On the surface, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were very different men. Dr. King was an African American preacher and civil rights leader, while Heschel was a rabbi and professor from a Hasidic background in Europe. But upon closer examination, their lives overlapped in a variety of ways.
Both men grew up in hostile environments where racism was a powerful force that affected their people: Dr. King, in the segregated South of the 1940s and 50s; Heschel in the anti-semitic culture of Poland and Germany in the 1920s and 30s. Moreover, Heschel and King’s respective childhoods groomed them to become religious leaders. Dr. King’s father was the pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Heschel was a descendant of some of the greatest rabbinic names in the Hasidic movement history. Both men were considered child prodigies. Legend has it that Heschel had already studied the vast majority of rabbinic literature – Talmud, Midrash, codes – before he became a Bar Mitzvah. For his part, King entered college at 15, graduated when he was 18, completed his seminary studies and was ordained as a minister at the tender age of 22, and completed his doctorate when he was 26.
But despite all of these commonalities, Heschel and King came together around a shared philosophy and a common goal. The philosophy they shared came from two specific sources in the Hebrew Bible: the Prophets and the Exodus story. Heschel was an expert on the Prophets, having written his doctoral dissertation about them. He shared with Dr. King the sense that the prophetic message of social justice, mercy, and equality for all people, was especially needed in the modern world and applied specifically to civil rights. Not surprisingly, both King and Heschel both frequently cited the prophets – in their interviews, speeches, and writings – especially Isaiah, Micah, Amos.
The Exodus story was also personally meaningful to both men. At its core, that story is about the bitter toll of slavery, the painful struggle for freedom, and the hope of redemption. From 1963 to 1965, the Civil Rights Movement leaders often asked Rabbi Heschel to speak at rallies. When he spoke, Heschel almost always cited the Exodus story as a metaphor for the African American community’s experience in the United States. Dr. King frequently used the same imagery in his powerful speeches. As just one example, the famous march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 began with an interfaith religious service – including Rabbi Heschel – during which Dr. King preached about the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after the Exodus. That day would produce the famous photograph of Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel, and other religious leaders in the front line at the beginning of the march, locked arm in arm. Heschel returned from Alabama and told his students at the Jewish Theological Seminary that he felt he had prayed with his feet for the first time in his life.
If that photograph of Heschel and King marching together is the public image of the relationship between those men, the following story illustrates their private relationship. Rabbi Jerry Zelermeyer recalls a Shabbat afternoon that he spent with Dr. Rabbi Heschel and his wife in New York City. Just as the sun was going down and Shabbat was ending, there was a knock on the door. Heschel went to the door and opened it, and suddenly warmly embraced two men who were standing there. One was William Sloan Coffin, the well known activist college chaplain. The other was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Heschel asked the men to come in, and he took out the Havdalah set. He gave Sloan Coffin the spices and Dr. King the Havdalah candle. Heschel chanted the blessings that ended Shabbat. “Now,” he said to his friends, “we must go back out into the world we need to change.”
It seems to me more than coincidental that each January, we mark Martin Luther King Day, and also, often during the same week, we remember Heschel’s yahrtzeit and birthday, January 11th. The message that brought those great religious leaders together is as relevant today as it was in their time: inequality, injustice, and racism exist, but despite all that hatred, intolerance, prejudice, and violence, we as human beings can always choose love. God calls each one of us to take a stand against those destructive forces so that one day we might complete the work of men like Dr. Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and that time, we might finally change the world for the betterment of all humankind.
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