Interview with Dr. Susannah Heschel
Published by Faith & Leadership on Monday, November 3, 2014
Q: Explain a little bit about the European Jewish tradition from which your family came.
My father was born in Warsaw to a Hasidic family, a pietistic family. He was the son of very distinguished Hasidic rebbes, who constituted a kind of royalty within Jewish life. It’s a tradition of intense prayer and cultivation of the inner self, but also how you treat other people.
But my grandfather left that world and took a position in one of the most impoverished Jewish neighborhoods in Warsaw. I think that tells you something about the religious commitments of my family and the political commitments.
It’s part of the family tradition: to be religious means to be open to human beings from all kinds of backgrounds, to be respectful of them and to care for them. To care for those who are impoverished, who are victims of injustice that pervades societies.
Q: After your father came to this country, did his work here diverge from that Hasidic tradition?
My father was expected to become a Hasidic rebbe, but he used to say he felt that the world needed something more from him at this point in history. The president of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Belkin, once said to my father, “You’re a rabbi to the world.”
And a lot of people who are Jewish — or even Christian — said to my father, “You’re my rabbi.” I think they meant that he was their spiritual guide and that they wanted a rabbi in their lives.
Did my father diverge in some way? He diverged in a couple of ways. One is that there’s an old Hasidic theological conviction that God needs us. It goes back to rabbinic Judaism and to the prophets. There is a divine need. My father calls it divine pathos. That need is for us to observe the commandments, for example, to help God achieve redemption.
It’s not only we who are in exile, but God is in exile. Classically, in Jewish thought, we help God achieve redemption through observance of the mitzvot, of the commandments, keeping the Sabbath and prayer.
My father expanded that understanding to include also commandments that involve care for other people. His concern was with all human beings. “Never be indifferent to other people’s suffering” was the way he concluded a brief talk about the Holocaust. He didn’t say, “Make sure nothing like this happens to us again” — never happens to anybody else, ever.
Q: You used the word “rebbe.” Does that just mean rabbi, or does the word “rebbe” have a different meaning?
I think “rebbe” has a different meaning. The rebbe is not necessarily somebody who makes legal decisions. He’s not necessarily somebody who gives a sermon or presides over the service.
But rather, a Hasidic rebbe is somebody who is a spiritual nurturer of a community.
Here’s a story about a rebbe, one of my father’s ancestors. This was a story that my father used to tell frequently. This was the man for whom my father was named, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who lived first in Apt, then in Iaşi and then in Mezhbizh in the 19th century. He died in 1825.
People used to come to him all the time. He was a very warm, outgoing, charismatic figure. People would come to him every day to pour out their troubles, to ask him for advice, to ask him to pray for a sick child, to be able to earn a living, to find a marriage partner for a child, for example. But they came day after day, hour after hour.
His assistant one day asked him, “How do you remember all these people by the end of the day, all these people who have come to see you? How do you keep them straight and remember whom to pray for for what problems and so forth?”
The [rebbe] responded by saying, “When someone comes to me and they pour out their troubles, I open my heart, and their sorrows come into my heart and make a scar. When I go to pray, I open my heart to God and I say, ‘Look at all these scars.’”
In some sense, that’s the definition of a rebbe. He spends his day cultivating his inner life, so that he can be that kind of person for you. That’s the kind of person my father was — exactly.
Q: You have gone on to your own distinguished career as a Jewish scholar. Is it intimidating to be his daughter, going into the same field?
I would say that I — like every woman — I have faced terrible sexism, ridiculous sexism, sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle. That, if anything, was the major limitation for me and for other women.
I never had a woman professor, not as an undergraduate. The only time in graduate school is when I took a course in medieval church history from a woman professor. But that’s it. I was the first woman professor in my department in my first two academic posts. That was also a difficult thing. So that’s my big problem.
Now, in terms of my father, I would say that I don’t feel intimidated; I feel inspired by him and by his work. If anything, I wish he were alive to read what I’ve written, to talk about it with me. I think he would’ve loved my book on Abraham Geiger. I came to Geiger because I heard about him from my father.
Then I wrote a book about Protestant theologians in Nazi Germany who supported Hitler. Some of these were people that my father knew. I think he would have been upset, as I was upset, to discover what I discovered in these archives.
Now I’m writing a book about Jewish scholarship on Islam. I think he would have found that fascinating also. Again, I’d love to talk to him about some of the complexities. Is this Orientalism or is it not Orientalism? How do we understand what’s going on in this kind of scholarship?
Q: One of the concerns that people in the church have is the declining number of young people, which is a concern in American Judaism as well. I think your perspective might be interesting on that.
I think that a lot of what my father wrote very critically about the state of the synagogue in America and the state of Jewish life back in the 1950s is still true today.
That is, he warned of religious behaviorism among the Orthodox. That they perform all the correct Jewish commandments, but without any heart and soul and without any meaning. He warned against that.
He also warned the Reform movement about customs and ceremonies, reducing everything to some kind of little ritual imitation of others without a sense of being commanded. They’re no longer mitzvoth, they’re customs and ceremonies. He was using the language of the anthropologists.
He criticized the synagogues for being cold, so terribly cold, and the congregants for being passive, that there was a vicarious praying going on, the rabbi and the cantor praying in behalf of the congregation. There was no life, no vitality.
It’s true to this day. It’s true in many synagogues. Somebody once said to me, “Jews don’t pray; Jews say words. Christians pray.”
It’s certainly not true. Of course Jews pray. We learn about prayer even from the Bible. Look at how Hannah prays. That’s the model for how to pray as a Jew. Of course we pray.
But if a Jew could come and say something like that, then something’s not getting across properly. That’s awful.
I find with my children also, when they went to Jewish day schools, that they were not taught how to pray. They were not taught how to think about God, to cultivate the sense of God’s presence.
My father once went to my school when I was in fourth grade for a parent-teacher meeting. He told the teachers, “Why don’t you teach the children poetry?” The reason obviously was that if you don’t know how to read poetry, you don’t know how to pray.
Q: Would a more spiritual approach attract the younger generation, especially people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious?
You know, it will take a long time to bring everybody back, because I think people who had been raised for so long with nothing, without any Jewish life, they don’t even know anymore what they’re missing.
My father knew there’s going to be no one single Judaism for everybody. It doesn’t work that way. He was definitely supportive of a variety of Judaism. He said he would never tell people, “This is the only way to be Jewish.”
People would sometimes call us up at home — a stranger — asking my father, “I want to be Jewish, but I don’t know what to do. I was born a Jew; now I want to be religious.” And he would say, “Kindle the Shabbat candles. Just do that and see where it leads you.”
Q: You mentioned several of your books and your current book on Islam. Where do you see Judaism in this mix, either religiously or culturally?
Increasingly, Jews are beginning to speak about influences of Islam on Judaism and Jewish law. For example, how Jewish law had to modify itself because Islamic law was so liberal in certain respects. There were women who would convert to Islam in order to get a divorce, which put pressure on the rabbis to liberalize Jewish divorce laws. So these are some of the things that I think are very interesting.
Q: Is there anything else you would want to add to our conversation?
As people concerned about religious life, we have to ask ourselves, what does it mean to be religious in an age of neoliberalism?
What does it mean to be religious in an era where my self becomes an entrepreneurial project? I am an object of my own hard endeavor to be healthy, enthusiastic, attentive and engaged. There is a turn away from society to the self.
I can imagine so well what the prophets would be screaming about us today — “What foolishness, what stupidity, what arrogance to think that you can live like this. You can take care of yourself only, and that’s it, and everything will be fine? And you yourself will flourish? And in what way?”
I think there’s a greater need than ever before for religious voices. And I hope we’ll meet the challenge.
Republished with the author’s permission.
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