In the spring of 1940, a young Jewish scholar disembarked in New York, and was deeply affected by what he saw- a black shoeshine. What was so shocking? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel came to the United States as a refugee fleeing Hitler. His mother and his sister were imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto , eventually perishing in the Holocaust. The worlds he knew were completely destroyed by racism. It is no cliché that for Heschel, America represented a new hope. One of the first things that he saw in his new home was a black man relegated to the demeaning job of kneeling to polish shoes. It was a painful reminder than one could not flee racism. It had to be eradicated. This one incident, though, is unlikely to have created Heschel’s lifelong commitment to the civil rights movement. While teaching at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Heschel befriended Larry D. Harris, the head-waiter, a proud deacon in a black church. This is how he learned of the realities of segregation, and his commitment to eradicating that evil would eventually lead to Selma. In light of the Charleston shooting, it is worth reading Heschel’s powerful 1963 denunciation of racism and the treatment of African Americans. What happened in Charleston is not about whiteness, blackness, or even privilege. These are manifestations of the root issue, a refusal to see each other as members of the same family, a refusal that can open a Pandora’s box of hatred, oppression, and murder. Sadly, Heschel’s words have not lost their relevance.
Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a father: to torture his child? How can we hear the word “race” and feel no self reproach? Race as a normative legal or political concept is capable of expanding to formidable dimensions. A mere thought, it extends to become a way of thinking, a highway of insolence, as well as a standard of values, overriding truth, justice, beauty. As a standard of values and behavior, race operates as a comprehensive doctrine, as racism. And racism is worse than idolatry. Racism is satanism, unmitigated evil. 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.