Monday, January 3, 2011
Heschel and King
The photograph above, and on the cover of our newsletter for this month, depicts Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., at a civil-rights march in Selma, Alabama, in 1962. Although Heschel was only one of many rabbis who were active in the civil-rights movement, he was the best-known and most influential.
The descendant of several famous rabbis, Heschel was born in Poland, where he studied in yeshiva and pursued Orthodox rabbinical ordination. Subsequently, he earned a doctorate at the University of Berlin and received liberal ordination from the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, where he studied with many of the most eminent Jewish scholars and rabbis of his time.
He was arrested in 1938 and deported to Poland, where he lectured on Jewish philosophy and Torah in Warsaw for ten months. In 1939–40, the president of Hebrew Union College brought him to America, and he taught at HUC in Cincinnati for five years before moving to the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Heschel’s activism might be surprising, because his work as a faculty member of the Jewish Theological Seminary emphasized spirituality and mysticism, not social justice. He seems to have been somewhat underappreciated at the JTS during his lifetime, partly because critical text study rather than spirituality dominated the curriculum, and partly because his traditionalist theology had less appeal for many students than did the radical, naturalistic theology of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.
Nevertheless, it can be argued that his social activism stems directly from his doctoral thesis, an expanded version of which was published in English as The Prophets. Heschel was critical of the idea that only observance of halakha (Jewish law) really mattered in Judaism, with theology, Biblical narrative, and history taking lesser roles or no roles at all. He saw a narrow focus on observance as both contrary to authentic Jewish traditions and impractical except in isolated communities; he wanted Judaism, and Jews, to be fully engaged with the world.
In addition to his work in civil rights, and in opposing the Vietnam war, Heschel was a Jewish representative to the Vatican II conference, where he persuaded the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate or modify passages in its liturgy that demeaned Jews, or expected our conversion to Christianity. His theological works argued that religious experience is a fundamentally human impulse, not just a Jewish one, and that no religious community could claim a monopoly on religious truth.
In short, Heschel’s message is one that speaks directly to us in 2011. On one hand, he calls us to lead Jewish lives in which we are open to the Divine presence. On the other hand, he calls us equally to work for justice and to reject insularity.