A Time for Righteous Rage (Not Macho Anger): Martin Luther King Jr & the Modern-Day Mishnaic Sage

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January 19, 2014

O Positive Festival. Andy Milford. Detail.

Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage. –Yoma 22b-23a

On the official anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, one might think that I could have found a more appropriate epigram than the one that graces this essay. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind, and I think it appropriate.

“But wait!” you might object along with the anonymous editorial voice of the Babylonian Talmud, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” “This is true,” that same anonymous sage answers, “but it only applies to monetary matters or business dealings or interpersonal relations around material things.” If I ask to borrow your shovel and you refuse, I may not tomorrow refuse to lend you my hose saying: “You did not lend me your shovel.” Nor may I lend you my hose and say: “I am not like you. I lent you my hose even though you refused to lend me your shovel.” In these instances, vengeance is forbidden and grudge-holding is prohibited.

However, there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for it is tar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Sage who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Sage. The Sage who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Sage.

The Prophetic Cadences of Righteous Rage

Around this time every year we memorialize the Martin Luther King who was a peacemaker, a conciliator, a lover and not a hater. In reality, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr was the master of the thunderous cadences of righteous rage.

King preached nonviolence; he lived nonviolence. King had no illusions about the valley filled “with the misguided bloodthirsty mobs.” He agreed with Langston Hughes: “O, yes, I say it plain/ America never was America to me,/ And yet I swear this oath—/America will be!”

Martin Luther King taught that nonviolence is the most powerful weapon we have to transform the world. Because the world is not only created by those with the guns and the truncheons. In his words:

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look easily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

With clear vision and a burning soul, Martin Luther King saw the related ills of racism, and poverty, and violence, and war and called America out for not addressing those ills. With the prophetic cadences of his righteous rage, King walked fearlessly into the forces of evil and did not let the evil of racism hide behind the mask of “our way of life.” He did not let the evil of poverty hide behind the mask of business and capitalism. He did not allow the evil of war to hide behind the mask of anti-communism.

We live in a day when the word of the Lord is rare and prophecy is not widespread. In the place of the righteous rage of prophetic justice we are offered a diet of macho anger masquerading as policy foreign and domestic. Thirty thousand people die every year of gun violence, and yet it seems that the Second Amendment is the only amendment which is inviolable. The rhetoric of “patriots” takes pride in wanton violence.

There are more than 1,000 counties in which one in four children are at risk of hunger, and yet we cut food aid and unemployment benefits. There are still many in Congress who, when given the choice, would rather risk war against Iran than peace with Iran.

One hundred years ago a rabbi from a small town in the Eastern European province of Bialystok railed against the “the heroism of sticking a bayonet into the bellies of people with whom one has no complaint or difference, only in order to ‘find favor’ in the eyes of the masters the commanders and get from them a piece of round tin called a ‘medal’ for ‘dedication.’” Aharon Shmuel Tamares, that rabbi, also challenged “the god called ‘homeland’ and its rites called ‘war’—in which the evil portion of it is greater than the stupidity—which modern man has not abandoned, but rather has left in its place,” Mussar HaTorah VeHayahadut. A century and millions of dead later we are still officiants at the same idolatrous rite.

Are We Earning Our Legacy?

The Jewish community is rightfully proud of the picture of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King and thousands of others into and through the forces of evil in Selma, Alabama.

We must, however, ask ourselves: “What have we done to earn that legacy? Is the Jewish community in the forefront of the fight against racism? Is the Jewish community in the forefront of the fight against gun violence? Is the Jewish community in the forefront of the fight against poverty and for good jobs with dignity? Is the Jewish community in the forefront of the fight against war?”

This anniversary should not be only a time of celebration. It is a time of accounting. Are we still marching with King?

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Cohen, whose most recent book is “Justice In the City: An Argument from Rabbinic Sources,” teaches rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is a board member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice—Los Angeles, and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and a past president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. He was a founder of the Jewish Community Justice Project in partnership with Bet Tshuvah. He blogs at Justice in the City.

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