This month marks 94 years since the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. and 36 years since we have had a federal holiday dedicated to the highest values embodied by his legacy. Several of his speeches have gone down in the annals of American oratory.
I would like to reflect on one passage from an address he gave on Feb. 10, 1966, at Illinois Wesleyan University and how it complements a teaching from a medieval Spanish sage of my faith tradition — Rabbi Moses son of Nachman, more widely known as (Moses) Nachmanides.
Midway through this talk, Dr. King critiqued those who claimed that “legislation can’t solve the problem that we face in race relations because you can’t change the heart. And so we must rely on education to solve the problem and not even look to any legislation. Now I guess there is some truth in this, at least a half-truth. We realize that if the problem is to be solved ultimately, if we are to have a truly integrated society, men and women must rise to the majestic heights of being obedient to the unenforceable. And I would be the first to acknowledge that. So it may be true that you can’t legislate integration, but you can legislate desegregation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, religion and education will have to do that, but it can restrain him from lynching me. And I think that’s pretty important also. And so that while legislation may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men.”
Coming from a faith tradition that puts great emphasis on the spirit, here Dr. King opines that there is yet a necessary place for the law, at least as an interim measure, even a regrettably excessive one.
Traditional Judaism, of which Nachmanides was certainly a part, finds much of its expression through the idea of Torah — understood here not merely as the Five Books of Moses, but expansively as Jewish law generally — as detailed guidance in how to translate the values of Judaism, that is its spirit, into specific, concrete daily behavior.
Nonetheless, Nachmanides taught the idea that it is possible for one to be a “scoundrel within the limits of the Torah.” Despite believing that Torah was given by a perfect God, Nachmanides nevertheless maintained remarkably that it is possible to follow all the technical requirements of Jewish law while still flouting its spirit.
A clever individual, while still managing to avoid crossing any legal lines, even the boundaries of God’s Torah, can find ways to egocentrically serve oneself immorally at the expense of others.
As a rabbi I certainly believe in the mandate of my tradition to live a life imbued with Torah. Accordingly, I appreciate the lesson from Rev. King that law is often necessary.
Still, I think it is also important to learn from Nachmanides that our behavior will never be thoroughly righteous unless our conformity to the law also comes from a place of sacred values.