Keynote Address for Martin Luther King, Jr. Interfaith Service

Delivered January 19, 2003, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Thank you, Rev. Walker. What a blessing to be introduced by a dear friend, whom I respect and cherish as a partner in the religious life of this San Antonio community that we both love.

I must say, though, that at first I felt a bit odd about being introduced on my own pulpit. Usually, when a guest speaks here, I would be the host, introducing the guest. As I reflected, though, I realized that we at Temple Beth-El are only the physical hosts today. Spiritually, though, we feel like the honored guests today, so grateful to share this House of God and this pulpit with those of you who are truly the hosts of this Martin Luther King Interfaith Service. We appreciate your leadership, Dr. Abdo, and the good work of your committee, including our very own Temple member, Judy Lackritz, who has been so central to the arrangements for today. I feel privileged to share this pulpit with all the men and women of faith who join us here, and particularly my colleagues in ministry, Dr. Walker, Dr. Jemerson, Dr. Kenneth Allen and Dr. Carlton Allen.

If I may, I would also like to express gratitude to Temple Beth-El Sisterhood, which will host the reception after today’s service. Our Women of Reform Judaism have received countless opportunities for service lately, and they always say “yes” with extraordinary generosity. Our congregation has had a busy weekend. With construction still underway, we have just moved back into our Temple facility in the last week. Until just a few hours ago, the Temple had been filled by 250 high school students from across Texas and Oklahoma, here for a weekend conclave, which began only minutes after the workers finished putting up the wallpaper in the Barshop Auditorium. Our custodial staff and our Temple Administrator, Iris Berman-Smith, have had less sleep than a father with a two week old baby. Nevertheless, they worked tirelessly to assure that everything would be just right for this afternoon. Their effort was nearly superhuman.

Isn’t that what brings us here today, after all? Superhuman effort. I’m talking, of course, about Dr. King, but our shared heritage and tradition of superhuman effort goes back long before the twentieth century.

We begin with Abraham, commanded by God to get up and go, to leave his country, his native land, his father’s nation, to go to a place he did not know, and to become a blessing there. The ancient Rabbis asked: “Why does the Bible use language that seems to be redundant: his country, his native land, his father’s nation? Wouldn’t one of these terms have been sufficient?” Ah, but Genesis is teaching us something very important with all these words. At the age of 75, Abraham not only had to leave the physical place where he lived. He was also commanded to leave his comfort zone. He was instructed to challenge the way things had always been. He was obligated to change the world. Superhuman effort was not an option for Abraham. God required it of him in the twilight of his years. And Abraham responded: “Here I am.” Abraham answered God’s call. Abraham changed the world.

That superhuman effort has the lot of my people, time and again throughout our history. On March 31, 1492, the King and Queen of Spain issued a decree, that all Jews would be forced to convert to Catholicism or leave the Iberian peninsula four months hence, on the 31st of July. Many did convert. After all, they and their ancestors had lived in Spain, in peace and prosperity, for more than 600 years. Could they really be expected to leave, just to maintain their religion? And yet, thousands upon thousands of Jews did leave Spain. They abandoned their ancestral home. They departed the only place they had ever known. They went to lands they had never seen. And they became a blessing. Bible study, art, and commerce all flowered, in Turkey, in the Land of Israel, in the Netherlands, in the places where the Jews of Spain fled. Some of them became part of the first Jewish community in the New World, in a place called New Amsterdam, the town we now call New York. These brave souls changed the world.

Sixty years ago, the greatest monster of all human history, Adolph Hitler, arose with a plan of diabolical genius. He would solve all the problems that plagued Europe, by ridding the world of its Jews. Not only in Germany, but throughout Europe, millions collaborated with the Nazis, rounding up the local Jews, to send them to their deaths. Millions more averted their eyes, pretending not to see the evil around them. Only a tiny minority made the superhuman effort to become rescuers. These Christian men and women risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors. Too often, these rescuers, too, were murdered in the process, along with the Jewish men, women and children they were trying to save.

About fifteen years ago, my mother and her partner traveled around the world, photographing and interviewing those Christian rescuers, who were still living at that time. They were a diverse lot: some religious, others quite secular; some faithful, others deeply cynical; some rich, many more of average means and some desperately poor. And yet, they all shared something in common: They did not consider themselves to be heroes. They all said that they had done what any normal person would do under the circumstances. They thought that no ordinary human being would stand by while a neighbor was murdered. The trouble was, the rescuers were wrong. Millions of so-called normal people did stand by, or worse. Only the superhuman among them, the rescuers, stood up for humanity. Though they did not know it, the rescuers were heeding the call of the Rabbi of old, who said: “In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be a human being.” The rescuers were superhuman, just by being human.

The only real allies these rescuers had were each other and a handful of European partisans. Lest we forget, though, they also had the United States of America, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. The greatest nation in the world, our own nation, stood up to Hitler and defeated him and his willing executioners. And yet, at the same time, our nation was, in many ways, far from great.

Ordinary human beings did not speak out for racial integration, not in the schools, not in the neighborhoods, and not in the armed forces. “Normal” white human beings did not say to black Americans: Sit down here next to me at the movie theater; let’s change the world together. Ordinary white human beings did not refuse to patronize restaurants that would not serve an ordinary black human being. “Normal” white human beings did not protest the vile treatment of African American military personnel in so many ordinary American places.

What America needed was superhuman effort, men and women who would risk their lives to change the world. America needed Rosa Parks. America needed those three “ordinary” young men – black and white, Jewish and Christian – who went to register African American voters in Philadelphia, Mississippi. America needed Malcolm X. America needed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Abraham before them, each of these men and women left their comfort zone. Like the Jews of Spain before them, they heard God’s command to leave the only place they had ever known. Like the rescuers of the Holocaust, they were human beings in a place which lacked humanity. Though many of them lost their lives, they became a blessing. These men and women changed the world.

Superhuman effort was taken here in San Antonio, too. I think particularly of my predecessor in this pulpit, Rabbi David Jacobson, of blessed memory, who worked tirelessly alongside Bishop Jones and Archbishop Lucey, to integrate our city without violence. Appearing to be fearless, they walked into segregated restaurants with African American friends and colleagues, sat down, and asked to be served. Sometimes, they sat for a very long time. Perhaps their lives were not grievously in danger, but their ministries were at risk, their livelihoods could be challenged. Their efforts seem so ordinary to us now. Surely, they did not see themselves as heroes. And yet, the throngs around them were not in agreement with them. Surely, their efforts too were superhuman. Like Abraham before them, Rabbi Jacobson, Bishop Jones and Archbishop Lucey heard God’s command to bring a new message to the world. Like the Jews of Spain before them, these towering religious leaders chose faith in God over the prejudices of their own time and place. Like the rescuers of the Holocaust, they were human beings in a place which lacked humanity.

In our own day, challenges yet remain. Let us not think that the death of Jim Crow has made America a thoroughly just land. Let us not imagine that legal integration has ended racial discrimination. Let us not pretend that our nation is without its injustices.

In America today, people of color are denied opportunities, while the national propaganda insists that they are the beneficiaries of so-called “quotas.”

In America today, children born to poverty are offered inadequate medical care, substandard schools, and meager housing support, while our leaders insist that we will all benefit if wealthy individuals and corporations get a break.

In America today, a war has been declared on women, who may soon be stripped of their reproductive freedom, at the same time that safe and responsible sexual protection is vilified.

In America today, driving while black can be a crime, no less than flying while Arab or working while an immigrant or breathing while gay, and yet we are told that these groups must not be given the supposedly special rights they demand.

In America today, members of religious minorities are subjected to prayers and music in the public arena which exclude us, but the conventional wisdom is that the majority is under siege.

In America today, the death penalty, immoral under the best of circumstances, is meted out inconsistently, while too many live in the fantasy that lethal injection can keep us safe.

In 2003, let America move away from injustice, just as Abraham left idolatry behind.

In 2003, let America move toward honesty, as the Jews who left Spain valued their religious integrity over lip service loyalty to the land of their birth.

In 2003, let the religious people gathered here, of every faith, live in the tradition of the rescuers of the Holocaust, who took risks to do what was right.

Then, may we all be heirs to the tradition of Dr. King. Then, may we be worthy successors to Dr. Black, to Rabbi Jacobson, to Bishop Jones and to Archbishop Lucey. Then, may we all be human beings, even in a place which lacks humanity, even in the greatest nation on Earth.

God bless the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. God bless the superhuman efforts of all who went before us, who strived for nothing more than to be human beings. God bless the Untied States of America.