Once in a while I will invite someone into my study, either for an appointment or a meeting, and they will look around in wonder when they step in there for the first time, as if it is some secret inner sanctum. The rabbi’s office is not a place one is wont to go when they go into the Temple, and perhaps some see it as akin to going to the principal’s office.
My attitude, however, is that although this is my personal space within the Temple building, it is for everyone. As I am in service to the Jewish community, the work I do there is for the benefit of all, so everyone should feel a bit of ownership over that space. I strive to keep it neat (not so easy) and comfortable for those instances when I have an appointment or a meeting in there.
And while it is a place for everybody, it is also a place I feel I can express myself. It is a repository for my books and files, my computer and notes, and I am proud of the decorations adorning the walls and shelves—family photos, art from my kids, tchotchkes that I have collected over the years, each with their own story and personal value. And the art on the walls: these range from a lithography my parents gave me when I was ordained, photos taken by a friend in the Hasidic community in Jerusalem, a print from local artist Nikki McClure, a photo of my father-in-law z”l, original Judaica given to me as a thank you gift, replicas of a map of the United states in Yiddish and of the “Holy Land” in 1875, a print of a Chagall from my grandparent’s home.
I’m particularly proud of my most recent addition, a gift to myself for Hanukkah—a poster of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had been meaning to get a poster for some time and finally got around to it.
While of course I draw from all of my teachers and inspiring figures from Jewish tradition, I find great inspiration from the work of King. I am inspired by King not only because he was a leader for civil rights, but because he was a person who was deeply rooted in a spiritual tradition and used that rootedness to affect great change. He was someone who “lived his faith” and spoke in a religious idiom. And he was someone who used the power of the pulpit to bring about transformation both in the individual and in society.
Our nation has identified King as a seminal figure in our history, worthy of a national holiday and our monument in our nation’s capital. As inspiring as these grand remembrances are, I look up at the poster of King on the wall across from my desk see how he is a seminal figure to me personally.
While very politically aware growing up, I was not very politically active until I became an adult. And now as a rabbi, I see very much my role to use the power of spiritual tradition to affect communal transformation. Each year at this time I make a point to travel up the street to the Capitol to lend my voice to issues of concern. (I went the first time this past Monday—the first day of the session—to speak in favor of the Reproductive Parity Act.) Or even more locally, I see it very much as my calling to advocate for those who have no voice, who have great needs but little means, who are the most vulnerable in our society. I feel this is not a civic imperative, it is a moral imperative.
A few years ago I came across this quote from King, and it has become one of my favorites:
The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.
For all the talk about declining affiliation and the questionable role of religion in our society, I turn to this quote and I am uplifted—we, “the church,” have mission and a message to bring to our greater community.
And King was not only a social leader, he recognized community transformation would only come with individual transformation as well. As a spiritual leader he recognized that his role was to reach into the hearts and minds of the people he served, and use the power of religious tradition to inspire and create meaning for the individual. And for this, King is also an inspiration to my rabbinate.
Another favorite quote comes from his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964:
I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.
King asks us—and I ask you—to identify your “isness.” Then how can you reach beyond this to fulfill your “oughtness”—your potential? How can you rise above your current condition to become what it is you wish to become?a How can you be transformed?
And if you want to meet to talk about it, I would be happy to invite you into my office.