In the Book of Exodus, the Torah describes the hero Moses, whose liberation of the Jews has inspired freedom fighters everywhere. 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 when under the aegis of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center, “rabbi rousers” and others proclaimed “Let our people stay” as they demanded that “dreamers” who arrived in America as children be allowed to stay, applying TZEDAKA to DAKA. Just as some Jews criticized Moses for being too political, some Jews today insist that rabbis should “sha shtil” (remain silent), and ignore our proud tradition as champions of social justice and do nothing but pray for help. God humorously rejected this approach by interrupting 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 Gomorrah, Jews have always challenged authority and this trait is in our DNA. This tradition motivated the prophet Nathan to get “political” and rebuke King David, who accepted the reproach and repented of his immorality towards Uriah the Hittite, rejecting the odious divine right of kings and holding all people, even monarchs to standards of justice and fairness.
Prophet Amos berated King Jeroboam in the mid-8th century BCE for his extravagant wealth, many wives, and hubris (sound familiar?) urging wealth redistribution and help for the poor. When King Jeroboam refused, the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, and the 10 tribes of Israel lost forever.
The powerful words of 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” and both were condemned for being too “political”. But history proved them right as their efforts for reform succeeded and Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and a national holiday in his honor, and Rabbi Heschel’s iconic words are still revered that “all prayer should be subversive”.
To ask a Jew to remain silent about oppression and injustice 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, extinguishing our light to the nations in a black hole never to be seen again. Rather than be critical of evil, they want us to be hypocritical with silence, praying for Jewish ideals in the abstract, while rejecting them in the real world. It is amusing to hear them decry politics in the synagogue, while they salute the flags of America and Israel in shul with the rest of us and sing “God Bless America” and Hatikvah.
In ancient times the Nile River went from lifeblood to just blood as retribution for Pharaoh’s hardened heart against the Jews. Today, our oceans face a similar crisis due to politicians whose hardened hearts treat people and our planet as objects to exploit, and exacerbate plagues of gun violence, racism, lack of health care, and abuse of power. Trump waves the Bible upside down and ignores its contents, playing a tyrannical king in a political chess game in which he treats people as pawns and uses the military to suppress their freedom to protest.
While sitting in a Birmingham jail, Dr. King responded to his critics who scorned his civil disobedience and urged him not to get political. We are inspired by his response in his “letter from a Birmingham jail”, with 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."
Some say rabbis should stay quiet or they will lose members. Each congregant is like a precious family member, but while painful, it is preferable to lose a member than our message, and better to lose a worshipper than lose our way.
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick expressed solidarity with blacks who are too often the targets of police violence. Not surprisingly, Trump mocked Kaepernick for “taking a knee”. But today, protests have brought our government to its knees and at last it is instituting much needed reform. Minneapolis now requires police officers to speak up and prevent wrongdoing in their presence or face severe discipline, finally catching up with the Torah which stated 3000 years ago that those who fail to chastise the wrongdoer share their iniquity, as the police who silently witnessed George Floyd’s murder, now await murder charges of their own.
A Spanish adage says “Que lindo es sonar despierto” “How beautiful it is to dream while awake”. The Jewish prophets’ dreams of peace and justice became the American dream and the dream of all freedom fighters, including Dr. Martin Luther King. In this time of moral crisis, let us not merely pay lip service to Dr. King’s eloquence, but let his dream of justice be on our lips and his vision of peace guide our heart as we remember his immortal words: “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.