Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Texts on Activism


Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40b

Translation Original
Rabbi Tarfon and some elders were reclining in an upper chamber in the house of Nitza in Lod when this question came up: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon spoke up and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva spoke up and said: Study is greater. The others then spoke up and said: Study is greater because it leads to action. [Soncino translation]
וכבר היה רבי טרפון וזקנים מסובין בעלית בית נתזה בלוד, נשאלה שאילה זו בפניהם: תלמוד גדול או מעשה גדול? נענה רבי טרפון ואמר: מעשה גדול, נענה ר"ע ואמר: תלמוד גדול, נענו כולם ואמרו: תלמוד גדול, שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. How does this text relate to Jewish social justice?            2. What does this text imply about the relationship between study and activism? Do you agree?                                     3. From your experience, has study led to activism? Feel free to share an example.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, Telegram to President John F. Kennedy, June 16, 1963

I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogue have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month's salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency. A Marshall plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. What does it mean to have high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity?
2. In what ways has our society improved since this text? Does this text still resonate 42 years after King's assassination?
3. Are there issues as pressing to you as this issue was to Heschel?

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