Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, January 13, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Abraham Joshua Heschel’s yahrtzeit is the 18th of Tevet and this year fell on January 5th. This weekend is the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday. In between we read the first two parashiyot of Exodus. The confluence of these events encourages us to reflect on the legacy of these two great spiritual giants and their very special relationship.
Each of these men held the other in greatest esteem, both saw in the other the role of the Biblical prophet declaiming God’s love and demands to his human creations.
“Where does God dwell in America today?” asked Heschel before introducing King at the Rabbinical Assembly’s convention in 1968. “... 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.”
King had come to the conference partially to honor Heschel who was honored on the occasion of his 60th birthday. He opened his comments by praising Heschel “a man that I consider one of the truly great men of our day and age, Rabbi Heschel. He is indeed a truly great prophet” and comparing him to other religious leaders: (H)ere 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. I feel that Rabbi Heschel is one of the persons who is relevant at all times, always standing with prophetic insights to guide us through these difficult days.”
The imagery of the Exodus held a prominent place in both the theology of Heschel and King. Heschel opened his remarks at the Conference on Religion and Race sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews: "At the first conference on religion and race the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses”.
Susannah Heschel, Heschel’s daughter, wrote that the affinity between the two men came not because of their common commitment to fighting injustice in society but due to their theologies.
She writes, “A comparison of King and Heschel reveals theological affinities in addition to shared political sympathies. The preference King gave to the Exodus motif over the figure of Jesus certainly played a major role in linking the two men intellectually and religiously; for Heschel, the primacy of the Exodus in the Civil Rights movement was a major step in the history of Christian-Jewish relations. Heschel’s concept of divine pathos, a category central to his theology, is mirrored in King’s understanding of the nature of God’s involvement with humanity. For both, the theological was intimately intertwined with the political and that conviction provided the basis of the spiritual affinity they felt for each other.” (“Theological Affinities in the Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr.”, Conservative Judaism, 1998, Vol. 50, No. 2-3)
On the surface the mutual bond seemed incongruous. Heschel, twice the age King, came from a distinguished family of religious leaders living in the pietistic community of Eastern European Hasidism. King was raised in a theologically conservative African American church in a racially divided Southern America. Yet both had broken in significant ways from the communities they were born into while still maintaining ties and affection for their cultural milieu. Heschel had left his Hasidic community for the University in Berlin, King studied at a liberal Protestant Seminary and Boston University. Each transformed their communities by synthesizing new conceptualizations and ways of thinking with images and models from their beloved traditions.
Susannah Heschel noted that Heschel and King shared certain themes in their writings. Both rooted their spirituality in the Exodus narrative and emphasized the role of the prophets. King compared what occurred in Alabama with the Exodus from Egypt. In doing so, writes Heschel, (King) transfigured the participants into the biblical realm, in which actions have consequences for the divine plan of history. Political activism is not simply history, but Heilsgeschichte, salvation history occurring within the realm of God.” Abraham Joshua Heschel also transfered the (political) “questions of the day into a biblical schema, so that they are occurring not only on a human plane, but within the life of God as well, in a tradition well-established within the Jewish mystical tradition.”
Also permeating King’s words was a fundamental assumption of divine concern with the events that transpired in the Civil Rights struggle. God is involved and engaged in that struggle, because God is not remote and transcendent, but possesses subjectivity and is affected by the treatment human beings accord one another. That conviction is central to Heschel’s major theological claim, that the God of the Bible is not impassive, but is a God of pathos who responds to human deeds, suffering with us. The idea of a divine responsiveness to human activity was not exclusive to the observance of mitzvot between God and humanity but also include the ethical commandments regulating behavior between human beings. Cosmic vitality in this world depended on human action - acts calling for justice, concern for the needy and compassion that the prophets demanded.
According to Susannah Heschel both Heschel and King pushed back against contemporary theological trends – that known as neo-orthodoxy of Protestant theologians Karl Barth and Reinhold Neibuhr and liberal ethical monotheism. She writes, “Both saw the limitations of each tradition, suspicious of Barth’s assertion of God’s utter and complete transcendent otherness, according to which human beings are unable to affect the divine realm, while at the same time uncomfortable with liberalism’s diminution of divine power and action within the world and with what they saw as its naive optimism regarding human history, yet at the same time as other than the worldly realm. For both, God has a subjective life that is affected by human deeds; human beings constitute an object of divine concern.
And human actions also affect the divine realm. Heschel wrote how God was in search of Man. As much as human beings are in need of redemption, God too, awaits redemption and exists in a measure of dependence upon human deeds. King wrote something similar: “By endowing us with freedom, God relinquished a measure of his own sovereignty and imposed certain limitations upon himself.”
In the Exodus story, the question is always raised why did God allow Israel to suffer so horribly for generations? One suggestion is because Israel became accustomed to slavery. They became indifferent to their own condition. When Israel left Egypt, the Torah tells us they left ‘hamushim’, usually rendered ‘armed’. But it also means a fifth from the word hamesh for five. According to some only 20% of the Jews left, the others had either assimilated or accepted the world as it was.
Heschel and King understood that accepting an unredeemed world as it was, was the worst form of immorality. “Heschel wrote: “The opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference,” a conviction that he translated into a political commitment: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” King wrote, “To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system.” In so doing, he went on, “the oppressed becomes as evil as the oppressor.” Not to act communicates “to the oppressor that his actions are morally right.” Social activism was required by religious faith, both Heschel and King argued, particularly when society had developed immoral institutional structures: “Your highest loyalty is to God and not to the mores, or folkways, the state or the nation or any man-made institution.”
Heschel and King could state that because of their resolute conviction that God is good and compassionate. God is on the side of righteousness and mercifulness.
We are called upon to remember these two great spiritual giants, now more than ever. For America has entered a dark age, in which a President can use expletive and invective against people of color with impunity and can use his office for personal enrichment while a Congress under the sway of his party either ignores his improprieties and corruptions or supports them. The story of the Exodus teaches that indifference is not an option. Heschel taught us that we are all responsible for the restoration of justice in society, whether we are guilty for its perversion or not. On this Shabbat following the observance of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s yahrtzeit and anticipating the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday let us take up the mantle of their calls for justice and righteousness in society in order that we might yet redeem our nation, ourselves and the Divine.