This is an iconic picture. For those who don’t know, it shows Rev. Martin Luther King (fourth from right) leading the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) and other religious leaders with him.
It’s good to keep thinking about these two lions of social justice these days. In the very unusual political climate that we are finding ourselves in right now, where the loudest calls for civic responsibility are to “resist, resist, resist,” the prophetic voice of King and Heschel—spelling out what we are for before talking about what we are against—is sorely missing.
What were these two lions of social activism for? They were both unabashedly guided and inspired by the loftiest goals of the Biblical prophets. Heschel dared us all to “dream God’s dream”; perhaps that’s why Martin Luther King, of “I have a dream” fame, called Heschel “My Rabbi.”
Heschel was not a humanist. His social activism was not moved primarily by socio-economic values. Fiercely committed to a vision of “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of Y-H-W-H as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9), he was against whatever stood in the way of that. He was FOR God; if he was against anything, it was because it was standing in the way of fulfilling the grand vision, standing in the way of creating a world in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven.
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Among Jewish teachers and authors it is very common to hear that there are two kinds of mitzvoth (commandments): those that pertain to one’s relationship with God and those that pertain to one’s relationship to one’s fellow humans. That division, as was clearly pointed out by the late Prof. Y. Leibowitz, one of Israel’s preeminent theologians, is artificial, even false. From the Jewish point of view, the value of kindness to one’s fellow human was not rooted in socio-economic value. Its value lies in helping to manifest the divine purpose, the divine plan.
So when the old teacher Hillel summarized the Torah as “don’t do unto others what you would not have done to yourself”, it was not because he was a socialist. Being kind to others is a form of prayer to God. In Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year devoted to atonement, the Great Confession has hardly any mention of sins between one and God, but deals almost entirely with sins between one and one’s fellow humans. We have to be kind to our fellow humans because they are created in the image of God, and we worship God through them.
Rabbi Heschel famously said, that when he marched in Selma, he was praying with his feet. This is the kind of social action that, I believe, we should have much more of. Much of my writings in this blog will be about social action as a way of praying. Stay tuned.