The 20th century rabbi and scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel is well known to many American Jews. The author of a poetic meditation on the meaning of the Sabbath, Heschel vocally and visibly supported the civil rights movement and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The image of Heschel marching alongside King in Selma, pictured above, remains iconic not only for Jews committed to King’s legacy, but to all who see the power of interfaith coalitions in the ongoing efforts to secure voting rights and equity for all citizens.
In his new biography, Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Life of Radical Amazement, Princeton University historian Julian E. Zelizer looks at this influential orthodox rabbi through the eyes of a political historian interested in political coalitions, how they take shape and what lessons they offer for faith-based movements today. Zelizer writes that before Heschel ever set foot in Alabama, his book “The Prophets” – a fiery treatise that painted the biblical voices for justice as “religious warriors for morality” — had resonated with King and other clergy who saw in the biblical prophets the moral urgency that sustained their own efforts to fight injustice. By the time King returned to Selma with an interfaith coalition of marchers, King strategically wanted the white-bearded rabbi up front, knowing the power the interfaith image would have in the national media and to politicians watching from Washington, D.C.
In honor of Martin Luther King Day, Interfaith America managing editor Monique Parsons spoke with Zelizer about Heschel’s legacy, his friendship with King and the lessons their lives hold for today. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Monique Parsons: As a historian, you’ve written so much about people like Newt Gingrich and other polarizing political figures. Can you tell us what attracted you to this project?
Julian E. Zelizer: Definitely there’s a personal element. I come from a family of rabbis; my father is a conservative rabbi in (New Jersey) and my grandfather was a conservative rabbi in Columbus, Ohio, and then Florida. Judaism is also just important to me. Heschel was someone I grew up hearing about, seeing the photographs, and I was just curious about who he was. A second reason, though, connects to my research. I wrote a book a few years ago on Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, and one of the themes that I started to look at as I did the research was the role of religious groups in civil rights movement politics. I became very interested in and I was impressed with the impact that not only the Black church, but also other kinds of faith groups and places in the country like the Midwest, were having in pushing politicians toward a stronger civil rights position. And then finally, a lot of American Jewish history, which I read occasionally just for my teaching or my own interest, some of it’s insular. It doesn’t connect the figures that are being studied to broader elements of American history. And my doing it, in some ways, was a great way to look at what this theologian from the Jewish Theological Seminary could tell us about the big stories of Europe and the role of religion in Cold War America, to the antiwar movement during the late 1960s.