This past week, the death of Muhammad Ali dominated our news. He was a multifaceted personality (aren’t we all?) and his philosophies and attitudes evolved and matured over years. After aligning himself with the radical Nation of Islam Ali was known to make anti-Israel and anti-Jewish declarations. In 1980, during a visit to India, it was reported that Ali charged that Zionists “control” America and the world, according to an interview reported in a leading publication in India.
However, Ali mellowed in his later years. In 1996, before lighting the Olympic flame at the Atlanta games, he stated: “My mother was a Baptist. She believed Jesus was the son of God, and I don’t believe that. But even though my mother had a religion different from me, I believe that, on Judgment Day, my mother will be in heaven. There are Jewish people who lead good lives. When they die, I believe they’re going to heaven. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, if you’re a good person you’ll receive God’s blessing. Muslims, Christians and Jews all serve the same God. We just serve (God) in different ways. Anyone who believes in One God should also believe that all people are part of one family. God created us all. And all people have to work to get along.”
In his 2004 memoir “The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey”, Ali reflected: “Over the years my religion has changed and my spirituality has evolved. Religion and spirituality are very different, but people often confuse the two. Some things cannot be taught, but they can be awakened in the heart. Spirituality is recognizing the divine light that is within us all. It doesn’t belong to any particular religion; it belongs to everyone. We all have the same God, we just serve (God) differently…It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family. If you love God, you can’t love only some of his children.”
To me, then, Ali’s lasting legacy is that we all have the capacity to change on the one hand, and on the other, to influence the world to be accepting of those whose beliefs differ from our own.
(Sources for this message came from HaAretz, Times of Israel, and The Jewish Forward.)
May you have a week of blessings, a Shabbat of peace, and a Shavuot holiday of joy!
Rabbi Debbie Israel