Selma Connections: A King, a Rabbi and a Caution

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Like many, I’ve been watching the commemorations and celebrations of the 50 years since the momentous ‘Bloody Sunday’ on 7 March 1965 in Selma.

Looking at the various films and photographs from that time and place, you may have noticed that in a number of them, standing or sitting next to Dr. Martin Luther King is an elderly white man, wearing glasses and with a shock of white hair and long beard. His name is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, which is the anglicised version of his Hebrew name: Avraham Yehoshua Heschel….which was also my father’s Hebrew name. They were both named after a famous 17th century Polish rabbinical mystic.

Rabbi Heschel was a leading figure in American Judaism and also a very active social activist. He believed strongly that one’s spirituality must have legs. At the invitation of Martin Luther King Jr., Heschel participated in the opening day of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. The photograph of Heschel walking alongside King and other religious and political leaders is considered an emblem of the civil rights movement and of Black-Jewish relations of that era.

After the march, Heschel wrote about the experience in a private memo, “I felt my legs were praying.”

Jumping to the present, and the particulars horrors emanating from the so- called Islamic State, with its violent, barbaric intolerance of anyone and anything that does not fit with its particular world view, Heschel’s caution about the dark side of religion has a particular resonance:

“…when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.”