We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.”- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963
In the halakhic (Jewish law) world, law can appear to be black or white. Rabbinic doctrines are often a conversation between sages, with opinions going back and forth. The end result is a commonly accepted Halakhic ruling. We treat laws taken directly from our bible, the ones that seemingly lack ambiguity, as straightforwardly black and white issues. Some of these laws are drawn from a supposed ethical way of life. Others are still mysterious in nature. What is the goal of biblical law? Is it to guide us toward a moral and ethical path? To test our faith in a divine being that created us to be a just people? Or maybe the most important role that law plays in our lives is as a reminder–of what life was like before the law, of what it took to create the law, of how we may still be missing the point? As King points out from his Birmingham jail cell, “Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.” And sometimes, the law is meant to evolve over time.
As we reflect on Dr. King’s life this weekend, as we read from Parshat Mishpatim (Laws), I’d like to view our law systems, both our halakhic system and the rights established in the United States, through an evolving lens. We can celebrate how far we’ve come, but we must remind ourselves from how far we’ve had to come. As Martin Luther King Jr. exclaimed to his fellow clergymen: Never forget.
Never forget that we were slaves in the land of Egypt.
Never forget that the first law after our 10 Commandments refers to the treatment of a Hebrew slave. We were slaves, and we were slave owners.
Never forget the stranger, the widow or the orphan, lest God’s anger blaze forth as he puts you to the sword.
Never forget our modern day struggles to help those experiencing social injustice, locally and globally.
Never forget that the corners of your fields should be left for those most in need.
Never forget that the number of those most in need continues to skyrocket every minute.
Never forget that this year marks 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Never forget the groundwork for African American voting rights began with the 15th Amendment, signed in 1870.
Never forget that the United States continues to struggle with voting issues to this day.
Never forget that this year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Never forget that DOMA was signed by a large majority of Congress less than twenty years ago.
Never forget that we promised to “Never forget” following the atrocities of the Shoah.
Never forget that genocide did not die in the gas chambers of Eastern Europe.
Never forget that we may fail our ancestral goals of a messianic age of peace and tranquility.
Never forget it is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to idle from it. (Pirkei Avot 2:21)
Our laws guide us as a piece of history–showing that our moral conscience has evolved over time. They reveal a darker past but a brighter future as well. On this M.L.K Jr. Day, may we never forget Dr. King’s legacy. May we never forget how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.