Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthdays we recall next week, shared far more than the political partnership on behalf of civil rights immortalized in the iconic 1965 photograph of them marching side by side in Selma, Ala. Their biographies show astonishing parallels. Their theologies of prophecy and providence were closely allied. And the self-images they bore as religious and societal leaders were remarkably similar.
It is no wonder that they grew close in the few short years they worked together (King was assassinated on April 4, 1968; he had been planning to attend Heschel’s seder later that month). And it is no wonder that each was closer to the other than to many members of his own tradition, for they shared a politics of prophecy that bridged the divide between them.
They met at the 1963 conference on religion and race in Chicago, where Heschel gave one of his finest speeches in a career not lacking in fine speeches. Its first paragraphs set the tone for the direction of the new partnership:
“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go . . . ’
“The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.”
The speaker had grown up in Poland, the son and grandson of chasidic rabbis, and had then tested his convictions, and expanded his worldview, through doctoral work in philosophy at the University of Berlin. Heschel’s thesis, a “phenomenological analysis” of the biblical prophets, became a book published in English in 1962. Work on the prophets, Heschel testified, had changed his life. It reminded him of what God wanted from human partners. It also focused Heschel’s attention on what God wanted from him. Scholarship on the prophets was not enough. History beckoned.
The most important member of the audience in Chicago that day had grown up in the American South, the son and grandson of Baptist ministers, and had then tested his own convictions, and expanded his worldview, through doctoral work in theology at Boston University. King’s thesis on the thought of two liberal Protestant theologians never became a book, and King never became a professor of theology, though he gave serious thought to that possibility. His sense of what God wanted from him led to a pulpit in Montgomery just before the start of the bus boycott. Preaching about the prophets was not enough. History beckoned.
For King, as we know from his “I Have a Dream” speech, the prophets offered more than proof texts for political or social convictions derived elsewhere. They carried God’s demand that human creatures take better care of one another: “Let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The prophets also demonstrated what it means to speak truth to power, and to give over one’s life to the mighty cause one represented. King was able to stand for what he did, stand up against wrongdoing and violence as he did, because of the unshakable conviction that God wanted the civil rights struggle to succeed every bit as much as God wanted the Israelites to defeat Pharaoh. King frequently drew parallels between the two, confident that “a Red Sea passage in history ultimately brings the forces of goodness to victory.”
For Heschel, as we know from the Chicago speech and many others, the prophets demonstrated that “man is not alone.” “God [is] in search of man” — so that we can help make God’s world more compassionate and just. “What is the essence of being a prophet?” Heschel asked. Not foretelling the future, or serving as mouthpiece for divine dictation, though prophets did both these things. “A prophet is a person who holds God and men in one thought at one time, at all times.”
The biblical prophets intuited God’s will and translated it into imperatives in historical situations such as the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War. No less important, they exercised “sympathy” for the “divine pathos” — felt God’s pain, we might say. Just as parents cannot tolerate the suffering of their children or easily look on stoically as their neighbors’ children suffer, the Parent of us all cannot remain indifferent to our suffering. The prophet bore the full brunt of that recognition, and cried out in God’s name.
Both thinkers were extremely careful never to claim more theological certainty than their beliefs allowed. They affirmed God’s role in history — but their views of the matter were complex. When King’s house was bombed, he did not say that God willed or permitted the crime to take place. God’s role was rather to give him the “strength and trust” he needed to “face the storms and problems of life.” He believed that God “is striving in our striving … working through history for the salvation of His children.” But King never said precisely how this happens.
Heschel, in his rhapsody to Israel written just after the 1967 war, had this to say about divine providence. “The presence of God in history is never conceived to mean His penetration of history. God’s will does not dominate the affairs of men. God’s presence in history is sensed in the correspondence between promise and the events in the relation to God’s promise that testify to His presence.”
Thankfully, both men had a clear sense of God’s presence in the affairs of history to which they brought their convictions and their persons. In an interview with Carl Stern just before he died, Heschel responded to the pointed query, “Well, are you a prophet?” by saying that it would be arrogant to make such a claim. “So let’s hope and pray that I am worthy of being a descendant of the prophets.”
King’s final speech, delivered on the eve of his assassination and just days after he appeared with Heschel at the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism, likewise made no claim to prophecy but rather offered testimony. He had been to the mountain. He had seen the promised land.
God had shown it to them both — and, through them, to us. May their memories be for blessing.
Arnold Eisen is chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.