- Reversing the Gaze
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Clare said she brought us together because "a willingness to look at and revise paradigms" stands out in our work.
In 2007, Bridges published my essay, "We Are All Here." I described visiting Lithuania, the land of my Jewish forebears, and meeting people who were reaching out and challenging their fellow citizens to face the past. These brave people moved me and led me to examine and change my own thinking. I've continued with this work. My book, We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, will be published next year by the University of Nebraska Press.
Susannah, your 2009 essay in Bridges beautifully described your father, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), who was one of the leading Jewish theologians of the 20th century, as well as an iconic activist. To me, your father emerges as an important "bridge" figure. He embodied the Civil Rights Movement within the Jewish world, and the Jewish world within the Civil Rights Movement.
My father was an iconoclast. He never accepted ideas that were presented, but constantly turned them around, over and over, to examine their sources, methods, assumptions. Scholarship, for him, was not the accumulation of ideas, but the ability to develop new paradigms that would enable us to better understand.
The result for me was an attitude of skepticism. I was simply born a feminist—challenging, questioning, unwilling to accept a second-class position. When my father spoke about the importance of study and prayer in [End Page 151] Judaism, for example, I said that if these things are so important, why are women excluded?
My father agreed with me—indeed, I was blessed to have a father who supported all of my feminist goals and interpretations.
I was brought up in a "mixed" marriage. My mother was a secular Jew and my father nominally a Christian. I feel that both my Jewish background and the experience of a mixed, not-quite-Jewish upbringing prepared me for the work I've done.
Although I went to Lithuania in search of my Jewish roots, I pushed myself to step out of the world of the Jewish past, to question the prejudices against Lithuanian "bystanders" that I had grown up with, to widen the lens and expand my sympathies beyond the boundaries I had been taught as a child.
Just as Lithuanians are being urged to examine their past, I began to ask myself new questions: Can we carry forward the memory of the Holocaust without perpetuating the hatreds of the past? What kind of connection should the descendants of the victims have with a land where Jewish culture was annihilated? What happens if we step away from the categories we were brought up with—victims, bystanders, perpetrators?
I fully agree that we need to change the categories—victims, bystanders, perpetrators—and think in more complex ways.
The constant striving to change perspective, not to accept the status quo, whether in religious practice or in scholarship, is precisely what has informed my feminism. In 1983, my first book, On Being a Jewish Feminist, spoke out against elements of Judaism that stifled spiritual life. I sought to describe not Judaism's view of women, but feminists' views of Judaism. "Reversing the gaze" in this way, insisting that women become the subjects, was considered radical at that time.
Much of my work on Jewish history is shaped by my immersion in women's studies and feminist theory. I remember quite vividly the day I went to the beach and brought with me Gilbert & Gubar's book, Madwoman in the Attic, which presented the novels of women writers in 19th-Century England as reconfiguring the standard plot of the novel.
My book about Abraham Geiger, a Jewish scholar of both early Judaism and early Christianity, explored his similar effort to turn the tables and reconfigure the "plot" of Christianity from a Jewish point of view. He "reversed the gaze" by placing Christianity under the microscope of Jewish scholarship (instead of the standard practice, placing Judaism under Christian gaze).
In my recent...