Jewish Thought and History

A Time To Keep Silence, and A Time To Speak

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Yitzhak Grossman

 

The United States (and beyond) has been recently convulsed by the George Floyd protests, and a dam-breaking surge of outrage over agonizingly persistent racism and mistreatment of Blacks has coalesced under the umbrella of the Black Lives Matter movement. While Orthodox Jewry, a relatively conservative group, has been broadly sympathetic to the Black community, some Orthodox Jews have been deeply ambivalent, if not downright hostile, toward the protests, due to the rioting, looting, and general lawlessness that the protests have sometimes included, as well as the anti-Semitism of some segments and leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Twentieth century Rabbinic authorities in both the United States and Israel have considered the question of public protest in a variety of different contexts. In this essay, we survey the perspectives of some prominent Rabbinic authorities on the tactic of protest, and conclude with some brief thoughts on how they might apply to the Black Lives Matter protests.

The United States    

1. Protests For Soviet Jewry

From the 1960s through the 1980s, American Jewry engaged in protests and demonstrations (in addition to other, less public, tactics) against the spiritual and material oppression of Russian Jewry by the USSR. But as Adam Ferziger (“Outside the Shul”: The American Soviet Jewry Movement and the Rise of Solidarity Orthodoxy, 1964–1986) has documented, although some Orthodox Jews, such as Jacob Birnbaum and his followers in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, participated in these activities, prominent Orthodox Jewish leaders, particularly the older, European born and raised rabbis, such as R. Pinchas Teitz, R. Moshe Feinstein and R. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, were deeply ambivalent toward the protests. Although they were certainly wholeheartedly supportive of their goals, they did not generally support the tactic of public demonstration against the Soviet regime and its conduct. Their qualms, however, were pragmatic rather than dogmatic: they felt that the protesters’ good intentions notwithstanding, their tactics were likely to backfire and result in worsened conditions for the very people they were trying to help. (See, e.g., R. Feinstein’s statement in Hapardes Year 50 Issue 10 (Tammuz 5736) p. 3.)

Precisely this point is made by R. Yehudah Herzl Henkin (Shut. Benei Banim 2:51) in a responsum in support of Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews. This 5748 (1987) march on Washington and rally involved more than 200,000 participants in what was reported at the time to have been “the largest Jewish rally ever held in Washington.” R. Henkin argues that since protests are in principle perfectly legitimate, and the rabbinic opposition toward the protests for Soviet Jewry hinged entirely on assessments of the contemporary realia and anticipation of the likely negative consequences of those protests, opposition to protests cannot be considered as absolute and immutable. A la Emerson’s critique that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” R. Henkin felt it was illogical to blindly apply positions taken in earlier decades to current questions.

2. The Civil Rights Movement

The historical context most analogous to the current one is, of course, the civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s. Orthodoxy, as opposed to its more liberal sister denominations, did not generally publicly embrace the movement, although there were at least a few notable exceptions. As Ferziger notes, several days before the 1963 March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom (whose program included Martin Luther King Jr. and his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech as well as the late John Lewis), R. Pinchas Teitz delivered a speech in support of the march at the Polo Grounds in New York. In his speech, R. Teitz declared:

As we stand before the A-lmighty and this great assemblage, let it be declared without any reservations that racial discrimination of any kind, constitutes not only a social misbehavior or a civic crime, but a sin–a great sin, a sin for which, some day, we will be called upon to give an accounting to our Creator. Believing as we do that man was created in the image of G-d, it follows that he who judges his fellow man by the color of his skin debases the divine image of his own face.

Similarly, R. Ahron Soloveichik’s outspoken support of the civil rights movement (along with other liberal causes, such as the opposition to the Vietnam War) is well known; I do not know whether he participated in demonstrations, but he was certainly forthright in the expression of his views:

From the standpoint of the Torah, there can be no distinction between one human being and another on the basis of race or color. Any discrimination shown to a human being on account of the color of his or her skin constitutes loathsome barbarity. …

A Jew should always identify with the cause of defending the aggrieved, whoever the aggrieved may be, just as the concept of tzedek is to be applied uniformly to all humans regardless of race or creed.

But, as noted, the strong public views of these two rabbis seem to have been the exception rather than the rule.[1]

Israel

Orthodox Jewish protests in Israel have generally been in defense of religious values and halakhic concerns.

1. Protests Against the Desecration of the Sabbath

For decades, Orthodox Jews in Israel, primarily (but not exclusively) haredim, have vehemently protested the desecration of the Sabbath by the non-religious in both the governmental and private, commercial sectors.

One of the most notorious episodes was the “Heichal Cinema Affair” of the mid-1980s, involving weekly protests spanning months against the operation of the eponymous movie theater in Petah Tikva on the Sabbath. After thirty-three weeks of unsuccessful protests, R. Moshe Malka, the city’s Sephardic chief rabbi and one of the leaders of the protests, penned an analysis of the protests and their consequences in the journal Tehumin, in which he expressed serious misgivings over the strategy. He confessed that he had had reservations about the protests from the beginning, and he concluded that they had failed to accomplish their goals. On the contrary, he argued, the protests increased Sabbath desecration as police were deployed to the scene of the protests, and drivers were forced to engage in additional driving due to road blockages. He therefore concluded that “we are not obligated and not permitted to continue to protest,” and he argued that the Torah’s commandment to reprove sinners does not apply in this context for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the movie patrons:

deny the Written and Oral Torah and do not believe in G-d, and the protests do not influence them at all. On the contrary, they increase their hatred of religion and the religious, of Jews and Judaism, and have no effect other than to instigate them against us.

On the other hand, R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the highest rabbinic authority of the “Lithuanian” haredi sector, staunchly rejected R. Malka’s temporizing, arguing (Kovetz Teshuvot 4:35) that R. Malka was making a category error in analyzing the protest within the framework of the commandment of reproof. The true goal of the protests, he explained, was “to stem the epidemic of the spread of the destruction of the [sanctity of] the Sabbath”; if everyone confined himself to the technical mandate of the commandment of reproof, “the shops, transportation, and all the theaters, etc. would operate on the Sabbath as they do during the week” and nothing at all would be left of the Sabbath. (A similar point was made by Tehumin’s founding editor R. Yehuda Shaviv in a note to R. Malka’s article.)

Similarly, R. Moshe Shternbuch, a distinguished halakhic authority and prominent leader of the hard-line Edah HaHaredit faction, countered the argument that it is illogical to protest the desecration of the Sabbath if the result will be increased desecration. He explained that the goal of the protests is not actually to prevent desecration but rather to impress upon ourselves and our children that “the Sabbath is not hefker, and the matter is so grave that we go out and protest.” (Shut. Teshuvot Ve-Hanhagot 1:842)

2. Protests Against the Desecration of Graves

The desecration of graves in Israel in the course of infrastructure and commercial development, as well as archaeological investigations, has also sparked numerous demonstrations over the decades. Atra Kadisha, an organization supported and led by some of the leading Israeli (haredi) Torah authorities of the mid-twentieth century (including the Brisker Rav, the Tshebiner Rav, R. Eliezer Yehuda Finkel (of the Mir Yeshiva), the Steipler Gaon, and R. Yehezkel Abramsky), fought numerous battles to prevent what it considered the unacceptable desecration of Jewish graves, with protests as one of its primary oppositional tactics. As R. Yitzchok Breitowitz explains:

Over the past thirty years, this organization, comprised almost exclusively of Chareidim, has organized protests and demonstrations at a number of archaeological and construction sites … Some of these demonstrations have resulted in pushing, shoving, rock throwing, some arrests, and allegations of police brutality, as well as chillul HaShem. … It must be emphasized, however, that while the Religious Zionist camp may be less vocal and public in its protests [than the Haredim – Y.], a number of its leading halachic authorities, such as Israeli Chief Rabbis Lau and Bakshi-Doron and Chief Rabbi Kulitz of Jerusalem, have joined the Asra Kadis[h]a (in principle, if not in tactics) by unequivocally condemning these gravesite desecrations as serious violations of halacha. Many other rabbanim have expressed their concerns privately.

This is another classic example of vehement protest in defense of important Jewish values and fidelity to Halakhah.

3. Protests Against the Drafting of Yeshiva Students to the Army

The haredi sector has also engaged in massive protests at various times over the past several decades against the drafting of yeshiva students to the army.[2] In this case, however, the fact that participation in these protests has generally been limited to haredim obviously reflects fundamental differences over the underlying values at stake (military service vs. the study of Torah, participation in the national Zionist project vs. an attitude of insularity and inwardness) rather than a mere disagreement over tactics.[3]

The George Floyd / BLM Protests

Most of the protests we have surveyed here have been in the service of parochial Jewish goals, to improve the material or spiritual condition of Jews, or in defense of Torah, mitzvot, and other religious values. The sole exceptions, the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, indeed received the public support of only a few major Torah leaders.

I have often been troubled by the question of why our community does not seem to possess much of the same universalist sympathies that we rightly demand of others. Here’s Jonathan Rosenblum’s perspective:

Even in a world in which the savagery of man to his fellow is hardly news, Darfur bears notice. Over 400,000 black Moslem tribesmen in Darfur province have been murdered by Arab Moslem militias known as the Janjaweed, in the last four years. … Do we as Torah Jews have [an] obligation to care or do more than others? Can our present indifference be defended? … I’m still left with the feeling that we must at the very least make room for Darfur, and other tragedies on such mass scale, in our hearts and minds. … In order to be Hashem’s instruments for tikkun olam, we must remain constantly aware of our responsibility for every aspect of Hashem’s world and of how far the world is from its ultimate perfection.

As we have seen (e.g., in the analysis of American Orthodox rabbinic leaders leading to their rejection of the tactic of protesting the Soviet Union’s oppression of Jews, and in R. Malka’s explanation of his ultimate decision to withdraw his support from the Heichal Cinema protests), one of the key factors considered by rabbinic authorities in deciding whether protest is appropriate in a given context is its likely effectiveness weighed against the likelihood of unintended deleterious consequences. In the case of the BLM protests, it would seem that they are generally beneficial to the Black community and are likely to prove instrumental in bringing about the redress of various wrongs done to it, which is surely a good thing (although many of the movement’s accomplishments to date have been somewhat superficial—e.g., the removal of statues and the recognition of Juneteenth—or still aspirational—promises of significant police reform). On the other hand, it could be argued that supporting a movement that unfortunately contains deeply troubling anti-Semitic elements is against our own interests. Moreover, the movement does not have an entirely clear and concrete set of demands, and certainly not every demand of the protesters and their leaders is necessarily in the best interest of even the Black community itself, let alone the nation as a whole.

Nonetheless, beyond the narrow question of immediate effectiveness is the deeper question of whether our values demand that we protest man’s inhumanity to man regardless of any concrete anticipated gain. To paraphrase R. Moshe Shternbuch’s words about the desecration of the Sabbath, perhaps we should join the protest simply to demonstrate our conviction that “Black lives matter, and the matter is so grave that we go out and protest!”

As R. Ahron Soloveichik declared: “A Jew should always identify with the cause of defending the aggrieved, whoever the aggrieved may be,” and as his uncle, the Brisker Rav, famously (if apocryphally) explained:

Besides the halachic mandates to speak up, however, there is another obligation that flows from what is supposed to be our fundamental human nature. The midrash teaches that three people counseled Pharaoh in his decree to murder the male Israelite babies: Balaam, Jethro and Job. The first approved; the second protested and had to flee Pharaoh’s wrath. Job remained silent and suffered all of his tragedies because of it. The Brisker Rov (Yitzchok Soloveitchik) questioned this. After seeing that Jethro’s protest got nowhere and endangered his life, the Rov asked, what was wrong with Job’s remaining silent? “Because,” he famously answered, “when something hurts, we scream.”

And so we need to ask ourselves: are we hurt by the experience of the Black community in the United States? If so, perhaps we cannot stand idly by.


[1] One other issue is worth mentioning. Despite the fact that Orthodoxy is categorically opposed to abortion on demand, and is generally opposed to abortion in most circumstances, to the best of my knowledge Orthodoxy (with a few exceptions that prove the rule) has never had much involvement with the anti-abortion movement and its protest activities (such as the annual March for Life and Life Chain and the picketing of abortion clinics). Why this is so is an intriguing question; perhaps it is concerned that the absolute prohibition of the procedure sought by the more extreme wing of the pro-life movement would prevent abortion even when allowed and even required by Halakhah (such as when necessary for the preservation of the life of the mother), and therefore it is inappropriate to support the movement.

[2] In a similar vein, in 1953, the haredim held a major demonstration against the idea of compulsory national service for girls in lieu of army service.

[3] Furthermore, some conservative National-Religious rabbinic leaders, including R. Shmuel Eliyahu, R. Yaakov Shapira, and R. Shlomo Aviner, did endorse and attend the 2014 “million man protest” / prayer rally against the drafting of yeshiva students. (Although some of them retracted their support following a fierce attack published by the haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman against the prominent National-Religious leader R. Haim Drukman, who had opposed the protest.) Other moderate National Religious rabbis sharply criticized the rally and its support by their more conservative colleagues.

Yitzhak Grossman
Yitzhak Grossman has studied in various yeshivot in the United States and Israel, where he has focused on Hoshen Mishpat and Even Ha'Ezer (Jewish civil and family law), in which he has received semikhah from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, and has served as a dayan with Bais Din Maysharim, Bais Din of Kollel Even Ha'Ezer, The Bais HaVaad Halacha Center, and the Vaad Harabanim - Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington. He has published articles on Hoshen Mishpat and other topics in various journals and magazines including Hakirah, Nehorai (Beth Medrash Govoha), various publications of the Bais HaVaad, Ami Magazine, and the Lakewood Voice, and on blogs including The Seforim Blog and Tradition's blog, and has lectured on various topics in Jewish law and thought before a variety of audiences, including CLE presentations to legal professionals. He currently resides in Silver Spring, where he serves as the Rosh Haburah and Senior Lecturer of the Greater Washington Community Kollel.