10 Questions For Susannah Heschel

The noted Jewish studies professor (and daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel) on feminism, religious studies and bias in society.
A photo of Susannah Heschel.

Susannah Heschel is a Jewish studies professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H, and the daughter of the influential Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. She is also a prominent Jewish feminist, having written several books including, “On Being a Jewish Feminist,” and dozens of articles for Jewish and feminist publications. She is also active in interfaith relations. I heard her speak in April 2011 at the Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity Conference and immediately was taken with her work. The conference was sponsored by the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University. I spoke to her recently about her life and work.

I know you must get this a lot, but do you feel that you’re living out your father’s legacy?
I’ve never thought of it that way. I think he was Jewish in a way that’s different than most people think, and are, so I do feel influenced by him in that respect.

What was your inspiration to get involved in feminism?
I think that if you’re born a woman with a mind and an independent spirit and a sense of courage, you’re a feminist. I took myself seriously, so I felt that it wasn’t right that I should be excluded from things that are important, both religiously and secularly.

I understand that your father suggested you become a rabbi. Why didn’t you become one when the option became available to women?
I did look at the Reform movement, but I didn’t feel that I was a Reform Jew. I had never been to a service, but I do admire the Reform movement. At the time I was young and hadn’t been exposed and it didn’t seem right for me. Then I started graduate school and I loved what I was doing, and I felt that I was intellectually suited for academic work. I felt that academic work was asking the kinds of critical historical questions that were appealing and interesting to me. At the same time I’ve always had moments when I wish I’d become a rabbi.

Why did you pursue a doctorate in religious studies?
I’m interested in religion and religious thought and its history, the history of biblical scholarship and why scholars construct the text the way they do. I started understanding why the Bible was constructed the way it was. For example, the Protestant scholars that shaped the field of Hebrew Bible studies were significant. I love the prophets and I’m sure that was because of my father and the civil rights movement, so that was my interest originally. When I studied the prophets on an academic level I realized the scholarship on the prophets was a problem; sometimes they were called hysterics or epileptics or people incapable of love or that they have nothing to do with Judaism, that they were just precursors to Jesus, things like that. I was learning in a university, not a religious seminary.

What are some ways to move beyond the biases?
Recognition is very important, and articulation, but the other thing that has to do with it is the emotional valence. For example, if we come across something anti-Semitic, we can be serious about it and examine its roots and implications, but we also have to pull the sting out. It can be through shame or humor; there are different approaches one can take to change attitudes. When I published my book on Jewish feminism, beforehand I got really angry about stuff said about women. When Mortimer Ostow, a very sexist theorist on anti-Semitism, gave the keynote at a Conservative conference about the status of women, what he said was horrible and I paced for days I was so enraged. Then I published my book and I went around lecturing, and when I would quote him… people would laugh at him. I found I could make people laugh with how ludicrous his sexism was and that’s changed things for me. [Ostow’s address was about how women shouldn’t be ordained as rabbis because it would damage men’s psyches.]

So I understand that you were just on a sabbatical. What were you doing with your time?
I’m writing a book on the history of Jewish scholarship on Islam.

At the Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity conference in April at New York University, you said that patriarchy isn’t Jewish. I can see many people disagreeing with that. What did you mean?
I say it’s not Jewish because we don’t have a monopoly on it. It’s within the culture we live in and we as Jews have adapted to it; we’ve swallowed it. When I was a child I used to say to people, God doesn’t want me to sit behind a curtain, men want it; it just seemed so true to me. Things get constructed for women that serve men’s interests. The issue for me was who controls the discourse. It doesn’t matter if rabbis say something positive about women, what matters is who are the rabbis, who’s doing the talking. We hear only men talking, not women, and that’s a problem. The issue is who’s having the conversation. 

I only recently found out that it was your idea to put an orange on a seder plate to represent solidarity with Jewish homosexuals. What inspired this? Why an orange?
First of all, I wasn’t raised with biases against gay people; my parents had gay friends. It was just normal to me—it wasn’t an issue. No one made a particular distinction. In the era of AIDS, when I grew up, people were saying such terrible things about the gay community, and I felt that we needed to speak out. This was my way. Oranges have segments and are attached; they’re all linked into one whole, one community. We’re all together and we can’t eliminate—we can’t just take out one piece. At the seder, everyone would take a piece of orange and we’d all say the bracha (blessing) on the fruit together. In the moment of a religious occasion, that’s where you say something like that, not just at a lecture. Then we’d spit out the seeds of homophobia.

Do you have any words of advice for the next generation’s feminists?
First of all, feminism is about women. Of course there are lots of issues about Jewish life and fairness and equality and so forth that need to be addressed and changed, but this is a movement about women and women’s rights, and the battle isn’t over. I’m still invited to conferences where I’m the only woman speaking and my colleagues still have conferences and research projects where all the participants are men. Exclusion and patronizing issues still exist, even at the senior level. It’s hard because in my generation there aren’t a lot of professional women. We’re still figuring out how to act and what it means to be a professional.

How can we fix the problems?
We have to talk about it, pressure people, and recognize that this is the issue. Men should be part of the solution—they should speak about it as well. It’s hard to determine how to do it sometimes. Do we shame people? Do we make it a joke? Once I went to people at a conference I was speaking at and said, “I’m the only woman here, so get more or I’ll wear a burqa when I speak.” They did get more women, but I shouldn’t have been the only one saying that. We have to agitate, make sure people are aware.

author's bio: 
  Talia Weisberg is a junior at Manhattan High School for Girls.