Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Preacher’s Preacher

Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Congregation, Chicago

Good evening to all of you, it is my extreme delight and an honored blessing to be in your midst this evening to speak about two men that I believe, were indeed the Preacher’s Preacher and the Rabbi’s Rabbi. Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel came from two very different worlds. Rabbi Heschel was born in Poland in 1907 and lived through the Holocaust and God blessed him by providing a way for Rabbi Heschel to come to the United States after losing most of his family to the ovens of Nazism. Dr. Heschel served as the Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary, located in New York City from 1945 until his death in December of 1972. His world was one of academia and scholarship, which is evidence in the many books that he penned during his illustrious career. I never met Rabbi Heschel in person, but I do believe that I met him through reading his wonderful writings and studying with one of his students in the presence of Rabbi Dr. Byron L. Sherwin, one of my revered teachers at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, in Chicago, Illinois. Like Rabbi Heschel, Rabbi Sherwin is a professor of Jewish Mysticism and Holocaust Studies at Spertus and until recently Dr. Sherwin served as Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Spertus.

The world of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was thousands of miles away from the world that Heschel knew in Europe, however, the world of Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a world filled with violence and dehumanization of African Americans, in America itself. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a gifted student and he demonstrated exceptional intellect at a very early age. Martin Luther King graduated form Morehouse College at the age of sixteen-years-old and went on to study Theology at Corzine College in Boston, Massachusetts, where he earned his doctorate in Theology.

How did these two men from so radically different worlds, find themselves united together in the struggle of Black folks in America, looking for civil rights and equal justice in the eyes of the law of our land. I believe for Heschel their coming together might be summed up in this quote from Rabbi Heschel, “A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.” Alternatively, perhaps, if we look at another saying of Rabbi Heschel, when he said, “Racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for the minimum of reasons.”

In the case of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I believe that we can get a sense of his character, in a sermon that he gave titled, “What does it mean to serve?”. Dr. King spoke saying that, “It’s important to want to be great, because greatness is wonderful. It’s important to be smart and to know your subject verb agreement, it’s important to attend college and learn the theories of Plato and Aristotle, but it is more important to serve, through a soul that is generated by love.”

I see in the words of both Heschel and King a common theme, that theme is love of humanity, and having the inner strength to stand-up, to any system, which causes us to coward away from truth and righteousness.

Many of the leading clergy in the African American community assisted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s work in the city of Chicago and his work in Chicago was the impetus for the development of another Jewish organization, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. Rabbi Robert J. Marx founded the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, in 1964 to fight against racism and anti-Semitism in Chicago and its surrounding communities. Dr. King and Rabbi Marx worked together to fight against unfair housing practices, inadequate education in the Black community and other social accommodations that the African American community was being excluded from sharing with other communities in Chicago. Rabbi Marx answered the clarion call of Rev. King and he was apart of the Selma march.

As a young man, I remember attending a rally held at Soldiers Field in Chicago were Dr. King was the speaker. I will never forget the look of determination that I saw in the Dr. King’s face as his car passed our group. I gained a great deal of inspiration from that day and reading about the marches led by Dr. King in Chicago in communities like Cicero, Illinois and Marquette Park, which was the home of the American Nazi Party. Dr. King’s march in Marquette Park was filled with hatred and violence. Dr. King would later say that he had never experienced the amount of hatred anywhere in the south that he felt in Marquette Park on that day. In fact, the synagogue that our congregation is now housed within had been a designated safe house for Dr. King. However, the violence was so intense that the march never made it to Kedzie Avenue.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was also a student of the philosophy of Gandhi. Gandhi led the non-violent movement in India against the oppression of the British government. I believe that Dr. King also applied the words of Gandhi in his philosophy. According to Gandhi, there are Seven Sins of Modern Man; Wealth without Work; Pleasure without Conscience; Knowledge without Character; Science without Humanity; Worship without Sacrifice; and Politics without Principal.

In many respects, our society is still guilty of these sins, because we want everything and we do not want to sacrifice anything.

The work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is not finished we have much work left to do. We need each other as African Americans and Jews, to continue the task before us. We need a National Health Care Policy that will serve every American. We need more than empty words concerning the education of our children, other than leaving no child behind. We need politics that really exclude race that truly judges every candidate on the content of their character.

Therefore, I repeat the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, on the eve of that terrible day in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968 when Dr. King said, “Well I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountain top. I won’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I might not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So I am happy tonight. I am not worried about anything. I am not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

So I ask you tonight are we afraid to lock arms together again, in a struggle that still goes on for Justice and Equality. Will we speak up and stand up to any force that will keep all Americans from partaking in the promises that our country has to offer? We cannot wait we must act to keep the dream from only being a dream and make the dream a reality.

Shalom Alikeium, Peace be unto you and God bless all of you.

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