“At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began, but is far from having been completed.”
These were the words with which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) opened his address at the 1963 National Conference on Race and Religion, in Chicago (The Insecurity of Freedom, p. 85).
It was at that same conference that Rabbi Heschel first met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the keynote speaker at this national gathering. The two became friends and allies working together for equality and justice, until King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in spring 1968.
As I reread in this week’s Torah portion the dramatic descriptions of the first Passover celebration and of the Exodus, the image of King and Heschel marching arm-in-arm with other civil-rights leaders from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. (now an iconic photograph for many clergy and activists) flashed through my mind.
Just two weeks ago, we commemorated the 40th anniversary of Heschel’s death (the 18thof Tevet on the Jewish calendar), and next week we will celebrate King’s 84th birthday (Jan. 15, 1929).
While these men came from very different backgrounds — Heschel from a Hasidic community in Poland, and King from an African American Baptist community in Atlanta — they shared several qualities that brought them together during a tumultuous and transformative time in American public life.
Both men came from prominent religious families and were groomed to take up the mantle of leadership of their forebears. Both were passionate believers in a God of compassion and righteousness, who called on humankind to serve as co-creators of a world suffused with these values. Each turned to their sacred scriptures for inspiration and guidance, allowing text and life to interpenetrate dynamically. And both were masterful at using their exegetical and linguistic skills, as well as their charisma, to awaken people’s consciousness and stir them to action.
As one might expect, the Exodus narrative plays an important role in the speeches and writings of these great religious leaders. In the quotation from Heschel cited above, he reminds us that the universal struggle for freedom is ongoing and that the figures of Pharaoh and Moses remain important models in a world where far too many people still yearn for liberation. In fact, in the very next sentence in his address Heschel further concretizes his message with the provocative statement that “it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea” than it was for many African Americans to “cross certain university campuses.”
One powerful instance in which King made use of the Exodus narrative was in his final public address in Memphis, popularly known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. In this now historic sermon, he describes with great passion the gratitude he feels for all that he has witnessed in the development of the civil-rights movement over the previous decade.
As he winds down his speech, he compares himself to Moses standing on top of Mount Nebo on the edge of Canaan, looking out over the Promised Land, knowing that he will not enter it with his people (Deuteronomy 34:1-4). With a new set of death threats in the air, King speaks openly about own his mortality. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will,” King said. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
Tragically, King was murdered the very next day.
In reflecting on the lives of King and Heschel, one of the many things I respect about these courageous men was their deep dedication to their respective Christian and Jewish communities and their ability to learn from and work with people from other religious and secular traditions for equality and justice. In fact, both understood their engagement in multifaith and crosscultural campaigns as necessary expressions of their particular religious commitments.
When Heschel returned from the Selma-Montgomery march, he wrote in his diary that walking with King and the other civil-rights leaders evoked in him the same sense of the sacred he experienced as a child walking through the streets of Warsaw with the great Hasidic masters in his family. And King, of course, spoke of the profound influence Mahatma Gandhi had upon him as a Christian nonviolent activist.
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As we continue our journey through the book of Exodus, reading about the triumphs and travails of the Israelites in their march to freedom, let us also pause to reflect on the legacies of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr., two great modern advocates of compassion and justice. May their memories continue to inspire and agitate, awakening us to the challenges and possibilities of freedom today.
ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.