For the Jewish community, the iconic image of our relationship to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is the photograph of Dr. King marching from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965, arm in arm with a man the children thought looked like Santa Claus, the pre-eminent Jewish theologian Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. About that day Heschel wrote in a letter to Dr. King, “Even without words our march was worship. I felt like my legs were praying.”
Exactly four years later, on March 25, 1968, at the 68th annual convention of my organization the Rabbinical Assembly, Dr. Heschel introduced Dr. King with these words: “Dark is the world for me for all its cities and stars. Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of [ancient] Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America.”
Dr. Heschel had escaped Nazi Germany at the last minute, his mother and sisters murdered in the infernal devastation of the Holocaust. A spiritually devastated Jewish people found in Dr. King and his remarkable similarity to our prophet Moses, the proof we desperately sought that God had not forsaken humankind.
In the Jewish community’s identification with Dr. King’s vision and leadership, a lost and searching post-Holocaust American Jewry underwent a spiritual rebirth. In Dr. Heschel’s walk with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery, in the march on Washington that we commemorate here today, we joined with people of conscience across faiths and nations and re-enacted the walk taken by our biblical ancestors through the wilderness. Once again, we walked from oppression to a freedom defined by moral obligation. Our tradition understands the Exodus as a birth narrative and a moral awakening of a new people. Following Dr. King in those marches was a rebirth and a reawakening, and we joined with many peoples as God’s servants in bringing forward the vision of the Torah and the prophets, “tzedek tzedek tirdof” — justice, justice you shall pursue.
Only 10 days after that Rabbinical Assembly convention, Dr. King was assassinated. But among Dr. King’s many legacies, his Mosaic role in the rebirth of Jewish faith after the Holocaust lives on for the Jewish community every day through this day. My own sons, who are with me today, attend a Jewish day school where they study scripture in Hebrew half the day and English subjects the other half. They begin social studies and history in the second grade and the first history they are taught is the civil rights movement and the first biography they read is the life of Dr. King.
In Dr. King’s own words from that same year of Selma to Montgomery, 1965, he wrote, “When Moses walked into the courts of Pharaoh and thundered forth with the call to ‘let my people go’ he introduced into history the concept of a God who was concerned about the freedom and dignity of all his children … active in the affairs of men, struggling relentlessly against the forces of evil that beset them and seeking to mold a people who will serve as his children, as partners in the building of His Kingdom here on earth.
Rabbi Schonfeld is the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. These remarks were given at the march on Washington interfaith prayer service on Aug. 28, 2013.