MLK and Heschel unlikely partners in civil rights movement
By Rick Sherwin
This weekend two worlds come together: we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., and we observe the birthday of Abraham Joshua Heschel. At first glance we see two men in different worlds: the black spiritualist and the Jewish philosopher. We look more deeply, and we see that the two spoke the same language, viewing the world both as it is and as it ought to be.
The fact is that the two men were friends, marching together in Selma, Alabama, and protesting the war in Vietnam. Two spiritual leaders who “prayed with their feet,” giving a physical dimension to the ideas they shared with all who were willing to listen.
“When I was young I admired clever people.
Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
–Abraham Joshua Heschel
In 1968, two weeks before Dr. King was murdered, he spoke before the Rabbinical Assembly – the international gathering of Conservative rabbis – and paid homage to Rabbi Heschel. Actually, both men praised each other for presenting ideas that would remain vital and dynamic in the world. Little did they know that both would die shortly thereafter. Their teachings continue to inspire us, demanding that we create a world with more cohesion and depth.
It was Abraham Joshua Heschel who shared the message that no religion is an island; we are all connected in the task of creating a brighter future for the world. The Sabbath, wrote Heschel, is a reminder that spending time is ultimately more important than spending money. One day a week, we need to give priority of time over space, of relationships over objects. Heschel taught that God is not to be worshipped but lived, that we quest for God and God searches for us: it is, if you will, a sacred partnership, a friendship.
“God’s dream is to have mankind
as a partner in the drama of continuous creation.”
–Abraham Joshua Heschel
It is sometimes difficult to read Heschel, because he writes in poetry, using the letters to create not words, but symbols. He gives deeper meaning not only to
every word and every letter, but to the space between the words and the letters. He breathes both language and life.
In honor of two great teachers, try to spend a little time this weekend with friends or family talking not about schedules and things, but about ideas and dreams. Paint a picture with your words of the world as it should be, then honor Heschel and King by “praying with your feet” and making it happen.
“[The] future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one!”
— Doc Emmett Brown (Back to the Future III)
Rick Sherwin is the Rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Longwood. He is a graduate of UCLA and was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He energetically fills spiritual services and educational programs with creativity, relevance, dialogue and humor.