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Four Lessons in Virtue from Martin Luther King, Jr.

‘I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be’

January 15, 2016
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Every Martin Luther King Day I run into my fair share of articles that make it seem as though the only way for Jews to find a way into the conversation of MLK Day is to throw Abraham Joshua Heschel into the mix. But this entry point for Jewish media has never really sat well with me.

Don’t get me wrong; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a remarkable figure during the Civil Rights Movement. He marched arm in arm with King, among many others, in Selma in March 1965, and he was heavily active in conferences discussing race and religion. In footage broadcast on NBC in 1972, Heschel said: “God is either the father of all men or of no man, and the idea of judging a person in the terms of black or brown or white is an eye disease.”

But this is Martin Luther King Day, not Abraham Joshua Heschel Day, so it doesn’t seem too out of the pale to, you know, ruminate and pay homage to the actual man for whom this federal holiday exists. So: What can we, as Jews, learn from the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rather than looking over his shoulder at the guy next to him? Here’s a short list:

“We should never forget that everything that Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal…”” — Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail, 1963.

This is a particularly ironic quote, written by King as he “legally” sat in an Alabama jail for “illegally” ignoring a court order, which forbade him from holding protests over the treatment of Birmingham’s black community. These words remain relevant in our time because we hold onto and work to preserve the lessons of the Holocaust, many of us descendants of its survivors. This is something we should keep in mind as we regard the uprisings of the social consciousness, namely the #blacklivesmatter movement, conversion annulments, police brutality, Stop and Frisk, and Rabbinate bureaucracy. Only 50 years ago it was “legal” to arrest people for sitting on the wrong seat on a bus. And that just 20 years before that it was “legal” to murder Jews.

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” 1965.

This quote, excerpted from Dr. King’s commencement speech at Oberlin College at the height of the Civil Right Movement, is far more than the standard “we’re all connected” stump speeches that seem to be present at every graduation ceremony. In just this one sentence, King imbues tikkun olam.

Tikkun olam—whether the traditional interpretation of improving the world through performing Torah, or the more recent conception of focusing on social justice—is about doing your part to improve the worldActing Jewishly means improving the welfare of the space we all inhabit. That means working for all people—not only for Jews—to ensure we all have the things we need by advocating for those who don’t. We are not all the same people with the same needs. We exist in different bodies, therefore folks of different races, ethnicities, genders, orientations, and physical and/or mental abilities have unique sets of needs. Sometimes we will not be able to understand them, but nonetheless we need to stand behind our efforts as they demand them. Interpret MLK’s words and ask yourself: How can people “be all in this together” today?

Let’s also not overlook that “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be” part.

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

Gleaned from one of Dr. King’s many interviews, this takes his statement of tikkun olan and ratchets it up a notch by inverting it. And yet again, he delivers a timeless and relevant message: Stop asking: Is it good for the Jews? When we do this, it stunts us as a people. We have taken to looking at issues myopically without looking at their overarching ripple effect, which, in turn, can come back around to knock us in the face.

Remember Proposition 8, back in 2008. It was a California bill that attempted to eliminate the rights of same-sex couples to marry, which was approved with 52 percent of the vote. Although it was later overturned, many religious Jews voted for it in droves because it was deemed “Good for the Jews” for some reason, despite the fact that Jewish law has no purview over non-Jewish marriages, and civil marriages aren’t recognized by Jewish law. Essentially, for Jews, the bill was a non-issue. However, since it reflected some religious sensibilities, some of us injected outselves into that conversation, apparently oblivious to the fact that if we live in a country based on freedom of religion, then we must afford people freedoms accordingly. This is particularly relevant when those freedoms involve bodily choices or life cycle rituals, which is how in 2011, when—bolstered by Prop 8’s freedom-denying precedent—a California anti-circumcision bill was on the docket, it was the largest “I told you so” ever.

“The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam, 1967.

When speaking on the reasons for his reluctance and protestation against the Vietnam War, Dr. King relayed his wainess of those who would claim that their banner is the best, and at worst, that all the other banners need to fall in line, or, at best, that the other banners need not fall in line, or, yet were still clearly inferior to theirs.

This is largely the “on the ground state” of the relationships between American Jewish denominatons. We all have a piece, guys. I’ll say it again: We all have a piece. Dr. King said so.

This article is part of a collaboration between Tablet and JN Magazine, a website “here to change the monochromatic monolithic perception of Judaism.”

MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.