Martin Luther King Taught That Words Truly Inspire Through Action

Effective Jewish leadership requires not only study and prayer, but action, too.

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The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has always been one of my heroes. From a young age I both appreciated the cause on whose behalf he fought and the way in which he fought - using non-violence instead of armed struggle. On their own, the justness of the cause and the righteousness of the means are enough reason for any person to hold the Reverend King in high esteem. However, today, as I aspire to be a rabbi, I admire King for his religious leadership as much as his civil leadership.

The Reverend King, of course, was joined by other religious leaders who shared his passion for social justice and change. Most famous was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who referred to his marching for civil rights as praying with his legs. Heschel's words have always struck a chord with me, but they have taken on new meaning since I began working as a religious leader. I am expected to help lead people in prayer; because of Heschel, I understand that it means praying with our feet as well.

Both King and Heschel preached the biblical precept of "justice, justice you shall pursue" through their actions. They identified a clear injustice in American society at the time and used their positions of religious leadership to fight against it. Without question, King and Heschel were both men of words. Not only were they both religious leaders, they both held doctorates as well. But while they used the power of their words to inspire, it was the action of their feet that moved so many others to follow suit.

It is through action that we religious leaders have not only the right but the responsibility to affect our society. During the U.S. elections, many rabbis and other religious leaders debated the role that they should play in politics. I agree with my friend and teacher Rabbi Micah Peltz that clergy should not endorse a candidate or a party from the pulpit. On the other hand, politicians play a large role in determining how a society behaves, and our religious tradition teaches us so much about the need to create a just society.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, the spiritual leader of Jerusalem’s Kol Haneshama, a Reform synagogue that emphasizes social action and community involvement. As he proudly showed me a picture of his father, also a rabbi, with the Reverend King at a march, it was clear the extent to which the two men impacted his understanding of what it means to be a successful spiritual leader. Rabbi Weiman-Kelman does not support a political party from the pulpit, nor is he running for public office. Instead, he rallies his community around issues that matter, including positive relations between Jews and non-Jews, treating people with special needs as equals, and providing food and services for the needy. In short, his community is constantly praying with its feet.

Religious leaders have every right to purse an agenda of tikkun olam, making the world a better place, and have an equal right to preach the values they deem most important. But those words need to be accompanied by real actions that demonstrate the realization of those values. United Synagogue Youth, the youth movement in which I grew up, has a society named for Heschel. In order to join the society, members must show a commitment to the three things on which the world stands (according to Pirkei Avot): the study of Torah, service to God — in this case through active membership in a community — and acts of loving kindness. In short, Heschel is memorialized through a combination of study, prayer, and community service.

This is the message that all of us need to take from Heschel and King. Their commitment to learning was impressive; their leadership in prayer was important. However, none of that matters without an equal or even greater commitment to action. King will forever be remembered for his "I Have a Dream" speech. What made that speech so powerful, though, was that he made it during a march on Washington, putting those words into action.

Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.

Martin Luther King Jr. marching in Selma, Alabama, alongside John Lewis, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and other civil rights activists.Credit: AP

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