Sunday, January 18, 2015

‘Selma” King and Rabbi

‘Selma” King and Rabbi  Jan17 2015

            We are in our Torah reading, in the portion of Vaera, in the midst of the account of the plagues that preceded the Exodus. It is very fitting then, that these chapters of the Exodus coincide with Martin Luther King Day.          
            With all the horror of the past weeks in France, we take time this weekend, here in the US, to recall the message of reconciliation and brotherhood that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr not only  preached but also practiced at the cost of his life.
            I want to reflect on those days, as the movie “ Selma” has now been released, to great acclaim. The daughter of one of our members herself worked on the costumes for the film.
            It led me to recall the events in my own memory. When I was in 4th and 5th grade, I lived in a small Ohio town. I went to public school as the son of the local Rabbi and the only Jewish child in the class. My counterpart in class was a black girl, or, as was common phrased in those years, either Negro or colored, and it was quite appropriate, the two top students in the class were one Jewish, one black.
            This was, in the late 50’s, the start of the civil rights struggle, and I recall my father explaining to me that the signs in the south” No Coloreds Allowed” reminded him of what he saw in Nazi Germany. We could feel, though, that things were shifting for the better. When I was in high school, this time, in a small town in West Virginia, just about the time of the Selma march, a black girl in our high school wanted to be a cheerleader and the principal objected. The student body overwhelmingly overrode his objection. Keep in mind that this was the same West Virginia in which a local politician started out as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and then became the most powerful figure in the Senate, and liberal Democrat to boot, Robert Byrd.
            I want to address one issue that has been brought up about the movie, though, on the pages of Forward by Leida Snow:
 (, January 5, 2015 'Selma' Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jewish Contributions to Civil Rights)
          “I looked in vain for the embrace of a man with a yarmulke, a scene that would reflect      the historical moment when Dr. King marched with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a            leading Jewish theologian and philosopher widely respected beyond the Jewish    community. He may be present in the grainy documentary footage at the end of the      film, but he is not visible in the body of the film, nor are any other Jews openly           recognized.”

Front line on the March at Selma

            I don’t want to act as critic without having seen the movie, but I do want to fill in at least this one gap, and highlight the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on race and the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King on behalf of Israel and Soviet Jews.
Rabbi Heschel and my father were in Rabbinical School at the same time, at the  “ Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums” in the 30’s in Nazi Berlin. Both were eventually arrested, my father sent to prison for two years, then expelled to Vienna and points east, Heschel sent to Poland and then points west.  Years later, when I went to rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary I was fortunate to become student assistant to Rabbi Heschel. I handled some correspondence with the Vatican and with the head of a major Christian Zionist Movement (Makuya) in Japan and helped type some pages for a manuscript on the Kotzker Rebbe which later became the book, A Passion for Truth. I organized an Israel Independence celebration for which I had him as the keynote speaker and his words on the significance of Israel shortly were incorporated in his book, Israel: An Echo of Eternity.
Page that I typed for the Kotzker book

            Rabbi Heschel, to back track a little, was the scion of a Hasidic dynasty who had attempted to merge the boundaries between the modern secular world and the world of Hasidism. He felt himself compelled, from his perspective and personal experience, to join in the front ranks of those calling society to task for its failings.
            The Rabbi Against Racism
            This is an excerpt of one of his talks, on race in America, 2 years before the Selma march at a conference on “Religion and Race”, appropriate for our Torah reading of today, just 41 years ago to this Shabbat :
                        “At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh   and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go         that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I            should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not        let Israel go.”
            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.”
. . .
            “Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child.          To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living           humanity. Is this the way to honor a father: to torture his child? How can we hear the          word “race” and feel no self -reproach?”
            . . . Racism is satanism, unmitigated evil.
            In several ways man is set apart from all beings created in six days. The Bible does not    say, God created the plant or the animal; it says, God created different kinds of plants,          different kinds of animals (Genesis 1: 11 12, 21-25). In striking contrast, it does not say,          God created different kinds of man, men of different colors and races; it proclaims, God          created one single man. From one single man all men are descended.
             In the words of the prophet Amos (5:24):
            Let justice roll down like waters,
            and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
            If the last line sounds familiar, it is because Dr. Martin Luther King Jr used that same line in his famous “ I have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Monument and it is the verse inscribed on his tombstone. It is not taken from any official English translation of the Bible but directly from the translation as written by Rabbi Heschel! ( per Susannah Heschel ,his daughter).
            The Reverend on Jews and Israel
            The greatness of Dr. King lay in the fact that, while he was a true advocate for the Negro or black, he was equally an advocate for humanity, and as a result, spoke out openly on issues that pained the Jewish community. For example, he took up the cause of the Jews of the Soviet Union, who suffered tremendous oppression and denial of rights under the Communist regime of the old Soviet Union. Many of you here lived through that period:
            This is from his 1966 Address to the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, long before it became the cause of the larger Jewish community:
            “While Jews in Russia may not be physically murdered, as they were in Nazi Germany,   they are facing everyday a kind of spiritual and cultural genocide. The absence of opportunity to associate as Jews in the enjoyment of Jewish culture and religious     experience becomes a severe limitation upon the individual. These deprivations are a       part of a person's emotional and intellectual life. They determine whether he is fulfilled as             a human being. Blacks as well understand and sympathize with this problem. When you   are written out of history, as a people, when you are given no choice but to accept the          majority culture, you are denied an aspect of your own identity. Ultimately you suffer a corrosion of your self-understanding and your self-respect”.
            Even though Dr. King opposed the war in Vietnam, he had no illusions about the “ Worker’s Paradise”. You can also see how appropriately, he weaved the plight of the Jew with the plight of the Black.
            On Zionism
            Recall that the United Nations, in 1975, declared that Zionism is a form of racism. This was a resolution backed by the very Soviet Union, which Dr. King had denounced for its oppression of Jews. Here is what Dr. King had to say on Zionism in a public presentation, at a dinner in Cambridge , Mass. His words have been misquoted, so for the record, I am copying the correct text:
            “ At that dinner, he rebuked a student who made an anti-Zionist remark, saying, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism.” (See, e.g., “The Socialism of Fools: The Left, the Jews and Israel” by Seymour Martin Lipset; Encounter magazine, December 1969, p. 24.)
            On Israel       
Finally, there are those who would deny his position towards Israel and try to associate Dr. King with the leftist position calling for the elimination of the Zionist colonialist entity of Israel. I know otherwise. When I was still a student, I sat only a few feet from Dr. King, as he spoke to a gathering of Rabbis, in 1968, on March 25, 1968, just ten days before his assassination. He was introduced by Rabbi Heschel, whom he effusively praised:
         “It is also a wonderful experience to be here on the occasion of the sixtieth             birthday of a man that I consider one of the truly great men of our day and age,       Rabbi Heschel. He is indeed a truly great prophet.. . . I remember marching from      Selma to Montgomery, how he stood at my side and with us as we faced that crisis             situation. So I am happy to be with him, and I want to say Happy Birthday, and I    hope I can be here to celebrate your one hundredth birthday.”
         This was his statement on Israel. Note that this was two years after the Six-Day War, and Dr. King was a pacifist. He took flak from his supporters for recognizing that military force could be justified.
         I think it is necessary to say that what is basic and what is needed in the Middle    East is peace. Peace for Israel is one thing. Peace for the Arab side of that world is   another thing. Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all of our        might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel, and never mind             saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous            ex­ample of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an    oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that            security must be a reality.”
He then continued:
         “On the other hand, we must see what peace for the Arabs means in a real sense             of security on another level. Peace for the Arabs means the kind of economic      security that they so desperately need. These na­tions, as you know, are part of that            third world of hunger, of disease, of illiteracy. I think that as long as these   conditions exist there will be tensions; there will be the endless quest to find            scapegoats. So there is a need for a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, where we       lift those who are at the bottom of the economic ladder and bring them into the           mainstream of economic security.”
         This was 1968. Dr. King did not address the issue of Palestinians as an isolated issue, but as part of the overall malaise of the Arab world. That has not been resolved.
         Tragically, we know now, that, comparable to the Marshall Plan, billions, billions, has been sent by the West, to help the refugees. Billions, billions has been siphoned out of the pockets of the West in over-priced oil in one of the greatest money-transfers in history, billions that supported a vison that was to Dr. King’s vison, as night is to day.
         We can only pray, in the aftermath of the horrors that have occurred in Paris as well as the horrors that have occurred in Nigeria, where Boko Haram massacred 2000 Christian last week and in Pakistan where the Taliban massacred 140 children, we can only pray that in the Moslem world, there can arise a visionary as fearless as Dr. King to preach an Islam for today as bravely as Dr. King preached Christianity for today.
         Perhaps yet we will see a day in which the Pope, the grand imam of Mecca, the Ayatollah of Iran, and Chief Rabbi of Israel, and let’s throw in the Dalai Lama and Hindu and everyone else to boot,will sit together as in the vision of Micah, the Prophet:
Many nations shall come, and say,
“Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob,
That he may instruct us in his ways, that we may walk in his paths.”
. . .
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
One nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.

They shall all sit under their own vines,
under their own fig trees, undisturbed;

for the LORD of hosts has spoken.

Though all the peoples walk,
each in the name of its god,

We will walk in the name of the LORD,
our God, forever and ever.( Ch 4)


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