02/19/2011 11:38 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rabbis, Rev. King and Revolution

We saw people of faith praying together, chanting, Muslims, Christians, "We are one." And though we know the strains between faiths divide too many in this world and no single event will close that chasm immediately, these scenes remind us that we need not be defined by our differences. We can be defined by the common humanity we both share. --President Barack Obama, Speech addressing Egypt and the resignation of President Honsi Mubarak, Feb. 11

It was the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was well under way. Christian minister Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the movement's central figure, as he led thousands of protestors on a journey that would eventually transform America. And in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965, King was accompanied by an unlikely companion. In the front row, right by his side, walked Jewish rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

And on Jan. 25, the world watched as the people of Egypt took to the streets to protest and demand true democracy and civil rights in their own country. It was reported that Christians formed a human chain around Muslims as they said their prayers in Tahrir Square to protect them from the violence of pro-government forces that were in opposition to their movement. Putting themselves in the line of fire, they clung tightly to the belief that the freedom of one affected the freedom of all. That same belief is precisely what motivated Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and many other rabbis to join the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s America, risking their lives to live up to their religious obligations and personal convictions.

"The Hebrew Bible says, 'justice, justice shall you pursue,'" says Rabbi David Teitelbaum who also marched with Dr. King in Selma. "It also says do not idly stand by the blood of your neighbor."

"My father and a lot of the other rabbis had come from Europe just before or after World War II, and they had experienced Hitler and Nazi racism," says Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and daughter of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. "Their motivation to join the movement was based on their experiences."

Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel developed a special friendship, unified by their belief in the prophets and their commitment to human rights. Heschel wrote his Ph.D. dissertation, which he completed in 1933, on the prophets at the University of Berlin. Throughout his extensive study of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, Heschel came to view the teachings of justice and human rights as central to Judaism. Dr. King's movement left room for people of other faiths, as he did not champion it as a partisan or Christian movement. According to Professor Susannah Heschel, Dr. King spoke about Moses, the Exodus and the prophets. These were unifying figures that were central to Kings message that resonated with and attracted rabbis. She notes that King could have based the movement on other symbols, such as Jesus, which would have then become a different kind of Civil Rights Movement.

Rabbi Heschel joined King in many marches and protests, including ones against Vietnam, a cause Heschel convinced King to adopt. But of the many marches they participated in together, the most notable was Selma.

"Selma was a very tense place," remembers Rabbi Teitlebaum. "I was fearful. Rev. Reeb and Jimmy Lee Jackson had already been killed."

Rev. James Reeb, a white American Unitarian Universalist minister who was a strong supporter and Civil Rights activist, had marched with King. At 38 years old, his life was taken from him by an angry white mob in Selma. And just weeks prior, an unarmed African-American man by the name of Rev. Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered by an Alabama State Trooper while attempting to protect his mother.

The rabbis who marched with Dr. King in Selma were warned not to go out of the "Negro" area, according to Rabbi Teitlebaum, but defied instruction in order to bring food to the other rabbis who were in jail. Teietelbaum, along with many others were eventually arrested, was forced to spend the entire night in a recreation hall under "protective custody." And as they were herded into a bus that took them to the recreation hall, a policeman held a billy club to Teitelbaum's head and told him he was itching to bash his head in. It was a very frightening time for the rabbi's and their families, not knowing whether they would come home dead or alive. Professor Heschel remembers kissing her father, who was not in good health at the time, as he walked out of the door, thinking that she may never lay eyes on him again. However, somewhere deep inside, she recalls having the feeling from her father that marching in Selma was the single most important thing a person could do at that moment.

Heschel's decision to join the Civil Rights movement not only risked his life, but jeopardized his personal and professional relationships. As a professor, his social circle was not supportive of his decision to involve himself so deeply in the Movement. Susannah describes her father as living a "pretty lonely and isolated life." It wasn't until about 10 years after her father died that she noticed that people were proud that he had gone to Selma and admired him for that. Neither Susannah nor her father had ever felt that way in his lifetime. Rabbi Heschel, however, never expressed any regrets to Susannah about his decisions and felt strongly about the positions he took until the day he died.

"When he was in Selma he felt a sense of holiness in the march, and he said he felt his legs were praying," remembers Susannah.

"The Friday night in the recreation hall when we held a Jewish service, the Shema took on special meaning, and so did Adom Olam which we sang to the tune of 'We Shall Overcome,'" says Rabbi Teitlebaum.

The sounds of the Muslims and Christians in Tahrir Square praying and protesting alongside the millions of people all over the globe from different religious and ethnic backgrounds -- who stood by their side, registering their support by taking to Facebook, Twitter and other forms of media -- echoes a transformational moment in history where Jewish rabbis risked their lives and their families to protect Black Americans.

In Professor Susannah Heschel's article "Theological Affinities in the Writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," she notes that her father invited King and his wife Coretta to participate in his family's seder, a ritual that involves retelling the story from the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible, of the liberation of slavery from ancient Egypt. The seder was scheduled to take place on April 16, 1968. King was assassinated April 4, just days before Passover.

Although the relationship between the Black and Jewish community is not solid as it once was -- illustrating President Barack Obama's words that "the strains of faith divide too many in this world and no single event can close that chasm immediately" -- there is a permanent snapshot in history that serves as a reminder of what can be accomplished when people are united by the common purpose of freedom, and by their distinct religious values.

"King really transformed the heart of America and changed people with what was basically a religious message," says Susannah Heschel. "And I think it has been important for me to recognize what religion can accomplish. And so at times when I have been angry at religion for whatever reason, I have to stop and remember that."