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Martin Luther King Is My Rabbi

Jonathan Kligler
January 15, 2017

by Rabbi Jonathan Kligler

From the online newsletter and Torah commentary of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation

VA’YAVO MOSHE V’AHARON el Par’oh va’yomru eilav, “Ko amar YHVH, Elohei ha’Ivrim: ad matai may’anta lay’anot mipanai? shalach ami vaya’avduni!”

So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says the Source of Life, the God of the Hebrews: How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve the Source of Life!” (Exodus 10:3)

Our Torah tells an ageless and inspiring story. Every year when our cycle of readings brings us to the telling of the Exodus from slavery, I am stirred once again by the central message of our people’s journey: we affirm that there is a Power inherent in the fabric of the universe that insists that human beings be free from subjugation and tyranny. We affirm that there is a moral law imprinted in the “DNA” of human affairs and even in the tapestry of all Creation that insists that all humans bear the imprint of Divinity, and therefore must be treated with dignity and respect. We know that human beings, in our lust for power, can willfully ignore this moral law, harden our hearts and become like Pharaoh. It is our task as human beings not to succumb to our own lust for power and control that would lead us to subjugate others to our will. As Jews we are called upon to serve, bear witness to, and align ourselves with the God of Freedom.

These truths can become buried, however, in the struggle for survival. In the face of all the Pharaohs throughout history that have tried to hurl our babies into the Nile, to this very day, we Jews can close ranks and read the story of the Exodus as merely a promise of our own survival, rather than as the bearer of soaring truths about the human condition. In the rote repetition of the tale, we also run the risk of becoming inured to its deeper message. How do we awaken again to the universal message of our story?

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. showed me the way. The Africans who were captured from their homes and forced into slavery in the New World were also forced to adopt their masters’ religion. But subversively, as these African slaves listened to their masters’ Bible, they heard their own lives in the story of the slaves in Egypt. The seeds of their own hope and liberation were embedded in the very heart of the teaching that their oppressors had forced upon them. When they sang “When Israel was in Egypt land... Let My people go”, they made the ancient story vibrate with new life and urgency. Dr. King fully understood the inspiring power of the story of the Exodus, and the sustaining hope it gave to African Americans. He embraced the prophetic voice of justice that is the centerpiece of the Hebrew Bible.

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, was replete with Biblical references:

Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children... [And] we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream...

Dr. King is quoting the Prophet Amos, who spoke these words in the name of God to the community of Israel in the 8th century BCE:

I loathe, I spurn your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies.
If you offer me your burnt offerings or your grain offerings I will not accept them;

I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings.

Spare me the sound of your hymns and the music of your lutes.

Rather, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream! (Amos 5:21-25)

Then Dr. King quotes the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3-5):

I have a dream that one day “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

As Dr. King drew on the Hebrew prophets for his vision, he awakened me to the power and message of my own heritage. And as he invoked the journey of Moses and the Children of Israel toward the Promised Land as the template for his own people’s struggle, I recognized that journey as being our own, in every generation. On April 3, 1968, the night before he was murdered, Dr. King etched this indelible image with his final words:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m 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 may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I thank Dr. King and all of the African Americans who continue to struggle against the ingrained racism of American history and life. I thank them for inspiring me with their fortitude and continued determination against the external and also the internal, warping effects of oppression, a struggle that I support with all my strength. But I equally thank them for taking my ancient story and reminding me that it speaks to us today, and every day. For this is the plain instruction of the Passover Haggadah: “In every generation every person must view him- or herself as personally leaving slavery in Egypt. And anyone who elaborates upon this story is to be praised!” I thank Dr. King for bearing witness to the God or Power or Idea that I worship as a Jew and as a human being of conscience:

There is something unfolding in the universe, whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice, and so in Montgomery we felt somehow that as we struggled we had cosmic companionship. And this was one of the things that kept the people together, the belief that the universe is on the side of justice. (The Power of Nonviolence, 1958)

That is why I think of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of my rabbis. May his memory continue to inspire us.

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, leader of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation for more than twenty-five years, is the author of HINENI: Essays and Torah Commentaries from Twenty-Five Years on the Bimah, published by our own Blue Thread Books and Music. Rabbi Kligler is an accomplished musician whose works include Songs of Hope, Love and Courage.