Of the many critical insights I gained by studying the writings of the late theologian and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, one that had a particularly profound impact on me related to the challenge of talking about God.
With the completion of the cycle of holidays that ushered in the new Jewish calendar year, one could almost hear the audible sigh of relief from all quarters of the Jewish community. No more sick days that need to be depleted, no more classes that need to be missed, no more relentless assault of unending, overwhelming holiday meals…we’ve been ready for this for a long time, and it feels awfully good to have reached the holiday-less month of Heshvan.
Many Jews today claim that they are “spiritual not religious,” that organized religion is not relevant, or that they would rather spend their free time alone than with others. Those who attend synagogue weekly often reserve the service, especially the sermon, for a special naptime. Others prefer a 20–person basement setting for a quick prayer service rather than a formal, large gathering at shul. Around two-thirds of Americans claim to be members of a house of worship, which is more than 25 percent higher than Jewish synagogue membership.
Forty-three years ago this month, our nation watched the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. The images were seared into our minds, along with the sense that our nation had lost a beacon of hope in the ongoing struggle for racial and economic justice. Though he had lived to see many important advances and constitutional guarantees for all Americans regardless of race or creed, Dr. King was murdered before he had made much progress toward another vitally important goal: economic justice.
This week I reported on the role Jews played in the civil rights movement under Martin Luther King. It's a fascinating story, and one that many people I interviewed told me remains poorly understood. Often it's reduced to a glib one-liner: Jews supported him, a line captured best by the iconic image of rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking with King in from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthdays we recall next week, shared far more than the political partnership on behalf of civil rights immortalized in the iconic 1965 photograph of them marching side by side in Selma, Ala. Their biographies show astonishing parallels. Their theologies of prophecy and providence were closely allied. And the self-images they bore as religious and societal leaders were remarkably similar.