Just in time for this weekend, The Maccabeats, a Yeshiva University-based a capella group, left behind its usual Jewish setting of lyrics, subjects, and New York or Israel backgrounds for something seemingly very different. They joined forces with Naturally 7, an African-American a capella group, to cover James Taylor’s song “Shine A Little Light” on the site of the Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorials. You can watch the video here. I say seemingly different because there is much about the effort that is consistent with Judaism.
These weeks, Jews are reading the Book of Exodus in our liturgical cycle. Right now, we are moving from the ten plagues to the Exodus itself. Is it a coincidence that this story will be the focus of study and sermons right as we Americans commemorate MLK’s birthday? Jewishly, there are no coincidences; God’s “personal supervision” hashgachah prateet, challenges us to find the meaning of this fateful concurrence. In the soaring rhetoric of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, there is much to match the Song of the Sea sung by Miriam, Moses, and the Israelites after their safe crossing. The Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom serves as such a strong basis for hope that a Negro spiritual “Go Down, Moses” has even worked its way back to Jewish Passover celebrations. From Moses’s prophetic voice to MLK’s prophetic call, the human aspiration to be free resounds.
It is little surprise then that The Maccabeats and Naturally 7 would eventually work together on a project like “Shine A Little Light.” This weekend is a time to “recognize that there are ties between us / . . . Ties of hope and love” to quote the song. With MLK’s dream not yet fulfilled and the American dream in question for so many, the call to freedom still speaks. And yet, that divine pronouncement of the worth of each individual is, today, only a whisper.
In the last year, I have been drawn to the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates. A number of my colleagues describe him as a contemporary prophet, especially in his book Between the World and Me. In an early sequence of the book, he contends with the emphasis on freedom of the spirit in America’s Biblical and civil rights narratives. He asks, “how do I live free in this black body? It is a profound question because America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of me.” In his articles for The Atlantic, Coates has extended this bodily emphasis to survivors of rape. His argument is that for all our hopes and for all our progress towards equality, we have many counter-narratives that embed “animus” that “plunders the body” of the oppressed.
Today, I fear, we need more than songs and speeches. We need a movement to freedom that focuses also on the body. Whether it be race, sex, or gender, we need to acknowledge that our attempts to judge each other “by the content of [our] character” fall flat if we forget the pain that the bodies of others have endured. As a white Jew, I get a pass on much of that pain, and yet I recognize, too, that the Nazis developed extensive theories about the Jewish body that made it easier to destroy those bodies. I don’t know how to free the bodies of the oppressed in our society. I do wonder, though, if empathy is a key.
The prophet Elijah, who is also said to be the one to announce the coming of the Messiah, tried to relive Moses’s experience at Mount Sinai. He failed to find God’s voice in the wind, in an earthquake, and in fire; he heard God’s voice in the sound of silence. Silence has a sound when two people sit together, awkwardly or lovingly. Perhaps, this weekend and going forward we can hear God’s still, small voice when we stop judging character and instead listen to the many ways someone else is afraid for their body, for their life, and begin from there to free ourselves, soul and body, into a better world. May You “Shed a little light, oh Lord / So that we can see.”