Ten days before he was murdered, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the gathering of rabbis from the Conservative Movement (denomination).
He came at the invitation of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The two men had become fast friends in a brief period of time.
That their lives intersected at all was near impossible except for the extraordinary time and place that was America during the civil rights movement.
Heschel was a “brand plucked from the fire” of the Holocaust and descendant of Hassidic rabbis; King was the firebrand son of a preacher who refused the indignity of the second-class citizenship suffered by the descendants of the enslaved.
Heschel was not universally revered at the time, though respect for him was unquestioned.
Reading his words, filled as they were with “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity” (his challenge to President Kennedy), is inspiring and challenging. Listening to him speak was likely an experience of profound discomfort.
The place of the rabbi in American Jewish life during the 1960s was dominant. Locally and nationally, rabbis’ voices spoke to and for a population of Jews rising in comfort and influence through the middle class and into white society.
It is true that Jews overwhelmingly supported the aspirations of Black Americans to genuine equality. It is also true that many of them felt threatened by the disruption of the social order that they had recently mastered. That same social order was viewed by Black Americans as the obstacle to their full enfranchisement in the promise of America.
So, when Rabbi Heschel introduced his friend to the assembled rabbis as a “voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel” whom “God has sent,” and exhorted “every Jew to hearken to his voice,” his audience must have had conflicting responses.
Outwardly, they cheered and applauded, and sang “We Shall Overcome” in Hebrew, to King’s delight. But the questions they posed to King – and his responses – were windows into ambivalence.
Asked about “the extremist element in the Negro community,” King described his disagreements with Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), proponent of the new notion of “Black Power.”
But he then shared three positives: Black Power was a psychological call to reject the stigma associated with color; it was a call to pool political resources in pursuit of legitimate goals; it was a call to pool economic resources to achieve legitimate power and lift people out of poverty.
King’s framing of Black Power had to resonate with the rabbis – they led communities recovering from the stigma of anti-Semitism that were successfully building both political and economic legitimacy.
Heschel must have known what King’s words would trigger among his colleagues. “The situation of the poor in America is our plight. To be deaf to their plight is to condemn ourselves,” he said.
His admiration for the man and his message, though King was almost 25 years his junior, was unmistakable: “The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King.”
The admiration went in both directions.
Heschel’s magnum opus, The Prophets, had a profound influence on King and on the leaders of the civil rights movement. His copy was well-worn and filled with notes and underlining. In responding to the introduction from Heschel, King called him “one of the truly great men of our day and age … truly a great prophet.”
It may be that some of what bound them in friendship was a profound sense of mutual gratitude.
Heschel spent most of his life immersed in scholarship. Though his writing was powerful, both academic and spiritual in nature, he was in his 50s before his deep concern for humanity drew him into activism.
When the need to go public overtook his soul, he found particular satisfaction in the welcome he received from King.
The iconic picture of the march from Selma to Montgomery shows the two men side by side, and was the occasion for Heschel’s renown declaration, “I felt my legs were praying.”
Heschel was emboldened in the early 60s to speak publicly on the moral issues that troubled his soul, including Vietnam, the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union and civil rights in the United States.
King’s outspokenness had a trajectory that exceeded his initial focus on civil rights. His support for the State of Israel and his opposition to the Vietnam War were undoubtably influenced by his friend Heschel (and others in the community of rabbis). Just as Heschel decried racism and its evils, King condemned anti-Semitism and its results.
One more common bond between the two men is worth mentioning, though it likely sounds peculiar today.
In our racially saturated society, most contemporary Jews consider themselves white, especially as “color” has been more distinctively defined.
But in Heschel’s Europe, Jews were always “others,” holding a place among the dominant classes of Europe that Blacks held (and still in some ways hold) in America. It was, therefore, not surprising at all that empathy and affinity defined their friendship.
King was to be a guest at Rabbi Heschel’s Passover seder in April 1968. Just a few days before, he took his fateful trip to Memphis.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021 (Jan. 18). The previous article in the series is:
Another King Holiday: We’re Still Not Listening | Starlette Thomas