Scholar to parse the prophets for today’s troubled world
The message of hope and justice conveyed by the biblical prophets resonates today when racism and anti-Semitism is on the rise and the world seems to be wracked by hatred and violence.
Their hopeful messages will be analyzed March 24 by Dr. Susannah Heschel, chair of the Jewish Studies Department at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., during the annual Shabbat Kallah day of learning at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls. The program is funded through a bequest by former temple president Bob Rosin.
Heschel is the author of numerous books and articles and has received many awards and honors for her scholarship on feminism and Judaism, Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries, history of biblical scholarship, and anti-Semitism. She is also the daughter of famed civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
“Susannah picked up where [her dad] left off, taking prophecy to another level,” said Rabbi Marc Kline, religious leader of Monmouth Reform Temple. “Her dad convinced us that our hearts and souls need to be turned to wonder and amazement so that we see the world in new ways. Her scholarship asks of us that now that we are awake, how can we change the world?”
Rabbi Heschel’s book, “The Prophets,” influenced many of the leaders in the civil rights movement, including his friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Expounding on the work of her father will be the focus of this year’s program, coinciding with the upcoming 50th anniversary of King’s assassination on April 4.
Describing Susannah Heschel as “amazing,” Kline said, “I love reading her material and studying texts and material with her. Her dad had an influence on almost everything I’ve done.”
The program, “Prophet or Profit, What does Faith Demand of Us?” will kick off in the morning with a dvar Torah by Heschel, “Some are Guilty, but All are Responsible,” followed by lunch and two afternoon sessions, “The Prophetic Tradition and the Civil Rights Movement,” and “Ecstasy vs. Ethics: The Debate between Protestants and Jews over the Prophets.”
“Dr. King quoted the prophets all the time,” Heschel told NJJN in a phone interview from London, where she was lecturing.
In fact, she noted King’s excerpt from Amos 5:24, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” which he used in the famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, is inscribed on the national Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Just as her father was close with King, Heschel has maintained close ties with King’s children, and as recently as March 4 appeared with his daughter, Bernice King, in Milwaukee in a program cosponsored by the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center and Milwaukee Urban League.
In January, she led a group participating in the Jewish Federations of North America trip to historic civil rights destinations in Alabama — Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma.
“Jews are very concerned about racism and especially the uptick in racism and anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in the last year,” said Heschel. “I think the question for us to understand as Jews is that while, of course we are worried about anti-Semitism and of course we think about political and social history, but on Shabbat in particular we need to think about what we stand for as Jews, what we are proud of as Jews, our principles. When we stand up for others in a world full of injustice, do we remind them of the principles of the prophets, of justice?”
Building on the prophets’ legacy, she said, Jews have traditionally had a concern “for creating a society that is just” and cares for the less fortunate, “where we don’t ignore the widows, the orphans, the poor, people who are elderly.”
Heschel said the differing views of the prophets by Protestants and Jews have had a bearing on modern history.
“The view of the Protestant clergy was pretty negative while the Jews viewed them positively,” she explained. “I often think about those divergent philosophies. If you denigrate the prophets and say they’re a bunch of crazy people, the message is not to take them seriously. If you have admiration for them, you take them seriously.”
Heschel said, while the current Protestant view on the prophets “is not as bad,” she often wonders if German clergy had taken their message to heart as anti-Semitism began to rise in the 1920s and 1930s, would they have stood up to Nazism?
Today, “when we live in a world where many feel hopeless,” Heschel believes the prophets’ messages still resonate.
“I think they are still relevant in a society where people are marginalized, live in poverty, and where there is a rise in anti-Semitic and racist attacks,” she noted. “In a society where many people feel hopeless, the prophets are the ones who spoke about a future of peace where people have hope.”