Jewish American and African-Americans, are both diaspora peoples. We are both people living in exile whence we came. As Jews who do not live in Israel, our diaspora has lasted since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70. However, our first taste of diaspora came in 586 BCE when the First Temple was destroyed and we were forced into exile into the Babylonian kingdom. Despite the fact that Cyrus the Great came along half a century later and let us return to the land of Israel, some of us stayed. We became another kind of Jew, diaspora Jews whose identity was forged more by custom, ceremony, values and law than geography. As a result, it is the Babylonian Talmud, the Babylonian compendium of commentary on the 613 commandments in the Torah and the commentaries on the commentaries, which became the backbone of Jewish jurisprudence.
The Babylonian Exile forced us to come face-to-face with something with which we previously had no need to contend: the reality of being Jewish in a non-Jewish host culture. Certainly, a good deal of this had to do with day-to-day custom but more-so it would appear in legal matters, particularly when there was a disparity between the way in which Jewish law views a particular matter compared to the way the host government saw things.
For several hundred years, the Jews lived fairly autonomously in Persia. Things changed somewhat in the latter part of the 3rd century BCE. As a result, Samuel, the Jewish leader of the Persian Jewish community, promulgated a consciousness that the Jews must be reconciled to the government, obeying its laws and paying the imposed taxes as long as they were fairly and equitably administered. Samuel’s perspective is summed up in the Talmudic phrase dina de-malchuta dina, essentially meaning that the law of the land is the law. Since his was a view strongly influenced by the geopolitical conditions of his time, especially his personal friendship with the Persian King, Shapur I, dina de-malchuta dina was tweaked over the centuries by generations of later rabbis but the basic principle has remained a part of Judaism.
Similarly, for the African-American community, yours, too, is a community that was forced into diaspora. For you, you came here via the horrors of the Middle Passage and, upon landing, relegated to slavery. My ancient ancestors were brought to Babylonian involuntarily. Likewise, your ancestors are the only group who DID NOT come to this country by choice. African-Americans, like the Jews of ancient Persia, had to reconcile themselves to certain aspects of the overall American reality. Still, you did that in ways that you made your own. The African-American church, the Black church, is unique. It’s beautiful, strong, powerful, wondrously musical and lyrical and the place where African-American values are kept alive. There would have been no Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. without the Black Church.
I remind you of the apocryphal story of my senior colleague, Rabbi Harvey Fields, who, while a rabbinical student here in Los Angeles, was assigned to pick up Dr. King from the airport and take him to a speaking engagement. Along the way, Dr. King informed Rabbi Fields that he was intending to begin an organization to concretize the movement for civil rights and the working title was the “Southern Christian Leadership Conference”. Ever aware of and sensitive to the support of other communities, especially the Jewish community, that were enabling his work, Dr. King asked young Harvey how he thought the Jewish community would respond to the use of the word “Christian” in the title of the conference. Harvey Fields, who would later make interfaith relations a hallmark of his rabbinate, replied, “It will be fine, Dr. King. That word is authentic for you. It’s whence you come. The word “Christian” won’t affect our involvement with you or the Civil Rights Movement.”
When the sixth annual celebration of Dr. King’s birthday by Macedonia Baptist Church and Beth Shir Shalom commenced at my synagogue on Friday night, our Pastor Scott was on fire! Depressed, inspired, exhausted and made determined by his participation in the protest against Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be the next Attorney General, Shane Scott was impassioned about what our response to this nomination and other actions by the transition team should be, must be. During his preaching, the pastor referred to Donald Trump as “your President-elect”. Some in the congregation took umbrage at that assumption and shouted out, “He’s not my President-elect!” Wisely protecting the religious non-profit status of both Macedonia Church and Beth Shir Shalom, Pastor Scott did not respond specifically to those protestations. I guess he left that to me.
Donald J. Trump is my President-elect, not because I agree with anything that he has thus far proclaimed to be his intentions for the policies and direction of this country, the often hateful and offensive ways in which he has said them and the values they represent, but rather because: Dina de-malchuta dina, the law of the land is the law. The transition between Barack Obama’s administration and the incoming one will be peaceful, as all the previous transitions in this country have been. But I am not at peace with it. I say dina de-malchuta dina not in a defeatist sense. Personally, I’m not defeated. I can’t afford to be; we can’t afford to be defeated. There’s no time for it. It’s a waste of our energy.
Diaspora peoples are survivors. We have to be. We have no choice. For Jews, the possibility of returning to Israel is relatively recent in our history and only a minority of us have taken advantage of it. Like the ancient Jews of Babylonia, for the great majority of us, we have made a life in diaspora. Unlike our ancestors, we refer to the United States as our country. This country does not belong to the President. For the next few days, America does not belong to President Barack Obama; Barack Obama belongs to America. I do. We do. Being an African-American or Jewish-American is being a kind of an American, not the other way around. As African-Americans and Jewish-Americans our individual and mutual experiences in this country fuel us with a passion to ensure that those experiences, and our values, the values of embrace, inclusiveness, justice, fairness, kindness, equity, and peace, are prioritized as our duly-elected representatives, make their decisions and take their actions.
Dr. King and his dear friend, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, were kindred spirits. They expressed themselves in similar ways, ways that articulate some of what our communities have in common. In the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King wrote: “One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering, and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: ‘My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.’”
Dr. Heschel said: “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
Neither Dr. King nor Dr. Heschel thought of prayer in a passive way. Dr. King prayed: “…We thank thee for thy Church, founded upon thy Word, that challenges us to do more than sing and pray, but go out and work as though the very answer to our prayers depended on us and not upon Thee.”
And Dr. Heschel said: “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”
Today, for the next four years and beyond let us pray and let us walk together!