An American rabbi who protested alongside Muhammad Ali against the Vietnam war in the 1960s has been invited to speak at the boxing legend’s funeral and memorial service in Kentucky on Friday.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor-in chief of the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun, met Ali when the two were vocal opponents of the war. They never saw one another again after that.
Lerner, who lives in Berkeley, California, received a phone call Sunday morning from Ronald DiNicola, president of Muhammad Ali Enterprises, inviting him to speak at the funeral.
DiNicola told Lerner that for the rest of the boxer’s life, Ali admired his work as editor of Tikkun and the author of numerous books.
“I didn’t know that he continued to follow my work; I certainly followed him, what he was doing and the courage he did it with,” Lerner said. “I am extremely honored and extremely humbled.”
I am deeply humbled and honored to be invited to speak at Muhammed Ali's funeral. It has been several decades since I…
Lerner has been in the Jewish spotlight for his stand in favor of the rights of Palestinians and his calls for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.
He has also been highly critical of the anti-religious bias of the secular left-wing, calling on it to address the “spiritual hunger” of Americans as well as their material needs.
Muhammad Ali’s farewell to the world was planned in exacting detail in a thick document dubbed “The Book” by the boxer and his innermost circle.
Its contents will soon be revealed.
“The message that we’ll be sending out is not our message — this was really designed by The Champ himself,” said Timothy Gianotti, an Islamic studies scholar who for years helped to plan the services. “The love and the reverence and the inclusivity that we’re going to experience over the coming days is really a reflection of his message to the people of planet Earth.”
The 74-year-old three-time heavyweight champion, who died on Friday, wanted the memorial service in an arena. He wanted multiple religions to have a voice while honoring the traditions of his Muslim faith. And he wanted ordinary fans to attend, not just VIPs.
He was never downcast when talking about his death, said Bob Gunnell, an Ali family spokesman. He recalled Ali’s own words during meetings planning the funeral: “It’s OK. We’re here to do the job the way I want it. It’s fine.”
The final revisions were made days before Ali died at an Arizona hospital, his family by his side.
Former president Bill Clinton, a longtime friend, will deliver the eulogy at the funeral at the KFC Yum! Center, where the 15,000 seats are likely to be filled.
Others speakers will include representatives of multiple faiths, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Mormonism.
The faith leaders will be followed by Ali’s wife, daughter Maryum Ali, actor Billy Crystal and sportscaster Bryant Gumbel. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Abdullah II of Jordan had been scheduled to speak, but lost their spots because two other speakers will be added later, Gunnell said.
“It’s not about who they are, it’s about the fact that we just don’t have room on the program for them,” Gunnell said, adding that their representatives were “gracious and understood” when informed.
Actor Will Smith, who portrayed Muhammad Ali in the movie “Ali,” and former world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis are among eight pallbearers for the memorial service. Also serving are Jerry Ellis, brother of Jimmy Ellis, who was Ali’s former sparring partner and former world heavyweight champion; and several of Ali’s relatives and a friend from Louisville.
The day before his star-studded funeral, members of Ali’s Islamic faith will get their chance to say a traditional goodbye. A Jenazah, a traditional Muslim funeral, will be held at Freedom Hall at noon Thursday, Gunnell said. It will be open to all. They chose the venue because it seats 18,000 and holds historical significance for the hometown hero. Ali fought, and won, his first professional fight there in 1960.
Ali’s burial will be in Cave Hill Cemetery, the final resting place for many of the city’s most prominent residents. The luminaries include Colonel Harlan Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, whose granite memorial features a bust of the goateed entrepreneur.
Ali’s gravesite will far more subdued, in contrast to his oversized personality and life. A modest marker, in accord with Muslim tradition, is planned, said his attorney, Ron Tweel. He would not say what words will be inscribed on the marker.