Heschel’s Moral Compass


Thank you to the editor for a provocative, interesting and troubling column (“What Would Heschel Do?” Sept. 9).

In researching a thesis on the Christian reception of Heschel’s theological writings and activism in the 1960s, I had occasion to discuss Heschel’s impact with those who knew him, among them Professors Elie Wiesel and Bernhard Anderson at Boston University. They told me that in many ways, Heschel was more warmly embraced in the Protestant (and Catholic) community than among the Jewish establishment of the day. True to prophetic form, Heschel made a great deal of unwelcome noise by following his inner moral gyroscope.

Reading your column, I tried to bend together the arc of Black Lives Matter denunciation of Israel and the absolute spiritual ecstasy found in Heschel’s “Jerusalem: Echo of Eternity,” which was written in about 1968 or so. I, too, would have pushed that much harder for dialogue. I wonder what his relevance in the black community might have been in that case … if he would have been marginalized there, too.  

I cannot help but think of when my wife and I sat down to watch the movie “Selma” a few years back, and found that Heschel had been erased from the third march on Selma. If I recall, he was replaced by an Eastern Orthodox priest. Now I wonder if Jewish participation in this conversation on race and racism in America is as meaningful to black America as it is to us (most of Jewish America), and where the answer to that question leaves us. 

No doubt many Jews will continue to participate in this movement, for no other reason than because it is right. No doubt the voice of more authentic religious imaginations like Heschel’s could be a needed moral compass for all participants, not just Jews.