Rabbi Michael Lerner, who worked with social justice hero Muhammad Ali in the peace movement against the war in Vietnam, has been invited to speak at the great boxer’s memorial service this coming Friday in Louisville, Kentucky.
While Ali earned fame for his boxing skills and as the heavyweight champion of the world, his legacy is that of a radical revolutionary who fought against the established power structures – a fact made clear when he gave up the title and refused to serve in Vietnam.
Ali’s family called Rabbi Lerner to represent the Jewish people at the memorial service and told him Ali and his wife had been fans of his for many years. There will also be Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist speakers, and former President Clinton is also expected to give an address.
The last time Rabbi Lerner heard from Ali was in 1995 when he sent Rabbi Lerner a note saying how much he enjoyed the book Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin, which Rabbi Lerner co-wrote with Cornel West.
“I was very amazed to hear from him then, and all the more amazed that his family remembers me two decades later,” Rabbi Lerner said in a statement. “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.”
Lerner said he was humbled and moved that Ali and his family had been following his work all of these years and impacted by them.
“I feel deeply humbled by this honor and moved to know that my ideas touched Muhammed Ali,” Lerner said. “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.”
Lerner said he also wanted to use the opportunity as a way to reaffirm the Jewish people’s “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.”
CNN has asked Rabbi Lerner to speak on a show that will be aired at 9 a.m. Friday morning Eastern Daylight Time. He can be reached for other interviews by emailing Leila@tikkun.org or by calling 510-644-1200 (8 a.m.- 5 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time).
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).