Martin Luther King and the Prophetic Tradition

 Martin Luther King and the Prophetic Tradition This week’s parasha begins the Book of Exodus.  Tomorrow we will read in the Torah about the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt and G-d’s call to Moses to lead the Israelites out of bondage.  Monday is Martin Luther King Day, a celebration of the birthday of that great civil rights leader.  On Tuesday, we will witness Barak Obama take the oath of office as the first African-American president in our nation’s history.  .  There was yet another important date in January that went un-marked by most of us.  January 14 was the yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Rabbi Heschel was born into a Hassidic dynasty in Warsaw and escaped from Berlin in to the United States 1940.  Heschel was a professor of Ethics and Mystical thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and he wrote many important books on a range of subjects.  But he was not content to stay within the ivory tower of the University setting. Heschel took an active role in the civil rights and peace movements in the 1960’s and was active in Jewish-Christian dialogue as well.  Many of us have seen the famous picture of Heschel and Martin Luther King walking together at a Civil Rights March in Selma, Alabama in 1965.  Heschel later said, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” Racism, Heschel said, is “man's gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” Martin Luther King himself identified with the figure of Moses and understood that a special relationship existed between the African- American and Jewish people.  According to Congressman John Lewis, who knew King well and worked with him in the civil rights movement: He knew that both peoples were uprooted involuntarily from their homelands. He knew that both peoples were shaped by the tragic experience of slavery. He knew that both peoples were forced to live in ghettos, victims of segregation. He knew that both peoples were subject to laws passed with the particular intent of oppressing them simply because they were Jewish or black. He knew that both peoples have been subjected to oppression and genocide on a level unprecedented in history. King also understood Israel’s need to defend itself and its right to live in security.  On March 25, 1968, less than two weeks prior to his assassination, King spoke clearly and directly on this subject. “Peace for Israel,” he said, “means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.” The Torah tells us that Moses was rescued from the Nile river by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as her son in the palace.  One day, he went out to witness the suffering of his kinsmen, the Hebrews.  He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew.  He struck the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.  The next day he went out and found two Hebrews fighting.  He asked the aggressor, “Why did you strike your fellow?”  The Hebrew replied, “Who made you chief and ruler over us?  Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Fearing that the murder of the Egyptian would be found out by Pharaoh, Moses flees to Midian. He rests at a well. Seven daughters of a priest of Midian come to the well to draw water for their father’s flock.  But shepherds came and drove the daughters off.  Moses rose to their defense, and he watered their flock. This man Moses cannot mind his own business. Wherever he sees an injustice, he appears to be compelled to intervene.  It was the same with Dr. Martin Luther King.  Long before the plight of the Jews in the Soviet Union was on the front pages, he raised his voice. “I cannot stand idly by, even though I happen to live in the United States and even though I happen to be an American Negro and not be concerned about what happens to the Jews in Soviet Russia. For what happens to them happens to me and you, and we must be concerned.”[1] Indeed, King saw himself as a leader in the mold of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Just like Moses, King was seen as a person who stuck his nose into business that wasn’t his.  He was criticized by fellow clergymen for going to Birmingham, Alabama in 1964.  He was an “outsider” they said, from Altanta, and it should be up to the locals to deal with the injustices there.  King wrote the following in what became known as “The Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”                       “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.
                        Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C.[E.]
                        left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord"
                        far beyond the boundaries of their home towns  . . .
                        so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom
                        beyond my own home town.”  For “Injustice anywhere
                        is a threat to justice everywhere.”   The same compulsion to stick his nose where others thought it did not belong led to King’s public opposition to the war in Vietnam.  In a speech delivered to a private audience of clergy and laity at Riverside Church in New York City, King explained his desire to speak out on this issue. "A time comes when silence is betrayal.  That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.” Were it not for leaders like Martin Luther King, like John Lewis, like Abraham Joshua Heschel, and countless others who stood for justice throughout American history, Barak Obama would not have been even able to vote, let alone have been elected President of the United States.  May they all be an inspiration to us as we struggle for a more just society.  Our sages taught, “On three things the world stands – on justice, on truth, and on peace.”  Know then, that if you pervert justice, you shake the world, for justice is one of its pillars.”  Shabbat Shalom          

[1] Monday, January 21, 2002 (San Francisco Chronicle) “I have a dream” for peace in the Middle East King's Special Bond with Israel by John Lewis