Martin Luther King Brought the Hebrew Prophets to Life
Martin Luther King Day is today, and to any American it should mean a rebirth of the principles enumerated on the Fourth of July, which commemorates the formation of our country upon the values of freedom and equality. When we remember Martin Luther King, however, we commemorate the man who helped America conform to those founding principles, which were being routinely violated. But to Jews, this day is also one of unique importance.
As protests swept through Ferguson and New York City these past few months, anti-Israel activists pounced on the opportunity to hijack the tragedies for their own ends. Mixed in with the “Black Lives Matter” billboards were a handful of other signs reading “Palestinian Lives Matter.” What the Israel haters are trying to do is to drive a wedge between the Jewish and black communities.
The relationship between blacks and Jews is one of true depth, one that strikes at the core of both peoples. It was not built on a shared oppression, but on a shared faith, not upon a common history, but upon a common destiny. Not on shared interests, but on shared values. Not upon a mutual alienation from the mainstream, but upon a mutual commitment to social justice.
Faith has always been the central pillar of the black community. The civil rights movement, far from being a simple political response to injustice and oppression, was a religious movement – one conceived in churches, led by ministers, and one that some claimed marched to the sounds of old “Negro spirituals.”
Faith fueled the soldiers of the civil rights movement and sacrifice sustained them. And it was this burning faith that serves as the true secret to their success. The world has seen so many liberation movements succumb to the battling egos of their leaders or simply replace the original oppressor with a newer one: Czar Nicholas with Lenin and Stalin, Batista with Fidel Castro, or a white-ruled Rhodesia for a Mugabe-controlled Zimbabwe.
The leaders of the civil rights movement, being men and women of deep faith and spiritual conviction, exhibited the most incredible humility. They always put the interest of the people before any personal lust for power. Walter Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth could easily have resented Martin Luther King, Jr., for his higher profile, and King could have wanted more for himself than to die on the lonely balcony of a second-rate Memphis motel. But their objective was not personal advancement but rather to lead God’s children toward a promised land of equal rights and human dignity. They put the people before their egos and placed reconciliation with the white man ahead of fratricidal civil war.
The same chains of slavery that bound the Jews in ancient Egypt and the blacks in the New World may have imprisoned their bodies. However, it liberated their spirit. Those chains taught Jews and blacks, above all else, to see in God the source of their salvation rather than in any professed human liberator, be he as righteous as Moses or as determined as Lincoln. Both became nations to whom faith was endemic and sustaining.
For most people, religion is a guide to gaining entry into the afterlife, a way of avoiding hell. For blacks and Jews, religion was a guide to finding hope and comfort in this life, so that their earthly existence might transcend the hell it often was. Other religions reinforced the oppression of the faithful by instructing them in the divine right of kings. But Jews and blacks always held fast to the faith that no man was born subject to another. To them, all men were princes.
Other religions taught men to accept their suffering in this world in exchange for the comforts of paradise, which would more than compensate. But the faith of Jews and African-Americans inspired them to challenge existing prejudices, because man is not born to suffer. Man dare not await the paradise of Eden. His highest obligation is to create heaven on earth.
As a Jew, my attachment to King’s speeches has little to do with the injustice of segregation, to which I was thankfully never subject, and everything to do with a modern preacher who brought the ancient Hebrew prophets to life. While studying at yeshiva I related to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah as characters in a book. But after listening to King’s magical orations, many of which I have tried to memorize, I related to them as living figures – as emboldened and animated opponents of injustice. Like Moses, King never reached the promised land. But like Moses, he found redemption in a life of service over adventure, winning righteousness over recognition.
That the Jewish and black communities are distinguished by their attachment to their faith is further evidenced by the unique problems faced by each upon the abandonment of that faith. The Jewish break with ritualistic tradition has at times led to materialism. Assimilation has led to questioning one’s identity, a futile attempt to erase distinctive Jewish characteristics, and a misguided attempt to blend and disappear into the mainstream. For many in the African-American community, a loss of the anchor of faith has led to a breakdown in familial and social bonds.
Today, as we experience a subtle rise of anti-Semitism and racism, Jews and African-Americans need each other more than ever. To that end, Martin Luther King, and the day that commemorates the great man, should serve as a constant reminder.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbis,” whom Newsweek and The Washington Post call “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the Founder of This World: The Values Network, the world’s leading organization defending Israel in world media. He is the author of “Judaism for Everyone” and 30 other books, including his most recent, “Kosher Lust.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.