Why This Trailblazing Feminist Puts an Orange on the Seder Plate

Susannah Heschel addresses Conservative Judaism, academia, migrant rights in Israel and the 'invisible mechitsa.'

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Professor Susannah Heschel has many qualities in common with her legendary father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Not all of them make her life simple.

She has clearly followed in the footsteps of the late, great Jewish theologian, philosopher, and professor when it comes to scholarship. As the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, she has written and edited many books and articles and received numerous honors, awards, and prestigious grants.

And like her father, she doesn’t feel truly at home in any one sect of Judaism. She prefers the intellectual rigor and commitment of the Orthodox world but as a committed feminist, she also feels she has a right to fully and actively participate in all aspects of Jewish ritual.

As a young woman, she applied to the Jewish Theological Seminary before they admitted women, knowing that she would be turned down. She did so with the blessing of her father, a long-time JTS faculty member.

She is here in Israel to participate in a few conferences, arriving from Germany where she has been living for the past year, conducting research for her next book. Sitting in a cafe on the Tel Aviv University campus, with her wide smile and sympathetic air, it’s easy to imagine that she could have been a rabbi.  But academic life clearly suits her. Perhaps, she says, the JTS rejection worked out for the best.

“For a long time I was upset that I could not become a rabbi,” she says. “I felt that was my calling and I had inherited it from many generations. But on the other hand, in the modern liberal synagogue, the way the rabbi functions is really not what I had in mind.  What I had in mind was much more of the Hasidic model - a teacher, a spiritual adviser or guide, someone who would set a community on fire.”

Rabbis today, she says, must dedicate much of their time to administrative concerns and congregational politics, with little time left for spiritual and intellectual rigor. But it is the lack of warmth and human connection in the Conservative denomination her father committed his life to that she finds most problematic.

One example in particular left her bitter. When her mother was ill and Heschel was teaching five hours away at Dartmouth, she called JTS to ask if a student would bring her mother some food from the cafeteria, a 10-minute walk away.  They said no.  The students were too busy.

“Can you imagine? For goodness sakes, if I’d called up a Catholic church, they would have helped immediately. But this was the Jewish Theological Seminary where my father taught for 22 years. That’s really incredible.  I don’t feel particularly committed to the Conservative movement after that.”

She says that she enjoys attending services in a variety of environments and has a soft spot for the outreach ethos of the Chabad movement. “I went to Germany for two months to learn German at a time when I didn’t want to talk to any Germans,” she says.  “I went to the Chabad family. I had Shabbat with them and that is what saved me. By contrast, how many times was I invited by a Reform or Conservative rabbi for Shabbat when I was a student in the United States? Very rarely.”

It was Heschel’s academic focus that brought her to Germany, to the same place where her father’s scholarly career was interrupted by the Nazi regime, driving him to Poland and then the U.S. Her research focuses on the work of Jewish scholars who were studying other religions from the 1830s until the mid-20th century.

Heschel’s academic journey began with her love for the Hebrew Bible and developed through graduate school when she discovered that scholarship on the subject was problematic. She found that most of the scholarship viewed the Hebrew Bible in a negative light and “didn’t have a sense of the poetry of the text." So she began researching the history of biblical scholarship, including 19th-century German thought.

After producing two important books on Jewish scholarship and Christianity, “Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus” and “The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany,”her current work focuses on the history of Jewish scholarship and Islam.

“The Jews founded the field of Islamic studies in Germany in the 1830s. It was a Jew who translated the Koran into modern German and it was a Jew who translated the Koran into Hebrew.  If they hadn’t done this, the whole field of Islamic studies would be very different today. What is interesting to me was how these Jews developed a vision of Islam as ethical and strongly monotheistic and then in turn modeled their Judaism after it.”

At that time, Islam was seen by Jewish scholars as much more receptive and tolerant of Judaism than Christianity, and there was an affinity between the two religions. Clearly that has changed.

“For a long time we as Jews spoke about Arab enmity toward Jews," Heschel points out. "More recently in the last 10-15 years, we now talk about the Islamic enmity toward Judaism. That’s certainly a sharp break with the 19th-century position.”

As we sat for our interview in Tel Aviv, the main news story in Israel was the mass detention and deportation of African migrants. Heschel finds these developments particularly upsetting.

“Whatever the political and social and economic problems, it is horrifying to hear the dilemma racialized in such a vulgar way. Israel will miss a great opportunity to show the world how to behave and, I fear, disgrace itself and the memory of Jewish history.”

The developments touch on another part of her family legacy. Her father was famous across the Jewish world for his close friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights movement, something his daughter is proud of. She also does not forget the tension it caused between him and some of the American Jewish establishment.

“There were many rabbis who joined him in the civil rights movement," she says. "But not enough.”

For her part, Heschel the younger has made her political mark in the feminist arena. She is the author of the book “On Being a Jewish Feminist,” but her real claim to fame comes from a tradition she created of putting an orange on the seder plate. The popular story behind the ritual is an urban legend, suggesting she did it because a rabbi once told her, "A woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the seder plate."

In truth, the idea occured after a visit to a university where some students had been putting bread crusts on the seder place as a symbol of protest against the exclusion of women, gays and lesbians. Excited by the idea, but not the execution, Heschel proposed an alternative that did not bring hametz onto the seder table. The orange was to be consumed and the seeds spit out - representing the rejection of homophobia.

She maintains that women are still fighting for equality in all sects of Judaism. “I don't think the liberal community has solved the problem,” she says. “They think they have but there is still an invisible mechitsa in a lot of these Reform and Conservative synagogues. There is a patronizing quality that I encounter.”

Heschel also fights feminist battles in her professional life. Though women have made progress in academia, she feels there is still a long way to go. “I was asked to do a conference in Germany and I saw I was  the only woman on the schedule,” she recalls.  “I said, Look, either you ask another woman to speak or I will give my lecture in a burka, because that’s how you make me feel.”

Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is paving her own way in Judaism and academia.Credit: Moti Milrod
Martin Luther King Jr. marching in Selma, Alabama, alongside John Lewis, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and other civil rights activists.Credit: AP

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