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Abraham Joshua Heschel and Civil Rights

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Human Rights
Wordcount: 3494 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Prayer and Progress Through Footsteps: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Civil Rights

On March 25, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands of protesters on a 54 mile march from Selma to Alabama’s state capitol building in Montgomery. The march represented the culmination of a series of civil-rights protests and demonstrations in the South which were geared towards attaining equal civil and social rights for African Americans. Though intended to force the hand of Southern politicians in hopes of registering black voters in the South, the march attracted a much larger audience. Individuals from various creeds and colors joined King on his path towards social justice and equality. Abraham Joshua Heschel, who is best remembered for his appearance in an iconic photo next to King at Selma, was a world famous Jewish philosopher and theologian. His convoluted past which tied together his upbringing, unique experiences, and novel approaches to Jewish text interpretation is evident in this photo. Although each of these factors played a distinct and separate role in shaping Heschel’s worldview and lifestyle, they just as equally reinforced one another in a way that compelled Heschel to recognize the need for American Jewry to speak out in support of civil rights. A review of Heschel’s sense of his personal moral obligations which arose from his traditional upbringing, secular education and personal experiences with antisemitism, as well as his religious obligations rooted in both his nuanced approach to Jewish text and universal Jewish moral imperatives, makes evident how Heschel reached his conclusion that he needed to be actively involved in radical social movements in America in the 1960’s.

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 Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1907. Being a member of a long Hasidic dynasty, Heschel was defined by his ancestry and was tasked with a heavy responsibility to continue this legacy. Torah study dominated his childhood as he was constantly surrounded by learned scholars, both in Heder and at home. He was therefore separated from secular warsaw. Throughout his adolescence, Heschel continued to amass significant Torah knowledge. At age 13, Heschel became a Bar-Mitzvah and continued his Torah study in one of the prestigious local Yeshivas in which he shortly after became ordained as a Rabbi. There, Heschel perfected his learning skills, specifically in Talmud study. Talmud study provided Heschel with skills far beyond Jewish text comprehension. Through studying Talmud, Heschel was better equipped with critical thinking skills,  argumentation, and analysis –  key components of a strong and intellectual mind.[1]

 As a result, Heschel developed a passion for secular knowledge. As Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel H. Dresner so eloquently summarize in their work Prophetic Witness, “paradoxically, this urban Hasidic academy may have kindled Heschel’s drive for secular knowledge.”[2] Ironically, though narrow and isolated, the Yeshiva stimulated Heschel’s intellectual ingenuity and independence of mind. Additionally, that Yeshiva was located in secular Warsaw, Heschel was presented with opportunities to indulge in secular and liberal yiddish literature — both of which were to be avoided according to his religion. Furthermore, that Yeshiva was located in a secular neighborhood in Warsaw introduced Heschel to both non-religious Jews and Christians.[3] These factors culminated in Heschel’s journey beyond the narrow and restrictive bounds of Hasidic Judaism to Vilna to pursue both secular and religious studies but to more importantly attain his ultimate goal of attending the University of Berlin.[4]

Vilna represented Heschel’s utopia. In Vilna, Heschel hoped to reconcile the cultural dissonance of his past. As Heschel noted, “other Jewish communities too were rich in creative personalities – rabbis, heads of yeshivas, scholars, authors, artists, actors, preachers – and in philanthropic, political and cultural institutions, yeshivas and modern schools. But all of these combined – such color, such diversity of colors, such scope – in this respect Vilna ranks above all other communities.”[5] Heschel was drawn towards each of these worlds and Vilna provided him with a stage to simultaneously engage in both. Boasting a strong Talmud program and providing Heschel with a scholarly Torah education, yet being a place in which both Jewish culturalism and secularism flourished, Vilna dominated all other religious cosmopolitan communities.

Yet, many of Heschel’s peers were reluctant to take advantage of these incredible opportunities. Many of his colleagues, upon arriving in Vilna, quickly identified with either the religious or secular Jewish community. Adhering to these strict external labels created major separation between the two seemingly similar groups. Refusing to adhere to these suffocating labels, Heschel appreciated and admired the blending of these totally separate and vastly different lifestyles and worldviews. He believed that identifying with a denomination not only threatened meaningful dialogue but posed several potential barriers to substantial religious growth. As a result, upon arriving in Vilna, Heschel changed the way he dressed and shaved his beard marking the beginning of his cultural alienation from the Jewish world.[6] Unlike his fellow comrades, Heschel worked to reconcile his traditional past with his present secular environment. Upon leaving Vilna, as noted by Kaplan and Dresner, “Heschel knew who he was, at least internally: a Yiddish-speaking modern Jew, loyal to the Sinai revelation, with a universal conscience.”[7] Heschel had successfully balanced both a secular and religious lifestyle and was now prepared to attend the University of Berlin.

In Berlin, Heschel was presented with a platform to engage with individuals different than he — he was finally provided with the opportunity to conduct meaningful dialogue with those who held different views. Specifically, Heschel was forced to collaborate with both religious and nonreligious Jews as well as Christians and Atheists.[8] These interactions helped Heschel develop a deep reverence and admiration for others. From this, Heschel remarked that “the symbol of God is man, every man. God created man in His image (tselem), in His likeness (demut) … Human life is holy, holier even than the Scrolls of the Torah.”[9] As later Jewish theologians would come to document, Heschel was the first to state that difference was associated with dignity, not detriment. If all are created equal, then that ‘all’ must include blacks. His interactions with the universal as opposed to the particular helped him embrace a precept that would come to guide his interactions with respect to the Civil Rights movement. Furthermore, Heschel believed that interacting with those who were different was not only a religious act but was more importantly a nuanced yet direct way of serving God. These interactions with his diverse secular surroundings helped him conclude that he had to be active in the secular world and apply Jewish values to alleviates its problems, suffering, and discrimination wherever he saw it. In other words, Heschel’s entire experience in Berlin intellectually prepared him for the dilemmas and issues he would face when confronting racism in the United States.

Simultaneous with Heschel’s physical and intellectual maturation was the parallel growth of European antisemitism. Growing up a Jew in Eastern Europe, Heschel recognized that he was different from his non-Jewish neighbors. He spoke a different language, identified with a different culture, observed different laws, and lived a vastly different life than his European counterparts. Yet, as Heschel aged, so too antisemitism became increasingly commonplace and prevalent.[10] The National Socialist Party’s rise to power, and the subsequent dictatorship under Adolf Hitler, brought with it a nationally recognized antisemitism. Their goal, put simply, was to exterminate the Jewish People. This goal was to be achieved through a gradual process of subtle yet dangerous laws and decrees. Shortly after the Nazi’s took control of the government, Jews’ were stripped of their civil rights and liberties, barred from certain universities, excluded from certain jobs and forced to live in specific, segregated areas. This directly impacted Heschel as he was soon expelled from the University of Berlin and deported back to Warsaw.[11] The imminent threat of the Nazi’s was so pressing that it forced Heschel to emigrate to the United States as a refugee of Nazi Europe to accept a position at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio.[12]

 Heschel’s personal experience with antisemitism and the Holocaust further intensified his fervor for social justice. The savagery, barbarity, ruthlessness and destruction of European antisemitism propelled Heschel to develop a deep hatred towards American racism. Heschel identified with the American Black community and was sympathetic to their situation as he too had been a subject of violent widespread hatred. Based on his past experiences in Nazi occupied Europe, he felt a deep and personal connection with others who had been marginalized, excluded, and hated for simply being different. Having experienced the oppression of National Socialism in Germany, Heschel found himself at a moral crossroad. Heschel knew all too well that seemingly mild interventions led to a Holocaust and recognized that the potential and inevitable slope of American Racism was far too slippery. His personal exposure to antisemitism, coupled with his changing moral beliefs which arose after spending time in Berlin, made clear that the moral imperative demanded action. In essence, Heschel adopted a set of principles which commanded him to not stand idly by.

 Acting on his beliefs about the moral imperative, in 1958 Heschel took a public stance on issues of racism and segregation. To a very narrow audience comprised of Rabbis of the Conservative Movement, Heschel expressly disapproved of and condemned Jewish religious institutions for their “timidity and hesitancy to take a stance on behalf of the Negroes.”[13] Heschel’s criticism reflected his true motives behind supporting the Civil Rights movement: agitation, instigation and subsequent collaboration of American Jews for their complacency. Heschel believed that legislation would do little to incite change. Rather, he argued, that physical intervention and involvement could bring about a moral revolution. Put simply, fear does not bring about change. Action, however, does. Furthermore, although he was criticizing the leaders of American Jewry, he designed his message to be heard by others.[14] Heschel knew all too well that complacency and apathy in the face of evil results in a centralization of power and the eventual domination and destruction of individuals.

Moving beyond his focus on Jewish clergy, Heschel embraced his own standard by writing President Kennedy five years later, on June 16, 1963, ensuring that his message was directed towards a much wider audience. His message that religious leaders had failed in their obligation as persons of faith demonstrated Heschel’s growing appreciation of the need to speak loudly about the beliefs he had come to hold in light of his experiences as an adolescent. Urging President Kennedy to declare “a state of moral emergency”[15] in America, Heschel felt so deeply empowered to contact the leader of the free world of whom he had no previous connection.

In addition to Heschel’s life and experience in Europe shaping his political activism, his understanding of Jewish moral imperatives further propelled his involvement in the movement for black liberation. Judaism traditionally conceives of commandments as being both positive and negative. God commands individuals to do certain things while also commanding them from refraining from other actions. For example, love and brotherhood are clear positive obligations. Conversely, hateful speech is expressly prohibited in the Torah. Similarly, racism, which clouds the vision of one’s mind, is akin to placing a stumbling block in front of a blind man. The most important negative commandment in Judaism, for which one is obligated to sacrifice their life, is the worshiping of the false God. This type of blasphemy is what Jews’ laid down their lives for from the time of the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust. For Heschel, this distinction between positive and negative commandments clearly applied to issues of racism and segregation.

Heschel employed the language of blasphemy to drive home the point that racism, at its core, was simply an act against God’s image. In Heschel’s famous speech titled Religion and Race, Heschel writes, “racial or religious bigotry must be recognized for what it is: Satanism, a blasphemy, atheism. Race prejudice, a universal human ailment, is the most recalcitrant aspect of evil in man, a treacherous denial of the existence of God.”[16] Put simply, oppression and social injustice were clear forms of heresy and directly denied the existence of God. Further in the essay, Heschel compares the creation of wildlife to that of man.[17] He noted that while God created various species distinct from each other, “it does not say, God created different kinds of man, men of different colors and races; it proclaims God created one single man. From one single man all men are descended.”[18]

Additionally, in The White Man on Trial, Heschel cited the Jews’ exodus from Egypt as a reason for his involvement. On the physical surface, Heschel, being a devoutly religious Jew, heard the call to treat others with respect and tolerance as Jews were once strangers in the land of Egypt.[19] Extrapolating beyond this particular example, Heschel believed that, as a Jew, he had an obligation to treat all individuals with respect and dignity. Although Heschel never explicitly and formally addressed the topic of Tikkun Olam, much of his writing, particularly about racism, can be seen emerging from this concept. In fact, he likely was an early pioneer regarding the importance of Tikkun Olam in American Jewish notions of social justice.[20] Furthermore, in his essay titled The Reasons for my Involvement in the Peace Movement, Heschel answered the moral dilemma of ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’ posed by Cain with a resounding ‘yes.’[21]

Although now viewed as a paragon of Jewish values, as well as a world renowned scholar, Heschel was seen by many of his contemporaries as at least an outcast, if not, a pariah. He was an outsider in Yeshiva. He was an outsider in Berlin. He was an outsider within the American Jewish community as an Orthodox rabbi in a Reform college and Conservative seminary. Like many of the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Heschel saw himself as separated from the community in which he lived and suffered personally when seeing harm done unto others. He felt that that as a human being he had a moral obligation to treat others with dignity and with respect. More importantly, because Heschel, like Hebrew Biblical Prophets, was outside society, he was able to point out society’s failures. This theme of separatism infused his theological writing and helped force him to the logical conclusion that as an American, as a Jew, and as a human being, he needed to place himself next to Martin Luther King Jr — this was the compelling and only conclusion of his thought and experiences. When famously asked if Heschel found time to pray during the March, he responded that he prayed with his feet. Heschel’s entire experience, both intellectually and religiously, was connecting the soul and the body in order to form a unique approach to spirituality. More importantly, Heschel believed and demonstrated to others that prayer and social action were interconnected and integral parts of the Jewish experience in America. To Heschel, marching and protesting in support of civil rights were the strongest forms of prayer. In that sense, how could he find himself anywhere but next to King in Selma.


  • Genesis I: 11-12, 21-25
  • Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The insecurity of freedom. New York: Schocken Books, 1988.
  • Heschel, Abraham Joshua, and Susannah Heschel. Moral grandeur and spiritual audacity: essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.
  • Jewish Women’s Archive. “Telegram from Abraham Joshua Heschel to President John F. Kennedy, June 16, 1963.” (Viewed on December 7, 2017) <https://jwa.org/media/telegram-from-abraham-joshua-heschel-to-president-john-f-kennedy-june-16-1963>.
  • Kaplan, Edward K., and Samuel H. Dresner. Abraham Joshua Heschel: prophetic witness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Kaplan, Edward K. Spiritual radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2007.
  • Krasner, Jonathan. “The Place of Tikkun Olam in American Jewish Life.” Jerusalem Center For Public Affairs. November 1, 2014. Accessed December 07, 2017. http://jcpa.org/article/place-tikkun-olam-american-jewish-life1/.

[1] Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel H. Dresner, Abraham Joshua Heschel: prophetic witness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007). 2-46

[2] Ibid., 47

[3] Ibid., 52-64

[4] Ibid., 73

[5] Ibid., 74

[6] Ibid., 65-87

[7] Ibid., 183

[8] Ibid., 104-154

[9] Ibid., 182

[10] Ibid., 103

[11] Ibid., 266-275

[12] Ibid., 289-303

[13] Edward K. Kaplan, Spiritual radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 2007). 215

[14] Ibid., 215-225

[15]  Jewish Women’s Archive. “Telegram from Abraham Joshua Heschel to President John F. Kennedy, June 16, 1963.” (Viewed on December 7, 2017) <https://jwa.org/media/telegram-from-abraham-joshua-heschel-to-president-john-f-kennedy-june-16-1963>.

[16] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom (New York: Schocken Books, 1988). 85-101

[17] Genesis I: 11-12, 21-25

[18] Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom, 85-101

[19] Ibid., 101-111

[20] Jonathan Krasner, “The Place of Tikkun Olam in American Jewish Life,” Jerusalem Center For Public Affairs, November 1, 2014, , accessed December 07, 2017, http://jcpa.org/article/place-tikkun-olam-american-jewish-life1/.

[21] Abraham Joshua Heschel and Susannah Heschel, Moral grandeur and spiritual audacity: essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996). 224-226


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