An Edah Editorial
By Rabbi Yehudah Mirsky
Bringing Dr. King into the Beit Midrash
Oddly, or perhaps not, for a product of the Orthodox yeshiva
world, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., profoundly shaped my religious life.
His life story, with all its achievements, failures, complexities and wonders,
is, as are the lives of all spiritual giants, its own text and source of teaching.
Lets look at three particular themes that speak to me in his thought:
nonviolent struggle, the meaning of pluralism, and living Scripture.
In a 1956 sermon, Dr. King said: In your struggle for
justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate
him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let
him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself.
Nonviolence is not pacifism, but a form of struggle, one, which
asserts a human bond between the two parties to a conflict, including the oppressor.
In nonviolent struggle, one individual madein the Divine Image, holds a mirror
up to another, his oppressor, and forces him to acknowledge his own acts of
injustice, the self-destruction of his own Divine Image, the ways in which by
oppressing others he destroys himself.
This sense of witness is crucial to the Jewish concept of martyrdom,
the sanctifying witness of Gods presence, even to ones oppressors.
Thus the struggle of sanctifying the name of God begins with a struggle with
oneself, to realize ones own Divine Image, a challenge, we might add,
greatly sharpened by Jewish statehood.
At the same time, where the oppressor refuses to recognize
the others basic humanity, nonviolence is a recipe for suicide
as Martin Buber pointed out on his response to Gandhis suggestion that
Jews undertake passive resistance to Nazism. When the oppressed refuses to see
the oppressors humanity all that is left is force. History will judge
the Palestinians to have made a tragic error in never even trying the path of
nonviolent resistance in their struggle with, of all people, Jews.
Dr. Kings attempt to cross multiple lines of race, culture,
religion, black and white, rich and poor, Jew and Christian, East and West,
did not entail any surrender of the idea of universal moral standards. To the
contrary, it was precisely his faith in a divine morality that enabled him,
compelled him, to reach across those boundaries.
Dr. King decried midnight within the moral order
lose their distinctiveness and become a sullen shade of grey
wrong are relative to likes and dislikes
Yet, he said, faith
in the dawn arises from the faith that God is good and just. When one believes
this, he knows that the contradictions of life are neither final nor ultimate.
In his Nobel Prize lecture he called for an all-embracing, an unconditional
love for all men
of that force which all of the great religions have seen
as a supreme unifying principle of life.
In his Christian idiom he spoke of love; a Jewish voice might
speak more of the universal justice that, as Hillel taught the gentile who asked
for the epitome of Torah, is the practical meaning of Love thy Neighbor.
Either way, we have here a pluralism that asserts strong moral claims, including
respect of others, grounded in a powerful belief in God. We need not be scared
of asserting that some things are indeed true, if that truth is grounded in
humility and charity, which are the only ways we can stand in the presence of
The Rabbis of the Talmud read themselves and their lives into
the Bible by reading one Biblical text in light of all the others, exploring
connections between past, present and future that weave all of scripture into
a whole. By contrast, Rev. King stepped into the Bible by reading it in the
immediate light of ones own experience. That very experience, above all
of Exodus redemption, was the template for the very real redemptions to come.
King says that the very concrete struggle between Egyptians
and Israelites is the revelation of the struggle between good and evil throughout
human history and of goods ultimate triumph, now, as then. By his reading,
"And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the seashore." (Exodus 14:30)
means that As we look back we see
there is a Red Sea in history
that ultimately comes to carry the forces of goodness to victory, and that same
Red Sea closes in to bring doom and destruction to the forces of evil.
He opened himself to the Biblical text with a breathtaking
immediacy and moral passion. Thus in his 1963 I Have a Dream speech:
No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice
rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
(Amos 5:24). In his astounding Ive Been to the Mountaintop
sermon, delivered the night before his murder, Moshe stands alongside every
man of faith who knows that from a distance you will see the Land,
and there you will not go (Deut. 32:52) and knows he must bring
his people there nonetheless.
Withal, Dr. King wasnt a rabbi. He would have been the
first to acknowledge that Judaism has its own Torah, its own particular forms
of knowledge and action, and that a vague universal goodwill is no substitute
for the stubborn articulation of a traditions own selfhood (indeed he
was himself the product of a rich tradition of African-American spirituality
and preaching). Yet the addition of his voice to the blessed cacophony of the
Beit Midrash, the House of Study, can perhaps bring us one step closer to the
freedom which, we read in Tractate Pirkei Avot, (6:2) is the gift to those who
preoccupy themselves with Torah.
Rabbi Yehudah Mirsky served as an official in the US State Department, is
a fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem and is a Doctoral Fellow at