Rabbi Lerner Invited to Speak at Muhammad Ali’s Memorial Service
It has been several decades since Rabbi Lerner worked with Muhammad Ali in the peace movement challenging the Vietnam War. The US government indicted both of them for their nonviolent actions against that war. But that was many decades ago. So imagine his surprise to receive a call on Sunday morning from Muhammad Ali’s family who invited him to be a speaker at the funeral/memorial ceremony this coming Friday in Louisville, Kentucky.
Although Ali was famous as the boxing heavyweight champion of the world, he was most beloved and respected because he gave up that title and refused to serve in the war in Vietnam. The federal government indicted him for his principled stance. He made a beautiful statement explaining his reasons for resisting the draft that you can see below. Ali was one of the most courageous war resisters and certainly the most well known African American to stand up against the war except for Martin Luther King Jr.
When his family called Rabbi Lerner to invite him to represent the Jewish people at this memorial service (there will also be a Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist speaker, along with former President Clinton), they said they wanted him to speak because of his role as a leading Jewish spokesperson for social justice and peace in the U.S. They told him that Muhammad Ali and his wife had been fans of his for many, many years (Lerner hadn’t heard from him since 1995 when Ali sent a note saying that he appreciated the book co-written as a dialogue between Lerner and Cornel West called Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin).
Rabbi Lerner’s comments on this: “I was very amazed to hear from him then, and all the more amazed that his family remembers me two decades later. I never know who reads Tikkun, my articles in other social media, my books, or has seen or heard me on television or radio, and what impact (if any) my ideas have on people. So it was beautiful to hear that he and his family had been following my writing all these many years, had been moved by them, and had intended to make contact much sooner but never did. I feel deeply humbled by this honor and moved to know that my ideas touched Muhammed Ali.
“American Jews have played an important role in the continuing fight for social justice and peace, so our presence in this memorial will be a testimony to the very many in our community who celebrated Muhammad Ali’s courageous fight for peace, social justice, and a world in which love and generosity wins out over fear, hate, militarism and domination. As a religious Jew and rabbi I wish to honor this comrade in the struggle for tikkun olam–the healing, repair and transformation of our world. And as a representative of the Jewish world I want to reaffirm our solidarity with Muslims around the world who are experiencing a growing Islamophobia that blames the billion and a half Muslims for the crimes of a small fraction of Muslims–the kind of hatred that we Jews have known all too well in our history.
Ali said “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” Tikkun is a Hebrew word that means healing, repair and transformation. So in the spirit of Muhammad Ali, we at Tikkun magazine (tikkun.org) say that the whole global economic and political system of selfishness and materialism must be replaced with a system based on love, generosity, social and economic justice, environmental sustainability and as my mentor at the Jewish Theological Seminary Abraham Joshua Heschel would say, awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur and mystery of the universe. So don’t waste your time on this planet fighting the small battles–put your life energies and money into fundamental systemic transformation. Don’t be ‘realistic’–go for your highest vision of the world you want, rather than settle for that which the 1% and their many faithful servants in the media, academia, and politics tell you is possible by their criterion of realism.
“And as chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives I want to affirm our commitment to the wellbeing of all Muslims on this planet, as well as all people of all faiths and secular humanists as well. We wish to pay honor to the Muslims of the world as they begin today the fast of Ramadan, and join with them in mourning the loss and celebrating the life of Muhammad Ali, a great fighter for justice and peace. Peace be upon him, peace be upon the Prophet Muhammad, and peace be upon all of humanity.”
Rabbi Lerner will also talk about the experience of the memorial during his synagogue’s celebration of Shavuot (the Jewish holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai) on Sunday, June 12 (details at www.beyttikkun.org).
Here was what Muhammad Ali said when explaining why he would refuse to serve in the war in Vietnam:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform
and go 10,000 miles from home and drop
bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam
while so-called Negro people in Louisville are
treated like dogs and denied simple human
rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from
home to help murder and burn another poor
nation simply to continue the domination of
white slave masters of the darker people the
world over. This is the day when such evils must
come to an end. I have been warned that to take
such a stand would cost me millions of dollars.
But I have said it once and I will say it again. The
real enemy of my people is here. I will not
disgrace my religion, my people or myself by
becoming a tool to enslave those who are
fighting for their own justice, freedom and
equality. If I thought the war was going to bring
freedom and equality to 22 million of my people
they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join
tomorrow. I have nothing to lost by standing up
for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve
been in jail for 400 years.”
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