In late August of 1963, before a rapt crowd of 200,000 peaceful demonstrators and a troubled but watchful nation, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Rev. King’s words have quite rightly entered the canon of American Life, our national civil religion… and have been enshrined among the great statements of American political and moral discourse:
“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 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. I have a dream today…
“And if America is to be a great nation,” Dr. King insisted, “this must become true.”
While embracing King’s prophetic leadership, it is critical for American Jews to call to mind the address delivered fully seven months earlier, in January of the very same year and in pursuit of the very same ends – equal justice and civil rights – by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel’s address is far less well known than King’s, but similarly canonical in quality:
“Let us dodge no issues,” Heschel said. “Let us yield no inch to bigotry, let us make no compromise with callousness….”
“Few of us,” Heschel said, “seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking….”
Both King and Heschel explicitly grounded their addresses in the visionary spirit and language of the Hebrew Bible. Rev. King, citing the Prophet Amos (5:24), proclaimed, “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Heschel reflected upon the words of the Shema: “There is,” he said, “no insight more disclosing: God is One, and humanity is one.”
He then articulated a corollary principle: “There is no possibility more frightening: God’s name may be desecrated….” Here, the rabbi-philosopher echoed Parshat Emor: “You shall not desecrate My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people — I the Lord who sanctify you” (Leviticus 22:32).
Parshat Emor provides the moral sub-structure, the spiritual foundation for American’s continuing quest for equal justice under law… and for American Jews’ principled participation in that sacred pursuit: “You shall have one standard of justice… for I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 24:22).
Heschel’s January 1963 address included his commentary on this divine mandate:
“That equality is a good thing, a fine goal, may be generally accepted. What is lacking,” Heschel said, “is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality. Seen from the perspective of prophetic faith, the predicament of justice is the predicament of God.”
Heschel spoke to his 1963 audience of the practical, programmatic, distinctly Jewish communal implications of this principle:
“Most of us are content” he astutely observed, “to delegate the problem to the courts, as if justice were a matter for professionals or specialists. But to do justice is what God demands of every man: It is the supreme commandment, and one that cannot be fulfilled vicariously.”
In light of recent, historic court proceedings, Heschel’s 1963 wisdom speaks presciently — indeed, prophetically – to us almost six decades later:
“What we need,” Heschel said “is the involvement of every one of us as individuals. What we need is restlessness, a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice… Justice, people seem to agree, is a principle, a norm, an ideal of the highest importance. We all insist that it ought to be — but it may not be. In the eyes of the prophets,” Heschel said, “justice is more than an idea or a norm: Justice is charged with the omnipotence of God. What ought to be, shall be!”
On this Shabbat Parshat Emor, with its divine call to equal justice — “charged with the omnipotence of God” — may the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – who spoke and marched together, who worked together, and who dreamed together — be a blessing.
On this Sabbath devoted to the pursuit of sanctity, may we respond to Scripture’s insistent message: The only alternative to equal justice is the desecration of God’s name.
On this Day of Rest, may we be granted the grace of restlessness.
At this critical juncture in the life of our still troubled, watchful, but hopeful nation, let us resolve: What ought to be, shall be!