A Prophetic Friendship: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr.

From January 1963 until his death in April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. enjoyed a heartfelt, mutually encouraging friendship with Abraham Joshua Heschel while each became more closely aligned with the other’s political and social activism. This paper examines their spiritual origins, their individual development into national and international prominence, the religious context in which their personal visions matured, and how their collaboration took place within practical, theological, and personal dimensions. We then consider how we can benefit from the example of their collaborative efforts. Both men had emerged from very diverse theological backgrounds and moved in highly contrasting Jewish and Christian religious networks. Yet, their shared determination to work fearlessly in unity as prophetic voices empowered by moral principles and spiritual urgency in a time of national crisis has given us a significant legacy and witness to the reality and authenticity of God’s presence. That witness affirms their shared faith in “the most precious insight” that we receive from the prophets, according to Heschel, that we sense God’s “involvement, attentiveness and concern” for humanity in the most challenging times.1


Any reflection on the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel might well be a study in contrasts, but there are interesting similarities. Both were raised from a young age to be conscious of their lineage and the expectations that they carried, both from their families of origin and within their immediate spiritual communities. However, those families and communities could not have been more dissimilar.

Born in 1907, the youngest of six children of Rabbi Moshe Mordecai and Reizel (Perlow) Heschel in Warsaw, Heschel was the scion of seven generations of revered Hasidic rebbes, a princeling before whom his elders would stand when he entered rooms, even as a child.2 Identified as a prodigy at an early age, he was publishing his first articles on Talmudic literature in his mid-teens. At seventeen Heschel moved out of the Hasidic milieu to pursue advanced education including secular knowledge in Vilna, Lithuania, a major center of

Jewish education and culture. After leaving the strict confines of Hasidic Judaism, Heschel never returned.3

Martin Luther King Jr., born in 1929, was the middle child and oldest son of one of Atlanta’s leading African-American pastors, and the grandson, on his mother’s side, of the previous pastor of his father’s church. Both his grandfathers had been born into slavery and his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., best known as “Daddy” King, had escaped an abusive family home.4 His mother, Alberta, had watched her father establish Ebenezer Baptist Church as a leading church in Atlanta, and she was her children’s model of a pastor’s wife. Martin Luther King, Sr. had literally pulled himself up from obscurity, won the hand of his pastor’s daughter, and then, with determined effort and education, ascended to the pulpit. In Ebenezer’s nurturing environs, his son, young “M.L.,” displayed outstanding intellectual and oratorical gifts. He entered college at age fifteen and, at age seventeen, preached well enough to prove to his father’s satisfaction that he had a call to the ministry. In spite of M.L.’s accomplishments, he understood and deeply resented that in the South he was a second-class citizen.5

A distinctive choice that marked the personal histories of both men involved the study of philosophy in venues that were well outside the circles of their original culture.6 However, as Susannah Heschel, Abraham Joshua’s daughter, points out, the rabbi steeped in East European Hasidic Judaism and the African-American Baptist pastor, both of whom were highly gifted academics, also matured spiritually in order to genuinely value the vibrant, thriving religious communities in which they had been raised. Drawn to seek, as Heschel later said, “a system of thought, for the depth of the spirit, for the meaning of existence,” they remained grounded in the spiritual qualities and moral character of their original communities.7

At the age of twenty, Heschel entered the University of Berlin to study philosophy and simultaneously began studies for the rabbinate at a local Orthodox rabbinical seminary and the more liberal Academy of Scientific Jewish Scholarship, which awarded him a rabbinical degree in July 1934.8 After the publication of his doctoral dissertation on prophetic consciousness, Die Prophetie, in 1935, Heschel was elevated into the front rank of German Jewish philosophers, but in 1938 the Gestapo deported him back to Poland.9 After increasingly desperate efforts to secure a position overseas, he received an American visa from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Heschel left Poland six weeks before the Nazi invasion and arrived in New York in March 1940.10 Despite his frantic efforts to provide them with visas, virtually all of Heschel’s family and friends perished with the communities that he had known since childhood. Years later, as a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary, he introduced himself as a “brand plucked from the fire in which my people was burned to death . . . an altar of Satan . . .”11

King’s decision to go north and attend the integrated Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania, was also a deliberate break from his religious roots.12 After graduating at the top of his class, Crozer awarded him a scholarship to pursue a PhD in systematic theology at Boston University’s School of Theology.13 His teachers, highly impressed by the quality and depth of his intellect, saw him as a future academic of great potential.14 In 1953 he married Coretta Scott, who was studying at the New England Conservatory on a scholarship, and in March 1954, while still completing his thesis, accepted the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a small, middle-class African-American church in Montgomery, Alabama. Although he and Coretta were reluctant to return to the South, King chose to follow the example of his academic mentors whose careers began in the pastorate. He also felt an obligation to use his advanced education to help raise the quality of life among African-Americans in the South.15

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Progression from Academic to Activist

King completed his doctorate in June 1955, and in early December, after the birth of his first child, was weighing an offer for a lucrative academic position when Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat on a Montgomery bus.16 The potential for a bus strike, already successful in other southern cities, had brought together an alliance of local organizations to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).17 They united to address the infuriating conditions that black bus riders had endured for years from white drivers enforcing strict rules for segregated seating. King reluctantly accepted their unanimous request for leadership. Within a week he brought a delegation to city and bus company officials with three reasonable conditions that might have quickly ended the strike, but the mayor and bus company owners remained intransigent.

As the strike persisted, King became a major target for reprisals and death threats over the phone. On January 26, 1956, he was arrested and jailed for driving 30 m.p.h. in a 25-m.p.h. zone. His bail proceedings were deliberately stalled, but the black community was familiar with this form of intimidation and large angry crowds rallied outside the courthouse until he was released. The threats against King and his family remained persistent throughout the strike, and a few days after his release on bail, King’s house was bombed, although thankfully neither his wife nor child were hurt.

On January 27, King experienced a watershed moment that he would often mention in speeches and sermons. Late that night, after another threatening phone call, he sought solace in a cup of coffee and considered how he could withdraw from his position without appearing to be a coward. He prayed, confessing how weak he felt. “The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. . . I have nothing left. I can’t face it alone.” With his head bowed, he felt a presence.18

“It seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’

“And I’ll tell you, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin-breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on.”19

King’s role in the strike had significant long-term effects that would equip him for leadership on a larger stage. Primarily, he developed the skills to hold together a highly demanding operation that required many in the city to walk long distances to work. There were also volunteer drivers, and eventually vehicles purchased, to carry those who could not walk to their destination. Every night brought meetings either to oversee the strike or encourage the strikers. All this took place in a setting where there was constant intimidation and a growing weariness that weighed heavily on the young minister. Publicly, he became identified with an agenda of nonviolence, but the practical form of the approach had a gradual development. King’s grounding in a more mature Gandhian philosophy was tutored through a growing network that began with his connections in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and then drew support from more experienced nonviolent practitioners and organizations as the strike began to make national headlines.20

While the city’s stubborn, often violent, resistance to the strike became litigious, King’s insistence on “the weapon of love” and that strikers must not “let anyone pull you so low as to hate them,” drew increasing attention from the national media and sympathetic Americans. They were even more impressed by his oratorical skills as he was accepting invitations to NAACP sponsored fundraising events across the North.21 The ability to maintain his composure in the face of violent personal assaults, and to sustain the willing cooperation of Montgomery’s beleaguered strikers, earned King a level of personal authority and appeal that transcended the events in Montgomery. By the time the strike had ended on December 21, 1956, after 382 days, it had inspired similar actions across the South. King’s personal vision for civil rights activism had also grown, and he organized a new civil rights
organization dedicated to nonviolence, which became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).22

King’s image on the front cover of the February 1957 issue of Time magazine is indicative of his new status as a media personality.23 In February 1960 he moved his base of operations to Atlanta. While he received his salary as the associate pastor at Ebenezer, he was dedicated to enlarging the vision of the SCLC while remaining actively on the front lines.24 With regular press visibility at protests and public resistance to segregation, as well as his connections to the new administration of President Kennedy, by early1961 the national media had identified King as a leading spokesperson of the African-American community.25

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Slow Journey to Public Engagement

King and Heschel had no personal interaction until January 1963. By that time, such distinguished figures as Thomas Merton had identified Heschel as “the most significant spiritual (religious) writer in this country at the moment.”26 He had married Sylvia Straus, a concert pianist, in December 1946 and soon afterwards they moved to New York, where Heschel took a position at Jewish Theological Seminary, the leading school of the Conservative movement.27 Within a few short years he had written a series of significant theological works including The Sabbath (1951), his two-part Jewish theology: Man is Not Alone (1951) and God in Search of Man (١٩٥٥), and also Man’s Quest for God (١٩٥٤).28

Although Heschel’s years in Germany were marked by an oppressive antisemitic Nazi regime, one searches in vain among his early published essays for a passionate response to the racism that incited genocide. The most severe comment is this declaration: “In recent years we have come to know the ignominy of human beings. We have experienced their metamorphosis into brutal barbarians.”29 However, at a critical moment during his philosophy studies in Berlin, like King, he had experienced an important moment of spiritual renewal. It took place during a period when his studies in philosophy had brought him to a place of lonely, “profound bitterness.”30

Heschel’s teachers had impressed on him the Kantian view that there was no objective truth to the reality of God, although society should hold the concept as “symbolically true,” which meant “[God] is a fiction.”31 He had come seeking answers to challenging realities: “darkness in the world . . . horror in the soul . . . ignorance, evil, malice, agony, despair.”32 Indeed, humanity “does not suffer symbolically.”33 As a Jew, the further corollary was both personal and practical: “How must man, a being who is in essence in the image of God, think, feel and act?” In effect, how does one strive “to be holy?”34 The answer came as Heschel stood on the street, deciding whether to go to the theater or a lecture on the theory of relativity.

Suddenly, I noticed that the sun had gone down, evening had arrived.

From what hour is the Shema recited in the evening?

I had forgotten God — I had forgotten Sinai — I had forgotten that sunset is my business — that my task is “to repair the world under God’s dominion.”35

Recalling the words of the Siddur for the Ma’ariv (evening) service brought to mind familiar lines of poetry from Goethe that also spoke of the twilight hours and suggested the quiet, closing moments of life. “No,” Heschel thought, “that was pagan thinking. To the pagan eye the mystery of life is Ruh’, death, oblivion. To us Jews, there is meaning beyond the mystery.”36 That reflective moment ushered in Heschel’s return to the Siddur, the prayer book, and to attentive orthopractic observance. He discovered in himself “something which is far greater than my desire to pray. Namely, God’s desire that I pray. There is something which is far greater than my will to believe. Namely, God’s will that I believe.”37

Heschel summed up his long trajectory toward activism this way: “Early in my life, my great love was for learning, studying. And the place where I preferred to live was my study. I’ve learned from the prophets that I have to be involved . . . in the affairs of suffering man.”38

According to his daughter, as he began to translate and rewrite his original dissertation, which would be published in 1962 as The Prophets, he was paying close attention to the civil rights movement led by King, and “his book reflects the political passions of the era.”39 One example is in his discussion of “Freedom.”40 Even reading the text objectively, there is an evident sensitivity to current events, when King was boldly presenting the media with his vision of a spiritual movement that would bring new dignity to African-Americans and, in time, to those who opposed them. Heschel wrote: “The prophets witness the misery that man endures as well as man’s wickedness that God endures, and tolerates. But God is wrestling with man. . . . The opposite of freedom is not determinism, but hardness of heart. Freedom presupposes openness of heart, of mind, of eye and ear.”41 It is not surprising to find that The Prophets proved to be inspirational to King and many of the young leaders who worked with him. Numerous activists in the nonviolence movement, according to Susannah Heschel, “told me they carried a copy of the paperback edition in their back pocket for inspiration and consolation.”42

Heschel and King’s Diverse and Contentious Religious Contexts

At the heart of the relationship between Rev. King and Rabbi Heschel was the genuine inspiration that the rabbi received from his much younger colleague. Describing King’s vocation to his Conservative rabbinical colleagues he declared, “His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us.”43 Why would an African-American Baptist pastor be of significance to American Jewry? As Susannah Heschel has pointed out, her father was deeply concerned that Jews in America had come to tolerate racist attitudes toward the plight of African-Americans. This was unacceptable when Jewish people were all too familiar with the consequences of sustained, irrational, unrestrained hate in European society. Heschel’s moral stature impelled him to speak prophetically against these attitudes in the Jewish community.44

Heschel was equally concerned about the spiritual welfare of American Jewry. Recalling the vibrancy of his European Hasidic communities and the mystical depths of piety among his celebrated forebears, he complained that American rabbis and cantors “do not know the language of the soul.” The rich spiritual resources of Jewish integrity rooted in the biblical prophetic witness “where God is raging” had become mere platitudes and had to be reclaimed.45 That criticism was not easily accepted by Heschel’s community, and it was often difficult for him to read articles in the Jewish press attacking his public activism. Years later, many of those who had opposed him took pride in the famous photographs of him with Martin Luther King, Jr.46

Tragically, Heschel’s praise of King was given only days before King’s death at age 39, after only twelve years of significant leadership on the national stage. While King’s spiritual character had been well nurtured at Ebenezer Baptist and Daddy King was a prominent member of the city’s African-American clergy, the church had become tolerant of segregation. They knew that beneath its polite Christian veneer, southern society was volatile and fiercely conservative, and no jury would convict a white man accused of a bombing or lynching. King’s father and maternal grandfather exemplified self-improvement within the security of the church community where members forged quiet, middle-class lives. This was typical of most southern African-American churches that lacked a vision to support civil rights activity.47

One of King’s challenges was to encourage his peers in southern churches to take up the cause of civil rights. All of them were aware that the majority of white churches in its largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), staunchly supported segregation and resisted progress for African-Americans.48 Billy Graham, the most famous SBC minister, would publicly extol King as a friend, but apart from his refusal to enforce segregation at his meetings in the South (an issue which had previously led to some embarrassment in the northern press), he did not extend support to civil rights demonstrations, or support civil rights legislation except to say afterwards that it must be obeyed.49 In contrast to Graham, King’s spiritual character and unflinching determination to counter violence with nonviolence, stirred the consciences of hundreds of clergy from the North. They came to support him on the Washington Mall, at the march from Selma to Montgomery, and later in his anti-war demonstrations at the U.N. and at Arlington National Cemetery.50 He inspired clergy to be community leaders for social justice. The turning point against segregation within the SBC only took place after the death of King in April 1968, followed by a month of rioting across the nation. The convention adopted a statement, although without a program or guidelines, committing the delegates to combat racism, violence and injustice.51

The Practical Collaboration of Heschel and King in the
Civil Rights Movement

In early January 1963, Heschel and King were invited by the National Conference of Christians and Jews to speak at a Chicago conference marking the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation.52 Heschel’s moving address was a conference highlight. It was an unequivocal condemnation of America’s racism and of the nation’s responsibility for the terrible plight of African-Americans. Heschel may well have been reflecting on his own personal experience in Nazi Germany when he asserted: “Racism is satanism, unmitigated evil.”53 While admitting his own shared responsibility for participating in a society that “put others to shame,” he concluded by quoting Amos 5:24 using his own translation, a verse that would be later identified with Dr. King: “Let justice roll down like waters / and righteousness like a mighty stream.”54

The connection that was forged between them, according to Heschel’s daughter, was not only collegial, but “a genuine friendship of affection.”55 Heschel joined the civil rights activities through his writing, lecturing, and even demonstrating where he “was an effective figure.”56 A few months later, on June 16, when invited to the Kennedy White House to join religious leaders to discuss the growing tensions in the African-American community, Heschel wrote a lengthy telegram in response that included this counsel: “I PROPOSE THAT YOU MR. PRESIDENT DECLARE A STATE OF MORAL EMERGENCY. . . . THE HOUR CALLS FOR HIGH MORAL GRANDEUR AND SPIRITUAL AUDACITY.”57

Their most famous collaboration took place on the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965. The SCLC protests planned for Selma beginning in January 1965 were focused on increasing voter registration and met with harsh resistance from white supremacist groups over the next few months as King remained highly visible, including time spent in the local jail.58 The 1964 Civil Rights Act had not effectively dealt with barriers to voter registration, and King was requesting that President Lyndon B. Johnson bring in federal legislation to remove the onerous Jim Crow registration requirements.59 King had also learned from experience that legislation would only move forward in response to united, highly visible community campaigns, but in Selma, not even the tragic death of a local youth trying to protect his mother from violent local troopers had gathered sufficient public attention.60

King had planned to lead a symbolic march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery on Sunday, March 7, but two weeks earlier, on February 21, Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem, and SCLC leadership would not sanction King’s presence, either for his own security or for those who were with him.61 After crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge leading out of Selma, the marchers were violently attacked by police in the presence of reporters and TV cameras, which led to extensive national press coverage that embarrassed Alabama’s Governor Wallace and shocked Americans.62 In Manhattan, Heschel led a large protest against the police brutality in Alabama at FBI headquarters. After New York City police had blocked the entrance, Rabbi Heschel alone was allowed in to present their petition.63

After “Bloody Sunday” thousands of supporters arrived in Selma, including a white Unitarian minister from Boston, James J. Reeb. On the evening of March 9, he and two other clergy were assaulted in Selma and Reeb sustained life-threatening injuries.64 The death of Rev. Reeb two days later brought angry calls to President Johnson from across the country and he resolved to bring forward strong voting rights legislation in accordance with King’s requests.65

On March 17, a federal judge in Montgomery approved a Selma-to-Montgomery march, and when Governor Wallace refused to provide protection, President Johnson assigned contingents of military police, U.S. marshals, and over 1,800 federalized members of the Alabama National Guard to protect the march.66 On March 21, Heschel walked prominently in the front row of some 3,200 marchers and is famously pictured next to the U.N. diplomat, Ralph Bunche, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Dr. King. His words describing that day, “I felt my legs were praying,” are also indelibly part of its history.67 During the service that preceded the march, Heschel read from Psalm 27, “The Lord is my light and salvation, whom shall I fear?” He was also very moved by King’s sermon, which reminded his audience of the children of Israel in the wilderness. In his memoir, Heschel wrote, “I felt a sense of the Holy in what I was doing. Dr. King expressed several times his appreciation. He said, ‘I cannot tell you how much your presence means to us.’”68 After his return home, Heschel wrote to King that the “day we marched together out of Selma was a day of sanctification. That day I hope will never be past to me. That day will continue to be this day.”69

Practical Collaboration Against the War in Vietnam

Although Heschel continued working with King and his associates in the SCLC, his attention began turning more exclusively to opposing American involvement in Vietnam, and six months after Selma he became a founding member of one of the strongest anti-war organizations, Clergy and Layman Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV). King’s hesitation to be identified with the anti-war movement was initially influenced by his association with President Johnson and concern that it would appear to align him, as his adversaries had often implied, with anti-American and Communist subversives. However, his lack of public support for the war had estranged him from the Johnson administration within a year of Selma.70 Heschel’s stance against American involvement in the conflict as an unconscionable evil was much more visceral and confrontational to the church and the synagogue. He wrote, “To speak about God and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.”71

The consequences of speaking out against the war were much more critical for King, as any anti-war rhetoric almost immediately weakened financial support for the SCLC.72 There were also new rivals for King’s leading role in the media, and by the summer of 1966 the SCLC nonviolent programs were being eclipsed in the African-American community by militant calls from Stokely Carmichael and others for “Black Power,” with complaints that nonviolence had “outlived its usefulness.”73 Some of King’s critics complained that his stance against the war was simply an attempt to bolster his fading hold on his constituency.74 None of the accusations were true, although the march to Montgomery was a climactic moment, and his next major SCLC project in Chicago was widely considered a failure.75 King’s report to the SCLC in August 1966 revealed his awareness that no single organization and no single means of addressing African-Americans’ complex social problems including poverty, unemployment, engrained societal prejudice, and inner-city decay could hold back their rising tide of frustration.76

Speaking to a Canadian radio audience in November 1967, King reflected on the successive waves of riots that had erupted in American cities that summer and noted that one of the reasons for the unrestrained anger was linked to experiences with the war in Vietnam.

Negroes are conscripted in double measure for combat. They constitute 20 percent of the front-line troops in a war of unprecedented savagery although their proportion in the population is 10 percent. They are marching under slogans of democracy. . . . At home they know there is no genuine democracy for their people, and on their return, they will be restored to a grim life as second-class citizens even if they are bedecked with heroes’ medals.77

King’s case against the war as a systemic problem for African-American youth was well considered, but it was the mounting atrocities and devastating casualties among the Vietnamese poor in both the South and the North that led him to a radical decision of conscience.78

The location of his formal anti-war statement was carefully chosen and took place at a CALCAV sponsored event at the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan on April 4, 1967.79 This was a moment that Heschel had long anticipated, and toward which he had encouraged his friend. That evening, King was hosted by Heschel, Henry Steel Commager of Amherst College, and another founder of the CALCAV, John C. Bennett, President of Union Theological Seminary.80 King was introduced by Heschel with words that were unequivocal in moral condemnation: “We are here because our own integrity as human beings is decaying in the agony and merciless killing done in our name. In a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible.”81

King opened his speech with praise for American religious leaders whose courage had moved them “beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent.”82 His denunciation of the war began with its ill use of resources which might have assisted America’s underfunded anti-poverty programs. He noted its impact on American youth, who attended segregated churches and schools, then fought and died side by side. He pointedly described American atrocities, and his concern for the coming flood of psychologically affected veterans. After laying out a five-part program to end the war, he admitted that halting America’s involvement in Vietnam would demand extensive public protests. King closed his remarks by urging Americans to become a “person-oriented society” where racism, which made any person less than human, would become as unthinkable as bombing innocent civilians.83 His audience was genuinely moved, and Dr. Bennett responded, “There is no one who can speak to the conscience of the American people as powerfully as Martin Luther King.”84

Only in retrospect can King’s speech be fully appreciated for the moral foresight of the orator and the prescient warnings it contained. These are all too apparent from a historical perspective, but the country was still largely supportive of the President’s foreign policy.85 There was widespread condemnation in the American media and even hostile disapproval from King’s civil rights allies and rivals.86 Financially, support for the SCLC plummeted as the administration dismissed his comments as Communist rhetoric.87 In spite of the attacks, King received new support from unexpected quarters, including Stokely Carmichael and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.88 King remained adamant in his stand and led numerous large anti-war protests over the next year, including a major protest with Heschel at his side in front of Arlington National Cemetery.

The Theological Unity of Heschel and King

The remarkable unity of Heschel and King’s theological vision was rooted in both their hearts and minds. As orators, each one could powerfully draw on the vibrant cultures in which they had been raised from childhood, settings as different as Hasidic folktales and Negro spirituals. In their understanding of the prophets, however, both men found a “strong kinship” according to Susannah Heschel. They shared a perspective in which the political life of a nation is dependent on its spiritual authenticity, where God is fully present in human affairs, and a society’s moral character is linked to its economic conditions.89

Heschel’s term for the key concept in his phenomenological study of prophetic consciousness was “divine pathos.” Susannah Heschel notes that it is conceptually found in Hasidism and relates to the kabbalistic term, zoreh gavoha, the divine need.90 This is not humanity’s need for God, but rather God’s need for humanity to fulfill the divine purpose because “God has a stake in the human situation.”91 The Creator is not only affected by human actions, but genuinely engaged in our larger, societal situation, and “never neutral, never beyond good and evil.”92 With this perspective, the prophet “is concerned with and addresses himself to all men.”93 This does not make the prophet a source of comfort, but one of disruption, leaving us unsettled about our complacency and lack of compassion. As a result, prophets were barely tolerated: “To the patriots they seemed pernicious; to the pious multitude, blasphemous; to the men in authority; seditious.”94 However, the prophet cannot do otherwise. “While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.”95 God’s requirement is not merely for the incremental improvements with which humanity is satisfied; rather, “the prophets insist on redemption.”96

King’s challenges to the southern culture which had become complacent toward the evils of segregation strongly reflected these principles and this passion. He declared to those walking the streets during the Montgomery bus strike, “God is using Montgomery as His proving ground.”97 After the death of four young people at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, he told a television audience, “These children — unoffending, innocent, and beautiful have something to say to us. . . . They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. . . . [W]e must substitute courage for caution. . . . History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive.”98 As King came to understand that systemic economic issues required a new commitment to social activism, he echoed the call given by the prophets when society institutionalized its immorality. “Your highest loyalty,” wrote King, “is to God and not the mores, or folkways, the state, or the nation, or any man-made institution.”99

Even in times of crisis, however, Heschel appreciated that the prophet was a source of the ultimate imperative of hope. “To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to the past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and God had in common.”100 King shared the same message as he often said, “The arc of the universe bends slowly but it bends toward justice.”101 King also reflected in his speeches Heschel’s message that the challenge for humanity was not to question whether God is with us, but “to discover our being known . . . the transcendent divine attention to man . . . that man is apprehended by God.”102 As King stated, “However dismal and catastrophic may be our present circumstances, we know that we are not alone, for God dwells with us in life’s most confining and oppressive cells.”103

What Can We Learn from Their Collaboration?

The solidarity of King and Heschel, so visible during the march from Selma to Montgomery, endures as one of the great highlights of interfaith unity in the twentieth century. Their collaboration remains a model that should motivate our religious communities to harness the strengths of our spiritual character to work together with those who share with us the highest aims of social justice.

The practical aspects of their collaboration present us with examples of remarkable courage and determination to follow moral principles in the face of tremendous opposition. King had grown into leadership with the benefit of mentors and more experienced practitioners of nonviolence. When he worked with Heschel, who was just beginning to commit himself to social activism, King brought him alongside, encouraged him by expressing appreciation,valuing his presence, and treating him with great dignity. Heschel committed himself fully to the causes they shared, taking part in demonstrations, speaking boldly and fearlessly beside King.

Theologically, we see how their intellectual unity was never diverted by abstractions or theological differences. They shared a theological vision that united them in purpose and in action. A unique aspect of their collaboration was how comfortable they felt sharing material with each other. At the Chicago conference where Heschel and King first met, Heschel closed his speech with his unique translation of Amos 5:24 which first appeared in The Prophets.104 Later that summer, King quoted this form of the verse at the Washington Mall in the “I Have A Dream” speech: “No, we . . . will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”105 Today, the words are inscribed on a fountain near the King memorial in Atlanta.

Finally, we see in Heschel and King a remarkable example of deep personal respect for each other’s ministries that has overcome the great differences between the cultures from which they came. At a gathering of the Rabbinical Assembly of America honoring Heschel’s sixtieth birthday, King described him as a “truly great prophet,” and one of the singular voices “seeking to make the great ethical insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage relevant in this day and in this age . . . always standing with prophetic insights to guide us through these difficult days.”106 King gave that address only ten days before he was murdered.

According to the account of Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, the death of Dr. King weighed heavily on him. Invited by Coretta King to give one of the afternoon funeral orations at Morehouse College before the burial, Heschel opened his eulogy quoting from Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected by men . . .”107 In the few years that followed, Heschel remained a critical, prophetic voice against the war in Southeast Asia, but also continued to support civil rights projects, including affirmative action programs.108 Heschel died December 23, 1972, in his sleep on the Sabbath, a testament according to Jewish tradition of great piety.109


This year, as we mark six decades since King’s August 1963 “I have a dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial, there remain too many areas where we have fallen short in meeting the challenges he raised of racial equality, systemic poverty, and social justice that were of such great concern to Heschel and King. An article in Christianity Today reflecting on the anniversary quotes King’s daughter, Bernice: “our nation has yet to comprehensively, strategically, legislatively, and systematically cast aside prejudice, racism and bigotry.”110

Together, Heschel and King provided us with a rare vision of spiritual unity between Jewish and Christian leaders. They continue to inspire audiences of every creed with visionary messages of social justice and moral integrity, and, as Susannah Heschel so poignantly noted, have given us a legacy of “moments of transcendence.”111 As prophetic voices in our own time, they should inspire us to follow their dedication and sense of purpose rooted in the biblical mandate “to scatter seeds of justice and compassion, to echo God’s cry to the world and to pierce man’s armor of callousness.”112

Ben Volman came to faith in Yeshua through the ministry of Art Katz, and was a founding member of Canada’s first Messianic Jewish congregation. He received his M.Div. degree from Knox College (Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto). In 2021, he retired from Chosen People Ministries Canada and Kehillat Eytz Chaim, of which he was the founding rabbi. Ben is in the Doctor of Practical Theology program at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, ON, and currently serves as the Canadian Regional Director of the UMJC. He and his wife, Sue, live in Toronto.

1 A.J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: HarperCollins, 1962), 619.

2 Albert J. Raboteau, American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 1.

3 Raboteau, 2−3.

4 Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 4−8.

5 Oates, 15−22.

6 Susannah Heschel, “Theological Affinities in the Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Conservative
50 (1998): 128.

7 Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Toward an Understanding of Halacha,” in Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays edited by Susannah Heschel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 127.

8 Raboteau, 4.

9 Raboteau, 6.

10 Susannah Heschel, “Introduction,” in Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur, xix.

11 Raboteau, 7.

12 Oates, 24−25.

13 Oates, 35.

14 Oates, 47.

15 Oates, 49.

16 Peter J. Ling, Martin Luther King, Jr. (London: Routledge, 2002), 40.

17 Ling, 41.

18 Oates, 88−89.

19 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool,” A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson et al. (New York: Warner, 2000), 162.

20 Ling, 46−48.

21 Ling, 51.

22 Ling, 55−56.

23 Ling, 57−60.

24 Oates, 146.

25 Ling, 74.

26 Raboteau, 19.

27 S. Heschel, “Introduction,” xx.

28 S. Heschel, “Introduction,” xx.

29 Abraham Joshua Heschel, In This Hour: Heschel’s Writings in Nazi Germany and London Exile (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2019), 8.

30 A.J. Heschel, “Halacha,” 129.

31 A.J. Heschel, “Halacha,” 128.

32 A.J. Heschel, “Halacha,” 128−129.

33 A.J. Heschel, “Halacha,” 129.

34 A.J. Heschel, “Halacha,” 129.

35 A.J. Heschel, “Halacha,” 130.

36 A.J. Heschel, “Halacha,” 130.

37 A.J. Heschel, “Halacha,” 131.

38 Raboteau, 25.

39 Susannah Heschel, “Two Friends, Two Prophets: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr.” Plough Quarterly 16 (Spring 2018). Online: https://www.plough.com/en/topics/community/leadership /two-friends-two-prophets, §7.

40 A.J. Heschel, Prophets, 243.

41 A.J. Heschel, Prophets, 242–45.

42 S. Heschel, “Two Friends,” §9.

43 S. Heschel, “Affinities,” 140.

44 S. Heschel, “Affinities,” 135.

45 Susannah Heschel, “Introduction to the Perennial Classics Edition,” The Prophets by Abraham Joshua Heschel (New York: HarperCollins, 1962), xix.

46 Raboteau, 23.

47 S. Heschel, “Affinities,” 129.

48 Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 240−43.

49 Fitzgerald, 205.

50 Fitzgerald, 206.

51 Fitzgerald, 242.

52 Raboteau, 11.

53 Raboteau, 12−13.

54 Raboteau, 14.

55 S. Heschel, “Affinities,” 126.

56 S. Heschel, “Introduction,” xxiii.

57 S. Heschel, “Introduction,” vii.

58 Ling, 185.

59 Ling, 178.

60 Ling, 189.

61 Ling, 191.

62 Ling, 193.

63 S. Heschel, “Affinities,”133.

64 Ling, 197.

65 Oates, 354-55.

66 Oates, 356.

67 S. Heschel, “Introduction,” vii.

68 S. Heschel, “Introduction,” xxiii.

69 S. Heschel, “Affinities,”133.

70 Ling, 243.

71 S. Heschel, “Introduction,” viii.

72 Ling, 219.

73 Oates, 398.

74 Ling, 243.

75 Ling, 239−40.

76 Ling, 262.

77 Martin Luther King, Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 11.

78 Ling, 263.

79 Oates, 432.

80 Oates, 433.

81 Raboteau, 21.

82 Ling, 265.

83 Ling, 265−67.

84 Oates, 436.

85 Ling, 270.

86 Ling, 268−69.

87 Oates, 437−38.

88 Oates, 439−40.

89 S. Heschel, “Affinities,” 138.

90 S. Heschel, “Affinities,” 133.

91 A.J. Heschel, Prophets, 226.

92 A.J. Heschel, Prophets, 231.

93 A.J. Heschel, Prophets, 215.

94 A.J. Heschel, Prophets, 23.

95 A.J. Heschel, Prophets, 19.

96 A.J. Heschel, Prophets, 231.

97 S. Heschel, “Affinities,” 137.

98 Raboteau, 144.

99 S. Heschel, “Affinities,” 138.

100 A.J. Heschel, Prophets, 231.

101 Raboteau, 146.

102 A.J. Heschel, Prophets, 623–24.

103 S. Heschel, “Affinities,” 137.

104 A.J. Heschel, Prophets, 74.

105 S. Heschel, “Affinities,” 131.

106 S. Heschel, “Affinities,” 140.

107 Raboteau, 17.

108 S. Heschel, “Affinities,” 140.

109 Raboteau, 17.

110 Mika Edmonson, “Reclaiming the Dream.” Christianity Today 67:6 (2023), 22.

111 S. Heschel, “Affinities,” 141.

112 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), 239.