I distinctly remember the first time I picked up a book of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s in the library of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. I was on my own theological search and when I started reading Heschel’s words from God in Search of Man, I was struck by the immediacy of his experience of God, his power to translate the amazement of living into the words on the page, and his expression of the privilege and demand of what it means to be created in the image of God. His writings opened up a different kind of religious world to me. I was never the same again.
This week marks the 50th yahrtzeit of Rabbi Heschel. Born in Warsaw in 1907 to a prestigious rabbinic family, Rabbi Heschel received his PhD from the University of Berlin in 1933. Hebrew Union College ultimately saved him from the flames of the Holocaust when they brought him to the Cincinnati campus in 1940, but unfortunately the majority of his family, including his mother and two sisters, were not so lucky and perished at the hands of the Nazis. In 1946, Heschel became a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he taught until his death at the age of 65 in 1972.
For Rabbi Heschel, a religious life wasn’t nostalgia for old traditions or a feel-good sense of community or peoplehood. In his essay “On Prayer,” he wrote:
Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.
Religious life, according to Rabbi Heschel, was to awaken us to the radical amazement of living as much as attuning us to the desecration of God’s name in the hatred, violence, and injustice so prevalent in the world. It is no wonder that after he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (whose birthday we mark this weekend) in 1963 at a conference on Race and Religion, they built a deep relationship.
It was clear from the first moment they met that they were spiritual partners. In stirring speeches, each drew a correlation between religion and the sanctity of life.
Dr. King said:
The churches and synagogues have an opportunity and a duty to lift up their voices like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation. We must affirm that every human life is a reflex of divinity, and every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man.
And Rabbi Heschel:
Racism is Satanism, unmitigated evil. You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse. Religion cannot coexist with racism: it is a grave violation of the fundamental religious principle not to murder.
One man born in Poland to a dynasty of Hassidic rabbis. The other born into a preacher’s family in segregated Atlanta. A potentially unlikely pair, both awake to God’s call for freedom and justice; their callings born out of the Bible itself and grounded in their respective traditions—the story of the Exodus, the prophets, the Divine Image stamped in every human being.
In the 1965 march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, Rabbi Heschel walked alongside Dr. King over Edmund Pettus Bridge. They protested the Vietnam War together. Dr. King joined Rabbi Heschel in the fight for Soviet Jewry, and both decried the inequality and poverty in America.
Many of us know of that famous photograph from the Selma march; religious leaders, arm in arm, praying with their feet to overthrow and ruin the callousness and hatred of racism in this country. It is an image that we hold up with pride—a witness to the commitment of Jews to the struggle for civil rights and to our efforts in bending the moral arc of the universe towards justice.
I too love that photograph. But perhaps rather than marveling at what was, it is time to awaken to what could be. The fervor, the courage, the audacity, and the vision that burned in the souls and the bones of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel is not a relic of the past, it is inspired by the very story in Exodus that we begin to read this Shabbat—the story of our redemption.
Will we have that dream of Dr. King and be willing to go to the mountaintop? Will we be on a quest for God like Rabbi Heschel and be a prayerful revolutionary movement?
On this very auspicious Shabbat, in which we open the book of Exodus and honor the legacy of two giants of their time, let us say yes to living an inspired, passion-filled Jewish life; to being discontented with the status quo of inequality, hatred, and violence, and to being alive to the call of the hour.