MLK Day thoughts: Heschel, King, Hamas and Obama
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in Pasadena, CA. He serves as National Secretary of Brit Tzedek V’shalom, the largest grassroots Middle East Peace organization in the country.
In every generation, if we are lucky, there rises to the top of our collective human existence, a voice; a voice that captivates us, motivates us, inspires us and moves us toward the greater good; a voice that calls on us to hear the Divine angels inside of us and love one another, care for one another, treat one another with dignity, compassion, respect and equality; this voice cries out from the wilderness of our lost humanity, and calls us back to the central focus of our existence: to create a world of peace, justice and fairness for all. We listen for these voices; we need this voices. This weekend we honor two great voices of our recent generation, voices that started alone, each strong, unique, and purposeful, yet in the end, found harmony together for a short period, joining with a chorus of other great figures, calling for justice and peace in their time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose yartzheit, the anniversary of his death, we observed this past week, and Rev. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we observe this coming week, were such voices. These were voices that changed hearts, moved minds, and created a pathway of hope for the next generation; what we have done with that pathway is a mixed bag, and we will examine both sides of the bag a bit in this short exposition.
To state the obvious: Tuesday’s inauguration is a ringing success for the work of Dr. King, and our country should be proud and in awe of the progress we have achieved as a nation to see an African American be sworn in as president. My prayer is that he listens deeply to the voice of Dr. King, a voice that called for nonviolence and diplomacy, a voice that sought to love, not hate, embrace, not isolate, share, not hoard, live in harmony, not dissonance. This is a new beginning and we are facing a potentially very different dawn. And yet, the irony is, the other side of the bag, the fact that we still mistrust one another, seek to destroy one another and solve our problems in a solely militaristic way, this side can and might overrun the side that calls for justice and peace. We can’t know right now which side of the bag will succeed; we can hope and pray. The fact that King’s 80th birthday is the day before Obama is sworn in is a fact of rare, historic import, a total coincidence of the calendar, and we are witnessing it. Lets pray the glory of the moment has a chance to take root.
Rabbi Heschel wanted us to find God in each moment, to see wonder and experience life as a great mystery, filled with love, compassion, glory and joy. Later in his life, he married his passion for God and theology with his prophetic understanding of “holy work,” truly seeking to emulate the great visions of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah, speaking truth to all the powers, while calling on us to recognize and grow humble before the Greatest of All Powers, to quiet our own voices of cynicism and intolerance and listen for the voice of justice and righteousness. He and King understood that the weapons of violence, even if they were written about in the Bible, were not the highest form of human expression. Heschel was not a pacifist by any means, and while it is very hard to discern what he might be saying about the current situation in Israel and Gaza, in a short email exchange with his daughter and my close friend, Dr. Susannah Heschel, she said that there is no doubt her father would be appalled by the violence taking place in the Middle East right now. She reminded me of an essay in her edited work, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, that Rabbi Heschel, during the Vietnam war, called for a “military mashgiach,” an office of moral and spiritual counsel that would oversee and implement the already existing rules of war that Heschel saw being violated in Vietnam. How prophetic! Would that we had that office today, both here in America, and in Israel. And while Israel has one of the most morally and ethically based militaries in the world, we all know that war may bring out the worst in us and the more spiritual oversight, the better.
And I would certainly love to talk to King about his thoughts on Hamas as an enemy in regard to nonviolence, as his writings on Israel were incredibly strong and supportive, unequivocally for Israel and her right to defend herself. And yet, in a letter to the president of the Jewish Labor Committee, in September 1967, Dr. King wrote:
“Israel’s right to exist as a state is incontestable.” He then added, almost prophetically, “At the same time the great powers have the obligation to recognize that the Arab world is in a state of imposed poverty and backwardness that must threaten peace and harmony.”
Referring to the stake U.S. oil companies have in the Middle East, Dr. King went on to note that “some Arab feudal rulers are no less concerned for oil wealth and neglect the plight of their own peoples. The solution will have to be found in statesmanship by Israel and progressive Arab forces who in concert with the great powers recognize fair and peaceful solutions are the concern of all humanity and must be found.” (Article by Stewart Applebaum, President of Jewish Labor Committee, quoted from www.rac.org)
Not knowing how these two great thinkers would be responding today, how they would be leading their respective peoples and how they would be collaborating, I can only speculate that these great voices for peace and justice, voices that stood against the tide of public opinion in their day, would be calling us toward peace and justice today. In regard to the current bloodshed between Israel and Hamas, I support an end to the violence, an immediate ceasefire, and a return to the statesmanship Dr. King called for in 1968. These voices inspire me to speak today, to raise my voice, to heed the call of the Bible to “not stand idly by.” (Lev. 19:16)
And so, what are we to do with the feelings of rage, anger, despair and hopelessness that leads us to support attacking others, that leads to a violent response to violence? As I said, I don’t know what King would have said on this current conflict, but I do know what he said about his people’s own conflict with history, with injustice. At the Lincoln Memorial, in his now epic speech, he told his people and all of us, “… there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.” (“I Have a Dream” speech) With a voice like none other, with a message like none other, he inspired a generation to “meet physical force with soul force.” What an image, what a message, what a challenge. And that is the mixed bag of his legacy: we are much better at quoting his words than employing them into action. Again and again, in the face of violence and hatred, we answer with violence and hatred with the words of King on our lips. Heschel reminds us that “God has a stake in the life of every human being.” Every human being. Not just Jewish or American human beings, not just Arab or Muslim human being, not just Christian human beings, but all people. God cares about us all. And so must we.
In the last few weeks, when people ask me how I can continue to go forward with a message of peace, a message of hope, in light of the conflict and despair facing my brothers and sisters in Israel, I am torn. On the one hand, I don’t really know how to go forward. On the other hand, I don’t really know how I can’t. What is the alternative? A life of bitter endings, brutal destruction, mutual annihilation? That is not the life I want for my children, for the children of Israel, the children of Gaza, the children of the world. And so I dig deeper into my soul, I cry, I ask God for strength, I think of Abraham who stood for justice and boldly challenged God in a moment of brazenness unmatched in the Torah and I go forward with a message of peace. We will figure this out, we will. It may not be right now, but it will never be if we give up hope, lay down our dreams in a field of war and death. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Heschel, King and all of us: together we can and will build a different future.
I close with a story that Heschel tells in his essay, “A Prayer for Peace.” A seven year old child was reading the binding of Isaac in religious school. His heart started to race as he read the tale, an internal sobbing with sympathy for Isaac. As Abraham rose the knife above Isaac, the young boy’s heart froze in panic. When the angel finally called out to Abraham and told him to lower the knife and not harm the boy, our seven year old couldn’t take it anymore and burst into uncontrollable tears. His teacher asked him, “Why are you crying? You know that Isaac was not hurt.” The boy said to him, still weeping, “But, teacher, suppose the angel had come a second too late?” The teacher comforted him and calmed him by telling him that an angel cannot come late.” Heschel ends the essay by saying, “An angel cannot be late, but humans, made of flesh and blood, may be.” (Moral Grandeur)
Let us face this challenge of making peace, and all the great challenges that face us in the coming days, months and years, with the urgency of the angels. And may we not come too late.