The newest addition to the excellent Jewish Lives series of Yale University Press is a biography of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the prophet-like rabbi who in the 1960s joined Martin Luther King, Jr. to advance the cause of civil rights. At the head of the 1965 protest march with King and other leaders from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Heschel summarized his participation with an oft-quoted remark, “I felt my legs were praying.”
Julian Zelizer tells this inspiring story with passion and with clarity, in a fluid style that offers pleasurable reading.
Civil rights was just one of the causes Heschel embraced; he was also a leader in the Soviet Jewry movement, and, controversially, in interfaith dialogue and the anti-Vietnam war movement. With his insistence that Jewish observance and social activism were necessarily linked, Heschel ventured where other religious leaders of the time feared to go.
Born into a Hasidic dynasty in Warsaw in 1907, Heschel’s formative years were times of great change, with his Jewish learning and his pious life coming into contact with the secular world, particularly when he moved to Berlin in 1927, where he attended and earned a doctorate at the University of Berlin.
As conditions for Jews began to deteriorate, Heschel knew he had to leave Europe. Salvation came from the Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary in Cincinnati. Its president, Julian Morgenstern, was recruiting German Jewish scholars, and offered Heschel a position. He arrived in this country in 1940.
While exceedingly grateful that Morgenstern and HUC had saved his life, Heschel was not at home at the Reform institute. Meanwhile, his family was not able to leave Europe. “To experience the atrocious in the distance makes me mute,” he wrote in anguish to his friend Martin Buber, devastated by the deaths of family members.
In 1945, Heschel was offered a position at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the rabbinical seminary of the Conservative movement, the denomination with which he came to be associated. He accepted, comfortable with its more traditional approach to Jewish observance, but he was not fully accepted as a serious scholar by his colleagues.
Nevertheless Heschel was, according to author Zelizer, “a writing machine” — including The Sabbath, God In Search of Man, Man Is Not Alone, and in 1962, The Prophets. With that book, writes Zelizer, Heschel’s “theology started to mesh with real-world activism.” At his first civil rights address in 1963, he told the assembled leaders, “Prayer and prejudice cannot dwell in the same heart,” calling racism “unmitigated evil.” It was a cri de coeur for action rooted in his religion, and a call he followed for the rest of his life until he died in 1972, at the age of just 65.