Following Dr. King's example
The Jewish sages taught that prophecy disappeared with the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE. And yet there are those unusual times when one hears a voice and a vision that is so empathic with human suffering, so insistent in its call to justice, and so courageous in its confrontation with comfort and power, that we indeed sense we are hearing the prophetic.
Such a voice was that of Martin Luther King, Jr. "Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel?" asked Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the author of the great work on the prophets, as he was introducing Dr. King to a group of Rabbis. "Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United Sates of America."
Where is such a sign today? As we continue to battle with the darker side of our history, and as we continue to pursue policies that result in poverty at home and suffering abroad, we need to listen to Dr. King's words now as much as ever.
Dr. King spoke at a time not so unlike today, a time when America was waging another war of choice about which Americans were becoming increasing uneasy - Vietnam. While many of his colleagues urged him to focus his attentions on race alone, he increasingly saw connections between issues of race, poverty, and war. In 1967, he addressed an audience at the Riverside Church, saying, "There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube."
Can we imagine what Dr. King would say about the Iraq war today? What would he say about the increasing gap between rich and poor? What would he say about statistics showing the health care and education of African Americans below that of the general population?
Dr. King spoke truthfully and powerfully. He taught us what true religion was. He, like the prophets, could not abide by pious prayers on the one hand and unjust actions on the other. Dr. King knew his Bible. He knew the words of Amos, "Hear this word you...who defraud the poor, Who rob the needy... Spare Me the sound of your hymns,/ And let Me not hear the music of your lutes,/But let justice well up like water,/Righteousness like an unfailing stream."
Dr. King spoke prophetic truth with a faith and a love that made him one of our greatest Americans. While the sages say prophecy ended with the Second Temple, the Talmud teaches that we all have the potential of being b'nai neve'im - sons and daughters of prophets. May the prophetic spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. inspire the inner spirit of all of us to be b'nai nevi'im, children of prophets, and urge our country to do what is just and right.
The Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, of which Rabbi Broitman is the spiritual leader, will host a Sabbath service honoring Dr. Martin Luther King this Friday, Jan. 12 at 5:30 pm.