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Interfaith Shared Scholar speaks of father, systemic racism

By Staff | Feb 4, 2021

Dr. Susannah Heschel, the Eli M. Black Distinguished Professor and chair of Dartmouth College’s Jewish Studies Program, who is the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, spoke during a Zoom program on Jan. 13 as the 2021 Interfaith Shared Scholar. Moderated by Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ Rev. Dr. John Danner, it was attended by over 100 congregants from SCUCC, Bat Yam Temple of the Islands, Captiva Chapel by the Sea, Christian Science Church of Sanibel and Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church.

Heschel was asked to examine how her late father, a colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., might respond to the current issues surrounding systemic racism in the United States.

She began by describing her father’s background, which impacted how he formulated his position on racism. He was born in 1907 to a pious family in Warsaw and grew up surrounded by people of “religious nobility.” His father was a rabbi and the family lived in an impoverished neighborhood. Heschel was a bright young man and he went to Berlin to soak up ideas, studying at the Reform and Orthodox colleges as well as the University of Berlin, where he joined a poetry group. He composed poems in Yiddish and Hebrew. He joined discussion groups and was fluent in Latin and Greek. He felt people did not understand the prophets and made that subject his dissertation for his PhD, but no German publisher would take his book. He was a Jew and it was the eve of World War II.

Heschel was invited to be a professor in Prague, but Hitler overran Czechoslovakia and his job dissolved. In 1940, the Hebrew Union College of Cincinnati plucked him out of Europe. In 1946, he married and kept himself busy writing books. In the ’50s, Heschel started giving lectures to Jewish groups and later in that decade he was invited to speak at national events. In 1963, he went to Chicago to attend a conference on religion and race. There he met King and they immediately struck up a close friendship, finding they shared similar concerns — freeing Soviet Jewry was one, and the war in Vietnam was another. Many Jews were involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Heschel marched with King from Selma to Montgomery. He said, “Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling, but I felt my legs were praying — there was something holy in the march.” He felt to march was to be lifted up and feel a unity with God because he felt the marchers were doing something on behalf of God. He felt everything one does with their body — singing, dancing, marching — becomes a form of prayer, therefore he felt his legs were praying. Heschel firmly believed marching is acting for and reacting to other human beings.

He startled audiences with his passion about racism. His passion was the passion of his prophets, who are so filled with outrage that it cannot be contained. The prophetic ethos has been mocked since the late 1800s, the criticism was that prophets were country people who were not wise in the ways of the world. Heschel disagreed; he firmly believed the opposite of good was indifference. He remembered back to his younger days and how shocked he was by the indifference of the Germans to what was happening before and during the rise of Hitler. There was very little outrage, very little passion. His book on the prophets were important to civil rights leaders. King’s copy was all marked up and King referred to Amos in his speeches. King related how racism was not confined to the south. One of Heschel’s gifts was he listened with his heart and soul, and when he became involved in civil rights he saw the movement as an ecumenical movement including everyone who questioned ethical and moral issues.

Susannah Heschel concluded that her father felt without a sense of humanity, people are denying God’s existence and their own humanity. He emphasized that it is imperative people continue to care. They have an obligation to come together and support one another. Knitted the past with the present, she said, “This is not the time to worry about differences in our beliefs. The question is what can we find in the nature of our religiosity to share. As my father said, ‘We must find something we have in common and build bridges.’ It is by so doing we preserve hope and optimism.”