Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (left center) with Dr. Martin Luther King.

MLK, Heschel, social activism and ‘progressive piety’



MLK, Heschel, social activism and ‘progressive piety’

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (left center) with Dr. Martin Luther King.

The commemoration of Martin Luther King’s life and legacy – and of the alliances he forged – need not to have been confined to Monday’s holiday, and an unpublished set of remarks about the civil rights leader underlines not only his great impact but also the role that one of his greatest allies played in America’s mid-20th century racial reckoning.

The words are the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) but the subject of his remarks are the works of Dr. King.

Rabbi Heschel, remembered as a vital ally of the civil rights leader, is one of the principal figures in American Jewish history, a Polish-born theologian and thinker who, in the United States, became the personification of what his biographer, the Princeton historian Julian E. Zelizer, called “progressive piety,” explaining that his legacy “came to symbolize a seamless connection that some believed existed between the Jewish tradition and social activism.”

Indeed, Rabbi Heschel is best known for joining the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, beside Dr. King himself, a moment that he described in especially evocative terms: “When I marched in Selma,” he said, “I felt my legs were praying.” When the 2014 film “Selma,” based on the famous march, was released, there was a firestorm of criticism over the exclusion of Rabbi Heschel from the movie.

In recent days his daughter, the Dartmouth College religion professor Susannah Heschel, provided a copy of the heretofore unpublished remarks that Rabbi Heschel made in honor of Dr. King, words that affirm the power of the alliance between the two and, even more so, the power of alliances in pursuit of social justice. In those remarks, Rabbi Heschel says:

“The glory of God is concealed, yet there are moments in which it is revealed. We sense a glimpse of the glory in the life of Martin Luther King, and we honor him because his deeds and his words are a marvelous glorification of God, who is merciful and gracious. Sacred and magnificent is the work he does for all of us in America. At the same time the scope of God’s glory is the whole world, all of humanity.”

It is significant that Rabbi Heschel’s original typewritten text speaks of the work Dr. King does “for our Negro brothers.” He crossed that out and broadened the tribute, saying that the work of Dr. King was ”for all of us.”

Heschel’s edited speech he gave about his close friend, MLK. COURTESY OF SUSANNAH HESCHEL

The two often appeared together at conferences, and in Rabbi Heschel’s opening address at the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago in January 1963, he argued that the fight for racial justice in the United States was a chance for Americans to find redemption. “Seen in the light of our religious tradition,” he said, with Dr. King present, “the Negro problem is God’s gift to America, the test of our integrity, a magnificent spiritual opportunity.”

Several months later, after Governor George Wallace blocked two Black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama, Rabbi Heschel demanded that President John F. Kennedy declare “a state of moral emergency.”

The rabbi’s daughter, a distinguished scholar on Jewish and Protestant thought during the 19th and 20th centuries and a popular teacher in the classroom, shared her father’s later remarks – the date of delivery unknown – as a poignant example of the importance of alliances.

“One of the things that is going on right now is a lot of rejection of alliances,” she said in an interview. “Students say ‘you’ll never know what it’s like to be me.’ When I think about Dr. King and my father, what was extraordinary was the alliance – the friendship – that they established almost instantly. It wasn’t only that my father marched at Selma. It was also that he was able to forge a friendship of two souls and that that friendship was an expression of the kind of empathy and religiosity they shared.”

That empathy – that religiosity – is contained in Dr. King’s remarks that Rabbi Heschel referenced in his tribute to his friend. For it was at the Golden Jubilee Convention of the United Synagogue of America, in November 1963, that Dr. King described the plight of Soviet Jews as “spiritual annihilation” and said:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Injustice to any people is a threat to justice to all people. I cannot stand idly by, even though I live in the United States, and even though I happen to be an American Negro, and fail to be concerned about what happens to my brothers and sisters who happen to be Jews in Soviet Russia, for what happens to them happens to me and to you, and we must be concerned.”

After he quoted those remarks, Rabbi Heschel addressed Dr. King directly, saying, “May the glory of the Lord continue to shine upon you, Martin Luther King. May the work of justice conquer suspicion and hardness of hearts and may its fruit be peace, quietness and trust forever.”

Then he said: “Amen.”

The Heschel remarks begin with a meditation of the two meanings of the word kavod: honor and glory, and the rabbi explains that true honor is “where the glory of God is revealed.” He goes on to say:

“The glory of God is concealed, yet there are moments in which it is revealed. What is the nature of the glory? Moses in his great petition called upon God: ‘Show me, I pray thee, thy Glory.’ And his petition was granted …”

These remarks, hidden from public view for more than half a century, provide great insights about faith, honor, friendship and commitment. They lead us to remember the vitality of the alliance between Jews and Blacks in the civil rights movement and prompt us to recall the power of the alliance between two men of faith, the one between a product of the Great Synagogue on Tlomackie Street in Warsaw and the preacher from Ebenezer Baptist Church on Jackson Street in Atlanta. They showed us glory, and left us a lesson. Θ

David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.

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