Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Yahrtzeit and Martin Luther King Jr. Day–Jan 16, 2017



m Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr.

Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr.

The Jewish world was abuzz when the first day of Hanukkah coincides with Thanksgiving, as it did a few years ago, or with Christmas as it did this year. In truth though, the alignment of various dates in the Hebrew, with the civil calendar or with each other, often creates important opportunities for contemplation.

It seems to me that this year has a particularly significant alignment for contemporary Jewish Americans. The yahrtzeit (anniversary of the death) of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) is 18 Tevet; this year this occurs on January 16, 2017 (the day I am writing this note).  This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day occurs on the same day, January 16. (Officially this holiday is called Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. but it is celebrated on the third Monday of January).

This does not happen very often. In 2020, Heschel’s yahrtzeit falls on King’s actual birthday, Jan. 15, 2020. The next time Heschel’s yahrtzeit and the MLK Day occur on the same Monday is Jan. 17, 2028, and then not until Jan. 18 2044 (and again on Jan. 18 2055).

King was familiar with Heschel’s writing, and apparently sometimes would quote a biblical verse as it was translated in Heschel’s publications rather in Bible translations typically found in the pews of his church.

Heschel famously marched with Martin Luther King. Perhaps most to the point, both King and Heschel were theologians whose vocations included a strong commitment to working for the common good—making a difference by becoming active in the public sphere.

Heschel’s teachings included works on the Sabbath, and on God’s search for Man as well as Man’s search for God. His early work on the Prophets, originally written in German and translated into English after he arrived in the USA, influenced not only generations of Rabbis but also Christian theologians, such as King and many others.  His ideas about the Divine quest for a relationship with humanity, about the Sabbath as a “Palace in Time,” about the legacy of the prophets, about the need for people of faith to work together for the common good, and many other subjects are continuous with precursors in the Jewish tradition—indeed, many of these show he learned much from his study of Philosophy both secular and Jewish, and his deep familiarity with Hasidism, including the teachings of the Kotzker Rebbe (and his namesake ancestor the Apter Rebbe).

Heschel’s activism centered on a number of very prominent areas. He pioneered Interfaith relations, and argued that, in the realities that emerged in the post-World War II environment, Jews should see Christians as allies—fellow humans with religious sensibilities—rather than adversaries in the field of religion. He worked with the Vatican to overcome centuries of anti-Jewish discourse. His famous speech to Union Theological Seminary, “No Religion is an Island” can rightly be credited with immense influence in all aspects of Interfaith relations.  He was involved in freeing Soviet Jewry when this issue came to the fore.

His civic engagement was largely in two areas: opposition to the Vietnam War, and fighting for civil rights, especially for African Americans.

Heschel’s yahrtzeit occurs only two days before Maimonides’. Heschel’s biography of Maimonides is still an important work.

My only research into Heschel had to do with his response to Islam; I found much of interest, but in the large picture of his writings, he really wrote very little that was relevant to this theme. I had assumed that perhaps Heschel’s work on Maimonides and other medieval thinkers who lived most of their lives in the Islamic world would have sparked more interaction that it did. Heschel worked with Moshe Zucker of JTS and shared some important insights on Islam in his book Israel: Echo of Eternity, completed after the 6-day War. Early in his career, he described Almohad Islamic fanaticism in his biography of Maimonides. Heschel’s description of medieval Islamic fanaticism resonates well in our own times, but  it’s important to remember to read it in the context of the era in which it was written, when Interwar Islam was largely moderate–today’s Islamic extremism was decades in the future. But in Germany where it was written, the Nazi party had already come to power and the powerful description of Almohad extremism may have to be seen in that light. It’s quite possible to argue that Heschel’s description of God’s desire for Man contradicts mainstream Islamic thought too, although less clear that Islamic sensibilities were of any concern to Heschel. When he was writing in Germany and later in the US, the interfaith concerns of working with Muslims were simply not on his radar. This was a time when “Three Faiths One God” meant “Protestants, Catholics, Jews” not “Christians, Jews, Muslims.”

Heschel and King were giants of the American scene in the 1960s. Both were taken much too early. King of course was assassinated; Heschel died at a relatively young age, in his mid-sixties. In terms of my own research, I think that, had Heschel lived, he would have had powerful things to say about the growing importance of reaching out to Muslims the way he had earlier reached out to Catholics and other Christians.

One further thought: back in the 1960s, Jews and Blacks marched together. Both communities have gone on. I do not know if the remembered warmth of the Black-Jewish Alliance stands up under scrutiny or is more a thing of nostalgia. I don’t think African Americans perceive Jewish support for their issues to be truly significant today. And many Jews are likely to give greater weight than justified to the pronouncements of a few African Americans with decidedly negative views of Jews, or whose pronouncements are shaped within a discourse seen as anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. And, really, they usually have no real reason to be sensitized to Jewish perceptions about this discourse.

But the issues of racism and bigotry are still with us. God help us, we still need a movement like “Black Lives Matter.” The coincidence of Heschel’s yahrtzeit falling on MLK Day should help all of us rededicate ourselves to universal rights and human dignity, and to the role religion and religious leaders can play in advancing them.

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