I did not grow up religious. As a result I knew who Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was long before I could read Hebrew, and long before I knew who Rashi, Maimonides, and Rabbi Soloveitchik were. In ninth grade I attended New Rochelle High School, where excerpts of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech were quite literally painted on the walls.
“I have a dream that my four little 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.”
“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”
As a Jew – then secular – in a largely non-Jewish school, I remember the quiet satisfaction I took that Dr. King went out of his way to include the Jew in his historic crescendo.
As I grew more religious, I was surprised by how much attention Dr. King garnered in the Orthodox community. At first, this was a pleasant surprise because it proved religious Jews were not as backward and benighted as has been claimed. I also learned that distinguished spiritual leader and theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marched with the Reverend King throughout the sixties. A remarkable act of spiritual bravery and courage for which he deserves endless adulation.
But then it hit me that there was excessive, flashy pride that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had marched with the Reverend King. On the day dedicated to Dr. King, there was an endless flood of pictures, articles, and reminisces about Rabbi Heschel and his efforts with Dr. King. There was also a deluge of quotes and memes about Dr. King’s favorable views on Israel and Jewish self-determination. For many, it wasn’t Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but Dr.-King-and-Rabbi-Heschel Day or Dr.-King-the-Zionist Day.
It was like someone who can only relate to baseball by asking if Sandy Koufax really was the greatest pitcher ever (he wasn’t). Or someone who views George Washington purely through his “to bigotry no sanction” letter. Or someone whose connection to Shakespeare is a discussion of whether “The Merchant of Venice” is anti-Semitic. Or like when the space shuttle “Columbia” exploded on re-entry in 2003, killing seven brave astronauts, including Ilan Ramon, who was an Israeli Jew. I remember being shocked that schools were running memorial services for Mr. Ramon, but not for the Columbia disaster as a whole.
We must be able to appreciate Shakespeare, George Washington, and Dr. King not merely through the lens of their attitudes towards the Jews, but in terms of their historical contributions more broadly.
I do not know why so many of my associates insist on emphasizing Dr. King’s relations with Jews on a day set aside to commemorating his efforts as a whole. Perhaps it is because people are so proud of their own Jewishness that they can only relate to historical events through that lens. Perhaps it is an act of friendship and goodwill between Jews and blacks, something that is most assuredly welcome. Perhaps it is to prove that Jews are (in modern parlance) “woke” people who believe strongly in civil rights, who participate in public affairs, and are on the right side of history. Perhaps it is to contravene other members of the faith who do not view civil rights as favorably. I do not know, and I welcome answers, since in many cases this behavior is practiced by people whom I respect.
I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t learn about relations between the Jewish and black communities; those lessons are important for historical and current political purposes, especially because – regrettably – these interactions have not always been peaceful.
Let me be absolutely clear that I believe strongly in the distinctiveness and mission of the Jewish people, in the nation of Israel, and in her right to exist in security. I am not, in any way, suggesting that the identity of the Jew be merged into the identity of the nations of world. I am not advocating for the statelessness of the Jew. Quite the opposite. As someone who believes that we should advocate for our own distinctiveness, we should not view every other nation and cause purely through the lens of “the Jewish question.”
When I think of Dr. King, I do not think immediately of his friendship with Rabbi Heschel. My view is as an American who takes great pride and awe in his accomplishments that have indelibly made the United States a greater place. When I think about Dr. King, my thoughts are not merely from the mind of the adult Orthodox Jew that I am today, but from the heart of the schoolboy I used to be, who every day read the words that people should “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
God knows we need that message now more than ever.