This year’s dual commemoration of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose hundredth birthday we celebrate on Jan. 11, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose memory is marked on Jan. 15, is significant on many levels (see page ‘8). Not only does it prompt us to review the accomplishments of these two great individuals, but it spurs us to consider the relationship between theology and political activism and the notion that religion can play a large and positive role in the realm of social justice.
The link between the two men was more than physical — though when we think of them together, we are likely to recall the image of them walking arm in arm in the front row of marchers in Selma, Ala., in 1965. Their connection was, in fact, spiritual. It was their commitment to apply the ethical components of religion to everyday life (in the words of Rabbi Michael Lerner) that bridged their racial and religious differences and bound them together.
Their determination to put their religious beliefs into practice was not always a popular course of action. Yet both were willing to pay the price exacted by those who opposed their progressive agenda. Whether the punishment was confinement in a prison cell or less than cordial treatment by colleagues, the two men were keenly aware that bringing about change was a difficult task. With all due respect to President Bush and to those nations that have supported the U.S. effort in Iraq, the term "coalition of the willing" should be applied first and foremost to individuals such as Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Beyond their idealism, beyond their deep religious values, lay a willingness to suffer the consequences of their actions.
And they were not alone in this "coalition," at least in the area of civil rights. Some religious leaders, including Andr? Ungar, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, worked with King to register voters in Birmingham, Ala., and Mississippi and stood with him in Selma. Israel Dresner, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, and Rabbi Martin Freedman, rabbi emeritus of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, were numbered among the Freedom Riders — men and women who rode on integrated buses through an unwelcoming South in the summer of 1961 in an effort to bring about desegregation — and were willing, in some cases, to be imprisoned for what they believed.
Not surprising, Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service, claims Heschel as a major influence in her life. A prominent rabbi and innovative theologian, he taught us all a very important lesson. Holding our values dear is only part of the equation. Acting on them is quite another.