Photo courtesy of the Jewish Women’s Archive: “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on the Selma March, March 21, 1965.”

On the third Monday of January, we pay tribute to the American civil rights movement by honoring the incredible life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the most iconic images of King is from March 21, 1965, as he leads thousands of nonviolent protesters from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery. In the photo, he is arm in arm with activists and religious leaders — including, second on King’s left, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel, among the 20th century’s most prolific theologians, authors and poets, enjoyed a close friendship with King. Their shared recognition that the work of advancing civil rights crosses racial and religious lines stood as an inspiration then, and an important reminder today.

Heschel, born in Poland in 1907, was the youngest of six children born to Hasidic parents. Following a yeshiva education, Heschel persuaded his family to allow him to attend a secular university and pursue a liberal rabbinical ordination in Berlin. In 1938, Heschel was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Poland, managing to later escape to London. He lost three sisters and his mother in the Holocaust, and vowed never to return to parts of Eastern Europe, as “every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated.”

The inhumanity and senseless hatred would forever shape his thinking. In 1940 Heschel immigrated to New York, where he served on the faculty of Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. As a scholar, Heschel favored the study of Jewish philosophy and spirituality, and deeply believed that the teachings of the Hebrew prophets were a call for social action. He became eagerly involved in New York’s progressive political movements supporting African-American civil rights and, eventually, opposing the Vietnam War.

Surprisingly, it was Heschel’s knowledge of Christian theology that set him on the path to King. In 1960, Heschel was sought out by Pope John XXIII to help repair relations between Christians and Jews; he would influence the landmark statement “Nostra Aetate,” reversing centuries of Christian teachings of blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. In 1963, Heschel was asked to give the opening address at a “Religion and Race” conference in Chicago, attended by King. In a speech linking Biblical history to contemporary struggles, Heschel declared, “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.”

King and Heschel immediately became confidantes, sharing and debating both theological and political ideas. Two years later, after civil rights protestors’ first attempt to march from Selma culminated in “Bloody Sunday” — a beating by police while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge — Heschel led 800 protestors to FBI headquarters in New York City to decry the agency’s failure to protect the demonstrators. King asked Heschel to join him at the next Selma march. Heschel said of the experience, “Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Heschel was also the most visible traditional Jew in the anti-Vietnam movement. Having escaped Nazism, he was intensely aware of the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy, and he and other religious leaders founded the National Emergency Committee of Clergy Concerned About Vietnam in 1966 to persuade President Johnson to end the war. Heschel has also been credited with persuading King to speak out against the Vietnam war, which he did in 1967. The following year, King was planning to attend a Passover Seder at Heschel’s home, but he was assassinated a few weeks prior. At the funeral, Heschel was the only Jew to deliver a eulogy.

Both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who passed away in 1972, have left a profound legacy for both the African-American and Jewish communities, but it’s their shared pursuit of righteousness and equality that makes it a classic American narrative. May their memories be for a blessing, and stand as a reminder that we are all stronger when we stand together for what is right.

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