Reverend King and Rabbi Heschel — Spiritual Brothers and Souls
In 1968 in Chicago, two prophetic visionaries — Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — had their first summit.
As Reverend King encouraged Rabbi Heschel’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement, Heschel urged King to take a public stance against the war in Vietnam. When 1,000 Conservative rabbis gathered in April 1968, to celebrate Heschel’s 60th birthday, they sang “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew. The keynote speaker was King.
Ten days later, when Reverend King was assassinated, Heschel was the rabbi Mrs. King invited to speak at his funeral.
Why did Rabbi Heschel — a refugee from Hitler’s Europe who was born into a Hasidic rebbe’s family in Warsaw and had a long white beard and wore a yarmulke — walk arm-in-arm for voting rights in Selma in 1965 with an African-American minister, whose father was the son of sharecroppers?
One reason that the reverend and rabbi came together, as Rabbi Heschel’s daughter, professor Susannah Heschel, explains it, was their “theological affinities.” Reverend King was an independent thinker whose theology arguably resonated more with the Hebrew Bible’s Exodus motif than with the Christian Bible’s messianic figure of Jesus. Rabbi Heschel — who said that “the Exodus began but is far from being completed” — shared Reverend King’s faith that Moses leading the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage pointed the way toward the liberation of the long-persecuted African-Americans.
In 1963’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Reverend King invoked Hebrew prophets Amos and Isaiah: “No, we … will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Rabbi Heschel was a controversial figure, sometimes criticized by fellow Jews including his fellow Conservative rabbis. His angry retort was to compare his critics to the Jews who wanted to stay in Egypt as well-kept slaves. Unfazed, Heschel extended his social activism to encouraging interfaith dialogue leading up to Vatican II and the movement to free Soviet Jewry.
King also spoke out about the Holocaust. In Miami in 1958, before the American Jewish Congress, he said that Hitler’s “hideous racism” — responsible for the murder of “millions of Jews, old and young, and even the unborn” — had left no doubt in the minds of African-Americans that unless Hitler were defeated his genocidal plans would “sooner or later encompass them.”
At his 60th birthday celebration, keynoted by Reverend King, Rabbi Heschel asked: “Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel?”
Of course, he was thinking of his ally — and even spiritual brother — Reverend King.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).