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  • Writer's pictureIOWA Project

Mussar and MLK

This past week I had the privilege of listening to Professor Brandon M. Terry of Harvard University on the Ezra Klein podcast discussing Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s challenging messages that are often overlooked, ignored, or misunderstood in the way he is celebrated on and around the national holiday, during Black History month and throughout the year. Perhaps most distorted is the popular understanding of non-violence as a passive and non-divisive way of being.

Indeed, King saw non-violence as an aggressive posture against injustice that serves to raise tension and provoke a response. However, it is an approach that aligns means with ends by refusing to dominate the other and distort one’s own personality in the process of fighting for justice. Non-violence calls for a high level of maturity. Terry points out how MLK applied non-violence not only as a tactic for challenging segregation but also as a way of thinking about international relations. He articulated this most clearly in the famous 1967 Riverside Church speech where he came out strongly against the war in Vietnam. In that speech, King indicts the immature posture of nations to look tough and inflict suffering on others despite the inevitable escalation of violence that results. Rather, King calls on nations to engage in mature deliberation about the real costs of wars including the cost to human life and to investments that could be made in education, health care, social safety net, and more. These are hard-nosed calculations and as “tough” as the approach of any military hawk.

I was struck by how similar King’s call for mature deliberation is to the middah of Charitzut, often translated as “Decisiveness.” This middah appears in Rabbi Mendel of Satanov’s early 19th-century Mussar classic, Chesbhon HaNefesh, and describes four distinct stages, the first two of which particularly resonate with MLK’s description of mature deliberation. Humans, like all animals, develop patterned reactions to stimuli that operate outside of any deliberative thought. When the stimuli appear, the reaction kicks in. While these types of reactions can be important for survival (think slamming on the brakes of the car when a child runs out into the middle of the street in front of you), often they are harmful to ourselves and others (think a parent exploding in anger at a child for a slight act of disobedience). Letting oneself act according to these patterned reactions may feel good in the moment and even seem natural but are actually the type of low level of human functioning that King challenges us to overcome. The second stage in Charitzut is deliberative thought or Shikul Ha’Da’at in Hebrew. “Shikul” means balanced or measured. While we can’t know the outcome of any decision with a high level of certainty, we can use our best thinking and get input from others to come to a reasoned decision. This type of thinking takes a high level of maturity and training because it puts up a “slow down” sign in front of the impulse toward reactivity. The next two stages are making a decision and then acting on it without delay. Deliberation without action can become an excuse for avoidance or cowardice. This, too, resonates with non-violent direct action. After a period of careful deliberation and spiritual purification action is taken. The Mussar practice of Charitzut offers us a cycle of practice and muscle building: Notice any pulls you have toward reactivity, slow down and engage in deliberation (Shikul Ha’Da’at), make a decision, and then act. I would add a fifth step of evaluating the action. Developing this muscle of Shikul Ha’Da’at combined with decisive action is actually an act of freedom from our patterned reactivity and can build the maturity that, for MLK, was so essential for justice and peace.

May we honor MLK’s memory this month of Shvat and Black History month by refusing to live according to our patterned reactivity and by modeling the maturity our political and communal life desperately need.

Chodesh Tov,


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