisites of the scholarly agenda.
What thrills me is to see the changes that have taken place for Jewish women in the last few decades. When I published On Being a Jewish Feminist in 1983, I never imagined that so many of our goals would be achieved in my lifetime – imagine, women ordained as Orthodox rabbis! GLBTQ rabbis! Oranges on Seder plates! A flourishing field of Jewish women’s studies! Women deans of rabbinical colleges! Of course, every advance we make brings the awareness of additional problems that require attention, but I am amazed that we have come this far, and I am thrilled that we can hope for further advances in coming decades.
WHO: Professor Susannah Heschel
WHAT: In conversation with Rabbi Elie Spitz
WHEN: Sunday, February 23, 2014, at 7 p.m.
WHERE: Congregation B’nai Israel, 2111 Bryan Avenue, Tustin, CA 92782.
COST: $10 per person; contact firstname.lastname@example.org
or call (714) 730-9a693
WHY: Susannah Heschel, the daughter of one of the foremost 20th-century Jewish thinkers, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72), is the author of a prize-winning monograph, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (University of Chicago Press), which won a National Jewish Book Award, and The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton University Press). She has also published and edited her father’s essays.