Teaching Heschel and King by Leslie Hilgeman

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
– quote used by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I don’t often write about classes I take at rabbinical school. But every so often I am touched enough by some experience to share it publicly.

This fall I studied the work of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. That was great – but using what I learned to teach congregants this past Martin Luther King weekend really moved me.

I was born one year after King’s assassination and grew up in a middle class, white suburban neighborhood. My exposure to King was to his memory, filtered and largely sanitized by elders and Social Studies lessons about Civil Rights at school. I knew little about his faith leadership.

I don’t recall learning about Heschel at all as a young person – he died when I was two. Decades later, I learned about Heschel’s many contributions to 20th Century Jewish thought and theology. But even then I didn’t learn about his radical faith activism – the civil disobedience marches, the anti-Vietnam War prayer vigils at Arlington National Cemetery. Not usually where you would expect to find your rabbi!

The RRC class this fall raised up how radical Heschel and King really were, how powerful their prophetic message was in their time, and how powerful it still could be today – if only we taught it. How grateful am I that I took that opportunity to teach!

Preaching the Exodus
Both of these great faith leaders preached about the Exodus story.(1) King and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement saw themselves as embodying the Exodus: Pharaoh was the oppressive white society King faced every day. The Israelites were his fellow African-Americans, struggling for desegregation and equal treatment. King often saw himself as Moses, facing Pharaoh again and again and again, with a righteous cause and God’s support. Heschel in his speeches also likened African-Americans to the Israelite slaves, and Pharaoh to an oppressive white America.

This was a very powerful message to share with a Jewish audience, and I gave them time to really let it sink in. We try to embody the Exodus story too. It’s a Jewish tradition to re-experience the Exodus story in some way each year at our Passover seders. At the seders I attended, each year we ate sharp horseradish and dry Matzah and tried to imagine we faced the hardship and bitterness of slave labor, as if it were our own personal story – even though it never actually was.

Let me be clear – Jews do have a history of being persecuted, and I do believe there is anti-Jewish sentiment and oppression in our American society today, I’ve experienced it personally myself. But today’s American anti-Semitism is mild compared to the segregation, economic injustice and voter discrimination tactics African-Americans suffered through much of American history.

That difference really came home for me in teaching, seeing others respond to Dr. King’s impassioned plea for African-Americans to hold faith in the Exodus story, faith that once again God would deliver these modern-day slaves to freedom. He was really living that struggle for equality, in a way we never did.

One congregant described her efforts to support anyone in her environment who faces a power differential – there are many! The “Pharaoh” is still out there – today perhaps oppressing Muslims, Sikhs and Hispanic immigrants, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and others. Who will stand up against mighty Pharaoh now?

Moral Call of Faith
Heschel, on the other hand, was also speaking out against an oppressive society – but he was white and often speaking to white, and especially Jewish white audiences. This was a moral call of faith, too, of a different kind.(2)

While Jews may have been oppressed in history, Heschel was making the point that here in American society we have also served as the oppressor – especially when we don’t speak out or act against the oppression of others we see. As Heschel famously put it: “An honest estimation of the moral state of our society will disclose: some are guilty, but all are responsible.”(3)

Conclusions from our learning? Our congregation committed to re-igniting a social action committee at the synagogue. And we all marveled how unusual it was to see the real pungency of King and Heschel’s message be shared in ways we’d never learned, even though we honor MLK with a federal holiday each year since 1986.

Surely theirs is a message that now, in light of the second-time inauguration of an African-American president, we can truly appreciate for the groundwork King and Heschel laid and for the example they set. Perhaps it’s also a message that now, precisely because of those very accomplishments, also challenges our Jewish faith communities to re-arm ourselves with their prophetic call to moral reckoning, press onward, and ask how we might help others face the “Pharaohs” in our society today.

(1) Heschel, Susannah. “Theological Affinities in the Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr.” Conservative Judaism 50:2-3 (1998), 126-143. See especially pages 128-131 and 134-135.
(2) Ibid., 135.
(3) Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Religion and Race.” Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2011 (69).

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3 thoughts on “Teaching Heschel and King by Leslie Hilgeman

  1. Thank you for your reflection, Leslie! I’d love to hear more about what you’ve learned and what you’re teaching about Heschel and King. Krista Tippett’s On Being had a show back in December called “The Spiritual Audacity of Abraham Joshua Heschel” that I’ve been thinking about since, so I was happy to see your post appear on SofF’s Facebook page. Tippett quoted Heschel’s essay “No Religion is an Island.” I’d like to learn more about how Heschel and King teach us to be both prophetic and engage one another in dialogue.

    Anyway, thanks again!

  2. Really well written Leslie, and I view this essay not just as a personal anecdote but as a call to action – which I appreciate.

    In my own work, I’m preparing to journey through Latin America where I’m sure I will encounter many oppressed groups and power differentials. One thing that occurred to me as I read this essay is that the general stability of our country allows us to see those power differentials and makes it possible for activism to (potentially) make major changes.

    Many of the countries I’ll visit are less stable and have comparatively high levels of corruption – often with multiple groups vying for power. I expect the situation there will be less clear (which of these groups is oppressing which, and which will sincerely agitate for change?), making it harder to even know where to start.

    I suppose I’ve never recognized that one of the blessings of our country is to be able to clearly see who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed.

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