Monday, January 18, 2010

We have our dreams -- Midrash, Jewish chaplaincy and MLK

I have Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, now president of Boston Hebrew College, to thank for showing me that Martin Luther King day can be more than just a day the banks are closed: we can treat it in the ways the Jews treat all their holidays, as an opportunity for study -- for study of Torah. Implicit in this kind of Torah study is an assumption that Torah goes far beyond the canonical texts of Judaism like the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud. It can extend to anything that connects us with wisdom and Ultimate Meaning -- that feeds our dreams as Jews of a pursuit of a more perfected, more just, world. Even to the works of an African-American preacher from Atlanta, Georgia.

King's work -- especially his famous I have a dream speech -- is certainly once such source of Torah. But, as you can see if you really study it as Torah, King gives us an example in that speech of a particular kind of dreaming much akin to our practice of Midrash. That is, King does not just put forth dreams in some way disconnected from his tradition. Rather, he spins his dreams using the images and language from that tradition -- subtly paraphrasing and quoting from the Bible and his other foundational sources to make his points, his dreams, clear.

Last week, I gave a workshop -- entitled Working the midrashic muscle -- using images to uncover the Holy in the mundane -- at the annual conference of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains. In that workshop, which I'll write more about here soon, I made the case that in order to create our own new Midrash from our own spiritual experiences, we need to bring those experiences into dialogue with our tradition -- with God, Torah and Israel.

That's really what King did, from his own tradition(s) in the I have a dream speech. Five years, ago, I created the handout you see a small version of on the right (a full pdf version you can use yourself is freely available here) for a study session I led as part of the MLK Day activities Rabbi Lehmann had organized at the Gann Academy where he was then the head of school. In the center of the handout is the text of the speech itself. On the edges are the many sources that King borrowed from in the speech, including Amos, the Declaration of Independence and Shakespeare. It's fascinating to see how he used these things to construct his speech!

[If you are going to use the study handout, I recommend you enlarge it about 1.5x onto 11x17 paper.]

On this MLK Day, I hope you can find the courage to dream. And that, in doing so, you will not be alone -- that you will have the full force of the rich traditions of your people(s), and their Holy Texts, behind you -- true dreaming, true pursuit of justice, is a shared experience!

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