visions of freedom and justice

Tonight was the eighth annual MLK Shabbat at Sixth & I. (I didn’t know it had been going on that long; I thought I had gone to one of the first, in 2006.) Held in conjunction with the Turner Memorial AME Church, this is, hands down, my favorite Shabbat service each year.

Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel march in Selma.

The service commemorates both the federal holiday dedicated to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. One of the most influential Jewish theologians of the 20th century, Heschel marched with King in Alabama in March 1965. He famously wrote, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

Every Jewish social justice activist knows this story. We are taught about Heschel as much as young black kids are taught about King. We aspire to be like Heschel the way they want to be like King. We know Heschel’s words about Selma as well as they know King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

And, I imagine, we ask ourselves, “Can I be as brave as Rabbi Heschel?” as much as they ask themselves, “Can I be the next Dr. King?”

The service is a mix of a traditional Jewish Friday evening service with pieces of African Methodist Episcopal worship: The Howard Gospel Choir sings; the Agape Liturgical Dancers perform; the Senior Pastor preaches. And in between we say Shehecheyanu, the Sh’ma, and the V’Ahavta.

I can’t adequately describe the power of this service. I alternate between goosebumps and tears — and I feel like my feet are praying as I walk home. I love the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service: It is real and spirited and inspiring and beautiful. But I wish I could go every week to a Shabbat service with the Howard Gospel Choir. And communal prayer should always end with “We Shall Overcome.”

Tonight Pastor William H. Lamar IV spoke. My mouth was literally agape by the end. (My friend Bert asked afterwards if I had taken notes during his talk: “You have to learn how to do that when you’re a rabbi!”) A self-professed “King-ophile,” Pastor Lamar talked about his desire to remember the living, breathing legacy of Dr. King, instead of the ossified version enshrined in the memorial on the mall. He cited Cornel West’s warning not to “Santa Clausify” the civil rights leader: We have, in other words, turned him into a cartoon — one that teaches us to ignore much of what he stood for, because what he stood for remains such a threat to the political establishment in this conservative country. Dr. King was not afraid to speak truth to power, and he sometimes focused on issues that his community thought didn’t pertain to it (the war in Vietnam, for example). But as we all know, Dr. King believed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pastor Lamar noted that being a leader sometimes means betraying your tradition and your people — to move them away from prescriptive views.

I love this service because it represents the best of what Judaism can be: pluralistic, visionary, radical, inspiring, and insistent on our obligations to one another as human beings. In the words of Rabbi Heschel:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: