Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Star of Davida Interviews Susannah Heschel

As someone who wants to pursue a PhD and hopes to teach feminist theory during her retirement, I greatly respect women and men who teach at the university level. One such woman is Susannah Heschel. In addition to being a Jewish Studies professor at Dartmouth University, Dr. Heschel is an ardent feminist. She has written several books, including On Being a Jewish Feminist, and contributed to dozens of feminist publications. Star of Davida had the honor of interviewing this amazing woman.

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 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 it was suggested that 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’ve never even 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, that it 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 PhD 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, like why the Protestant scholars that shaped the field of Hebrew Bible studies was 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 religious area.

Is this in any way a feminist issue?
Very much. It was always clear to me. 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.

You’ve written two books about the connection between Jesus and Judaism in Germany, and anti-Semitism in general. Why do you think this is such an important topic to explore?
It’s important to understand the roots of our scholarship and our academic thinking, and to try to examine what’s logical and what needs to be altered so we can make advances in our knowledge. I think scholarship is very much linked to culture and our self-understanding. Everything I’ve been saying has a feminist agenda, to expose discourse and understand where the biases come from so we can move beyond them.

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 Conservative conference about 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 and 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.

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

I knew that you were involved in Jewish-Islamic relations, since you convened a series of four international conferences of scholars in the fields of Jewish studies and Islamic studies. What do you think the most important thing you learned from them is?
There are quite a few things. Comparing feminist work in Islam and Judaism, there are some good techniques and arguments that are used by Muslim feminists that could be helpful to Jewish feminists. One example is the understanding that God in Islam isn’t beneath anything and not associated with anything, God is one and at the top, and if you try to associate something with God that’s called heresy. One Islamic feminist argument is that if you say men are above women then you’re saying men are like God, and that would be heresy. Another thing that stood out to me was the issues raised by migrations, what do Muslims do when they to a different country, how do they take identity with them and make a new one, what’s to be preserved and what’s to be changed? It’s a problem that Muslims and Jews face. For Jews in Diaspora, things have been quite diverse - Jews in Ottoman Turkey practiced Judaism differently than those in the US.

At the Women’s Liberation and Jewish Identity conference in March, you said that patriarchy isn’t Jewish. I can see many people disagreeing with that. What do you mean by that?
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.

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 brakha (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. Some women my age are inappropriate in professionalism either because they’re silly or very cold because they think that’s the only way to hold their own. It’s a problem. A lot of men of my age cohort never had a woman professor and never confronted feminist issues, and it’s hard for me to work with them. I feel my work is better received by younger scholars in my field. On one hand I’m glad because it gives it extra life, but it makes me sad about men of my generation. We’ve all had these experiences. There are men who act inappropriately in the workplace and also others who are so nervous that they will be inappropriate that they avoid women. I count the number of women who contributed to an editing book, who are thanked in the acknowledgements in a book, and if I see a certain field with too many men, I tell them that it’ll die because there are too few women - women are half the PhDs nowadays. Everyone who writes about my father are men and the conferences about him are dominated by men. It really annoys me and I don’t know what to do about it, but I feel really offended by it.

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 told them that I was the only woman there, and if they didn't get more women speakers I would wear a burqa. 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.

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