Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Jewish theologian and philosopher with a social consciousness that led him to participate in the civil rights movement. Considered “one of the truly great men” of his day and a “great prophet” by Martin Luther King, Jr., Heschel articulated to many Jewish Americans and African Americans the notion that they had a responsibility for each other’s liberation and for the plight of all suffering fellow humans around the world (“Conversation with Martin Luther King,” 2).
Heschel was born in 1907 in Warsaw, Poland, to Rabbi Moshe Mordecai and Reizel Perlow Heschel. He received his PhD from the University of Berlin (1933), as well as a liberal rabbinic ordination from the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (1934). Heschel then succeeded Martin Buber as the director of the Central Organization for Jewish Adult Education in Frankfurt, Germany, until his deportation by the Nazis in 1938. Heschel taught in Warsaw and London before emigrating to the United States in 1940. In 1945, he became professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America, a post he held for the rest of his life.
As a theologian deeply interested in studying the relationship between God and humankind, Heschel believed that when one understands the spark of the divine that exists within each person, he or she cannot harbor hatred for fellow human beings. A prolific scholar, Heschel also used his writings to express that social concern was an outlet for religious piety in noted works such as Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (1951) and God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (1955).
In his opening address at the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago on 14 January 1963, at which King was also a featured speaker, Heschel maintained that Americans had the chance to find redemption through their efforts to combat racism: “Seen in the light of our religious tradition, the Negro problem is God’s gift to America, the test of our integrity, a magnificent spiritual opportunity” (Fierman, 34). Heschel also viewed ecumenism as the necessary means to attack this social ill.
A social consciousness infused with an ecumenical approach brought Heschel and King together again on 19 November 1963, when both men addressed the United Synagogue of America’s Golden Jubilee Convention in New York. King expressed his deep accord with Heschel’s cause—which was to stand against the Soviet Union’s treatment of its Jewish population—by restating his own view that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King stated that he could not neglect the plight of his “brothers and sisters who happen to be Jews in Soviet Russia” (King, 15). In March 1965, Heschel responded to King’s call for religious leaders to join the Alabama voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights. The march was spirituall fulfilling for Heschel, and he recalled feeling like his “legs were praying” as he walked next to King (Heschel, “Theological Affinities,” 175). When King delivered his famous address against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church on 4 April 1967, Heschel followed him as a speaker and ended his own presentation saying, ‘‘I conclude with the words of Dr. King: ‘the great initiative of this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours’’’ (Heschel, 4 April 1967).
King later remarked that “Rabbi Heschel is one of the persons who is relevant at all times, always standing with prophetic insights” to guide persons with a social consciousness (“Conversation with Martin Luther King,” 2). Both men were driven by the notion of a collective responsibility for the fate of all mankind, and believed that the struggle to overcome injustice must be ecumenical.
“Conversation with Martin Luther King,” Conservative Judaism 22, no. 3 (Spring 1968): 1-19.
Fierman, Leap of Action: Ideas in the Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, 1990.
Heschel, Address at Riverside Church, 4 April 1967, CSKC.
Heschel, God in Search of Man, 1955.
Heschel, Man Is Not Alone, 1951.
Heschel, No Religion Is an Island, eds. Harold Kasimow and Byron L. Sherwin, 1991.
Susanna Heschel, "Theological Affinities in the Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr., in Black Zion, eds. Chireau and Deutsch, 2000.
Kaplan, Spiritual Radical, 2007.
King, “What Happens to Them Happens to Me—and to You,” United Synagogue Review, (Winter 1964): 15.