Making King's Day Matter
Rabbi Charles L. Arian
Norwich, CT, January 18, 2010
I want to thank Rev. Barbara White and Evans Memorial for hosting this event, and I want to thank you for honoring me with this invitation to speak here today as we celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When Rev. Greg Perry called me several weeks ago and asked me to do this, there was no doubt in my mind that I would accept, but I was a little surprised and a little bewildered. But then I remembered a conversation that I had about a year ago with Brother Joseph Hemphill, who some of you certainly know. What you may not know is that some of my conversations with Brother Joseph work their way into the sermons I give at Beth Jacob. And it was just about a year ago, because we Jews read the entire Five Books of Moses every year through, and it is just about this time of year that we begin reading the book of Exodus. So freedom and liberation are on our minds, and it is always appropriate that we're reading the Book of Exodus at the time that we are also remembering Dr. King. And it was in that context that Brother Joseph said something that really stuck with me. He said, "you know, what Dr. King did, he didn't just do for the Black people."
And that's correct, and that's why it's OK for a white, Jewish person to give this talk today. What Dr. King did, he did for all of us. As Abraham Lincoln said so long ago, "as I would not be a slave, I would not be a slave master." It is not just that Black people needed to be liberated from the shackles of racism and oppression. White people needed to be liberated from their own oppression as well, because oppression is a product of fear. It is not just African Americans who are better off today because of Dr. King. All of us are better off, because we are working together for a society where we will be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. Dr. King's dream was not a Black dream or a white dream, it was an American dream, and a human dream. And it was a dream influenced by the Abrahamic covenants of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
I want to begin this afternoon with a story from the Talmud. The Talmud is a collection of Jewish legal and ethical materials, laws and stories, that was codified around 1500 years ago, but much of the material is quite a bit older than that. When I as a Jew and a rabbi read or hear stories of Jesus, they are familiar to me, because Jesus, too, was a rabbi, and he was not the only rabbi of his time to teach by means of stories and parables. So maybe those of you who are Christians will find something familiar in this type of story as well.
One day Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi encountered Elijah the Prophet. As you know, in our traditions Elijah is considered to be the harbinger of the Messiah. And so Rabbi Yehoshua asked him “when will the Messiah come?”
“Ask him yourself”, came the reply. “He sits at the gate of Rome with all the other beggars, but there is one way you can single him out. All of the beggars un-bandage all their wounds at once and then re-bandage them all at once. But the Messiah un-bandages one and then immediately re-bandages it, un-bandages another and then re-bandages it, thinking that perhaps he will be needed and have to go in a hurry.”
Rabbi Yehoshua traveled to Rome and found the Messiah as Elijah had said. “Shalom to you my Master and Teacher.” “Shalom to you, ben Levi.”
“When will Master come.” “Today!” the Messiah replied.
When Rabbi Yehoshua returned to Elijah he was crestfallen. “Surely he lied to me, because he said he would come today and yet there is no sign of him.”
“You misunderstood what he was saying,” replied Elijah. “He was quoting to you from Scripture, Psalm 95. ‘Today – if you would but hearken to God’s voice.’”
Imagine a world where no child goes to bed hungry. Where no child lives in fear of the adults who control his life. Where the poor are not merely given what they need to survive but treated with respect, and given the tools with which to lift themselves out of poverty. Where workers are always treated fairly. Where disputes between individuals and between nations are settled on the basis of justice and reason, not on the basis of who has the greater might. Where animals are protected from human cruelty; where natural resources are treasured as God’s gift to humanity and used wisely, with concern for future generations and their needs. Where the elderly are not considered a burden but treasured for their wisdom and experience.
Such a world is not a fantasy. That world is possible. You and I, with God's help, can bring that world into being. 3500 years ago at Mt. Sinai, God gave the Jewish people a plan to bring that world into fruition. And then Christianity and Islam came onto the scene to spread that plan, but we still -- all of us -- continue to fall short.
The Jewish people really became a people in Egypt. When Jacob and his family went down to Egypt, the entire nation consisted of one patriarch, his twelve sons and one daughter, the wives and children of the twelve sons and their household employees – a band of seventy souls in all, perhaps. After four hundred years that number had grown somewhat. Six hundred thousand adult males left Egypt -- together with wives and children probably 2.5 to 3 million.
The Jewish people, then, was forged in the crucible of slavery. Thirty seven times the Torah commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Not so we should seek revenge. In fact, we are specifically commanded not to hate the Egyptians, because they provided us food when we faced starvation. No, the Torah reminds us of our origin as strangers in order to remind us that because we were strangers, we in turn have a special responsibility not to oppress the stranger but to love him.
At the time of Jesus, there were two other great rabbis of the age, Hillel and Shammai. Once there was a pagan who, for whatever reason, enjoyed making fun of rabbis. He went to Shammai, and said to him: “I am willing to convert to Judaism if you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai like Jesus was a carpenter by profession and apparently brooked no nonsense. He took the yardstick that was in his hand and whacked the pagan over the head.
So the pagan went to Hillel. And Hillel took him up on the challenge. He said to him “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now go and learn."For us Jews, there are two sources of values. One is the Bible, and the other is Jewish history. I believe that it is no accident that Jews have been in the forefront of every struggle for human freedom.
Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were close friends. The picture of them marching arm in arm during the March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 is one of the great iconic images of the Civil Rights era. Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel first met in 1963 at a "Conference on Religion and Race" in Chicago. This is what Dr. Heschel said then:"At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.... The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses."
Thus it is no accident that the two white volunteers killed by the Klan during Mississippi Freedom Summer in the United States almost fifty years ago alongside James Chaney were Jews named Schwerner and Goodman. It is no accident that in apartheid South Africa, for years and years the only anti-apartheid member of the all-white legislature was Helen Suzman, the Jewish representative of a predominantly Jewish district in Johannesburg. It is no accident that the two demographic groups in the United States whose voting patterns are most alike are African Americans and Jewish Americans. It is no accident; it is a direct result of the Torah’s repeated admonition to “not oppress the stranger, but remember that you were a stranger in the Land of Egypt.” What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.
All the rest is commentary. But in our day Hillel’s teaching is not enough. It is not enough because it is merely passive. And as both Blacks and Jews learned so painfully within the memory of many sitting here today, it is not enough to merely personally refrain from doing evil. Rabbi Heschel said "The opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference," while Dr. King said "To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system." Not to act communicates "to the oppressor that his (sic) actions are morally right." And so I would add a corollary to Hillel’s maxim: “what has been done to you, do not let be done to another.”
In February 1993 I was part of a group of rabbis and rabbinical students who spent a week in Haiti examining the human rights situation there and the U.S. government’s policy at the time of returning Haitian refugees who were intercepted trying to make their way by boat to our country. And interestingly enough, all ten of us cited exactly the same motivation for going on this trip: the St. Louis.
In 1939 a boat with 900 Jewish refugees steamed away from the shores of Germany. They were bound for Cuba, which had given them visas. But for one reason or another, the Cubans changed their minds and sent the refugees away. So the boat, the St. Louis, headed for New York harbor. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent them back to Germany, where most of them disappeared in the crematoria of the Holocaust.
So for a Jew, who knows Jewish history, seeing a boatload of refugees returned home to face likely death hit too close to home. When I am asked one day what I did when we sent the Haitians away to be killed, I won’t have to say “I was a good German. I did nothing.”
We are a people that learn from history. Because we were slaves and strangers in Egypt, we have tried to free the slave and honor the rights of the stranger. Because the world watched and did nothing while we were slaughtered, we were determined not to watch and do nothing as Bosnians and Rwandans were slaughtered. And because we are all of us people who learn from history -- whether as Jewish people, as Black people, or simply as American people -- we cannot sit idly by and watch and do nothing while people continue to die in Haiti.
Brother Joseph was right when he reminded me that what Dr. King did, he did for all of us. Dr. King's genius was that his vision was rooted in the biblical texts that almost all Americans hold to be sacred. His dream was, as he himself said, "deeply rooted in the American dream." He called us, all of us, to be the kind of people that we know in our hearts that we ought to be. He called us to live lives of justice and of peace. He called us, finally, to join hands and build the kind of world that God wants us to have. He called us to hearken to God's voice.
When will redemption come? Today, if we would hearken to God’s voice.
When will redemption come? When we bring it. Let’s not wait to begin the task.