In this season of Yizkor, on the 50th yahrtzeit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination this month, the heart turns to one of the most iconic photos in American Jewish history. It was taken in Selma, Ala., on a Sunday in 1965, just prior to Martin Luther King’s march to the state capitol in Montgomery. There, at the front of the march, just to the left of King, is a white-bearded man, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who looks nothing less than a prophet, spiritually regal, but lonely, as prophets often were. Well, as regal as they could be after a Hawaiian supporter ran up to them and draped them in bright leis, bringing smiles on a day that was already too tense.
While the issue of economic justice was front and center in the coverage of the anniversary of King’s death, it’s easy to lose sight of the kind of interfaith embrace the photograph captures. Heschel and King, born in very different corners of the world, would eventually cross paths, two prophets who became friends and fellow marchers for justice.
Rabbi Heschel, born in 1907, grew up in Warsaw when it was the most Jewishly vibrant city in the world, yet in the sunset years of its civilization. His family’s roots ran through several of the strongest chasidic dynasties on the continent. By 1940 he was a displaced person, later saying that he only left Warsaw “six weeks before the disaster began. My destination was New York”; if not, his destination “would have been Auschwitz or Treblinka.” His mother and sister stayed behind, while he was “plucked from the fire in which my people was burned to death. … I speak as a person who is often afraid and terribly alarmed lest God has turned away from us in disgust, and even deprived us of the power to understand His word.”
He arrived in New York on a visa arranged through Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school that gave him a teaching position. Grateful, he nevertheless felt like a displaced person, a bearded halachically-observant chasid in a Reform milieu, a son of Yiddish Warsaw suddenly on campus in Cincinnati. He was a poet and a God-centric theologian in a school that saw itself as more academic and rational than the yeshivas he knew. Even as a student in the University of Berlin, he was acquainted with other Jewish students there such as Rabbis Joseph Soloveitchik and Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the future Rebbe, but Heschel never quite found the place in America that they did. Rabbi Shai Held, president and the chair of Jewish Thought at Machon Hadar, an egalitarian yeshiva, and author of 2015’s “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence” (Indiana University Press), told us that at HUC the Orthodox Heschel “felt like a Marrano,” a Jew who had to practice his religion only in private. “He felt like a fish out of water.”
His daughter, Susannah Heschel, told us he couldn’t land a job in either a yeshiva or general university — “there was nothing available.” Eventually he got a job at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, but there, too, “my father never called himself a Conservative Jew.” At first, he was not assigned to teach the rabbinical students, said Susannah, relegated to teaching religious school teachers-in-training. Twenty years after coming to America, JTA reported that he remained a peripheral and curious figure, “branded as an eccentric and an outsider.” He wrote a poem entitled “Lonely,” and he was. He wrote a poem in which the trees reminded him of swaying mystics, their leafy tops reminding him of the wind-blown chasidic fur hats worn on Shabbos. He was wind-blown, too, or so it seemed. (Held added, “If you would have told Heschel that in 1997, JTS would have a conference in which people would get up and sing his praises, he would have been stunned. Someone who never quite found a place for himself, ended up as a lionized figure.”)
And all the while, he felt anguished that when Europe was burning, he was doing … what? Years later, a Yiddish newspaper asked where he was in 1943. Heschel said that he had just arrived in America, did not speak the language, and couldn’t get anyone’s attention. But, Heschel said, “This does not mean that I consider myself innocent. I am very guilty. I have no rest.”
By 1963, hurt by being “excluded and marginalized” in the Jewish world, said his daughter, “he went out into the world.” That January, he was introduced to King at a conference on “Religion and Race.” Before long, King was calling Heschel “my rabbi,” and King’s activism inspired Heschel to speak up for his own people. That September, Glenn Richter, national coordinator of Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, recalled Heschel giving a speech at JTS where Heschel “really excoriated the [Conservative] Rabbinical Assembly [for not doing enough] on behalf of Soviet Jews,” whose culture, religion and rights to emigrate were outlawed. Heschel told the rabbis, “What is called for is not a silent sigh but a voice of moral compassion and indignation, the sublime and inspired screaming of a prophet … .”
Susannah Heschel, who now teaches and chairs the Jewish studies department at Dartmouth, remembers her father on the phone, organizing a special shipment of shmurah matzah to Ukraine. Heschel recruited King to the cause of Soviet Jews, and King made sure that Heschel was right alongside him in the front of the marches.
Held told us, “Heschel’s force, his power was, in part, a function of his ability to articulate theologically, in almost biblical cadences, why Jewish involvement [in civil rights] was so urgently important, and what was theologically at stake in a battle that some understood as merely political. Both he and King had a powerful, confident sense of what they thought worshipping the biblical God meant. I think they sensed in each other a prophetic kindred spirit, someone who could speak without hesitation from within the biblical tradition.”
Held said Heschel saw his civil rights activism as a piece with everything else, including his support for the State of Israel. “It was very important to him” after the Six-Day War, “to explain to the world why, to so many Jews, what had happened seemed so miraculous and utterly transformative.” He saw that defense “as part of his engagement with public life.”
Held said Heschel “saw Jewish-Christian dialogue as one of God’s demands of the hour.” (Heschel died in 1972, before Islam entered the interfaith conversation.) However, when Vatican II was debating the ideal of converting Jews, Heschel said, “Given the choice of conversion or Auschwitz, I will ask you to show me where the next train is.” For Heschel, said Held, “interfaith dialogue was hardly about rolling over and not standing up for Judaism.”
Nevertheless, Susannah recalls, “My father used to say, if there was any hope for Judaism in America it lies with the black church; he liked their spirit, their devotion … to God that he felt a lot of synagogues were lacking.” The passion in places like King’s modest Ebenezer Baptist Church reminded him of shteibles [small, intimate house-based shuls].” Heschel was a direct descendent of the Apter Rav, and also related to the Rizhener, the Novominsker and the legendary Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.
Held said that King and Heschel also “gravitated to each other on” opposition to war in Vietnam,” even when “some of the people at JTS who thought of themselves as his students… supported the war and just ignored Heschel on politics.”
Susannah was in high school when she heard that King was shot. “We were sent home. They were afraid of riots. I called my father” who came home and “actually got into bed, he was so upset. The next day he flew to Memphis to join Mrs. [Coretta Scott] King at a demonstration, and from there to Atlanta, where my mother and I joined him for the funeral,” where Heschel eulogized his lost friend. He was the only Jew who was invited to speak at the funeral. The Heschels had been expecting King, his wife and four children to join them at a seder a week later.
Susannah added that the civil rights movement came just 20 years after the Holocaust, a time when many Jews felt spiritually stranded and confused. King’s biblical references, almost all from the Jewish Bible rather than the New Testament, quoting the Jewish prophets more than he quoted Jesus, “gave many Jews a sense of pride in our Bible.” King and Heschel challenged Jews, as well as Christians, to think about God in a new, poetic, passionate way. “I felt we were living in a prophetic time.”