At a climactic moment in the Civil Rights struggle in 1965, Reverend Martin Luther King called on religious leaders across the country to join him in the third march from Selma, Alabama to the State Capitol in Montgomery. Among those who answered the call was the great scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The first two Selma to Montgomery marches had been met with violence by state troopers and white supremacists. Born in Warsaw in 1907, Rabbi Heschel was well acquainted with tragedy; his mother, sisters and his community had perished in the Holocaust. Already a teacher of renown, Heschel managed to leave Poland in 1938 and arrived in the United States in 1940.
Rabbi Heschel was a living bridge between Jewish worlds. On his mother’s side he was descended from the hassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev; his paternal great-great-grandfather and namesake was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt, who himself was descended from the Maggid of Mezeritch who succeeded the Baal Shem Tov as leader of the nascent hassidic movement in 1761. Quite a lineage! Having been born and raised in an atmosphere of piety and learning, Rabbi Heschel received traditional orthodox ordination in his native Poland. Then at the age of twenty, he moved to Berlin where he earned a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Berlin and received a second ordination at the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft de Judentums, the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies. (This progressive rabbinical school was established in 1872, where the first class of twelve students had included four women).
Rabbi Heschel taught American rabbinical students in the Reform Movement in Cincinnati for five years, before settling down for a quarter century of teaching for the Conservative movement in New York until his passing in 1972. The author of numerous eloquent works on Jewish philosophy and practice, Heschel was a towering figure in American Jewry when he met Dr. King at the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963. They became close friends – the Rabbi who wrote the quintessential work on the Hebrew prophets, (The Prophets, 1962), and the Reverend, who loved and quoted those ancient social reformers: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream!” (Amos 5:24)
Last year the rabbi’s daughter, Jewish Studies Professor Susannah Heschel told The Forward, “I felt terrified of my father going because we knew what had just happened when the march had just tried to take place weeks before…My father’s health was always fragile. I didn’t know if he could withstand the march. If somebody tried to hit him, I think he would’ve just collapsed. But at same time, because the way my father talked about the civil rights movement, it felt to me like he was doing the most important thing a human being could be doing at that moment.”
In an iconic photo we see Rabbi Heschel in the front line of the march with Dr. King and other religious leaders, linked arm in arm and striding forward.
After the historic event Heschel 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.”
In his speech at the conclusion of the march Dr. King declared, “There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.’’
I recently discovered a new book for children titled, As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom, written by Richard Michelson with beautiful illustrations by Raul Colon. We have ordered a copy for the Temple Beth El library – but this is one many families might want to have in their homes to read with children and grandchildren every year on Martin Luther King Day, to learn how to follow in those famous footsteps.
I was also moved to find numerous videos of Rabbi Heschel on Youtube, including selections from and about a documentary-in-progress titled, “Praying With My Legs,” which captures a few moments of Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel and the others walking in the famous march. (See a nine minute segment of PBS’ Religion & Ethics Newsweekly in 2010 – https://vimeo.com/5022677.)
On this national holiday let us reflect deeply what it means to say that black lives matter, Muslim, Jewish and Christian lives matter, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, indigenous, LGBT, female and male, human and other-than-human – all lives matter, all part of the web of life in our world of amazing diversity and inter-connection.
Rabbi Naomi Steinberg
7th of Shevat 5776
January 17, 2016