Rabbi Martin Luther King (1929 - )
For American Jews, those in Israel as well, Dr. King, our most profoundly influential sage in the last century, remains alive in what's left of our better selves. Dr. King saw better than the rest of us. May we, here, in this sick and troubled place, come to see more like he did.
I'm not here to fight today. Most days in Israel, pages like this are a war zone, where people with hard-earned ordnance of rage and pain and ideology fire everything they've got at one another, all of them somehow managing to remain standing, precisely where they were and where they have resolved at all costs to remain, only to go at it again the next dawn or High Noon.
Well and good, but I'm not here to fight this week. In the place I come from, they're marking the birth and the work of Martin Luther King. For those of the Eidah America'it, the loose, perplexed and perplexing ethnic grouping called North American Jewry, Dr. King, our single most profoundly influential sage of the last century, remains alive in our outlook, our interactions, our hopes for our country and this world. For my people, Dr. King is alive in what's left of our better selves.
The night before his assassination, Dr. King delivered a speech that was as much Biblical prophecy as it was literally prophetic about what would happen hours later. It was the sixties, but his words resonate with no less power in Israel, 2012:
"Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness," he declared, in a parable about the difficult road that winds from Jerusalem down to Jericho, a memory of a drive he had once taken there with his wife and partner in civil rights work, Coretta Scott King.
With references to Jesus, the Good Samaritan, and Martin Buber, Dr. King spoke about instances in which fears and excessive attention to religious doctrine can keep the pious from doing the right thing, the basic, human, necessary thing.
There were terrible laws then, when I was small, laws and practices which sought to keep people, Dr. King's people, from being able to vote like the rest of us, have economic opportunities like the rest of us, sit in the front half of a bus like the rest of us, even fall in love and marry and live with someone of your choosing like the rest of us.
We knew that this wasn't the country it should have been, that it had promised to be, that it needed to be.
We were small, but we knew that millions of Dr. King's people were stateless in places their ancestors had lived. After hundreds of years, they were refugees in the country of their birth. Their history was kept out of our schools. Their culture, their roots, were kept out of theirs.
They were different than we, and because of politics and prejudice and history and fear, we - those of us who made the laws and those of us too small or too scared or too busy or too far away to change them - were forcing them to pay for that difference. To pay in the form of their freedom, their livelihood, the walls around their dreams.
We were wrong. We can look around us, here and now, and see how wrong.
There were many in the place I grew up, who said that supremacist laws and segregationist laws were part of God's plan, that they were meant to protect the country, to preserve its way of life, that we dared not change them, or the country itself and all that it stands for, would be destroyed. They said these laws couldn't be changed, and wouldn't be changed, that the people would never stand for it.
They were wrong.
There were storm warnings ahead of that speech in Memphis, but crowds came anyway, to hear Dr. King, and to support what became a fateful strike of black sanitation workers forced to endure low pay, dangerous conditions, and ingrained discrimination.
Dr. King surprised them by telling them that he thanked God that he was living in that time and place, even as he acknowledged that "the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around."
But he was happy to be living then, he told them, because he knew that "only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars." Reversing the mindset that enshrined force and discrimination as a nation's only protection, he said that the needs of survival would eventually bring people to see that "It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence."
In a final prophecy, Dr. King said that he would be allowed to see that America, that promised land, only from a distance, from the mountaintop, from the Biblical Mount Nebo "which is opposite Jericho (Deuteronomy 34:1)."
There was too little light, back then, to imagine an America with a black man, a black family, in the White House. There was too much hatred, too much polarization, to conceive of a national holiday honoring Dr. King and his work.
Dr. King saw better than the rest of us. May we, here, in this sick and troubled place, come to see more like he did.