December 27, 2016

The Voice of Jacob: Judaism and Social Protest

Rabbi Mark Cooper, Oheb Shalom Congregation

In recent months and years, our nation has witnessed numerous protests, some against the killing of civilians by police officers and others against economic inequality. Some of these protests have blocked streets and bridges and some have become violent, causing destruction of property and even injury and loss of life.
It’s worth asking if social protest works. If so, what purpose does it serve? Do we have an obligation to protest events in society and decisions of our government? What does Judaism teach us about the right and obligation to protest?
The Talmud teaches that we have an obligation to protest evil and corruption.
In Shabbat 54b we read, “Rav, Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Yohanan taught…Whoever can protest to his household and does not is accountable for the sins of his household; if he could protest to his townspeople and does not, he is accountable for their sins; if he could protest to the whole world and does not, he is accountable for the whole world.”
The Talmudic sages tells us not only that we may protest evil and corruption, but that we are accomplices to those perpetrating that evil if we do not.
The Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, 1525-1609) taught that being a good person in the way we relate to others and in our own actions is admirable but insufficient when facing evil. He taught that “while a person may be individually pious, such good pales in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil…such a pious person will be accountable for having been able to prevent it and did not.”
When witnessing evil and corruption, it is inadequate to claim to be a good person who doesn’t harm anybody. “Passive goodness” and not being a part of the problem or an instigator are desirable traits, but they are not enough to overcome evil. Our tradition teaches that for goodness to prevail over evil, every person must rise up to voice his opposition and put pressure on those committing acts of evil to change their actions.
The importance of social protest can be found in the Torah itself.
Abraham is judged as more righteous than Noah because he protested the killing of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, while Noah was content to save himself by following G-d’s command to build an ark, enabling him, his family and a small selection of animals to escape destruction.
The Torah labels Noah as “righteous in his generation,” meaning that while he may have been a good person, when compared to Abraham he wasn’t effective in bringing change to his world.
Later in Genesis, Isaac famously displays his doubts about whether it is Jacob or Esav sitting before him to receive the blessing of the firstborn by saying “Ha-kol kol Ya’akov v’hayadayim yedei Esav…I hear the voice of Jacob but I feel the hands of Esav.”
The Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman of 18th century Lithuania) comments on that passage: “An alternate translation is ‘If Jacob’s voice is faint, the hands will be the hands of Esav.’ Note that the word ‘ha-kol’ – the voice – is spelled in the Hebrew text without the vav, and may therefore be read as ‘ha-kal,’ meaning light or faint. This is to teach us that whenever the voice of righteousness as symbolized by Jacob becomes faint, evil embodied by the hands of Esav will gain control. But when the voice of Jacob gains full strength – when ‘kal’ becomes ‘kol’ – the hands of Esav will no longer be in control.”
The Vilna Gaon was expressing the same idea as his contemporary Edmund Burke, the Irish political philosopher, politician and statesman, who said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
There is a strong history of social protest in Judaism, both for the sake of fellow Jews and for the sake of others in the world who are oppressed.
In 1987, on the eve of a summit between former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan, 250,000 people marched on Washington in solidarity with Soviet Jewry. The march, organized by the National Conference for Soviet Jewry, drew thousands more people than expected and sent a clear message to Gorbachev that the forced assimilation of Russian Jews must end and that emigration must be freely allowed. Following the march, the gates of the former Soviet Union opened and, over time, nearly a million Jews left for Israel.
Jews have consistently joined in other protests to demand civil rights and equal treatment under the law for all people.
At all times, Jews have respected the idea that social protest must be non-violent. Strength in numbers is all that is necessary to apply pressure to those who oppress others and send a message that acts of evil are not acceptable in a decent society.
Social protest brings together good people to advocate for important causes and to unite in a desire to confront oppression and wrong. As individuals, our resolve to bring about change for the better is strengthened when we protest.

In the words of Elie Wiesel z”l, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

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