Rabbi outlines King’s connections to Judaism
LIBERTY — Perhaps one of the most enduring and endearing photographs of the civil rights era in the 1960s is of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel and others locking arms and wearing Hawaiian leis during the early part of the five-day, 54-mile Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights.
Many say the iconic image snapped in March 1965 represents a level of unity that crosses not only color lines, but religious ones.
The photograph also aligns with a main theme inherent in a presentation Rabbi Seth Sternstein gave Sunday morning at Temple El Emeth, 3970 Logan Way, about the Jewish perspective on King’s values, work and legacy.
Sunday also marked what would have been King’s 94th birthday.
“We should work our utmost to bring good into the world as soon as possible,” Sternstein, Temple El Emeth’s rabbi, said. “We don’t wait for goodness.”
An estimated 60 people attended Sternstein’s lecture, a thrust of which was to note that despite having been steeped deeply in Christian theology, King also had a prophetic vision of the world that aligned with that of many Jewish prophets.
Heschel was an expert on Jewish prophets. He and King became good friends, Sternstein said, noting that King’s outlook and oratory, as well as many of the ideas and values he adopted and espoused, were borrowed from Judaism.
The two men also were arm in arm while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 in Selma, and stood next to each other Feb. 6, 1968, at Arlington National Cemetery in silent protest of the Vietnam War.
On April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., King delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York City, titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” in which, in part, he denounced the war and its effects on the economy and programs to help those in poverty at home.
In 1940, Heschel, who was born in Poland, emigrated to the U.S. after having been trained as a scholar in Germany.
Many Jews see the civil and human rights leader through the lens of Jewish Scripture, the effects of which were instrumental “in creating a great man,” he said.
For example, King adhered to the idea that it’s futile for religious leaders to encourage people to be well spiritually while ignoring or downplaying their physical needs. He used the phrase “ayn kemach ayn Torah,” which loosely means “without food, there’s no spirituality,” Sternstein explained.
“A preacher who is concerned about the soul and not the body is not much of a preacher,” he said, adding, “King intrinsically understood this. He was expressing what rabbis knew 2,000 years ago.”
During his talk, Sternstein also examined King’s famous saying that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. A question to ponder is whether it bends naturally or is encouraged to move by the goodwill of humanity, he explained.
“Some say good will ultimately prevail, but how? Diving fiat? Time? God?, or are we obligated to shape it and urge it into bending in a timely basis?” Sternstein said.
He also praised King’s ability and gift for oratory to propel people into taking action aimed at addressing and tackling societal wrongs. It’s imperative that Jews and others recognize and appreciate the contributions Jewish values had on a man “who himself was not Jewish, but brought so much goodness into the world,” Sternstein continued.
He had that ability to move people, no question about it — and he did it with nonviolence,” the rabbi said.
Sternstein added that if King were alive today, he probably would still be preaching the Gospel, bringing further good into the world and doing his part to advance the “brotherhood of humanity.”