Rabbi Karen Citrin
January 17, 2014
A little over fifty years ago, a Baptist minister preached this message, “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 mountaintop… 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.”
These words, spoken by Martin Luther King Jr., in his final speech in Memphis before he was assassinated, should sound familiar. His message embodies the prophet, Moses, who spent most of his life guiding the Israelites from slavery to freedom, only to die on a mountain top, looking at the promise of a future his people would attain. King frequently invoked imagery from Exodus, the second book of the Torah, when speaking about civil rights.
Rabbi Micah just chanted the Ten Commandments from Exodus, the core of our faith which informs our long-standing commitment to a more just society. These fundamental ethical laws guide us to treat all people in our lives fairly and honorably.
Each year, many Reform congregations across the country observe Martin Luther King Day by participating in Shabbat Tzedak: Celebrating Civil Rights and Social Justice. This year, Shabbat Tzedek, a Shabbat of affirming our commitment to justice for all people, falls this weekend, as we look to commemorating the legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday. Shabbat Tzedek honors the life and work of Martin Luther King, and more broadly, honors the Civil Rights Movement.
This past summer marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream speech.” Let’s take a moment to remember King’s words:
“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”… I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character… I have a dream today.”
It is a little known fact that Jewish activists represented a disproportionate number of white people involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s. Of all the volunteers who headed south at that time, approximately 1/3were Jewish, although Jews made up only 3 percent of the population.
Reverend King affirmed, “I solemnly pledge to uphold the fair name of Jews. Not only because we need their friendship, and surely we do, but mainly because bigotry in any form is an affront to us all.”
There was a famous friendship between Martin Luther King and one Jew in particular, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland. He grew up poor, but his parents always slipped an extra coin in his hand, to give to someone in greater need than himself. Abraham grew up delighting in the excitement of Jewish study and the beauty of God around him. He thought about becoming a rabbi, like his father. Abraham studied in the university in Berlin around the same time that Hitler became the leader of Germany, and laws began to change. Much like African Americans in the south, Jews were no longer welcome in many public places including universities. During the height of World War II, Abraham Joshua Heschel became one of a handful of rabbinical students brought over to America by the Reform Seminary, the Hebrew Union College. He was saved, but most of his family perished in the Holocaust.
During the ‘60s, Heschel marched all over America speaking out for peace and equal rights. Referencing the Torah he said, “God did not make a world with just one color flower. We are all made in God’s image.” Rabbi Heschel joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the frontlines of his 1965 March on Selma. They prayed together and they marched together. Shortly after returning from the march, Heschel wrote to King the following message: “The day we marched together out of Selma was a day of sanctification. That day I hope will never be past to me – that day will continue to be this day.” And later on, Rabbi Heschel reflected on the spiritual significance of social justice. He wrote, “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
Have you ever felt like your legs were praying? Your arms, your hands? Maybe your hands helped to feed people who are hungry, or your arms carried lumber to build a home. Your heart held the pain of another. Maybe your legs walked or ran for a good cause. Have you ever experienced a moment when belief and yearning and doing come together as one, when you are actively doing God’s holy work on earth? Heschel believed that true prayer combines mind and heart, belief and action.
When King was assassinated, Heschel was invited by Mrs. King to speak at his funeral. Heschel spoke of his friend, “I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the influence of Dr. King.”
Today, we are living in this future. We continue to march in the footsteps of Heschel and King. We continue to pray with our feet.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed many forms of discrimination and segregation, and was drafted in part at the Religious Action Center, the Reform social justice arm in Washington D.C. But 50 years later, we continue to confront our own civil rights challenges. From protecting voting rights to criminal justice reform, from ensuring equal treatment for LGBT Americans to affirming the rights of the disabled, there is still much more work to be done. That day will continue to be this day.
That day continues this week, right here in Oklahoma. It was with great joy and pride that I awoke to the front page of the Tulsa World two days ago. The paper featured the hot off the press news that a Tulsa-based federal judge on Tuesday ruled that Oklahoma’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Front and center was a picture of lawsuit plaintiffs Gay Philips and her partner, Sue Barton, and Mary Bishop and her partner, Sharon Baldwin, sharing a champagne toast at the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center in Tulsa. And then there was a picture of the map of the United States, showing the approval for same-sex marriage in Oklahoma by federal court ruling, on the heels of Utah last month.
The message declared by U.S. Senior District Judge Terence Kern sounds remarkably like the words of King and Heschel. Kern spoke out saying, “Equal protection is at the very heart of our legal system and central to our consent to be governed. It is not a scarce commodity to be meted out begrudgingly or in short portions. Therefore, the majority view in Oklahoma must give way to individual constitutional rights.”
The issue of same sex equality here in Oklahoma and across our country echoes similar core issues we faced around race equality in our country years ago. Jim Crow laws existed here in Oklahoma and Oklahoma passed voter registration laws that prevented African Americans from voting.
Seventy percent of Oklahomans supported segregation, the same percentage of Oklahomans who voted in November 2004 to add a ban on same-sex marriage to the state constitution and prohibit the benefits of marriage from being given to unmarried people. This comparison would seem deflating, except that the change in perception of generations can give us hope. Take Reconciliation Park in downtown Tulsa, memorializing the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The park now stands as a testament and a reminder of our collective vision for a more just society. It reminds us that history marches forward, equality will reach Oklahoma once again. As Jews, we know what happens when the tyranny of the majority trounces the rights of the minority.
In the meantime, we can continue to live and act according to our Jewish values of social justice. While the Reform movement affirms individual autonomy and affirms that we are entitled to our own opinions and views, our movement also guides our communal belief and practice.
As Rabbi Sherman has taught and demonstrated here at Temple Israel, the Reform movement embraces the equality and sanctity of same-sex marriage. Marriage is an evolving institution, and one that at its core affirms a loving, faithful, and committed relationship between two human beings. A same-sex relationship of this kind is, in my mind, no less holy than a heterosexual one. We are all created in God’s image. I had the honor of officiating at a same-sex marriage in California, and hope to one day do so here.
We are all part of the civil rights struggles of our day. In the words of King and Heschel, “This too is God’s work. That day will continue to be this day.” May our feet keep praying.