There is a famous picture taken in Selma, Ala., in 1965 at the site of a historic civil rights march for voter registration.
Abraham Joshua Heschel is marching in line with Martin Luther King Jr. and a number of other key civil rights demonstrators. At the end of the demonstration, a journalist asked Heschel to describe his feelings about marching with King. He answered: "My feet were praying."
Heschel was prominent as a scholar, teacher and theologian, and widely respected because of his numerous publications. He was also well known as a result of his participation in Vatican II. Vatican II was the gathering in the early 1960s during which the Catholic Church introduced many significant internal changes. One of the changes included a historical reckoning: a formal process was begun that would eventually lead to the public announcement by the Church that "the Jews" did not kill Christ. From his participation in Vatican II, Heschel received the nickname from Catholics throughout the world of "Father Abraham."
Heschel descended from a long line of Chasidic rebbes. In his adolescent years, he left the world of Chasidism and chose to embrace a more historical approach to Jewish tradition. In his later years, though, when he became a teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (and when the famous picture of King and himself was taken in Selma), he looked like someone from his ancestry. He had a long gray beard, long gray hair and always wore a yarmulke.
The picture of King and Heschel marching together in Selma has become something of an icon. It represents the pride American Jews feel having played, as a group, a prominent role in the civil rights movement.
According to Heschel's daughter, Susannah, who is a professor of history and religion at Dartmouth College, her father and King were close friends during the last five years of King's life. During this period, they had a profound influence on one another. When King's funeral arrangements needed to be made, Heschel was one of the first individuals, among all the dignitaries and officials who spoke at this historic event, that Coretta Scott King specifically requested to deliver a eulogy.
In an essay Susannah Heschel wrote in the Journal of Conservative Judaism in the spring of 1998, she points out something interesting in King's speeches. In his early years, particularly before January of 1963 when Heschel and King formally met, King evoked images in his speeches of the Christian Bible and of traditional Christian commentators. After King and Heschel became acquainted, the dominant biblical metaphor in King's speeches changed. He now emphasized the Exodus from Egypt.
The second most commonly used biblical metaphor became the prophet, specifically the call of the biblical prophets for social justice. Susannah Heschel interprets this fact as no coincidence. When Heschel earned a doctorate at the University of Berlin in the early 1930s, he wrote his dissertation on The Prophets.
King did not need Heschel to teach him about biblical events. He did need Heschel, though, to emphasize the power that these biblical metaphors contained, that these metaphors were inherently more inclusive and could be used to gain the broadest segment of support from the American public.
Heschel was one of the first prominent Americans to publicly fulminate against United States participation in the war in Southeast Asia. It is documented that he encouraged King in public discussions and in written correspondence to take a public stand against this war.
Twenty-nine years ago, died on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Tevet. Tevet is a month that comes during the winter season. It often corresponds with January, the month in which Americans pay tribute to King with a national holiday. It is appropriate that the birthday of King and the yahrtzeit of Heschel come at this time of year. The example of their leadership continues to cast light on our dark struggling society.
Elliot Fein teaches high school students Jewish studies at the Tarbut V'Torah Community School in Irvine.