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Interfaith friendship as a significant component of the Civil Rights movement

Published June 29, 2020 by Zuzana Barakova

Interfaith, Dialogue, Judaism, Christianity

I have caught myself in the last few days of this never-ending (sigh) lockdown reflecting on the unusual friendship of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. It seems completely astounding to me that they did not merely preach interfaith, they lived it which is, of course, what made their message and example all the more powerful. Coming from two completely different backgrounds, the two theological giants formed a deep, symbiotic friendship in January 1963 that I believe would have lasted a lifetime if it wasn't for King's assassination in 1968. One may ask what could a Christian African-American minister possibly have in common with a professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Heschel, a prominent descendant of Eastern-European Hasidic dynasties, emigrated to the US from Poland via London in 1940 just in time to escape the Shoah. The rest of his family perished either in bombings or in the Nazi concentration camps. Heschel was one of the lucky few who experienced a personal exodus from Hitler's Europe. When he recognised that the struggle for racial equality championed by the Civil Rights movement was another such call for, 'Let my people go!', it was a no-brainer for him that he too should become an ally.

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Their passion for the Hebrew Bible as a whole but the Exodus story in particular is what brought the two men together. They both believed that Exodus is an ongoing process and that the path to freedom, no matter how rocky it gets, is always better shared. In Heschel's interpretation, Jewish liberation is organically intertwined with the liberation of others: "The tragedy of Pharaoh was the failure to realize that the exodus from slavery could have spelled redemption for both Israel and Egypt. Would that Pharaoh and the Egyptians had joined the Israelites in the desert and together stood at the foot of Sinai!"(1) [emphasis added]. I love how in this interpretation no one has to be left behind and that even the Pharaoh has a fair chance at redemption. Of course, there is the issue of Pharaoh's 'hardened heart' which at the first glance predisposes Pharaoh for spiritual failure but if we examine the passage closer and check the text in the original Hebrew, it is evident that Pharaoh indeed retains the ability to exercise free will until the very end of the story. Some rabbinic interpretations therefore translate the hardness of his heart as stubbornness (כיבוד הלב) rather than mere hardness.

This generous and somewhat radical inclusivity is evident in the writings of both MLK and Rabbi Heschel. Their theology, though not devoid of complexities, shares a simple and surprisingly accessible line of reasoning: God has not given up on man, on the contrary – He is present and active in our lives (Divine Pathos). All human beings have been created equal and in the image of God and need to be treated as such. Even though there are special burdens and expectations placed upon the nation of Israel, this does not make non-Jews inferior in any way. Heschel displays zero tolerance for racism: "When I injure a fellow human being, I injure God".(2) On the flip side: "the good deeds performed by human beings give strength to God." These statements closely resonate with Jesus's words from the Gospel of Matthew 25:35-36 NIV: "For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick, and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me...".

If the last few weeks have proved anything, it is that we too live in a state of moral emergency, the fight for Civil Rights is still ongoing and it is far from being won. My personal prayer for all of us is that we do not become like Pharaoh and let our hearts be hardened. May we start praying for equality and liberation not only with our mouths but also with our legs. May we stand up for human dignity, always. May we live in astute awareness of human interconnectedness, not only because of Covid-19, and may we destroy every last bit of racial prejudice we might still be, perhaps unbeknownst to us, harbouring.

Zuzana Barakova is a Woolf Institute and University of Cambridge alumna. She undertook the MSt in the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations between 2009 and 2011. She also has a BA degree from UCL in Hebrew and Jewish Studies and a Masters from Tel Aviv University in Security and Diplomacy.

(1) A. J. Heschel, The White Man on Trial; essay found in Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence; p. 103.

(2) S. Heschel; Theological Affinities in the Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr.; essay found in: Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters with Judaism; pp. 171-172.

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