Dr. Susannah Heschel Helps to Usher in Jewish Studies at UCR

By Kathryn Webber, Graduate Student Editor of CHASS College Computing

Dr. Susannah Heschel

On January 11, UC Riverside welcomed Dr. Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black Chair in Jewish Studies and associate professor of Religion from Dartmouth College . Dr. Heschel’s talk, entitled “Jewish Studies: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Expressions,” was the inaugural lecture in the Jewish Studies Lecture Series. The Lecture Series is the first of several important steps that the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences is taking toward the establishment of a of Jewish Studies program.

As an important scholar in the field, Dr. Heschel was called upon to discuss Jewish Studies in a historical context while also suggesting future challenges for the field. Her talk, encompassing two centuries of the history of Jewish Studies, began in nineteenth century Europe where Jewish emancipation had only very recently been achieved. According to Dr. Heschel, the debates that characterized this period of Jewish Studies included issues of perspective and purpose. Should Jewish history be conceived of as central to European history? Was the emphasis of Jewish Studies to be dogmatic like that of Christian theology? The challenge of re-centering Jewishness, in a society which had consistently pushed Jewish culture to the margins, was enormous.

In the late nineteenth century, debates about the position of Jewish Studies within the University continued. Jewish Studies, said Dr. Heschel, tended to be dominated by Protestant academics whose focus was often different than their Jewish counterparts. For example, Protestant academics frequently studied ancient Judaism with a particular emphasis on the ways in which Jewish culture and theology gave rise to Christianity. This perspective obscured contemporary Jewish culture and suggested that there was little worth studying beyond Judaism’s contribution to Christianity. While Jewish Studies continued to gain ground in the Academy in the early twentieth century, it was often established within “Oriental Studies” or “Semitic Studies” Departments, joining it with other racialized projects and reinforcing its subordinate status.

Dr. Heschel discussed the important shift in Jewish Studies that occurred in the decades following the Second World War. With the rise of identity politics in the 1970s, Jewish Studies claimed a space alongside African American Studies and Women’s Studies. At this point, Jewish Studies debated issues like the importance of identity and the intended audience for its scholarship.

Today, Jewish Studies continues to address these concerns, but has also come into conversation with a number disciplines. Dr. Heschel suggested that Jewish Studies should push its boundaries without failing to question Jewishness itself. Dr. Heschel charged Jewish Studies with a number of considerations. For example, what is the function of Jewishness within globalization? If identity is diasporic, crossing national boundaries, how do you take your identity with you? How is Jewish identity created and performed? How has Jewishness been used to define Christianity as well as Orientalizing the Other?

Dr. Heschel submitted these and other important matters to the care of Jewish Studies, expressing hope that the new Jewish Studies program at UCR would not shy away from confronting these challenging, and sometimes controversial questions.

Dr. Susannah Heschel’s research areas have included modern Jewish thought, feminist theology, and German Protestantism. In addition to numerous scholarly articles, Dr. Heschel co-edited Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multi-culturalism, published by the University of California Press in 1998, and authored Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, published in 1998 by the University of Chicago.

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