JEWS ANSWER TO A HIGHER AUTHORITY
A HEBREW NATIONAL NAMED MOSES
In the Book of Exodus, read in synagogues throughout the world in January, the Torah describes the heroic actions of Moses, whose liberation of the Jews has served as inspiration for freedom fighters everywhere, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose memory is honored this month. With his immortal words Moses demanded that Pharaoh, “Let my people go”, which has become the rallying cry of freedom fighters ever since. A variant of these words rang out on Capitol Hill one year ago, when, under the aegis of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center, “rabbi rousers” and other leaders proclaimed “Let our people stay” as they demanded that those who arrived in America as children be allowed to stay, applying TZEDAKAH to DAKA. Just as many Jews criticized Moses in his day for being too political, some Jews today insist that rabbis and Jewish leaders should “sha shtil” (remain silent), and ignore our proud tradition as champions of social justice by doing nothing but pray for help. God humorously rejected this approach when he interrupted Moses’ prayer for deliverance at the Red Sea and advised, “Stop crying to me and get moving”.
Starting with the first Jew Abraham, who defied God himself by defending the people of Sodom and Gemorrah, Jews have always challenged authority as inherent in what it means to be Jewish. This tradition motivated prophets like Nathan to get “political” and rebuke King David, who accepted the reproach and repented of his immorality against Uriah the Hittite.
Similarly, the prophet Amos berated King Jeroboam in the mid-8th century BCE for his extravagant wealth, many wives, and hubris (sound familiar?) and urged wealth redistribution to alleviate the suffering of the poor. When King Jeroboam refused, the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians and the 10 tribes of Israel were lost forever.
The powerful words of the prophet Amos were invoked by both Dr. King and his civil rights ally Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as they effused “Let justice rain down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Both great men got political in their march for civil rights which Rabbi Heschel famously described as “praying with his legs”. America and the world approved of their efforts as Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and a national holiday in his honor and Rabbi Heschel is revered as an icon for his political activism and his message that “all prayer should be subversive”.
In ancient Egypt, the Nile River went from lifeblood to lifeless blood, as retribution for the hardened heart of Pharaoh against the Jews. Today, our oceans face a similar crisis due to politicians whose hardened hearts lack empathy and who treat people and our precious planet as objects to exploit, as they exacerbate many plagues including, gun violence, racial conflict, lack of health care, lack of reproductive freedom, and as of this writing, involuntary servitude as they treat unpaid governmental workers as pawns and our President as a king, in a political chess game with dire consequences, not only for the workers, but for all of us who depend upon these workers to keep us safe.
It is amusing to watch those who most vociferously decry politics in the synagogue, proudly stand up and embrace politics in the synagogue as they salute the flags of America and Israel and sing “God Bless America” and Hatikvah, along with the rest of us.
To ask a Jew to remain silent about oppression and injustice, and not express their love for America and Israel, is like asking an eagle not to fly or a cougar not to run. It is to demand that Jews deny their basic nature, and turn their back on the Mission of our people to serve as a light to the nations. Rather than being critical about wrongdoing, they want us to be hypocritical by praying for Jewish ideals in the abstract, while doing nothing to promote them in the real world.
While sitting in a Birmingham jail, Dr. King took the time to respond to his critics who scorned his civil disobedience and urged him not to get political. In the month when we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, we are inspired by his moving response set forth in his “letter from a Birmingham jail”, words for which he devoted, and ultimately gave his life, “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”
As we contemplate the injustice and moral outrages of our day, let us not merely pay lip service to the dream of Martin Luther King, but let us lay the foundations to make his dream of justice and moral clarity become a reality by remembering his challenge to all people of good will, “Cowardice asks the question – Is it safe? Expediency asks the question – Is it politic? Vanity asks the question – Is it popular? But conscience asks the question – Is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”
For Jews, and for people of conscience everywhere, that time is now.
Rabbi Barry Silver may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in ” The Jewish Journal”