Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” is understandably the most famous speech given at the 1963 March on Washington. Minutes before King spoke, however, a lesser known figure came before the crowd. He happened to be an immigrant from Nazi Germany. He also happened to be a rabbi. His name was Joachim Prinz.
Rabbi Prinz’s journey to Washington began after numerous arrests and threats of imprisonments led him to leave his native Germany in 1937. When he arrived in America, he mastered English and proceeded to become one of the most eloquent Jewish champions for civil rights.
Judaism’s Most Eloquent Champion of Civil Rights
He combined his commitment to racial reconciliation with resounding support for the state of Israel. These two passions came together when Prinz invited Dr. King to address the American Jewish Congress convention in 1958. This was King’s first address before a Jewish audience, and Prinz was the first rabbi to form a relationship with him. Their friendship helped shape King’s pro-Zionist sentiment.
Prinz’s March on Washington speech directed preceded King’s. This German refugee began with the resounding proclamation, “I speak to you as an American Jew.” He further drew upon his personal history when he said to the crowed,
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those most tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
With these words, Prinz linked the Jewish experience with the African-American one. And he reminded his listeners that silence is deadly. As his colleague Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel later put it, “Not all are guilty. But all are responsible.”
President Obama Recalls Rabbi Prinz
Interest in Rabbi Prinz was renewed earlier this year when President Obama quoted him in a speech honoring Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Speaking to Israelis and Americans, President Obama said, “Rabbi Joachim Prinz was born in Germany, expelled by the Nazis and found refuge in America, where he built support for the new State of Israel. And on that August day in 1963, he joined Dr. King at the March on Washington.”
In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic concept. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.
To that we can all say Amen.
A 13-year old Bar Mitzvah boy in Dallas recently made headlines. In a strident article in the Washington Post, Rabbi David Wolpe criticized the burlesque-themed Bar Mitzvah party thrown for the young man, whom he identified “Sammy.”
“To turn a ceremony of spiritual maturation into a Vegas showgirl parade teaches a child sexualization of spirit. Apparently nothing in our society militates against the narcissistic display of short-skirted dancers ushering an adolescent into unearned stardom,” Wolpe wrote.
He continued with a rhetorical question “I am leery of being too maudlin but really, our ancestors struggled and suffered and fasted and prayed so Sammy could cavort?”
The Call For Self-Examination
Wolpe’s article went viral (at least amongst the Jewish community), as we asked ourselves about the propriety of Bnei Mitzvah celebrations in our communities.
I agree with Wolpe’s central point. Some Bnei Mitzvah celebrations go too far. The purpose of becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is not to throw a big party. It is to read and teach Torah. It is to assert and celebrate one’s Jewish identity. It is to begin to take responsibility for our spiritual lives. When we confuse the party with the purpose, we teach the wrong lessons.
When Words Humiliate
Yet, what bothered me about Wolpe’s article was its vituperative tone and singling out of one young man by name. It felt mean-spirited and condescending toward a thirteen year-old-boy.
“Poor Sammy,” Wolpe wrote. “What remains to him of the small triumphs of life? When he struggles with math and earns a ‘B’ when before he could never do better than a ‘C’ will they purchase an island to mark the occasion? Will he take Air Force One to his prom?”
Is such personal humiliation necessary? Jewish law considers lashon harah, malicious language, among the worst transgressions. We need to be extraordinarily careful with our words. Even if we apologize (which Wolpe has done), we cannot undo them.
How To Make Amends
Words are like feathers. An old Jewish folk story tells of a man who sought to make amends as he neared the end of his life. He recalled many of the awful words he had said to those he loved. He asked his rabbi what he needed to do.
The rabbi instructed him to place a bag of feathers in front of the homes of each person he had hurt with his words. The man did so. He felt good. It seemed like an easy way to make amends.
Then the rabbi told him to go out and retrieve every feather he had placed in front of each home. The man turned white. “That’s impossible,” he said. “They have flown off around the world. There is no way I can get them all.”
“So it is with our words,” responded the rabbi. “They spread out like feathers, and we can do nothing to get them back.”
We need to be extra-careful with the words we say. “Life and death,” King Solomon reminded us, “lie in the power of the tongue.”
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“Without God all things are permissible.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I was recently in the executive lounge at an upscale hotel. After filling my plate with pita chips and hummus, I began nibbling on the way back to my table. A chip (somehow!) fell from my hand. I picked it up and continued walking.
A few seconds later, a server rushed over and began thanking me profusely.
“What did I do?” I asked. “You picked up the cracker and threw it away,” he exclaimed. “You would not believe how many people don’t. Most kick it with their foot, creating more crumbs, and try to hide it under the table.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Picking it up seemed like a natural courtesy. You drop something. You pick it up. Now I was being treated like a saint for doing so. Has civility and manners in our culture really deteriorated to such a point?
Someone Is Watching
Perhaps we need to be reminded of an old Jewish story. It tells of a famous rabbi who hired an assistant to be with him at all times.The assistant had a simple job. Every hour he was to say out aloud, “Someone is watching.” Even if they were alone at night walking, the assistant had to say it.
Through this simple story, the rabbi was teaching us something profound about the role of faith. It reminds us to do what is right, even when no one is watching. God is the voice from outside of us that lives inside of us. When we hear God’s voice, we know we are not alone. We know our deeds matter, even if no one is watching.
As a parent of young children, I struggle to find ways to teach them this lesson. My faith has been the best means for doing so. My Jewish values remind me of what is right and good. Prayer reminds me to pay attention and follow the voice of conscience that I hear, but could easily ignore.
I don’t believe faith is the only way to teach such values. Nor am not saying every religious person has good values and good manners.
Rather, I am saying faith reminds us to take right and wrong seriously, even if those around us do not. It reminds us of what is right and good. It compels us to pay attention and listen to the voice of conscience we hear inside us.
What do you think?
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My teenage students often ask me why we need religion. We don’t need it answer questions about why it rains or why the sun shines. Science gives better answers to those. We don’t need it to explain human behavior or relationships. Psychology gives better answers to those. What, then, is religion for?
I tell them this: Religion helps us answer the most important questions we face. What is the purpose of life? How can it be made meaningful? Why are we here? What does it all add up to?
None of us can ignore these questions. Our lives determine our answer.
We All Worship Something
The late novelist David Foster Wallace put it best when he said,
In the day-to- day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships.
If we choose to worship money and things, there will never be enough. If we choose to worship beauty and sexual allure, we will always feel ugly and when time and age start showing, we will die a million deaths.”
If we worship power, we will feel weak and afraid, and we will need ever more power to keep our fears at bay. If we are not careful, we can slip into this kind of worship, little by little, day by day,… or we can choose to worship, to give our life to, to sacrifice for, to live and die for something else, something good and authentic and important. It’s up to us. We get to decide.
Indeed. We get to decide.
Question: What do you worship?
You can leave an answer in the comments below.