This article was originally posted on September 9, 2018.
“Racism is Satanism.” It was this conviction that launched Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a religious Jew from a Hasidic family in Poland, into the American civil rights movement.
He appears beside Martin Luther King Jr. in several of the most iconic photographs of that time: crossing Edmund Pettus Bridge arm in arm in March 1965; standing together outside Arlington Cemetery in silent protest of the Vietnam War in 1968.
We’ve become so used to these images that it’s easy to forget how unusual the friendship between Heschel and King was in its day. The two came from very different backgrounds – King had grown up in Atlanta, Georgia, while Heschel arrived in the United States as a refugee from Hitler’s Europe in March of 1940 – “a brand plucked from the fire,” as he wrote. Yet the two found an intimacy that transcended the growing public rift between their two communities. Heschel brought King and his message to a wide Jewish audience, and King made Heschel a central figure in the struggle for civil rights. Often lecturing together, they both spoke about racism as the root of poverty and its role in the war in Vietnam; both also spoke about Zionism and about the struggles of Jews in the Soviet Union. The concern that they shared was “saving the soul of America.”
King and Heschel first met in Chicago at the 1963 conference on “Religion and Race” organized by the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ). The bond between them was immediate. King’s speech at the conference, “A Challenge to the Churches and Synagogues,” affirmed that the struggle against racism was an interfaith effort:
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. The undergirding philosophy of segregation is diametrically opposed to the undergirding philosophy of our Judeo-Christian heritage, and all the dialectics of the logicians cannot make them lie down together.
Heschel followed King, opening his speech by bringing his audience into a dramatic biblical narrative:
At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses…. The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. 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.
Heschel’s passionate speech electrified the audience – Cornel West has called it the strongest condemnation of racism by a white man since William Lloyd Garrison. “Racism is Satanism, unmitigated evil,” Heschel declared. “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. Racism is public humiliation, which is condemned in the Talmud as tantamount to murder: “One should rather commit suicide than offend a person publicly.”
“Every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man.” Martin Luther King Jr.
His critique extended to religious communities: “We worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love. …What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality.” Racism is “the test of our integrity, a magnificent spiritual opportunity” for radical change. “Reverence for God is shown in reverence for man…. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.”
Heschel and King shared a disdain for the popular liberal Protestant theology of the era, and a skepticism for orthodoxies. They mocked Paul Tillich’s definition of God as the “ground of being,” helpless in the face of injustice. Both thought that Karl Barth’s theology left “the average mind lost in the fog of theological abstractions,” as King wrote.
In response to this religious impotence, Heschel created a new theological approach that, like King’s, combined a conservative theology with a liberal politics. His book The Prophets, a major expansion of his German doctoral dissertation, first appeared in English in 1962. During the years Heschel was preparing it, he was attentive to King’s activities and the civil rights movement, and his book reflects the political passions of the era.
When the book was published, it gained enormous attention among Bible scholars and theologians as a multifaceted and groundbreaking work. Heschel delivered a devastating critique of Protestant biblical scholarship, developed new criteria for interpreting the prophetic texts, and brought to the fore a neglected but central Jewish theological tradition of understanding God, revelation, and the human.
But his work didn’t stay in the libraries of academia. Andrew Young, James Lawson, Vincent Harding, C. T. Vivian, and Bayard Rustin were among the young activists in the nonviolence movement who told me they carried a copy of the paperback edition in their back pocket for inspiration and consolation.
By the time Heschel and King met, the nation was tense: the Birmingham campaign was underway in the first months of 1963, and on June 11, 1963, George Wallace, governor of Alabama, attempted to block the enrollment of Vivian Malone and James Hood at the University of Alabama; federal troops forced him to step aside. That night, President Kennedy delivered a major televised speech, promising legislation and calling civil rights a “moral issue.” The next day, Medgar Evers, field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi, was murdered.
King was preparing that summer of 1963 for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, a demonstration President Kennedy hoped to avert. Kennedy invited a group of civil rights leaders, including Heschel, to the White House for a meeting on June 20. Heschel replied to the invitation with a telegram dated June 16:
Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogue have failed, they must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency…. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.
The March on Washington took place in August 1963, with more than two hundred thousand people participating.
“The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” Abraham Joshua Heschel
Their pleas were met by a disappointing silence. President Kennedy did not declare a state of moral emergency, nor did clergy donate a month of salary to housing and education. If anything, the tensions in the United States grew even more dire. Just weeks later, on September 15, 1963, a church in Birmingham was bombed, killing four young black girls. That same day, James Bevel and Diane Nash launched the Alabama Project that ultimately led to the famous march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
The prophets – both Heschel’s book and the biblical figures – drew Heschel and King together. Both men were trained theologians who also knew how to preach. King was the organizer and public figure, while Heschel was the theologian and scholar with the voice of a public intellectual. Prophetic rhetoric has a long public history in the United States, yet it was not only the prophets’ words that stood out. For King and Heschel, the prophets were extraordinary human beings with passionate emotional lives, people who knew how to pray and who created powerful symbolic moments.
Both believed too that the passions of the prophets reflect the passion of God. As Heschel saw it, we learn from the prophets that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a God of pathos who responds with passion to human actions: “With Israel’s distress came the affliction of God.” Divine pathos is matched by prophetic sympathy, the prophet’s ability to resonate to God’s inner life.
Not only did King integrate verses from the prophetic books of the Bible into his speeches, he also transferred the current moment into biblical time. He spoke of himself as Moses on the mountaintop. In a less renowned speech, he likened civil rights activists to the burning bush: “Bull Connor next would say, ‘Turn the fire hoses on.’ And as I said to you the other night Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about, and that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out.”
Heschel spoke in similar terms in his 1964 speech, “The White Man on Trial”:
The tragedy of Pharaoh was the failure to realize that the exodus from slavery could have spelled redemption for both Israel and Egypt. Would that Pharaoh and the Egyptians had joined the Israelites in the desert and together stood at the foot of Sinai!
The prophet reminds his listeners of their moral obligation to respond, not simply to the prophet, but to those who suffer as a consequence of our immoral society. In this sense King’s “beloved community” is a moral invitation to choose citizenship in an alternative community of nonviolence seeking to overcome what King identified as the three evils of poverty, racism, and militarism.
A new dimension of prophecy was introduced through the civil rights movement: the prophecy of body and action. What generated the power of the movement was not only the prophetic rhetoric, rooted in the preaching of the black Christian tradition and in the classic American jeremiad, but also the use of the body, responding to violence with nonviolence. The body became the symbolic representation of prophecy. Susie Linfield concludes her book, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, with a question posed by photographer Gilles Peress: “How do you make the unseen seen?” The presence of the nonviolent body, sitting or marching, made the teachings visible.
Moreover, the passion of the prophets made their inner religious lives palpable. For Heschel, a pillar of authentic prophecy was the prophet’s ability to hold God and man in one thought at one time. About Jeremiah, for example, Heschel wrote, “Standing before the people he pleaded for God; standing before God he pleaded for his people.” The prophet stands within the state, but apart from state power.
Similarly, the civil rights movement needed to challenge and overturn the state’s understanding of the human. What Heschel called the “eye disease” of racism, which had excluded black Americans from the civic state, had placed itself outside the civic bond of moral justice. Such statements are not rhetoric alone, but make a claim upon the listeners: prophecy is a demand, not a comfort or reassurance. It demands action.
The 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery was a major event for both Heschel and King. A few days before the march took place, Heschel led a delegation of eight hundred people to FBI headquarters in New York City in order to protest the brutal treatment of demonstrators in Selma. On Friday, March 19, two days before the Selma march was scheduled to begin, Heschel received a telegram from King, inviting him to join the marchers. Heschel was welcomed as one of the leaders in the front row of marchers, with King, Ralph Bunche, and Ralph Abernathy. Each of them wore flower leis brought by Hawaiian delegates. In an unpublished memoir that he wrote upon returning from Selma, Heschel describes the extreme hostility he encountered from whites in Alabama from the moment he arrived at the airport, in contrast to the kindness he was shown by King’s assistants.
King’s “beloved community” is an invitation to choose citizenship in an alternative community of nonviolence.
Heschel’s presence in the front row of marchers was a visual symbol of religious Jewish commitment to civil rights, and “stirred not only the Jewish religious community but Jews young and old into direct action, galvanizing the whole spectrum of activists from fundraisers to lawyers.” Not everyone reacted as positively to the marchers; the New York Times carried a report that Republican Representative William L. Dickinson had called the march a Communist plot, claiming that “drunkenness and sex orgies were the order of the day.”
Upon his return home, Heschel described his experience in a diary entry:
I felt a sense of the holy in what I was doing. Dr. King expressed several times to me his appreciation. He said, “I cannot tell you how much your presence means to us. You cannot imagine how often Reverend [C. T.] Vivian and I speak about you.” Dr. King said to me that this was the greatest day in his life and the most important civil rights demonstration…. I felt again what I have been thinking about for years – that Jewish religious institutions have again missed a great opportunity, namely, to interpret a civil rights movement in terms of Judaism. The vast majority of Jews participating actively in it are totally unaware of what the movement means in terms of the prophetic traditions.
“I felt my legs were praying,” Heschel said. The march reminded him of walking with Hasidic rebbes, an experience of prayer in the world of Hasidic piety. Hasidism sought to endow all physical acts with the presence of the soul. To walk with a rebbe meant to experience the holy in everyday actions, to feel the divine radiance emanating from him, and recognize that walking, too, can be directed to heaven as prayer.
Whether or not King should speak out publicly against the war in Vietnam was a topic that preoccupied Heschel during the years between 1965 and 1967. Would King’s public opposition to the war hurt the civil rights movement? Which was the better political course, and which was the greater moral good? Lacking widespread support for a public position against the war even within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which he led, King came under severe attack for his opposition. Civil rights leaders including Ralph Bunche, Roy Wilkins, Jackie Robinson, and Senator Edward Brooke publicly criticized him, and major newspapers within both the black and white communities editorialized against him. King was attacked for potentially undermining President Lyndon Johnson’s support for the civil rights movement. Urban League director Whitney Young even argued that “the greatest freedom that exists for Negroes … is the freedom to die in Vietnam.”
Against this background, King delivered his address against the war in Vietnam, one of his most important speeches, on April 4, 1967, to an enormous audience at Riverside Church in New York City, at a gathering organized by Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV). Heschel introduced him, saying:
Our thoughts on Vietnam are sores, destroying our trust, ruining our most cherished commitments with burdens of shame. We are pierced to the core with pain, and it is our duty as citizens to say no to the subversiveness of our government, which is ruining the values we cherish…. The blood we shed in Vietnam makes a mockery of all our proclamations, dedications, celebrations. Has our conscience become a fossil, is all mercy gone? If mercy, the mother of humility, is still alive as a demand, how can we say yes to our bringing agony to that tormented country? We are here because our own integrity as human beings is decaying in the agony and merciless killing done in our name. In a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible. We are here to call upon the governments of the United States as well as North Vietnam to stand still and to consider that no victory is worth the price of terror, which all parties commit in Vietnam, North and South. Remember that the blood of the innocent cries forever. Should that blood stop to cry, humanity would cease to be.
Echoing Heschel, King reminded his audience of the SCLC’s motto, “To save the soul of America,” and added, “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam…. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” He went on to call for a “revolution of values” in American society as the best defense against communism, and “to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.”
“In a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible.” Abraham Joshua Heschel
These were prophetic speeches that led to prophetic action. A few months later, CALCAV requested permission to hold a demonstration against the war at Arlington National Cemetery. Permission for a demonstration was denied, but a prayer service was permitted, with each person limited to one sentence. The event was held on February 6, 1968. The following month, on March 25, 1968, just ten days before he was assassinated, King returned to a hotel in the Catskills to deliver the keynote address at a birthday celebration honoring Heschel, convened by the Rabbinical Assembly of America, an umbrella organization of Conservative rabbis. This was their final meeting.
Were Heschel and King the prophets of America? Neither claimed the title, but each spoke of the other as a prophet. In introducing King to the audience, Heschel asked, “Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us.”
In response, King stated that Heschel “is indeed a truly great prophet…. Here and there we find those who refuse to remain silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows, and they are forever seeking to make the great ethical insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage relevant in this day and in this age.”