The Pope, MLK, and Moses

By Jonathan Leener and Avram Mlotek

As millions of Americans ushered in the New Year, many recommitted to a common practice of composing new year’s resolutions, identifying areas of potential growth and change in their personal and professional lives.   We, as rabbinical students, have our own resolutions, as we reflect on the character of the state of religion and its leaders in the world today.  The 2014 Gallup Religion Poll reports a significant decline in religious identity, attendance, membership, religion’s importance to life and its relevance.  Are we really surprised by these findings when news headlines regularly report religious leaders’ involvement in scandals, corruption, and fanaticism?  How can we expect these trends to reverse when our leaders fail to inspire us?  If religion is to become a source of inspiration for our times, our rabbis, priests and imams need to embody the values they preach.

True religious leadership is manifested not by fostering a sense of compassion alone, but when it is partnered with responsive and practical action.  If there is no service tied to the message given in the prayer halls all that remains is empty rhetoric.  However, within this disappointing landscape, there are glimmers of hope.  The most recent model of such religious leadership is best personified by the current pontiff, Pope Francis.  “To love God and neighbor is not something abstract,” said the pope at the homeless shelter Dona Di Maria, “but profoundly concrete: it means seeing in every person and face of the Lord to be served.” To this end, in honor of his recent birthday in December, he distributed 400 sleeping bags to the homeless in Rome.  In addition to washing the feet of AIDS patients, Pope Francis is rumored to dress in disguise at night and tend to the poor on the streets.

Ironically, Hollywood has brought two revolutionary religious figures back to American consciousness this season with biopics on both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Moses.  Dr. King was a master orator, known for legendary speeches, coining phrases which have entered the American lexicon.  Why were his words so resonant?  Because he spoke his dreams into being.  “Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns…I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town,” said Dr. King.  King was known to travel to the center of injustice, as depicted in the historic march from Selma.  King’s persistence for combating racism as a religious calling put him and his family in continuous danger.  This did not deter him as he famously said, “If you haven’t found something worth dying for, you aren’t fit to be living.”

When the monotheistic faiths focus on our differences we then neglect our shared vision of religious leadership, best encapsulated by Moses in the Bible.  Why was Moses chosen to be the liberator of slaves and the eternal teacher of the Jewish people?  He not only saw and felt injustice deeply; he fought it.  Moses was actually speaking the truth when he said to God, “I am not a man of words.”  He was a man of actions. Jewish legend portrays Moses as weeping upon seeing his people’s labor and personally shouldering their burden, assisting each worker. Moses is the originator of the spiritual activist leadership model for all monotheistic faiths.

We will soon be entering our field as young and idealistic rabbis.  The pope, MLK and Moses serve as some of our role models for this type of spiritual activism.  In order for religion to be relevant to our time, it is upon us to leave the confines of the synagogue and enact the change we wish to see.  Our synagogues have much to learn from our neighbors, where the homeless flock to the steps of the church, seeking shelter.  All places of worship can engage in creative ways of reassessing how our faith traditions respond to the needs of our time. As the sage Hillel once called out, “If not now, when?”

note: this article originally appeared on on 1/13/15

About the Author
Jonathan Leener is the rabbi of Base BKLYN in Crown Heights.
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