Reading Rabbi Saul Berman’s moving front-page essay (“Martin Luther King and the Exodus Narrative”) in last week’s Jewish Press struck an emotional chord. Particularly since earlier in the week I’d attended an “Evening of Solidarity in Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” which took place at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in association with Reverend Roger Hambrick and the Green Pastures Baptist Church.
Between the spirited singing, clapping, speaking, and dancing (by men only) we experienced a few magic messianic moments. There we were: white, olive, brown and black people, Jew and Christian, praising the Lord together in quite a joyful way – and in an Orthodox synagogue. It took me back to the best days of the 1960’s, before Black Power and black nationalism turned away from Dr. Kings’ vision of non-violence and embraced an Islamic-style Jew-hatred. The evening was, in essence, an instance of inter-faith solidarity and constituted a living legacy to Dr. King’s work.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has touched my life in both personal and political ways. Like many other Jews, I was an activist in the Civil Rights movement from 1963 on and was strengthened by the very Jewish perspective about slavery and freedom the movement embodied (and which Rabbi Berman brought out so well in his essay).
Like other activists, including secularists, I learned a thing or two about oratory from Dr. King’s sublime speechifying. I was privileged to hear his noble “I have a dream” speech and I lived through the days of his shocking assassination. (Coincidentally, my son had his bar mitzvah on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and his parsha happened to be B’shalach, which celebrates the victory of our leaving Egypt.)
Rabbi Avi Weiss invites Reverend Roger Hambrick and his choir each year. It is now something of a tradition. After singing Hatikva, the Star Spangled Banner, and some psalms, President Daniel Perla and Rabbis Adam Starr and Etan Mintz all praised Dr. King and told us that “the world has still not yet assimilated his message,” that “oppression and discrimination, even slavery still exist,” and that the “songs” we were about to hear were not “mere songs but were prayers” and “manifestations of tikkun olam” (repair of the world), a concept that is central to both Judaism and Dr. King’s Christianity.
The SAR High School chorus and Neshama Carlebach joined the extraordinary Baptist choir and the place rocked.
What made the evening important was this: Jew-hatred and discrimination on the basis of color were both denounced as “racism” and “evil.” Carlebach spoke about “building bridges,” both to each other in this world and in the world to come; she imagined Dr. King as a mighty soul who was building a bridge toward our world “from the other side” – but that we had to join in that labor so that heaven and earth might meet.
Rev. Hambrick was a truly jovial and commanding presence whose own singing was powerful and powerfully reassuring. Rabbi Weiss did a low-key Baptist-style call-and-response in tribute to his honored guests.
Rabbi Weiss noted that this month was also the 100th birthday of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. King in Selma. When Heschel was asked what he was doing, he said he was “praying with his feet.”
Rabbi Weiss wanted to find a Torahdik basis for Heschel’s words – and find it he did. Yaakov dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder and he names the place Beth-El – God’s house. Right afterward, “vayisah Yaakov raglav” (Yaakov lifted up his feet). Rabbi Weiss intoned: What did he lift up? He did not lift up his eyes, he did not lift up his hands, but he lifted up his feet, he “prayed with his feet,” so to speak, as he continued on his way Eastward and to his destiny.
The Baptists were delighted as were the Jews, and a truly uplifting time was had by all. We need more such evenings. We need to refresh our alliances with peoples of faith in preparation for messianic times.