Every January I reflect on the lessons of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his good friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Heschel famously said of King that “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America.” Together this pastoral duo was a strong moral compass for the nation, that inspired its citizens. Each man could articulate a vision of a better tomorrow, and more than that, they both believed that each of us could take steps to bring dreams to fruition. “By each deed we carry out,” Rabbi Heschel said, “we either retard or accelerate the coming of redemption. Our role in history is tremendous.”
January also brings with it the President’s State of the Union Address (this year it’s tonight, January 20th). It makes for depressing political theater, predictable applause lines and partisan standing up or sitting down. Representative Joe Wilson made some small waves a few years ago when he yelled, “You lie.” Alas, such is the state of politics lately. What do I want to hear in the State of Union this year?
Dr. King said that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” This year President Obama has been traveling campaign-style prior to delivering his State of the Union Address, an historical first for a president. We already know, based on what he tells us he’ll be speaking of, that we can hear more about his tax plan for the 1%, tax breaks for the middle class, and increased cybersecurity. Both of these points are politically expedient – its what most of us want to hear, but are these the points that will us to become ‘a more perfect union’? Heschel said that the task of a statesman, “is to be a leader, to be an educator, and not to cater to what people desire almost against their own interest.” In contrast to other predictable topics, President Obama has also announced a visionary and ambitious plan to make community college free. To my mind, a bold plan such as free community college does in fact begins to approach “statesman” status.
What do you want the President to turn our attention to? It is worth thinking about. Here is some of my wish-list. If I could, I would implore the president to please use his address to bring our country into honest discussion about:
1) Race relations. Dr. King led a great battle for civil rights, but enough time has passed to measure his success, and sadly, in large measure, blacks and whites in our great country still misunderstand and mistrust each other.
2) Food. Every citizen deserves safe, inexpensive, healthy food. All too often inexpensive, accessible food is also unhealthy food. Factory farming, unethical treatment of animals, and illogical farm subsidies for certain crops also needs changing.
3) Economy. There is tremendous income inequality in the world. By one report, in 2016 the top 1% will control 50% of the world’s wealth. This wild imbalance is a threat to the democratic process, and is a recipe for the exploitation of resources and workers in the name of profits.
4) Human Rights. Our world is still dealing with modern, actual slavery. Human sex trafficking is a significant issue, and so are the sub-human conditions in the mining of rare earth elements for our cell-phone and other gadgets. What do we stand for as a leading nation on this planet if we care more about the low price of smartphones rather than the people, often children, who are forced to mine the minerals necessary for their production? We are all complicit in this atrocity. Will call attention to what should be an unacceptable situation?
5) Gun Control. The Constitution gives us the right to defend ourselves, but that does not preclude us from creating some common sense guidelines to protect our citizenry. Every day there is a new senseless tragic story. Yesterday’s heartbreak came when a nine-month-old baby was shot to death by his five-year-old broth in Missouri.
6) Environment. 2014 was the driest year in recorded history, and marine biologists are asking people to track tidal king waves in preparation for a ‘new normal’. Our oceans are facing catastrophic die-off. President Obama has recently staked out methane as a new emission to regulate, but there is so much more we need to do to protect our environment. Are we willing to invest time and money into a safer healthier planet for our children? Is fracking safe?
In 1967 Dr. King said, “A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” – Beyond Vietnam.
In a 1963 telegram to to President Kennedy, Rabbi Heschel wrote, I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency…The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
The hour once again calls for ‘high moral grandeur’. Let this new year surprise us with an end of governmental stagnation and political point-scoring on both sides. The president has the opportunity to set the agenda of the big conversations we need to have. Frankly, with the House and Senate both in the hands of the same party, Congress has a real opportunity to lead as well.
And we too have a role in demanding and creating a better tomorrow. Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” Dr. King put it this way, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” It begins by articulating your dream for this great country.
This week America commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the massive event in 1963 that we so often reference when we recite selections of the iconic speech of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. “I Have a Dream” became a trope for Americans who wrapped themselves in the eloquent words of this American hero, touting support for freedom and equality.
Yes, much progress has been made in legal freedoms and cultural consciousness regarding overt prejudice. It is far less socially acceptable (and absolutely spurned in many circles) to speak in racial slurs, and far more expected that we share schools, workplaces, and politics with our fellow black Americans. Yet, white Americans and black Americans have vastly divergent views of the problems of equality that still plague our country. Writing in the opinion pages of the New York Times (“Fifty Years Later,” 8/24/13) Charles Blow cited a Pew Research poll conducted earlier this month documented shocking differences in perception between whites and blacks concerning the most significant issues that concern the African American community. Blacks widely reported perceptions that there are serious challenges of equality in dealing with police, courts, workplace, stores/restaurants, schools, healthcare and voting, while whites largely reported their view that blacks are treated fairly. The disconnect is telling – many whites like to think that we did it – we fulfilled “the dream.” But, despite the obvious advances, the dream is far from realized.
This Wednesday we not only commemorate the March on Washington, we, as Jews, enter the last week of the month of Elul, the final month of the Jewish year. Elul is designated as the month of reflection, introspection, and preparation for the repentance of the Days of Awe, at the Jewish New Year. Our sages taught that in order to make our repentance complete, we must first acknowledge our sins of commission and omission, and seek to make amends with all those whom we have offended or harmed. Only then can we ask God for forgiveness and expect to be written in Book of Life for good.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for complacency. The work is not done; equality has not been achieved.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for prejudice and hatefulness. Simply not uttering hateful words is not enough – acting out of prejudicial beliefs, with unholy motivations is even worse.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for selfishness. As the income gap between “haves” and “have-nots” grows exponentially, the descendants of American slavery continue to struggle to catch up.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for failing to live up to our values and ideals. Social justice and equality have been transmitted from our most ancient roots – the Torah commands “Justice, Justice shall you pursue”, and still we avoid the work it takes to make a just and equitable society.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for continuing segregation – in our neighborhoods, social circles, work places and schools. Desegregation laws were one thing – integration is another.
We have sinned and we ask forgiveness for believing that we have fulfilled our obligation to righteous action by helping the needy in developing nations. At the same time, our inner cities and poor communities languish in poverty.
This year, we pray not only for forgiveness from these sins, but even more, for the wisdom, courage and generosity to work to advance “the dream” of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. May this Elul and this 50th anniversary signal a new era for our nation and for us, each more complete in righteousness.
We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.
The words of this song reverberated in my head on Friday night as I attended a service in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Both men are being remembered this weekend. Though from very different traditions, they became friends and fought for justice and civil rights together in the sixties.
The power of their work and the words they preached hold a special significance for me this year. Earlier in the day on Friday, I attended a meeting about female rabbis and their job placement issues. Last spring, all rabbis faced a very difficult job market, but women, older rabbis, and single rabbis had especially hard times finding jobs. Congregations gravitate towards male rabbis in their thirties who are married and have young children. The meeting I attended was to help brainstorm ways to cut through this narrow image of what a rabbinic leader looks like. Many ideas were shared; one was to have a “Diversity Shabbat” during which time congregations would learn about women rabbis. I interjected “and gay rabbis too” another woman said, “and single rabbis.” “Well, wait a minute” a voice said, “I don’t know that we want to lump together women and gay rabbis. A gay rabbi can hide that he or she is gay on a resume, but a woman can’t. We need to stand up for ourselves and protect our interests.”
I was shocked by this response. The Conservative Movement only recently decided to ordain openly gay rabbis, and it is still controversial in some circles just as women’s ordination was almost twenty years ago. (And some will argue still is.) However, I strongly believe that once the Movement decides to ordain a particular class of rabbis like, women and gays, then the Movement must support all of its rabbis and help them find jobs. For a woman rabbi, herself a minority to stand up and say that we should not be concerned with the plight of gay rabbis is abhorrent to me. We are all in a very small boat together. If we do not protect and stand up for each other, then we are all going to sink. Dr King’s famous line: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” speaks to me loud and clear.
Add to this that the meeting took place in a congregation in Bergen County New Jersey. Over the past few weeks four synagogues in the county have been vandalized. In the last event, a rabbis home was firebombed while the rabbi and his children slept inside, just as black activists homes where firebombed in the south in the sixties. Luckily the rabbi and his family escaped with only minor injuries. http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news/local/new_jersey&id=8498756 As a result of this criminal activity police are actively patrolling the streets around every synagogue in Bergen County.
Seeing a police car sitting outside of both the synagogues I attended this shabbat was at once reassuring and anxiety provoking. The anxiety came from the fact that the police felt we needed protection, and then, the fact that they were there was reassuring. It was a strange mix of emotions. I would rather the need for them to be there did not exist at all.
But there is a need. There is still a need for Jews to be protected in this country. There is still a need for African Americans to treated equally. There is still a need for homosexuals to be seen as created in God’s image like every other human being. And there is still a need for women to fight for their rights. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!”
On this day when we remember the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King we need to stand up and fight for justice, for equal treatment, equal opportunity, and equal pay. We cannot let minorities turn on each other as they fight over a very small slice of pie. And we cannot let hate and fear take over our communities. I hope you take some time today to both remember and to take action. What injustices affect your life? Start there and then work to help others.
We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, Deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.