The Talmudic Foundations of Social Justice-Learning in Honor of MLK Day

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Torah readings from the first chapters of Exodus always coincide with Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. As we read about the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt and becoming a free nation, the U.S. celebrates a man that helped redefine social justice and break the chains of segregation and hatred.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a deeply religious man and the civil rights movement was, essentially, a religious movement – one that started in churches and was led by ministers. Although this movement was based in Christianity, its roots are found in the Hebrew Bible and other foundational texts of Jewish tradition.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day in the U.S., let’s have a look at a couple of sugyot (Talmudic passages) that address social justice and human dignity:

First, let’s take a look at Tractate Sukka Daf 49 Amud B and the accompanying commentary as shown below:

sukka 49b- mlk

Rabbi Elazar quotes a verse from Proverbs 21:3 stating; “to perform the charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than an offering.” Using this verse as evidence, Rabbi Elazar argues that acts of charity and justice are more important than bringing sacrifices to the Temple. Adding to the verse, he argues that acts of kindness are even more important than charity and justice. The Noé Edition Koren Talmud Bavli adds a “Notes” section below the translation that expounds even further. Acts of kindness are also categorized as a mitzvah and the results are immediate and can never be misdirected or misused in any way. In short, kindness always pays off and charity and justice are important Jewish values (even more so than bringing sacrifices to the Beit HaMikdash!)

Let’s move to our second source from the Talmud. Below is an excerpt from Tractate Berakhot Page 19 Amud B:

brachot 19b - mlk

notes 19b - mlk

The above sugiya (Talmudic discussion) contains a debate between Rav bar Shaba and Rav Kahana regarding the importance placed on human dignity within Judaism. To accommodate learners at all levels, The Noé Edition Koren Talmud Bavli includes a note on the side of the page about the background of the principle of “deviating” in relation to the concern for human dignity. With this background information in mind, the central debate becomes clearer and more readily understood. In the end, even Rav Kahana agrees that the concern for human dignity supersedes that of even rabbinic decrees. Judaism stresses the importance of upholding an individual’s dignity above all else.

The Duhaime’s Law Dictionary defines human dignity as “harmed by unfair treatment premised upon personal traits or circumstances which do not relate to individual needs, capacities, or merits.”  Dr. Martin Luther KingJr.’s ongoing legacy is that every human life is sacred and must be protected from injustice a lesson that can be extracted directly from our own sacred texts. On the day we are meant to honor Martin Luther King’s legacy and reflect on his contributions to American society, let us study these text passages in his memory and take on actions that reflect justice, kindness, and upholding of human dignity today and always.

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