King and Heschel Remembered
There is a famous picture taken in Selma, Ala., in 1965 at
the site of a historic civil rights march for voter registration.
Abraham Joshua Heschel is marching in line with Martin
Luther King Jr. and a number of other key civil rights demonstrators. At the
end of the demonstration, a journalist asked Heschel to describe his feelings
about marching with King. He answered: “My feet were praying.”
Heschel was prominent as a scholar, teacher and theologian,
and widely respected because of his numerous publications. He was also well
known as a result of his participation in Vatican II. Vatican II was the
gathering in the early 1960s during which the Catholic Church introduced many
significant internal changes. One of the changes included a historical
reckoning: a formal process was begun that would eventually lead to the public
announcement by the Church that “the Jews” did not kill Christ. From his
participation in Vatican II, Heschel received the nickname from Catholics
throughout the world of “Father Abraham.”
Heschel descended from a long line of Chasidic rebbes. In
his adolescent years, he left the world of Chasidism and chose to embrace a
more historical approach to Jewish tradition. In his later years, though, when
he became a teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (and when
the famous picture of King and himself was taken in Selma), he looked like
someone from his ancestry. He had a long gray beard, long gray hair and always
wore a yarmulke.
The picture of King and Heschel marching together in Selma
has become something of an icon. It represents the pride American Jews feel
having played, as a group, a prominent role in the civil rights movement.
According to Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, who is a
professor of history and religion at Dartmouth College, her father and King
were close friends during the last five years of King’s life. During this
period, they had a profound influence on one another. When King’s funeral
arrangements needed to be made, Heschel was one of the first individuals, among
all the dignitaries and officials who spoke at this historic event, that
Coretta Scott King specifically requested to deliver a eulogy.
In an essay Susannah Heschel wrote in the Journal of
Conservative Judaism in the spring of 1998, she points out something
interesting in King’s speeches. In his early years, particularly before January
of 1963 when Heschel and King formally met, King evoked images in his speeches
of the Christian Bible and of traditional Christian commentators. After King
and Heschel became acquainted, the dominant biblical metaphor in King’s
speeches changed. He now emphasized the Exodus from Egypt.
The second most commonly used biblical metaphor became the
prophet, specifically the call of the biblical prophets for social justice.
Susannah Heschel interprets this fact as no coincidence. When Heschel earned a
doctorate at the University of Berlin in the early 1930s, he wrote his
dissertation on The Prophets.
King did not need Heschel to teach him about biblical
events. He did need Heschel, though, to emphasize the power that these biblical
metaphors contained, that these metaphors were inherently more inclusive and
could be used to gain the broadest segment of support from the American public.
Heschel was one of the first prominent Americans to publicly
fulminate against United States participation in the war in Southeast Asia. It
is documented that he encouraged King in public discussions and in written
correspondence to take a public stand against this war.
Twenty-nine years ago, died on the 18th day of the Hebrew
month of Tevet. Tevet is a month that comes during the winter season. It often
corresponds with January, the month in which Americans pay tribute to King with
a national holiday. It is appropriate that the birthday of King and the
yahrtzeit of Heschel come at this time of year. The example of their leadership
continues to cast light on our dark struggling society.
Elliot Fein teaches high school students Jewish studies at the Tarbut V’Torah Community School in Irvine.