I love Heschel’s quote as he marched in Selma, Alabama with Dr. King,
My feet are praying. As a great Jewish scholar and theologian he would have carved out his mark in academic history, but he was one of those academic/activists who lived his theology and ethics at the forefront of where history was made—literally in the front row of the marchers in Selma. Heschel practiced interfaith prayer at its best, not in a sparsely filled sanctuary but with linked arms on the hot streets during a hot time.
Rabbi, Jewish Theologian, Civil Rights Activist
Background & Early Professional Life
Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in 1907 in Warsaw, Poland, a descendant of eminent rabbis on both his parents’ sides of the family. He studied in Germany under some of the great rabbinical minds of the age and became a rabbi himself. As the Nazis came to power Heschel escaped first to England and then to the United States. He eventually became a professor at the Jewish Theological Society of America, the main seminary for Conservative Judaism.
Faith & Civil Rights
Heschel sought to balance a serious concern for Jewish law as a traditional part of everyday Jewish life with a deeper love for the spirit of the law. He explored that delicate but important balance between faithful observance and legalism.
He especially studied the prophets and applied their teachings to the issues of social justice in the United States. At that time most Jewish theologians in the world of academia never ventured far from their classrooms. Few academics dove into the rising struggles over justice and civil rights.
Heschel blazed a courageous path. He taught that the prophetic tradition required him to engage in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement as well as the struggle for freedom for Jews in the Soviet Union.
Through his involvement in social issues Heschel developed relationships with Christian leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He marched alongside Dr. King in Selma, Alabama, saying,
When I march in Selma, my feet are praying. He saw religious passions and commitments as a fundamental part of a healthy, faithful human life. No religion could claim all the truth, he said, since god transcended any particular theology, so religious communities need to be engaged with each other for the sake of their common humanity.
He raised these provocative and inspiring teachings, even though Heschel remained deeply committed to Judaism. In fact, he was almost Orthodox in practice.
Throughout his life, he was committed to relationships with people of other faiths. Heschel was chosen to represent American Jews for constructive dialogue with the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, resulting in historic shifts in Catholic policy and liturgy that had been demeaning to Jews. His willingness to enter into these interfaith relationships also led to his appointment as the first Jew on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, the premier Protestant seminary in the U.S. at the time.
Heschel was one of the founders of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. He became co-chair of this inter-religious organization that sought to end that war, seeing what was happening as a challenge to the very soul of America. In his frequent comment,
Some are guilty, but all are responsible, he put forth the challenge to engage in the pressing issues of the day as a person of faith.