Editor’s note: This column is part of a seriesof columns from the Interfaith Coalition of Washington County to mark A Season for Peace and Nonviolence, Jan. 30 through April 4.
In 1965, I began graduate studies at Columbia University in New York, and enrolled in a course at Union Theological Seminary with the renowned Visiting Professor Abraham Heschel. He was unquestionably then — and perhaps still — the most prominent Jewish theologian of the 20th century. As an undergraduate, I had read all of his books that spoke about recapturing the prophetic spirit of justice and godliness. A short man with a head of white hair and full beard, he had a giant personality, brilliant mind and emotional spirituality. He was a “spiritual radical” who saw wonder and awe as keys to religious life and our relationship with God. He preached the “radical amazement” we moderns needed as much as did our biblical ancestors. Dialogue with God, he taught, was reflected in dialogue with each other, as “no religion is an island.”
He spoke passionately about ethics and morality:
“The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference.”
“In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
But equally important was his relationship with and influence on Martin Luther King Jr. Rabbi Harold Schulweis wrote:
“Two men from different geographies, color, creed, theological background were joined in a spiritual kinship whose legacy addresses our own times ... Heschel ... and King ... marched side-by-side from Selma to Montgomery to protest the pernicious racism that poisoned America and humiliated its African-American citizens.” Heschel was one of the clergy President Kennedy invited to a gathering on civil rights in June 1963.
Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel, recalled that “when the Conservative rabbis of America gathered in 1968 to celebrate Heschel’s sixtieth birthday, the keynote speaker was King. When King was assassinated, Heschel was the rabbi Mrs. King invited to speak at his funeral.” They were spiritual colleagues, prayed together in protest at Arlington National Cemetery, and stood side by side in the pulpit of Riverside Church. Heschel received an invitation from King to join the Selma march; he was welcomed there in the front row of marchers.
In 1965, Heschel led a delegation of 800 to FBI headquarters in New York City to protest the brutal treatment of the demonstrators in Selma. He alone was allowed to present a petition to the regional FBI director. Like King, Heschel was placed under FBI surveillance and was branded an anti-American subversive by supporters of the war. During the last years of his life, Heschel lectured frequently at anti-war rallies and made his opposition to the war an integral part of his public lectures and classes. “Remember that the blood of the innocent cries forever,” he wrote. Both Heschel and King warn us that only by listening to these cries do we preserve our humanity.
Fred Raskind has been rabbi of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Hagerstown since 2003. He has served as an officer of Interfaith Coalition and HARC (Hagerstown Area Religious Coalition).