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Brian Solomon’s Guide To The Stars: Jewish Studies Prof. Susannah Heschel

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Susannah Heschel1.jpgSusannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies and the Chair of the Jewish Studies department at the College. She is a renowned scholar of the history of anti-Semitism and Jewish-Christian relationships, especially focused on Germany over the last two centuries.

Heschel says that as a child, she wished that she had had an accent because it was “the mark of a scholar.” Her father, the Polish-born Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was a famous theologian and philosopher who escaped Germany just before the beginning of World War II. He filled Susannah’s home with rabbis and historians — and, as a civil right advocate, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma. Despite being a “naughty” child in Hebrew School, she felt the Bible come alive when hearing King speak. So it was no surprise when the daughter followed the father into religious study. However, when she asked the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York to consider her application in 1972, the conservative school was not yet accepting women.

Thwarted, Heschel took a different path. After earning her undergraduate degree at Trinity College (where she currently serves on the Board of Trustees) and her Masters at Harvard Divinity School, and after spending time at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she enrolled as a Ph.D. student at Penn. There she came across the work of Abraham Geiger, the 19th century German rabbi, historian, and founding father of Reform Judaism. Heschel’s first book, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, showed that Geiger was influential in recasting Jesus within the context of the Jewish world in which he lived. He wrote that Jesus was, rather than a pioneer, a member of the liberal Pharisees group of Jews in the first century. As Heschel documents, this argument did not win Geiger many friends among German Protestants.

After Penn, Heschel taught for three years at Southern Methodist University, offering Jewish history courses to both to Christians and a few Jewish “ducklings” who followed her from course to course. She then went to Case Western, spent a year at the University of Frankfurt, and returned to Case, where she met her husband — now-retired Earth Sciences professor Jim Aronson. After more travels, the two began teaching at Dartmouth in 1998.

Since her arrival in Hanover, Heschel has been an instrumental member of the vibrant Jewish Studies department at the College (over a quarter of the sophomore class took a JWST course this past summer), as well as an avid researcher and writer of more than 100 articles. She followed up the book on Geiger with two more she edited: Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism and Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust. She has received grants from the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, and she is currently a Guggenheim Fellow.

Next, in a book that will come out first in German — Heschel spent the 2011-2012 academic year at the Berlin Wissenschaftskolleg (also known as the Institute for Advanced Study Berlin) — she will explore how European Jewish scholars approached Islam from the 1830s until the 1930s.

Heschel’s most recent book, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany, took on a dark theme. It examined how an institute of German Protestant theologians funded by the Nazis systematically eradicated Jewish references and influences in the New Testament and placed Jesus at the center of a radically anti-Semitic Christianity. This group of theologians remained active even in postwar Germany. Hear her discuss the subject more in this 2013 lecture at Creighton University:

Heschel has received recognition from around the world, serving as a visiting professor at the Universities of Cape Town, Frankfurt, and Edinburgh, as well as at Princeton. She is also the recipient of four honorary doctorates from institutions in three different countries: the United States, Canada, and Germany. Last month she received the Moses Mendelssohn award from the Leo Baeck Institute for “outstanding scholarly contributions” to the study of German-Jewish culture.

Despite all her scholarly achievement, Heschel’s favorite thing to do is teach undergraduates of all faiths and backgrounds at Dartmouth. She typically works with one or two Presidential Scholars each year, and this summer she taught her popular JWST 34: History of the Jews in Germany course to a class of 186 students. This coming spring she’s co-teaching JWST 26: Jewish Views of Christianity with a visiting professor from Israel.

Joe Asch’s Addendum: Despite an obviously heavy schedule, this past summer Susannah audited, as I did, Hebrew University Professor Hillel Cohen’s undergraduate course on the history of the Middle East conflict, JWST 40: Jews & Arabs, Palestine-Israel. I don’t think she missed a lecture.

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