Rabbi Lerner’s Game Changing Speech at Muhammad Ali’s Funeral

Michael Orion Powell-Deschamps


Something really incredible happened at the funeral of Muhammad Ali. Ali was a known associate of the Nation of Islam in his earlier years and could have veered toward anti-Semitism due to some of those tendencies within the organization. The fact that he requested in his will that Rabbi Michael Lerner, the rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in Berkeley, California and the creator of Tikkun magazine, a renowned and beloved Jewish and interfaith magazine, speak at his funeral suggests he did not.

And speak Rabbi Lerner did. He did not shy from either his Jewish heritage or faith one bit during his appearance. His thick curly hair was unrestrained, with his yarmulke and his tallit unapologetically apparent. He said he spoke as part of the diaspora of American Jews – while also proclaiming solidarity not just with African Americans but also with Muslim Americans, a broad swath of people who are about as representative of Islamic terrorists as white men are for the various sick shootings we hear about in the news (in fact, likely less so).

“We know what it is like to be demeaned,” he said. He then led in to a denunciation of the continued and seemingly unending occupation of the Palestinian territories. He then went on to praise the genesis of his friendship with Muhammad Ali, which brought him to that pulpit, which centered on their solidarity in opposing the Vietnam War. Being Muslim or Jewish – or African and European for that matter – didn’t keep Ali and Lerner from knowing and respecting one another.

Lerner’s speech was fiery and declarative – declaring that the way to properly honor Muhammad Ali in 2016 was to be Muhammad Ali. That means taking a stand against the social evils of our modern time, which are as bad, if not worse, as what the United States faced during the 1970s. He was unrelenting – calling for a basic minimum income and a serous drawback of mass incarceration and empire, while also citing the institutional racism that continues to afflict black Americans, who often face penalties for things that whites get away with.

He then alluded to Hillary Clinton prevailing as the next president of the United States, proclaiming that she should create a constitutional amendment that would remove money from national and state elections and fund them by the state.  This was followed by a proposal for a “Global Marshall Plan” and a call for joining his “Network of Spiritual Progressives.”

I worked for Rabbi Lerner and have been to his house. His synagogue services were the first in which I felt intensely involved, having grown up in the Christian tradition. My internship at Tikkun was very formative. I have “Tikkun Olam” tattooed on my left arm in its proper Hebrew and I considered some of Rabbi Lerner’s books among my most prized possessions.

Rabbi Lerner’s speech at Ali’s funeral was both miraculous and inspiring in so many ways. Lerner is building on the momentum of Latin American figures like Pope Francis by engaging religiosity and spirituality with an unapologetically radical and inclusive message.

On a personal level, his speech was a momentous relief. Over the years, my friendships and relationships with black friends have become extremely strained. I am of Jewish ancestry on my father’s side. I have an exotic French last name and tan, olive skin, along with hair every bit as mangled and curly as the Rabbi’s. I am regularly asked where I am from – if I am Latin American or Middle Eastern. I think I’ve been pegged as a Syrian refugee by some.

All that comes to a halt with black friends. While I’m seen as brown by most of the world, suddenly I am “white” with even black friends who have known me a long time. This distinction and perception creates skepticism toward me. And, while I know where this skepticism is coming from, its presence makes it difficult to have a healthy and productive relationship, both personal and political. At the same time, while initially disagreeable, being pegged as “white” when most of society doesn’t see me that way makes me wonder how isolated many African Americans feel, even after the election of a black president.

Rabbi Lerner is well aware of this dynamic – as well as both racism amongst Jews (there have been many cases of Ethiopian Jews receiving discrimination in Israel, a supposed place of sanctuary) and amongst blacks themselves. (In fact, Ali’s Islamic faith began with the Nation of Islam, whose long time leader Louis Farrakhan is a known anti-Semite.) Lerner helped discover Cornel West and wrote an entire book with him called Blacks and Jews: Let the Healing Begin, in which precisely these issues were hashed out.

Jews and other people of color of good will are friends of the African American community. Solidarity is something that we together have to strive for and it requires both of us, not just me and not just the “other” – whoever that is, to understand the experiences of one another and the future we hope for.

Liberation theology came out of a brutal and ugly period of transition in Latin America – the 1970s and 1980s were not a good time to live in El Salvador, Chile and many other vulnerable Latin countries. I think very few reading this would have a hard time denying that the United States is transitioning toward something potentially as horrid. The optimistic hope would be that figures like Rabbi Lerner can give us something that liberation theology provided the strained poor of Latin America and deliver us from the misery and self-destruction of hate.

Thank you, Rabbi Lerner, for carrying the lantern in our present darkness. Let us pray that others also find light.

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