Susannah Heschel, author of an early seminal book on Jewish feminism, an academic and the daughter of pre-eminent scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, says Jewish life today is too much about identity and not enough about religiosity, God and spirituality.
Focusing on God’s presence in the world, she believes, is the way forward after the last century, during which assimilation, nationalism, Zionism and anti-Semitism topped the Jewish communal agenda.
“We need to recapture aspects of Judaism that were lost in the postwar years. People at that time thought that being religious, and especially Orthodox, was outmoded, but it’s not true,” Heschel told J. as she prepared to fly to the Bay Area from her home in Newton, Mass., for a lecture next week at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco and a class at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills on behalf of Lehrhaus Judaica.
“We focus too much on Jewish identity in the political and secular sense. We talk about intermarriage a lot, but what we need to be more concerned about is God and faith,” said Heschel, who is the Eli Black professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College. Her scholarship focuses on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of biblical scholarship and the history of anti-Semitism.
She says many leaders and researchers of the Jewish community are missing the mark. “I’m not crazy about surveys asking about the numbers of Jews lighting Shabbat candles,” Heschel said. “People should be asked about what the lighting of the candles means to them. The centrally important thing for Jews is the awareness of God’s presence. If we abandon this awareness, we stop being Jews.”
The challenge, she acknowledges, is how to re-establish this sense of God’s presence and find a new way of being religious, engaged with the world and concerned with all human beings. According to Heschel, this poses the greatest challenge to the Orthodox, who tend to concern themselves only with the Jewish community.
Heschel sees prayer as critical to this recovery. “Prayer has always been the greatest preoccupation of the Jews throughout history,” she explained. “Praying is a cultivating of the self, and of gaining values from the words in the prayerbook.”
All Jewish institutions need to be more attentive to what Jews really want, she posits, so that all Jews, including those who identify primarily as cultural Jews, can develop a sense of religiosity. For instance, she’d like to see Jewish day schools teach students how to recite Psalms. “Prayer is poetry, and we should be cultivating a sense of poetry and ahavas HaShem [a love of God] in our children.”
While Heschel is realistic about differences among Jews, she hopes the major divides between the Orthodox and Reform Jews can be overcome. “My father’s family was Hassidic and my mother’s was Reform, and we got along with both sides,” she said by way of personal example. “This was in the decades immediately following the Holocaust … we weren’t interested in Jews fighting with one another. Everything Jewish was precious.”
She personally makes a deliberate effort to take her two teenage children to Shabbat services at different synagogues. “I’m trying to expose them to a whole range of religious and political views, including on Israel.”
Her lecture at Emanu-El on Tuesday, Feb. 25, given in memory of Rabbi Leo Trepp, the longest-living European-born rabbi to have survived the Holocaust, is titled “Redefining 21st Century Jewish Identity: Can We Be Morally Grand and Spiritually Audacious?” It is a nod to a book of essays by her father that she edited, “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.”
She understands that audience members will want to hear about her famous father. “I didn’t think of him as well-known,” she shared. “He was the most wonderful father you could imagine and I loved him tremendously.”
Nor will Heschel be surprised if someone in the audience asks her about her role in starting the feminist tradition of adding an orange to the Passover seder plate. She said the story — about her giving a talk at a Miami synagogue, where an elderly male rabbi declared that “A woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the seder plate” — is apocryphal.
“The true story is that I was inspired in the mid-1980s by some people at Oberlin College who wrote a Haggadah for Jewish lesbians. They had a rabbi who put a crust of bread on the seder plate,” she recounted. “I thought that a crust of bread was transgressive. But being gay is not transgressive, so I used an orange and added a blessing and suggested people spit out the seeds as a symbol of spitting out homophobia. The placing of an orange on the seder plate is in solidarity with all marginalized Jews and not only gay ones.”
Heschel is still engaged in feminist concerns, but mainly through academia. She is on the women’s studies faculty, as well as the Jewish studies faculty, at Dartmouth. She finds that her feminist studies and anti-Semitism studies inform one another.
“Much of what feminists have done in analyzing sexism has helped me in understanding anti-Semitism, of seeing the subtleties more clearly,” she said.
Susannah Heschel will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 25 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. Free. www.emanuelsf.org. She will lead a class for Lehrhaus Judaica at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26 at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. Free. www.tinyurl.com/ljt9vla.