We must remember Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King Jr.'s great prophet | Opinion
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s generated many iconic photographs. They vividly portray an oppressed minority proudly and valiantly protesting for their rights.. One of the most famous of those photos is from the 1965 voter rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is seen marching hand in hand with other civil rights leaders, wearing a determined look. A man with a great shock of white hair and a large white beard appears in the front row. Standing second to the left of Dr. King was none other than the renowned Jewish philosopher and theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907, a scion of a prestigious Rabbinic family. He left Poland to pursue a liberal education, receiving a doctorate from the University of Berlin in 1933. He became the director of the central organization for Jewish education in Frankfurt, Germany, until the Nazis deported him in 1938. Heschel immigrated to the United States, becoming a professor of ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. In that position, he began a philosophical journey that brought him to the world of social and economic justice, fighting for the rights of oppressed minorities in the United States and beyond.
He began to develop a philosophy of the importance of being involved and not just residing in a theological ivory tower and dedicating oneself to making the world a better and more just place. This involved creating equality in society, not just as a moral but as a religious imperative. He believed that when one understands that the divine exists in every person, he cannot harbor any hatred toward others.
Heschel was a man of towering intellect and, at the same time, down to earth. As his daughter, Dartmouth professor of Jewish Studies, Dr. Susannah Heschel, poignantly describes him, “his personality, which expressed an enormous depth of empathy and sensitivity, and his way of thinking, which placed conventional approaches to religion upside down and gave a unique voice to religious experience.”
Heschel, King and the civil rights movement
This dedication to making sure that no human being or group suffers "public humiliation" led Rabbi Heschel to move out of his comfort zone as a professor to an unlikely career of political activism. Heschel met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a conference in 1963. They became kindred spirits and fellow travelers, often speaking together on civil and human rights issues. Their deep mutual commitment to equal rights for all was rooted in social consciousness and religious fervor. They supported each other's causes, as demonstrated at a conference in November 1963, when they spoke at the United Synagogue of America's Golden Jubilee Convention in New York. Dr. King said about his commitment to fighting the oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We cannot ignore the plight of our brothers and sisters, who happened to be Jews in Soviet Russia.”
Heschel responded to King's urging and joined the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. He was so spiritually inspired that he was quoted as having said that he "feels as if his legs were praying as he walked next to King" and “I felt a sense of holy in what I was doing."
Their admiration was mutual. As King remarked, "Rabbi Heschel is a person who is relevant at all times, always standing with prophetic insights.”
The bond between the two men was clearly visible when Dr. King was chosen to be a guest speaker at the sixtieth birthday celebration for Heschel. Just a scant ten days later, Dr. King was assassinated, and Rabbi Heschel delivered a eulogy at the funeral. It was a sad ending to a fruitful and productive relationship.
Heschel, King and the Vietnam War
In acts of incredible courage, Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King were involved in protesting the Vietnam War bringing them opprobrium from all sides. He was vilified in the press, in Congress, and even among other civil rights leaders and was investigated for un-American activities by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Life Magazine called his criticism of the war "demagogic slander fit for Radio Hanoi." President Johnson remarked that King was “destroying his reputation and had finally thrown in with the Communists.”
Rabbi Heschel similarly lashed out against the Vietnam War and was excoriated by his peers in much of the community for doing so. He didn’t flinch or back down and continued to decry the injustice propagated by the Vietnam War. He saw it as a stunning violation of human rights in the greater context. As Susannah Heschel writes, “His concern for the integrity of the Jewish people is precisely what motivated my father to speak out so forcefully against the war in Vietnam.”
The physical role of Heschel may have ended with his passing in 1972. However, the compassion and philosophy that he espoused last even until today. His legacy of caring and acting upon that and his relationship with Dr. King will forever be memorialized with the iconic picture of him walking together with Dr. King at the Selma march.
In correspondence with Rabbi Heschel’s daughter Susannah about her father, in preparation of this article, she sent me the following compelling quote with a vision for the future:
"The friendship of King and Heschel has had an extraordinary afterlife as a source of profound inspiration for reconciliation across immense gulfs, especially a source of hope to transcend the fraught political map of black-Jewish relations. Their friendship is a reminder of a great moment in which these two men, with radically different backgrounds, crossed immense gulfs of color, religion, identity, gender and political orientations. Standing side by side, photographs of them are reprinted in publications about Black-Jewish relations, and their friendship stands as a call for vision, hope and transcendence of political conflict."
Mort Becker, an Airmont resident, is owner of Beckovations, LLC, and a member of Leadership Rockland’s Class of 2019.