Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish born Rabbi who became one of the leading Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, marched arm in arm with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr at Selma in 1965. Afterwards he wrote to him – “When I marched in Selma, I felt that my feet were praying”
The three Selma to Montgomery marches were a non-violent way of highlighting racial injustice in the South of the USA, and contributed to the Voting Rights Act being passed the same year.
Rabbi Heschel wrote deeply and frequently about religion and race, which he felt were antithetical positions. He wrote that “to act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is the beloved child of God. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity.” Such physical and visceral language about racism was reflected in his actions. Already nearing 60 years of age, he marched proudly, putting his body in the firing line for a principle he believed in deeply.
In a lecture given two years earlier he told his audience of Jews and Christians bluntly (National Conference of Christians and Jews on Religion and Race, 14 January 1963.) that
“Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”
He was speaking from a deep understanding of Jewish texts. And he was speaking from a position of recognising the commonality of all human beings. When we categorise people by race we stop seeing the uniqueness of each human person. And the greatest and most redemptive human quality is to have kinship, to build relationship with others with empathy and with respect. Heschel brought a wonderful insight to the biblical story of creation. He pointed out that the text speaks of the many kinds of plants and of animals created by God, that each one was different from the others, each one was to become the progenitor of its own species. And then he pointed out that in this text the creation of the human being was very different. There were no parallel species of different colours or characteristics, genders or races. There was one human being – the ‘Adam’, made from the ground itself, fashioned in the image of God. And that human being became the progenitor of all the diverse expressions of humankind. The ur-ancestor from whom we all descend – our humanity is bound up with each other, it has to be, and if we choose to divide ourselves and to hate “the other” then truly we are causing the maximum amount of cruelty for the minimum of thinking.
Bible did not notice race per se. In the ancient world right up to the time of the Greeks and the Romans, race was not the issue that society organised around – but all of the ancient world did notice whether someone was ‘in’ or ‘out’. Whether they were citizens or aliens, whether they came from ‘other places’ or they came from ‘here’. There was always a tendency to try to create a hierarchy, where “we” are the best and “they” are inferior. Hence the power of the biblical text which is consciously addressing these attempts to order humanity by inherent superiority, and which is working to refute it. Later (rabbinic) texts take on the debate. Mishnah Sanhedrin (4:5) includes the phrase “[Only a single person was created] for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”. And.. [Only a single person was created] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another. Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.”
While the ancient Roman and Greek worlds were defining people according to geography (from here good/ not from here bad) or status (in the community good/ out of the community bad) the Rabbis of the Midrash were specifically choosing to see all human beings from wherever they came as of equal value. And especially they took on the argument from geography, making explicit that from where someone originated was of no importance in ascribing their value. Rabbi Meir (2nd century) taught that God made Adam from the dust gathered from the whole world; and Rav (3rd century says): “His head was made of earth from the Eretz Israel; his main body formed from the dust of Babylon; and the various limbs were each fashioned with earth from different lands” .
When we look historically we can see again and again that as the host community sought to belittle and even humiliate people it saw as outsiders or foreigners, be they marked by accent or, skin colour or culture, the force of religion was pitching in the other direction. So the actions of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Warsaw born scion of an orthodox Hasidic family, in the southern states of America in 1965, were a natural progression of Jewish tradition that begins in bible and speaks out against the human habit of ‘othering’ and of creating a hierarchy whereby some are dominant and others are subordinate, where some have more value than others.
This week in synagogues all over the world there is an extra Torah reading – Shabbat Shekalim tells of the census in the wilderness and reminds the present community of the obligation to share the costs of communal resources. The title – the Sabbath of the Shekel – comes about because the census is taken by everyone giving a half-shekel coin, and these, not the people, are what is counted. There are many reasons offered for this way of counting, but one of my favourites is that it shows that while different individuals may have a different nett worth financially, every person is of the same value before God. And why a half shekel coin rather than a full shekel? Because no one person is complete on their own, each of us relies on others to complete us.
When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr both men understood importance of these teachings. Every human being is of infinite and equal value, every human being needs others to help them reach their full potential. Racism causes us to forget both of these lessons, but they remain as true as ever they did, and it is up to us to keep teaching them in the way we live our lives.
From a talk given at Stand up to Racism event, Goldsmith College 1/3/16