by Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Tonight begins the 18th of the month of Tevet in the Jewish calendar, which happens to mark the 45th yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l, one of the great theologians of modern Jewish history. Heschel was trained as a scholar in Germany and raised in a Chasidic environment in Warsaw and once seemed destined to become a Chasidic rebbe in Poland. His life ultimately took a different path and he became a renowned professor at JTS (the Jewish Theological Seminary) for over 25 years. Heschel’s piety was grounded in his Jewish experience and life, but also led him to conclude that religious life and faith is a fundamental human impulse, not exclusively a Jewish one, and moreover that no one religion could claim a monopoly on religious truth.
As the Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals adapted Heschel’s words in the prayer “No Religion is an Island” (p.359), “We are companions of all who revere God. We rejoice when the divine name is praised…. We share the kinship of humanity, the capacity for compassion…. We are diverse in our devotion and commitment. We must unite in working now for the sovereignty of God…. Let mutual concern replace remnants of mutual contempt, as we share the precarious position of being human…. Let those who revere the Eternal speak one to another, leading everyone to acknowledge the splendor of God”.
Many of us may remember the iconic image of Rabbi Heschel walking arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma at the start of the Voting Rights March of 1965, both men adorned with Hawaiian leis. It was after returning from this march that Heschel made the famous statement, “I felt my legs were praying.” According to Heschel’s daughter, Dr. Susannah Heschel, the two men met in 1963 and felt “an instant bond.” In her words, they inspired each other. Both Heschel and Dr. King argued passionately against racism; and Dr. King, through his friendship with Rabbi Heschel, spoke out on behalf of Soviet Jews and in support of the State of Israel. Both men believed that God is affected by human deeds and thus is “the most moved Mover,” in contrast with Aristotle’s ancient insistence that God is unaffected by human actions—“an unmoved Mover.” God cares deeply and powerfully about human beings and feels pain when witnessing human acts of injustice and cruelty.
Dr. King was hoping to join the Heschel family for one of their Passover seders in 1968. Instead, after Dr. King’s tragic death, Rabbi Heschel read a psalm at Dr. King’s funeral. These two influential figures inspired each other and so many in their lifetimes, and their messages and legacy still inspire us today. Next Shabbat, on Friday, January 12, during MLK weekend, we will continue to build on that legacy of friendship and concern for one another as we celebrate “We Shall Overcome Shabbat,” starting with a Friday night Shabbat service with special guests One Voice gospel choir, our own Cantor Zhrebker, Kol Rina and Kol Neshamah. Services will be followed by a Shabbat dinner during which Reverend Dante Shedd of Metropolitan Baptist Church and I will present a conversation about the legacy of Dr. King and the nature of the Jewish-African American relationship, then and now. I hope you and your families will join us for this very special Shabbat experience—and please remember to RSVP for Shabbat dinner so we can be sure to have enough food for all attending. May the memories of Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King continue to serve as a source of blessing for us and for the rest of humanity.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share