I can’t forget the Hebrew anniversary of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s death—it’s also my dad’s. This year, their yahrzeit fell at New Year’s, coincidentally also my dad’s birthday. Death beside birth; wisdom for the ages next to a clean page. Evocative juxtapositions. In a few days, we’ll have another historic juxtaposition: President Barack Obama will take the oath of office as we celebrate the birth, life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Between Rabbi Heschel’s yahrzeit and Rev. King’s birthday is another anniversary. Fifty years ago, at a Chicago Conference on Religion and Race commemorating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, Rabbi Heschel and Rev. King met one another for the first time. They recognized and inspired each other. Deep roots of religious wisdom shaped each of them. Each was descended from generations of spiritual leaders. Each met degradation and hurled hatred upright with dignity. Each had studied the prophets and felt commanded to bring those prophetic promises to life. They did so as allies, as friends, stirring and strengthening one another. Heschel led a protest against the brutal treatment of the Selma civil rights activists in New York before flying to Selma, where he and King marched arm in arm. Heschel famously wrote, “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
Prayer and prophecy joined hands and marched in tandem. Two religious traditions, two resolute leaders wove a dream of national promise, justice and dignity, entwining the warp of moral grandeur with the woof of spiritual audacity. On Martin Luther King Day, when President Obama places his hand on the Bible—the source of King’s and Heschel’s wisdom and vision—may he be fortified by their inspiration, courage and conviction. And, through our own lips and legs and hands, may we join with our President to make of our nation one of moral grandeur and spiritual audacity, worthy of the prophets of our time.
Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann is the Senior Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University, the first university chaplain in Stanford’s history from a tradition other than Christianity. She is a Brickner Rabbinic Fellow engaged in the intersection of contemporary issues and Jewish tradition.
Images courtesy of Linda A. Cicero / Stanford University News Service and the American Conference of Cantors.