Praying with their Feet: Remembering Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King

Susannah Heschel holds the Eli Black Chair in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth. She is the editor of On Being a Jewish Feminist, which first appeared in 1983, and Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, an anthology of essays by her father, Abraham Joshua Heschel. A. J. Heschel was born on January 11, 1907. Martin Luther King was born on January 15, 1929. This article is excerpted from Social Action magazine, which in turn excerpted her essay in Black Zion: African-American Religious Encounters with Judaism, ed. by Yvonne Chireau and Nathaniel Deutsch.

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The photograph of Abraham Joshua Heschel walking arm in arm with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the front row of marchers at Selma has become an icon of American Jewish life, and of Black-Jewish relations. Reprinted in Jewish textbooks, synagogue bulletins, and studies of ecumenical relations, the picture has come to symbolize the great moment of symbiosis of the two communities, Black and Jewish, which today seems shattered.

When Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Henry Gates, or Cornel West speak of the relationship between Blacks and Jews as it might be, and as they wish it would become, they invoke the moments when Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King marched arm in arm at Selma, prayed together in protest at Arlington National Cemetery, and stood side by side in the pulpit of Riverside Church.

The relationship between the two men began in January 1963, and was a genuine friendship of affection as well as a relationship of two colleagues working together in political causes. As King encouraged Heschel's involvement in the Civil Rights movement, Heschel encouraged King to take a public stance against the war in Vietnam. When the Conservative rabbis of America gathered in 1968 to celebrate Heschel's sixtieth birthday, the keynote speaker they invited was King. When King was assassinated, Heschel was the rabbi Mrs. King invited to speak at his funeral.

Heschel, like King, used Exodus imagery when writing about civil rights, and he used the imagery to rebuke white audiences for their racism. American Jews, too, were Egyptians, in Heschel's retelling.

At his first major address on the subject, at a conference on Religion and Race sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews in Chicago on January 14, 1963, the occasion where Heschel and King first met, Heschel opened his speech by returning the present day to biblical history: "At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.... 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."

In February 1964, at another conference, held at a time when white resistance in America was increasing, Heschel reminded his audiences, "The tragedy of Pharaoh was the failure to realize that the exodus from slavery could have spelled redemption for both Israel and Egypt. Would that Pharaoh and the Egyptians had joined the Israelites in the desert and together stood at the foot of Sinai!"

When President John F. Kennedy wanted to convene religious leaders to discuss Civil Rights at a meeting at the White House in June, 1963, Heschel was one of those invited to attend. In response to Kennedy's telegram inviting him to the meeting, Heschel telegraphed:

"I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogue have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month's salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency. A Marshall plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity."

A few days before the Selma march for voting rights, in mid-March 1965, Heschel led a delegation of eight hundred people to FBI headquarters in New York City to protest the brutal treatment the demonstrators were receiving in Selma. The New York delegation was not permitted to enter the FBI building, but Heschel was allowed inside, surrounded by sixty police officers, to present a petition to the regional FBI director.

Herschel & King

On Friday, March 19, two days before the Selma march was scheduled to begin, Heschel received a telegram from King, inviting him to join the marchers in Selma. 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 Ralph Abernathy. Each of them wore flower leis, brought by Hawai`ian delegates.

In an unpublished memoir he wrote upon returning from Selma, Heschel described the extreme hostility he encountered from whites in Alabama that week from the moment he arrived at the airport, and the kindness he was shown by Dr. King's assistants, particularly Rev. Andrew Young, who hovered over him during the march with great concern.

For both King and Heschel, the theological was intimately intertwined with the political and that conviction provided the basis of the spiritual affinity they felt for each other. Shortly after returning from the march, Heschel wrote to King: "The day we marched together out of Selma was a day of sanctification. That day I hope will never be past to me - that day will continue to be this day.... May I add that I have rarely in my life been privileged to hear a sermon as glorious as the one you delivered at the service in Selma prior to the march."

For Heschel, the march had spiritual significance. He 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."

Upon his return, Heschel described his experience in a diary entry: "I felt again what I have been thinking about for years - that Jewish religious institutions have again missed a great opportunity, namely, to interpret a civil-rights movement in terms of Judaism. The vast majority of Jews participating actively in it are totally unaware of what the movement means in terms of the prophetic traditions." Just before the march began, a service was held in a chapel, where he read Psalm 27, "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?"

Theologically as well as politically, King and Heschel recognized their own strong kinship. For each there was an emphatic stress on the dependence of the political on the spiritual, God on human society, the moral life on economic well-being. Indeed, there are numerous passages in their writings that might have been composed by either one.

Consider, for example, Heschel's words: "The opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference," a conviction that he translated into a political commitment: "In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible." King writes, "To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system." Not to act communicates "to the oppressor that his (sic) actions are morally right." Social activism was required by religious faith, both Heschel and King argued, particularly when society had developed immoral institutional structures: "Your highest loyalty is to God and not to the mores, or folkways, the state or the nation, or any [hu]man-made institution."

Both Heschel and King... spoke of God in similar terms, as deeply involved in the affairs of human history. Heschel developed a theology of what he termed "divine pathos" bearing the religious implication "that God can be intimately affected" and the political implication that "God is never neutral, never beyond good and evil."

As he had articulated in his early essays of the 1940s, the purpose of prayer is not petitionary. We do not pray in order to be saved, Heschel stressed in his writings, we pray so that we might be worthy of being saved. Prayer should not focus on our wishes, but is a moment in which God's intentions are reflected in us. If we are created in the image of God, each human being should be a reminder of God's presence. If we engage in acts of violence and murder, we are desecrating the divine likeness.

Heschel remained deeply engaged in anti-war efforts during the last years of his life. He lectured frequently at anti-war rallies, and made his opposition to the war an integral part of his public lectures and of his classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he served as professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism in the department of philosophy. The atrocities committed by US forces in Vietnam were vigorously condemned by Heschel.

Throughout those years, Heschel received warnings and complaints from some members of the Jewish community, who felt his protests were endangering American government support for the State of Israel. Similarly, King was attacked for endangering President Lyndon Johnson's support for the Civil Rights movement, and his outspokenness against the war did not win approval from major Black organizations, including the Urban League and NAACP.

Heschel, like King, was placed under FBI surveillance and was branded an anti-American subversive by supporters of the war.

But the real subversiveness, Heschel stated, came from the policies of the American government:

"...[I]t is our duty as citizens to say no to the subversiveness of our government, which is ruining the values we cherish.... The blood we shed in Vietnam makes a mockery of all our proclamations, dedications, celebrations. Has our conscience become a fossil, is all mercy gone? If mercy, the mother of humility, is still alive as a demand, how can we say yes to our bringing agony to that tormented country?

We are here because our own integrity as human beings is decaying in the agony and merciless killing done in our name. In a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible. We are here to call upon the governments of the United States as well as North Vietnam to stand still and to consider that no victory is worth the price of terror, which all parties commit in Vietnam, North and South.

Remember that the blood of the innocent cries forever." Heschel and King warn us that only by listening to these cries do we preserve our humanity.

[the note below was not in the printed edition]

The Shalom Center has compiled an excellent selection of speeches and articles by and about A. J. Heschel in honor of the Heschel centenary.