Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
MLK, JR & RBG
On Friday night, January 18th, Congregation Beth Israel welcomed to the bimah 83 members of International Voices Houston, under the direction of Mark Vogel. Cantor Star Trompeter led the musical vision for the evening with text that I arranged from the weekly Torah portion and excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches and letters. The effect was more than a well-choreographed service of passion and spirituality, which it was; it was also a tribute to the synthesis of Jewish and diverse cultures and ethnicities that reflect unity in shared hope. Voices, singing in harmony, but also in their respective languages, including English, Hebrew, Spanish, Zulu, and Hindi, amazed and awakened the congregation. Tears, smiles, and wide eyes adorned the faces of men and women of all ages in the congregation and on the bimah.
The energy of the music and text persisted to the very end. Just before Kaddish, the ancient praise to God, we heard the words that Dr. King preached at Ebenezer Church just one month before his assassination. He didn’t speak of the awards and honors he received in his lifetime. Instead, he spoke of the hope to be remembered for his commitment to humanity. No short order, he acknowledged that he was only one man who outlined what the future could look like if we would but learn from his example. He counted on all of us to pick up where he knew, instinctively, he would not have the privilege to continue his calling. Then, when we rose to recite Kaddish, we remembered Dr. King, but we also remembered those of our beloveds who, in their own ways, made commitments to humanity, too. The feeling of connection was palpable. This week, Shabbat nourished the soul.
Three days later, on a long and late flight from New York City to Houston, I did what I often do. I split my three-hour journey into three parts. I finished a book I didn’t have time to read at home; I watched a good movie I didn’t have time to watch at home or in the theater; and, I wrote my weekly blog two days before it was due. I finished reading the tail end of “The Train to Crystal City” by Jan Jarboe Russell, which I’ll review for Beth Israel’s readers group in June. Then I watched “RBG” about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
As a Jew and a rabbi, I was inspired by her young and abiding passion for the rights of all people, which she articulated and championed through her carefully crafted art and skill with the law. What’s more, her carefully crafted focus on equality reflected Jewish ethics at their finest. It’s not just that she came to decisions that meshed well with familiar Jewish interpretations; she also gave time and room for the law, itself, to make an increasingly deep difference for “we the people,” as she explained in the film. So carefully crafted were cases she brought before the Supreme Court in the 1970’s, that she won five out of six of them and unpacked a strategy for serving all people under the law that for too long served only a few.
Judaism, and Reform Judaism, in particular, treats Torah like Ginsburg considers the constitution. That is, Torah and the constitution demand interpretations, which amplify their respective voices in generations they could not have anticipated. The role that Torah and the constitution continue to play in our lives is reflected in the ways we regard them as foundational to the present and future precisely because they are linked to our past. As Jews and Americans, it’s only on their foundations that can we surely build our future.
The parallels between American law and Jewish law are not new. It’s just that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the “Notorious RBG,” is remarkably unique; it’s also that despite her age, she, as she has done since she was a young woman, denies the constraints of reality to reveal what was given by God to her, so that she can reveal what God has given to us all.
Inspired people are inspiring. MLK and RBG inspire us to find God’s gifts to us and ways to use them despite the constraints of our reality. Thankfully, they broke down some constraints and paved the way for God’s gifts to humanity to be revealed in every voice, in every heart and in every hand.
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM every Sunday at 6:45am CST, and he is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights, 2011) available on Amazon.com.