Martin Luther King and Shlomo Carlebach – getting real about our heroes

Martin Luther King – Latest Findings

We knew there were problems with Martin Luther King and marital fidelity. We just didn’t know how bad they were. And they were not sprung upon us in a “MeToo” age.

But now they have.

Martin Luther King.

The just released detailed study by David Garrow, King’s biographer, of materials gathered by the FBI on King and his private life “poses so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive historical review possible.” 40 extra-marital affairs, sex orgies, and now the discovery of MLK looking on, laughing and offering advice as a minister colleague rapes a congregant – all these somehow turn quantity into quality and require us to revisit what is greatness, and in particular what is tainted greatness.

Some years ago, I convened about 50 scholars of religion to discuss a new category we were developing, “Religious Genius,” a new means of appreciating outstanding individuals across religious lines.One of the candidates who came up across multiple consultations was MLK. Religious communities that were consulted had a feeling of great admiration for him. yet, admiration required hushing up of more than just sexual weaknesses. Our meeting took place in Boston University, where King had received his PhD. However, as I learned from former dean Robert Neville, it has been shown that King plagiarized his PhD. As I also learned from him, this is a matter people prefer to not talk about.

“Religious Genius” – by Alon Goshen- Gottstein

Our global me-too moment is a call for honesty and transparency. But it also places us before the challenge of how to handle truths that are discovered. King provides us with an interesting challenge. He is too well established in American and global consciousness for the good he has done in terms of race relations and nonviolence to be totally discredited. However, what do the new revelations say about him as a religious teacher? Can he still be considered an authentic religious voice?

There seems to be only one way forward – we must grow in our capacity to appreciate the good and bad in people, even teachers, even religious teachers, even great religious teachers – without such complexity totally destroying our view of them. There is something naïve, in a beautiful as well as in a childish way, in our expectation that leaders, especially religious leaders, be perfect. That expectation must be maintained. But our own growth consists also in our ability to make room for the dark side that some great individuals have. Certainly, there comes a point where the bad outweighs the good. However, as far as I can see, private “bad” in the form of sexual weakness and moral laxity can not undo or detract our appreciation from the public “good”, the great public good, that imperfect religious teachers have accomplished. In order to accommodate just such complexity, Boston University’s Prof. Neville proposed we learn to speak of “flawed religious genius”. He had MLK in mind.

Shlomo Carlebach – Latest Perspective

No similar revelations have come to light this week regarding Shlomo Carlebach. Yet, these past days have also been an occasion to reflect upon his legacy. Moshav Meor (or Mevo) Modi’in that he founded and that incarnated his spirit was destroyed last week. Most of the houses were burned to the ground. So was Carlebach’s home. Reports that his library, memorial center and synagogue were spared were seen by some as miraculous. More importantly, the question of Shlomo’s legacy was brought to the fore. Shaul Magid, in the Tablet, seems to support his mother’s quip that this represents the loss of a “way of life”. I am not sure. Shlomo’s legacy is a movement in Judaism. It is hundreds of thousands of lives turned towards Judaism. It is an orientation and a way of practicing Judaism. It is an approach to interpretation. It is a breakthrough in Jewish liturgy and song. And it is also a commune of people who carry forth is memory and his way of life. I pray and believe they will rebuild (why should they fare any worse than Notre Dame of Paris?) But regardless, the legacy lives on in myriad ways.

The biggest threat to Carlebach’s legacy is not the burning down of the moshav. It is all that has come to light regarding his private life and his personal weaknesses – emotional, moral and sexual. These have undermined his credibility as a religious teacher and led to a boycott of his music in some circles.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

I have long considered the analogy between Carlebach and Martin Luther King in this respect. The recent juxtaposition of events that bring to light the memory of these two religious teachers is a moment to consider how we respond to the imperfections in the great religious teachers who have inspired us and made a great difference to the world we live in. To me, boycotting Shlomo’s music is the equivalent of the attempt to cancel Martin Luther King day, or suggesting his Washington memorial be taken down. These won’t, nor will Carlebach’s music cease to inspire the Jewish world. What we need, instead, is the mature response that allows us to see these individuals in their stark reality, greatness along with faults. We can no longer idealize them, as their uncritical spiritual children. Such adulation may only apply to the rarest of teachers, those for whom I would reserve the label of “Religious Genius”. All others can help us grow spiritually to the point at which we can receive their inspiration, but at the same time stand on our own feet in honest appreciation of who they were — strengths, weaknesses and all.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.
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