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In Biden statement for MLK Day, an imprecise Jewish Prophets quote

Martin Luther King Jr. "heard scripture's command to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly," U.S. President Joe Biden said.

Micah 6:4-8, the end of the Haftorah for the Torah portion of Balak. Photo by Menachem Wecker.
Micah 6:4-8, the end of the Haftorah for the Torah portion of Balak. Photo by Menachem Wecker.

In his proclamation ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, held this year on Jan. 15, U.S. President Joe Biden cited a much-quoted verse from Jewish scripture, which is read as the Haftorah accompanying the Torah portion of Balak and is the source for the word tzniut, Hebrew for modesty or discretion, particularly when it comes to behavior or attire.

Reflecting on King’s “life and legacy,” Americans “recommit to honoring his moral vision on the path to redeeming the soul of our nation,” Biden stated. King, who was born into a racially segregated America, “had every reason to believe that history had already been written and division would be our nation’s destiny,” he added. But “King rejected that outcome.”

“He heard scripture’s command to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly,” Biden added. “He clung to the Declaration of Independence’s promise of equality for all people.”

The president didn’t specify that the scripture in question is the Jewish Bible, and the quote comes from Micah 6:8.

“He told you, O’ man, what is good, and what God asks of you but doing justice, loving kindness and walking modestly with your God,” the Hebrew verse reads.

Biden’s citation renders the Hebrew word chesed as “mercy”—for which there is another biblical Hebrew word, rachamim—instead of “kindness,” and the word v’hatzneyah as “humbly,” for which there are several other biblical Hebrew words, instead of “modestly.” Further, the president omitted the reference to walking “with your God.”

King appears to have done similarly in his writings, although he referred to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God,” without erasing God.

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