Friday, January 23, 2015

The Obligation To Protest

I've been teaching (along with Prof. Allan Feldman) a course on Rabbi Aryeh Cohen's wonderful book, Justice In The City. Essentially, it's an exposition of Rabbinic understandings of justice. Or, to be fair, it's Cohen's views of those views, because I'm sure that some have a different understanding. Cohen is definitely taking a stand and making an argument--several, actually.

One of them, which we looked at last night, he calls simply "The Obligation To Protest." Put simply, if someone has the opportunity to protest a wrong, and s/he doesn't do so, then s/he is held liable for that wrong. Large or small, it doesn't matter--if I could have said/done something to try to stop it, and I didn't, then that's on me.

It goes against the general Western understanding of guilt and responsibility, which generally tells us that I am not responsible for what you did (with caveats and exceptions, of course). If you did it, then you get blamed and punished. Full stop. But, Judaism takes a more expansive view of responsibility than that. And, I think that if you think it through, Judaism's take actually makes a lot of sense, logically.

Let's say that you are about to drop something, and I could easily catch it. But, I choose not to. So, it hits the floor. Now, forget about morality and judgment for a moment. Just think about logic. Why did that item hit the floor? Well, there are a few reasons. Because you dropped it. Because gravity worked. Because I didn't catch it. My lack of catching is absolutely one of the reasons that it hit the floor so, in the simplest sense of the word, I am responsible for the fact that it did so. At least partially responsible, anyway.

I think that's part of the difference between the Western and the Jewish views on this--the subtle but important difference between blame and responsibility. If we focus on who to blame, and who to punish, then the primary actor is naturally the target. But, if we think about who is responsible for something happening, then the list gets larger. And, that's important, because realizing that I'm responsible might make me more likely to act, even if I'm not the one who's causing something to happen.

I'm firing this off quickly, before I have to leave, so I'm not doing justice to a really powerful, beautiful chapter and idea. But, if there's a takeaway, it's that we need to think less about who to point to as the one to blame, and more about what we can do to stop something from happening. It doesn't matter if it's a tiny, personal issue, or a global catastrophe. If we can try to make something better, and we don't, then we aren't acting righteously.

May Shabbat bring us all peace, and renewed strength to go out and make the world a better place, in every way that we can.

Thursday, January 22, 2015


On Monday night, Martin Luther King Day, I got to participate in an interfaith service in honor of Dr. King. It was a true honor and a thrill--it's not often I get to hear a Baptist preacher preach, if you know what I mean. And, it's really not often that I have someone start playing the organ to underscore me while I'm speaking, and that I get some "amens" and "uh-huh's" from the congregation along the way.

I love what I said, which I can admit because I wrote very little of it. The quotes from Dr. King matched against quotes from Jewish tradition I took from the RAC website, and the prayer at the end was also taken from the web (it's all over; I'm not sure who wrote it) with some mild editing.

If you're in Tampa, mark your calendars for MLK day next year--it's a service I'm already looking forward to!

Good afternoon.
The book of Leviticus declares, "The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love the stranger as yourself."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. responds, "If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.
The psalmist declares, "Be still before Adonai; await God; do not be upset by those whose ways succeed because of wicked plans."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. responds, "We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
The prophet Isaiah declares, "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. responds, "It is not enough to say "We must not wage war." It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace."
Our sages declare, "In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. responds, "Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You'll make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in."

The Rabbi who has inspired me beyond all others, and whose teachings continue to raise me up and move me forward, day after day, more than any other, is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel was known for many things, high among them having had the honor of walking alongside Dr. King, during the Selma Civil Rights March. When asked what that experience was like, Rabbi Heschel replied, "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”
Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King both understood that as powerful as words might be, it is through our actions that we are able to find the holiness which we seek. Our world will be redeemed by men and women who will not sit still until the noblest visions of our ancestors are made real.
And so, in honor of Dr. King, whose memory we honor today, and whose legacy we uphold, together, I offer this prayer:
Avinu Sh’beshamayim, Heavenly God, who desires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with You, we thank You for inspiring us with the life and example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 
Grant us the wisdom to truly understand that all of humanity is created equally in Your image, so that “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Open our hearts to stand with the oppressed and persecuted around the world, just as Dr. King fought for the oppressed, wherever they might be. 
Help us to feel the reassurance of Your presence as we continue forward in pursuit of civil rights and justice for all humankind. Remind us of the words of Rabbi Heschel, who taught “While some are guilty, all are responsible.” 
Adonai, our God, help us to realize Dr. King’s dream, expressed by Your prophet Isaiah, that “many peoples shall go and say: Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of God, and he will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.” And, as it is then written, “The glory of God shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” So may Your glory be revealed to us as we come together in harmony, celebrating our common humanity. Amen.