Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Civil Rights Movement


Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath (carrying the Torah) in Montgomery

Abraham Joshua Heschel (January 11, 1907 – December 23, 1972) was born in Warsaw, Poland. His parents were Chasidim, members of a spiritually intense Orthodox Jewish sect, and descended from generations of distinguished rabbis. As a teenager, he demonstrated a precocious ability to understand lengthy treatises of Jewish law and to write his own commentaries on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. He also had a personal charisma that others saw as confirmation of his spiritual and leadership qualities.

But Heschel resisted this destiny. On a daily basis, he continued to practice Orthodox rituals, but his intellectual curiosity would not allow him to follow the path chosen for him. He convinced his family to let him attend a secular university and a liberal nontraditional rabbinical college. He first went to a secular high school in Vilnius, Lithuania, then to the University of Berlin, where he received his Ph.D. in 1933 for a dissertation on the Hebrew prophets. The next year, he completed his studies at the rabbinical college. He emerged from this education well versed in Western philosophy, history, and art as well as Jewish subjects.

The 1935 publication of his revised dissertation made his reputation as a major scholar. The book advanced the then-radical thesis that the Hebrew prophets were serious critics of the social injustices of their eras but that their ideas remained relevant to injustices in contemporary times.

It would have been difficult for Heschel to avoid thinking about social injustice; his academic career began just as the Nazis took power in Germany. He was deported back to Poland in 1938, then fled to England. In 1940 he found haven at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, the seminary that trained Reform Jewish rabbis, as part of an effort to rescue European Jewish scholars from the Nazis. While living in Cincinnati, he tried to rescue his family members, including his mother and sister, but without success: they were murdered by the Nazis.

In 1945 Heschel moved to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City, the rabbinical seminary linked to Conservative Judaism, a branch more closely aligned with Heschel’s religious views but less comfortable with what would become his progressive political activities. At JTS he published several important books on Jewish theology, including Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (1951), The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (1951), God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (1952), and Man’s Quest for God (1954).

Heschel’s knowledge of Christian theology led the Vatican to seek his advice when, in 1960, Pope John XXIII sought to repair relations between Catholics and Jews as part of the Ecumenical Council, the original name of the Second Vatican Council. Over four years, Heschel met with the pope’s representatives and with the pope himself. He had a significant influence on what became the landmark 1965 statement “Nostra Aetate” (In our time), a turning point in Christian-Jewish relations. It reversed centuries of standard Christian teachings about Jews, including no longer blaming Jews collectively for the death of Jesus and refraining from calling for Jews to convert to Catholicism. In 1946, he took a position at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York City, the main seminary of Conservative Judaism. He served as professor of Jewish ethics and Mysticism until his death in 1972.

Heschel and King

In January 1963, as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, the National Conference of Christians and Jews sponsored a conference in Chicago entitled “Religion and Race.” It was there that Heschel (who was asked to deliver the opening address) first met King (who gave the closing speech) .

Heschel began his speech by linking biblical history to contemporary struggles:

“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’s words were, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to me.’ While Pharaoh retorted: ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel 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.”

Later that year, Heschel was invited to a meeting of religious leaders with President John F. Kennedy. The day before the event, Heschel sent the president a telegram about civil rights, asking him to declare the nation’s racial inequality a “state of moral emergency” and to act with “high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

King and Heschel stayed in close touch, sharing both theological and political ideas. After the first Selma march, “Bloody Sunday,” Heschel led a delegation of 800 people to FBI headquarters in New York City to protest the agency’s failure to protect the demonstrators.

On Friday March 19, Heschel received a telegram from King inviting him to join the third march from Selma to Montgomery. Heschel flew to Selma from New York on Saturday night and was welcomed as one of the leaders into the front row of marchers, with King, Ralph Bunche, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The photograph of Heschel walking arm in arm with King has become iconic of the coalition of Jews and blacks during the civil rights era.

Heschel later wrote:

“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Anti-war Crusader

Heschel was also the most visible traditional Jew in the antiwar movement. Having escaped Nazism, Heschel was acutely aware of the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy. “In regard to the cruelties committed in the name of a free society,” he wrote, “some are guilty, all are responsible.” In announcing his opposition to the Vietnam War, he cited Leviticus: “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.” Opposition to the war, he declared, was a religious obligation, “a supreme commandment.”

He worried that most Americans were indifferent to what he described as the criminal behavior of their elected government. “I have previously thought that we were waging war reluctantly, with sadness at killing so many people,” he wrote about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. “I realize that we are doing it now with pride in our military efficiency.”

In October 1965 Heschel spoke at an antiwar rally at the UN Church Center and proposed a national religious movement to end the war. He quickly went to work putting that idea into practice. The National Emergency Committee of Clergy Concerned About Vietnam was founded in January 1966, with Heschel, Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, and Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus as cochairs. Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the Yale chaplain, agreed to be acting executive secretary.

Their first act was to send a telegram to LBJ, signed by twenty-one clergy, including King and prominent Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, urging the president to extend the bombing halt that had begun the previous Christmas and to pursue negotiations with the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese. Over the next few months, the group recruited additional clergy and organized rallies, fasts, vigils, and other forms of protest. Heschel drafted position papers, raised money, recruited Jewish clergy, gave numerous speeches, and led a two-day fast at a New York church to push for an end to US bombing of North Vietnam.

On January 31, 1967, the organization–renamed Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV) to be more inclusive–organized its first Washington, DC, rally. More than 2,000 people, clergy and laity, from forty-five states participated, including the leaders of the nation’s major Jewish and Protestant denominations. They met with their congressional representatives and picketed in front of the White House. Heschel electrified the audience with his speech, “The Moral Outrage in Vietnam,” later published in Fellowship, the magazine of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation:

“Who would have believed that we life-loving Americans are capable of bringing death and destruction to so many innocent people? We are startled to discover how unmerciful, how beastly we ourselves can be. In the sight of so many thousands of civilians and soldiers slain, injured, crippled, of bodies emaciated, of forests destroyed by fire, God confronts us with this question: Where art thou?”

The next day, Heschel joined a small CALCAV delegation in a forty-minute meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. They attempted, without success, to persuade him to suspend the bombing of North Vietnam and begin peace negotiations. By early 1967, CALCAV’s leaders knew that King was preparing to make public his growing opposition to the war. Heschel, along with other major religious figures, accompanied him as he delivered his major antiwar address at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4.

During the 1968 annual meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly, Heschel was honored by his fellow Conservative rabbis for his social activism and his contributions to Jewish scholarship. King was the keynote speaker, and the rabbis feted him by singing “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew.

King was looking forward to attending a Passover Seder at Heschel’s home that year, but he was assassinated a few weeks before the Jewish holiday. Heschel was the only Jew to deliver a eulogy at King’s funeral service.

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