Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) is best known for a walk he took in Alabama on March 21, 1965. Linked arm and arm with civil rights leaders (including Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.), he became an iconic figure of Jewish social justice. Afterwards, he would write the famous words: “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.”
But Heschel’s wisdom and activism was not limited to one famous walk. Born in Poland as a descendent of prominent rabbis, he received Orthodox yeshiva training followed by a doctorate at the University of Berlin. Heschel was fortunate enough to leave Warsaw just a few weeks before the German invasion, but lost many of his dearest family members in the concentration camps. Heschel moved to America in 1940, and spent the rest of his life as a scholar, philosopher and human rights activist. He spoke out against civil rights abuses and the Viet Nam War, and wrote several watershed books on Jewish theology, religious pluralism, and human’s relationship with and responsibilities to God and one another.
As a teacher of Jewish mysticism and a man of strong convictions, Heschel did not always find favor amongst his rabbinic peers during his life. Today, however, he stands as one of the most widely read and revered Jewish leaders and thinkers – both within and beyond the Jewish community.