RABBI ABRAHAM JOSHUA
HESCHEL, "RELIGION AND RACE" (
College of the Holy Cross
In her great anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe tells us about a Christian minister who supports slavery. The evil slave-holder Marie St. Clare praises "Dr. G-------'s" sermon to her cynical, guilt-ridden husband:
The text was, 'He hath made everything beautiful in its season;' and he showed how all the orders and distinctions in society came from God; and that it was so appropriate, you know, and beautiful, that some should be high and some low, and that some were born to rule and some to serve, and all that, you know; and he applied it so well to all this ridiculous fuss that is made about slavery, and he proved distinctly that the Bible was on our side, and supported all our institutions so convincingly. I only wish you'd heard him.
Stowe makes Marie's moral bankruptcy so clear that we condemn anyone she praises. The content of the passage further discredits the minister's views by conveying them through Marie's obviously self-serving and intellectually vacuous account, fraught with vague "you know's" like any high school lunchroom airhead's.
Stowe's novel was published in
1852, and she accurately depicts the position of many mainstream Christian
thinkers on the subject of slavery, although many others vigorously opposed it.
Perhaps we are not surprised that religious leaders were so divided on the
subject of slavery, at that time, ten years before the Civil War. As a result
of the Civil War, slavery was abolished, and in the decades that followed,
Americans of African descent gained increasing civil rights. Though this
process is not complete even today, we are accustomed now to think that any
moral person would support full civil rights for every American. We imagine
that religiously based support for discrimination disappeared at
Yet, over one hundred years after Stowe's novel appeared, during the great upsurge of civil rights activism in the 1960s, religious opposition to the cause still existed. Religious justifications of racial discrimination had been relegated to the margins of society--although they could still be found, and can be found even today. But many mainstream clergy felt that combating racism was a political fight in which they should have no part. If they did not actively defend racial discrimination, they did not actively resist it either. The great Christian religious leader of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had to repeatedly make the argument that the Judeo-Christian tradition, properly interpreted, designated racism as a sin and therefore an evil that the clergy must address. As is well known, his activist stance was opposed by many Christian leaders.
But King received strong support, both theological and personal, from a European-born Chasidic rabbi with a long white beard who specialized in the study of Jewish mysticism--seemingly, an other-worldly figure, highly unlikely to enter the political arena. This was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and in fact he became a major architect of the religious argument against racial discrimination, not only agreeing with King but actually helping him to develop his theology. Like King, Heschel too encountered opposition to his social activist stance from prominent religious leaders of his own faith. Nevertheless, his teaching and example led many concerned Jews, both clerical and lay, into action against racism, just as King inspired Christians. Indeed, both men reached beyond denominational and racial boundaries to lead for social justice.
The address published here was Heschel's first major public statement on the conflict between religion and racism, framed from a Jewish theological perspective. Thus it effectively refutes the view of historian Claybourne Carson, quoted by Murray Friedman, that "there was little evidence 'that Judaism as a set of religious beliefs has been associated with support [for] political reform, liberalism or racial tolerance.'" The address establishes themes that were to recur in other civil rights speeches Heschel gave over the next decade. It represents his first major push to overcome the apathy or distaste of religious people of all denominations, but Jews especially, for activism against racism. It lays out his theology justifying the religious critique of political issues. Moreover, it was delivered at the conference where he met King for the first time, and it launched their productive friendship. It is an important speech in the history of the struggle for full civil rights for all Americans, and more particularly, in the history of religion's impact on American public life.
Activism for Black Civil Rights in the Mid-Twentieth Century
As noted above, the struggle to
attain full civil rights for American citizens of African descent has been
on-going, since before the
The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education is often cited as the first important event in this mid-twentieth century struggle. This decision decreed that the widespread system of separate public schools for Black and White children was inherently unequal, and therefore unconstitutional. Of course, de facto if not de jure, segregated schools still exist in the United States even today, but an important principle was established and it has impacted on-going efforts to improve educational access for people of color. To get a sense of the other types of racial discrimination that existed in the early 1950s, take note of the agendas of the civil rights legislation that would be passed over the next two decades (summarized below).
A climate of resistance to racial
discrimination was growing among African Americans. Rosa Parks, an ordinary
citizen with no particular involvement in activism, simply decided one day in
1955 not to give up her seat on a public bus to a White person, as Southern
custom dictated that she should do. The ensuing uproar is now thought by many
to be an important catalyst in moving larger numbers of people of all races
into activism against racism. Two years later, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr. co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and became
its first President, to lead non-violent protest against racism. The SCLC and
other activist groups began to push against segregation laws and customs by
deliberately entering "Whites only" establishments and schools. Among
a number of test cases was that of James Meredith, who in 1961 became the first
Black student to enroll in a previously all-White university, the
In January of 1963, Christian and
Jewish leaders met at a conference in
Finally, legislative victories
began to come to the movement. In 1964, the 24th Amendment to the
U.S. Constitution banned the imposition of poll taxes, which had been used to
keep poor Blacks from voting. In July, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed a
sweeping Civil Rights Act banning all forms of racial discrimination (which,
nevertheless, would need the support of further legislation). Meanwhile, two
Jewish men and an African American man--Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James
Chaney--were arrested in
In the spring of 1965, King led a
Heschel's leadership role in these great social movements was well known in his own day, and to contemporary scholars.
Who was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel?
Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in
But Heschel resisted this destiny.
While remaining faithful to the Orthodox lifestyle, he persuaded his family to
let him pursue secular studies, first in Vilna, and then in
Heschel's academic career in
In January of that year Rabbi
Morris Adler, on behalf of the National Conference of Christians and Jews,
organized the first national conference on religion and race, and asked Heschel
to give the opening address. The
conference was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the
Emancipation Proclamation. The
result was the speech under analysis here. At this conference, Heschel met
King, and they became good friends. "Martin Luther King is a sign that God
has not forsaken the
Heschel contributed in many ways to oral and visual dramatizations of activism. His fluent, eloquent, Yiddish-accented English and his diminutive stature, long white beard, and wild white hair, made him a media-friendly image of the activist Jew, as seen in the iconic photographs accompanying this essay, one taken at the 1965 Selma march (the marchers are wearing leis bestowed on them by the Hawaiian delegation) and one taken at an anti-war demonstration in 1968. According to Franklin Sherman:
Even in his physical appearance conjuring up the image of what an Amos or an Isaiah must have look liked--stocky, full-bearded, speaking softly but with passionate intensity--it is small wonder that many viewed him as a latter-day Hebrew prophet.
Many of his fellow activists called him "Father Abraham," a name with both Jewish and African American resonance.
Jewish Religious Ideas in "Religion and Race"
Heschel knew that his address would
reach multiple audiences: first, the Jewish and Christian clergy and lay
leaders, Black and White, who sat before him at
There are five major Jewish religious ideas in "Religion and Race," which occur in the following order: first, the special responsibility of Jews as former slaves, according to Torah history, to empathize with the oppression of African Americans; second, the need to avoid the particularly heinous sin of humiliating another person; third, the notion of collective responsibility for sin; fourth, the concept of each individual being created in the image of God; fifth, the urgent requirement to act on one's religious convictions.
Heschel reminds Jews and African Americans of their shared history of slavery and oppression in the opening words of his address:
At the first conference on religion
and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses' words were: "Thus
says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a
feast to me." While Pharaoh retorted: "Who is the Lord, that I should
heed this voice and let
Heschel alludes here to the story in the Biblical book of
Exodus about the Jews' enslavement in
Heschel supplements his view of this broad canvas of collective liberation and retribution with a close-up look at how people relate to one another as individuals, addressing a second important Jewish religious idea in the second section of his speech. He says: "there is a deadly poison that inflames the eye, making us see the generality of race but not the uniqueness of the human face" (15). Under the influence of this form of spiritual blindness, the racist inflicts upon another person what Heschel calls "a form of oppression which is more painful and more scathing than physical injury or economic privation. It is public humiliation" (22). The Jewish tradition places special emphasis on the heinousness of this sin. Indeed, as Heschel points out, the same word in Hebrew refers both to this sin and to murder. In analyzing it, Heschel extends it to participation in racist institutions; you are committing it if you patronize racially exclusive places, where the fiery rabbi says your "very presence [inflicts] insult" (22)! Note that this analysis indicts what we might call "passive racism," or racism perpetrated simply by not protesting the discrimination that one sees; this is the kind of passive racism among clergy and religious laypeople that both King and Heschel set themselves to combat.
Contemplation of sin leads Heschel in the third section of his speech to discuss the ways atonement may be made, and thus he arrives at a third important Jewish religious idea. In the Jewish tradition, the notion of collective responsibility is very important. "Some are guilty, but all are responsible," Heschel emphasizes (48). For this reason, on the great Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, penitential prayers are recited in the first person plural--"we have lied, we have committed adultery, we have done murder"--and so on. The penitent should consider that, even if he or she has not committed the particular sin mentioned, he or she surely has not done enough to prevent that sin from being committed by others, and so he or she bears some responsibility for its continuing to afflict the world. At this point in his talk Heschel anatomizes the ways in which White people excuse themselves from thinking about the collective sins of racism, for example by ignoring the problem, or by delegating it to the courts, or by exaggerating the progress already made. He wishes to drive his audience to the point where they can no longer neglect their responsibility, even if they have not personally committed any actively racist acts, and he concludes this section of the address by castigating above all the sin of "indifference to evil" (42). He calls upon all clergy, and indeed, all concerned citizens, to take on the role of the Biblical prophets who were passionate advocates for the oppressed. As noted above, this indifference or inaction was the particular civic problem--that is, religious people's evasion of their civic responsibility in political affairs--that Heschel needed to tackle here.
It is worth remembering in this connection that Heschel's great work of scholarship was a book on the Biblical prophets. He believed that the Hebrew prophets call the pious person to become an activist for the poor and oppressed, and he traced a similar imperative in the life of the great medieval rabbi Moses Maimonides. The prophet "Amos is his mentor," says Morton Fierman and especially Amos 5:24: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." Susannah Heschel has demonstrated that this verse constituted perhaps the most important point of connection between Heschel's and King's theologies, and moreover, that Heschel provided King's preferred translation of the verse. It will be featured in the King Memorial being built on the National Mall in Washington D.C. As is well known, King also often characterized himself as a Biblical prophet compelled by conscience to deliver his message, however offensive to others or dangerous to himself it might be; he hit this note in several of his speeches on the Vietnam War and in the last address he gave before his assassination, on behalf of striking sanitation workers in Memphis.
Sympathy for the oppressed, in Heschel's thought, as Robert McAfee Brown has explained, is actually a divine quality; God exhibits it perfectly, and humans imperfectly as they try to imitate the divine model. God longs for us to do so: Heschel remained firmly within the tradition of Chasidic thinking that sees human action as "completing" God or satisfying God's needs. This is a central concept in the Jewish mystical tradition called "Kabbalah."
In the fourth section of his speech, Heschel turns to the theological core of his argument, and the fourth important Jewish religious idea that he presents: the notion that each individual is made in the image of God. From the beginning of the speech, indeed, Heschel has emphasized that racism is blasphemy, and the basis for that view in Jewish theology is that when one insults another person--as for example by inflicting public humiliation, that heinous sin--one is in fact insulting God. Heschel says:
God is every man's pedigree. He is either the Father of all men or of no man. The image of God is either in every man or in no man….God's covenant is with all men, and we must never be oblivious of the equality of the divine dignity of all men. (60)
Heschel points out the special significance of the Hebrew word "tselem," which means "image." It is used in the Torah both to condemn the worship of man-made images and to require respect for all humans as divinely created images of God. Furthermore, precisely because the privileged social classes may have trouble recognizing the image of God in the disenfranchised, says Heschel, "The prophets have a bias in favor of the poor" (63). For the moral person who fully recognizes the Divine image in the face of every person, racist acts become unthinkable.
In the fifth and final section of his speech, Heschel introduces his fifth great theme, also an important Jewish religious idea: the necessity of action on behalf of the oppressed. Traditional Judaism provides meticulous directions for how to conduct a variety of daily tasks in the most moral way possible, as well as requiring major endeavors to do "tikkun olam," that is, to make the world a better place. Heschel exhorts, "Let there be a grain of prophet in every man" (81)! He gives a particularly Jewish interpretation to this call: God has deliberately left creation unfinished, so that humans can be God's partners in completing it. Whereas God's task was to make the universe, ours is to shape history in a way that will be pleasing to God, that will, in fact, meet needs of God's that can be satisfied no other way:
The universe is done. The greater masterpiece still undone, still in the process of being created, is history. For accomplishing His grand design, God needs the help of man. . . . God needs mercy, righteousness; His needs cannot be satisfied in space, by sitting in pews, by visiting temples, but in history, in time. It is within the realm of history that man is charged with God's mission. (74)
Note that Heschel downplays the importance of traditional religious observance in houses of worship (although he was meticulous in all forms of Orthodox Jewish observance throughout his life). Thus, in effect, he attempts to ferret out those clergy who still think they can hide there from the moral imperative for social action that he is delivering.
To dramatize the form this action should take, Heschel concludes with his favorite Bible verse, Amos 5:24: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream" (88). Here is how he develops his final image:
A mighty stream, expressive of the vehemence of a never-ending, surging, fighting movement--as if obstacles had to be washed away for justice to be done. . . . . Righteousness as a mere tributary, feeding the immense stream of human interests, is easily exhausted and more easily abused. But righteousness is not a trickle; it is God's power in the world, a torrent, an impetuous drive, full of grandeur and majesty. The surge is choked, the sweep is blocked. Yet the mighty stream will break all dikes. (89-90)
Even more explicitly than in his opening hints about the
plagues sent to punish
Two years after he gave this
speech, in March 1965, Heschel led a crowd of 800 people to the FBI
Throughout his life, Heschel had many experiences with those who refuse to see the Divine image in the human face. About Nazi Germany, he wrote:
Emblazoned over the gates of the world in which we live is the escutcheon of the demons. The mark of Cain in the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God.
This was the blindness that Heschel sought to remove by his teaching, both in the classroom and on the street. Morton Fierman explains that "Heschel at all times too gives special prominence to the idea of the 'preciousness' of humanity." This concept is based in Heschel's view of humans as united both in "being accountable to God" and in "being objects of God's concern, precious in His eyes." Therefore, says Heschel, "When I hurt another human being, I injure God." Heschel hoped to arouse all Jews, all religious people, all good citizens to prevent such horrific injury.
The Importance and Relevance of Heschel's Ideas
Jacob Neusner is one of today's most learned American Jewish scholars of Bible and Rabbinics, and it is his opinion that "Abraham Joshua Heschel, 1907-1972, was the greatest religious thinker in Judaism, east or west, in the twentieth century and certainly the most profound and weighty theologian of Judaism ever to work in North America." Furthermore, Cornel West, one of today's most important African American theologians and activists, has called Heschel "a titan of justice in the twentieth century." West confirms the judgment of scholars quoted above that Heschel profoundly influenced Martin Luther King, and West cites him as an influence on his own thinking as well. West praises Heschel as providing both substantial ideas and spiritual inspiration for efforts by West and Rabbi Michael Lerner to rebuild a Black-Jewish alliance on behalf of civil rights for all people.
Heschel continues to garner such
accolades because, tragically, the human problems addressed in his speech have
not gone away. "Religion and Race" does not make policy
recommendations, but it exhorts to a particular stance toward one's civic
responsibilities that is arguably timeless. To be sure, people of African
descent still do not enjoy freedom from discrimination in the
Moreover, Heschel's concept that "some are guilty but all are responsible" seems particularly useful in today's era of special-interest-group activism. While many injustices remain to be corrected, early twenty-first century activism is fragmented into a wide variety of groups each with its own claim, clamoring for attention and showing little awareness of any responsibility for the concerns of other groups--much less demonstrating any willingness to make common cause among them. Heschel was one of the twentieth century's most important thinkers who bridged such gaps. In addition to providing a theological rationale for doing so that resonates within the Judeo-Christian tradition, Heschel also provided an example of personal courage that today's activists could take as a model. Not only was he brave enough to put his frail old body in harm's way in order to participate in civil rights and anti-war demonstrations, but he was also brave enough to do so in the face of grave opposition from his co-religionists and others. Southern Jews warned him that if he came down there and marched for Black civil rights, they would pay the consequences in increased anti-Semitism where they lived; their fears were well-founded, as it turned out, and still he marched.
Perhaps most admirably, Heschel had the courage to risk making mistakes. He could not be sure that he would not be offensive as a White person speaking on behalf of Black civil rights, and as a Jew offering theological direction to Christians. But he felt that the issues in play were serious enough that he should raise his voice if doing so might further the cause of justice in any way, even if it also made his behavior look questionable. For fear of offending someone or other, it seems, many people silence themselves today. Heschel would inform them that a "state of moral emergency" still exists, and exhort them to act with "high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity."
Last updated—August 2006
Patricia Bizzell is Professor of English at the College of
the Holy Cross,
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin
or, Life among the Lowly (1852; rpt.
 Michael B. Friedland, Lift Up Your Voice Like a Trumpet: White Clergy and the Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 77-79.
 Susannah Heschel, "Theological Affinities in the Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr.," in Black Zion: African-American Religious Encounters with Judaism, Yvonne Chireau and Nathaniel Deutsch, editors (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 170-171.
 Friedman chronicles both the development of this alliance and the political and personal tensions that finally damaged it severely.
 King's and Heschel's shared religious ideas are detailed in Susannah Heschel, "Theological Affinities,"171 ff., and in Rabbi Marc Schneier, Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Jewish Community (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999), 137 ff.
 For one contemporary assessment of Heschel's contributions to the civil rights and antiwar movements, along with some comments by his fellow activists, see Friedland, Lift Up Your Voice, 234-235.
 Susannah Heschel, "Theological Affinities," 173-174.
 Susannah Heschel, "Theological Affinities," 181; for more on Heschel's activism against the Vietnam War, see Mitchell K. Hall, Because of Their Faith: CALCAV and Religious Opposition to the Vietnam War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990). "CALCAV" was an antiwar organization called Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, which Heschel co-founded along with Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., and Lutheran pastor Reverend Richard Neuhaus (Hall, Because of Their Faith, 14).
Quoted in Or N. Rose, Abraham Joshua
Heschel: Man of Spirit, Man of Action (
 Schneier, Shared Dreams, 136.
 Michael Ahmann, editor, Race: Challenge to Religion (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1963), v; this book contains essays based on addresses given at the January 1963 national conference. For more details on the organizers and attendees, see Friedland, Lift Up Your Voice, 168-169.
 Quoted in Morton C. Fierman, Leap of Action: Ideas in the Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel (New York: Lanham, 1990), 31.
 For details on Heschel's participation in this event, see Schneier, Shared Dreams, 145 ff.
 Quoted in Rose, Abraham Joshua Heschel, 58.
 Susannah Heschel, "Introduction," in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Susannah Heschel, editor (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1996), xxiii.
 Norman H. Finkelstein, Heeding the Call: Jewish Voices in
 Franklin Sherman, The Promise of Heschel (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970), 11.
 Finkelstein, Heeding the Call, 149.
 Please note: Heschel uses the then-current words "Negro" to refer to a Black person, "man" to refer to all humans, and masculine pronouns to refer to God. Also, for a good one-volume introduction to Judaism, see Hayim Halevy Donin, To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 1991).
 All citations refer to the paragraph numbers in the VOD text of the speech.
 Fierman, Leap of Action, 32.
 Susannah Heschel, "Theological Affinities," 173.
 Friedman, What Went Wrong?, 248, 254.
 Robert McAfee Brown, "'Some Are Guilty, All Are Responsible': Heschel's Social Ethics," in Abraham Joshua Heschel: Exploring His Life and Thought, John C. Merkle, editor (New York: MacMillan, 1985), 137 ff.
 Schneier, Shared Dreams, 156.
Quoted in Samuel H. Dresner, Heschel,
Hasidism, and Halakha (
 Quoted in Fierman, Leap of Action, 83.
 Quoted in Fierman, Leap of Action, 79.
 Quoted in Fierman, Leap of Action, 32.
 Jacob Neusner, "Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Man," in Abraham Joshua Heschel, To Grow in Wisdom: An Anthology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jacob Neusner, editor, with Noam M. M. Neusner (Lanham, Maryland: Madison Books, 1990), 3. In addition to the personal reminiscences and information about Heschel's life included in this essay, this anthology also presents a helpful brief summary of Heschel's main contributions to Jewish theology: Jacob Neusner, "The Intellectual Achievement of Abraham Joshua Heschel." Neusner is perhaps an especially good witness on Heschel's theological importance because he makes it clear that he does not agree with his politics; hence the judgment does not smack of partisanship.
 See Jacob Neusner, "Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Man," 10-11.
 Wendy Hayden contributed substantial bibliographic research and technical assistance to this unit, for which I am very grateful.