Jewish Journal

Be Maladjusted!

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

January 21, 2014 | 10:38 am

In some ways, the alte zeyde (grandfather, if you will) of this blog, or rather, the ongoing title of this blog, was none other than the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Except I did not know it until this past week.

While going through my books and files, I found a sermon that Dr. King delivered, in which he spoke about the need to be creatively maladjusted.

These are his words: “This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. Our planet teeters on the brink of atomic annihilation; dangerous passions of pride, hatred, and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; truth lies prostrate on the rugged hills of nameless calvaries; and men do reverence before false gods of nationalism and materialism…human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” (American Sermons: The Pilgrims To Martin Luther King Jr.).

Dr. King delivered that sermon from the pulpit of Temple Israel in Hollywood, California.

It was not the last, nor probably the first, time that Dr. King used that spectacular image of “creative maladjustment.”

He used it in an address to psychologists. Noting the profession's fondness for children being well adjusted, he told them: “There are some things in our society to which we should never be adjusted. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence...” http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/witness/201101/martin-luther-king-psychologists-we-need-creative-maladjustment

This past week would have been Dr. King's eighty-fifth birthday. He is forever frozen in our memory as the courage thirty-nine year old man he was when his life was so brutally taken in April, 1968.

I invite us to salute Dr. King not only because of his pioneering, transformative work for civil rights. As we would say at the seder table: dayennu. Let's remember that he was a pastor, a minister, a theologian, a preacher. His commitments emerged not from a secular understanding of the social contract, and not from a scientific assessment of human nature, but from the very depths of his faith commitment. We might say that every great social movement in American history emerged because of people who acted on their faith (as well, to be fair, a few terrible social movements, as well). But that is the true social Rorschach: whether you believe that religious faith has, by and large, been a boon or the bane of American history. 

To be blunt about it: no faith, no singing of “we shall overcome.” The movement for black liberation in this country knew its historical roots very well. Those roots were in the Jewish story, of enslavement, exodus, wandering and promised land – perhaps even more than they were in the Gospels.

But there is more than that. I have long believed that the true meaning of religion is to be creatively maladjusted. Dr. King represented a bygone era of “hard” religion, in which religionists expected that their faith systems would offer a counter-cultural truth to the world. To paraphrase the social critic H. L. Mencken: The role of religion should be to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.

But today, American religion has gone “soft.” It is a religious culture that has essentially deified healing, wholeness and comfort – what Philip Rieff, prophetically in 1966, called “the triumph of the therapeutic.”

Yes, I believe, passionately, that religious faith must offer comfort – to those who are ill, torn apart, travellers through the valley of the shadow of death.

But I also believe that the role of religion is to not only whisper, but to scream. That's the real meaning of "prophetic Judaism." As the Christian author Frederick Buechner once said: “There is no evidence whatsoever of a prophet being invited back a second time for dinner.” They were tough customers. They had to be. The Jewish theologian, social activist and Dr. King’s compatriot, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote: “The prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered and awesome. Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretensions.”

So, what does all that have to do with the title of this blog – “Martini Judaism: for those who want to be shaken and stirred”?

Simple. I revere Dr. King because that was his religious style – the notion that the role of faith is to shake us and stir us.

The only question is: who will now take his place?

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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