MLK Day and the Ten Commandments

by Margo Schlanger

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, Monday January 18, 2016 , I got together with the Beit Sefer kids the day before, to talk about the Torah and civil rights.

We started with this picture:

Martin Luther King, Jr, with Rabbis Maurice Eisendrath and Abraham Joshua Heschel

Martin Luther King, Jr., R. Maurice Eisendrath and R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, on the March from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, March 1965.

I asked the students what the Civil Rights movement was about.  They talked about African Americans’ claims on equality–voting, jobs, buses, restaurants, and more.

So why did Rabbi Eisendrath think it was important not just to carry the Torah during the Selma march in 1965, but for the Torah’s mantle to show the Ten Commandments?  We looked together at the commandments, focusing on the “Don’t” commandments, illustrated on the Torah mantle with the Hebrew word “לא” (lo — “no” or “don’t”).

Our conversation was mostly about three of the commandments: Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie about important things (“bear false witness against your neighbor”).

What do these commandments have in common? Some people think we can develop from them (and the others in the ten) a full statement of the requirements of a moral life.  But so many things are left out.  If we can deduce a principle behind these commandments, maybe that principle can help.

The students first developed a “results-oriented” justification.  Who would want to live in a world where other people were allowed to murder and steal? they asked.  Then they moved to the justification that ties the Ten Commandments to civil rights–equality.  You don’t kill people, or steal from them, or lie to them, they said, because those other people are equal to you.  Their lives matter, their stuff matters, their feelings matter.

In other words, the students ended up in the same place as Rabbi Hillel.  We each stood on one foot while I repeated the Talmudic story:

Once there was a non-Jew who told Rabbi Hillel that he was thinking about converting to Judaism, but first, he wanted to know everything he needed to know, while he stood on one foot.  And so Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation.”