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My Body's in Richmond, My Spirit’s in DC:Why I Protest

01/23/2017 10:00:20 AM


Parashat Shemot, January 20, 20171

Today, Adira is joining thousands of others in Washington, DC - including Hazzan Marian and our Director of Youth Learning, Ramona Brand, along with many other Temple Beth-El congregants - for the Women’s March on Washington. For those who don’t know much about the event, it is a grassroots march for human rights, dignity, and justice for all. It was organized in the wake of a presidential election that left many Americans - especially some of the most marginalized groups such as immigrants, Muslims, people who identify as LGBTQ, people of color, people with disabilities, and survivors of sexual assault - feeling vulnerable, threatened, hurt and scared. In the weeks since the election, the Women’s March has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Organizers estimate that some 200,000 people or more could be taking part today in this event.

I wanted to dedicate my remarks today to those gathered in our nation’s capitol and in the estimated 600 cities all over the country and world where sister marches are being held. I was honored to participate in Richmond’s sister march, called the March on Monument, last week. Adira and I felt the best approach for us this weekend was to divide and conquer: I volunteered to fly solo with the kids so she could attend the march, which had the added benefit of enabling Hazzan Marian the ability to go to Washington, since I would be holding down the fort here. So, my friends, I admit to you all that even though my body is here, my spirit is there.

I recognize that some of you might have questions or concerns about my solidarity with the marchers. I’m aware of the fact that my outspokenness on political issues, in particular since the election, has made some in our community uncomfortable, even as my participation in what has become known as the “Jewish Resistance” has been illuminating, encouraging, and inspiring for others. So, with your permission, I wanted to take a few moments today to explain why I feel called by the values of our tradition to stand where I stand, to give voice to what I believe, and to take concerted action today and in the days ahead.

I hope, for those of you who have been concerned or uncomfortable with my activism in this turbulent moment, that my message today will give you more insight into my thinking; and for those of you who are already of like mind with me on these matters, I hope that today’s message will give you strength, courage, inspiration, and hope for the journey ahead.

Please know that, as I stand with those protesting today, and as I continue to stand with and speak out for an ongoing Jewish Resistance, I always offer my views in a spirit of intellectual humility and with a sincere desire for continued conversation, even and especially with those who disagree with me.

Our Torah portion today begins the narrative of the Exodus, the central story of the Jewish people, the foundational text upon which much of biblical law and ethics are based, “one of the most powerful tales in the history of the world,” and, throughout the ages, “the conceptual frame for liberation movements” everywhere.2

In his extraordinary book, Justice in the City, my rabbi and teacher, Professor Aryeh Cohen, argues that the Exodus story ultimately imparts one basic message, a fundamental choice each of us must continuously make: One can either be like God or one can be like Pharaoh. In the Exodus narrative, God hears the cries of the oppressed Israelites and, moved by their pain, takes steps to redeem them:

A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them...And the LORD continued, “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians..

Pharaoh, on the other hand, refuses to listen to the cries of the Israelites and, unmoved by their plight, takes steps to further degrade them:

Then the foremen of the Israelites came to Pharaoh and cried: “Why do you deal thus with your servants? No straw is issued to your servants, yet they demand of us: Make bricks! Thus your servants are being beaten, when the fault is with your own people.” He replied, “You are shirkers, shirkers! That is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the LORD.’ Be off now to your work! No straw shall be issued to you, but you must produce your quota of bricks!”

From the Torah’s point of view, there is no room for neutrality. Either one heeds the cries of the oppressed or one does not. The bystander, even while not technically committing an oppressive act, implicitly supports the oppressor, because his silence always aligns with the refusal of the oppressor to listen to the cries of the suffering. Many of us are doubtlessly familiar with the words Elie Wiesel spoke on this topic when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 1986:

I remember: it happened yesterday or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the kingdom of night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.

I remember: he asked his father: "Can this be true?" This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?

And now the boy is turning to me: "Tell me," he asks. "What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?"

And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.

And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent.

And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.

When Wiesel uttered those words, he was echoing some of the most foundational principles of the Jewish ethical tradition. The Torah enshrines the laws לא תעמד על דם רעך (Leviticus 19:16), you may not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor, and לא תוכל להתעלם (Deuteronomy 22:3), you may not remain indifferent to another’s suffering. The rabbinic tradition, too, repeatedly evokes the principle, שתיקא כהודאה דמיא, that silence is tantamount to consent, and the Talmud further decrees:

All who can protest against [something wrong that] one of their family is doing and does not protest, is accountable together with their family. [All who can protest against something wrong] that a citizen of their city [is doing and does not protest] is accountable together with all citizens of the city. [All who can protest against something wrong that is being done] in the whole world, is accountable together with all citizens of the world.3

So, on the most basic level, I stand with those protesting today because I believe our tradition and our history demands it of me. When I see evil in our world, I feel duty-bound to speak out against it, for there is no neutral place in which any of us can stand, and no time of injustice befitting inaction. Either we are on the side of justice or we are opposed to it. Either we are engaged in shaping a society in which every single person is uplifted, or we are helping some remain privileged and powerful while others are degraded and disenfranchised. Every moment we are not fighting for justice we are impeding it, for, as Martin Luther King wrote in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Neutrality is not a position of sensible moderation between extremes. Rather, silence is a shield for the forces of the status quo. Neutrality is always the ally of injustice.

Now, even if you agree that our tradition calls upon us to speak out, some might object on the grounds that the President and his administration have barely even gotten to work. Is protest not premature? What are the alleged injustices being perpetrated by him, and against whom, if he and his staff haven’t officially done anything yet?

This argument, I would contend, is only true if one believes that words - and in particular the words of powerful and influential people like celebrities, politicians, and presidents-elect - have no meaningful and tangible impact, if what an important person says do not influence what people do and the atmosphere in which they do it. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

The man who is now our 45th president began his campaign with xenophobic slurs against Mexican immigrants and spent a substantial portion of the 18 months thereafter fomenting nativist, protectionist sentiment across the country. Do we really believe that when white high school students use Trump's name and likeness to mock and intimidate their fellow students of Hispanic descent all over the country, that it is merely a coincidence?4

The man who is now our 45th president called during the campaign for a ban on Muslim immigration, compared Syrian refugees to poisonous candy, argued for an equivalence between Islam and terrorism, and then gave impassioned pleas for the adoption of war crimes and torture to punish and defeat the same. Do we really believe that it is merely a coincidence that hate crimes against Muslims in America have jumped 67 percent since the campaign began, with a marked rise in the two weeks after the election?6 Are we not to be concerned that such a prolific and outspoken figure has remained virtually silent on the rampant acts of hatred and intimidation that are perpetrated in his name, including a sustained assault on the Jewish community of Whitefish, Montana, the proliferation of bomb threats being called into JCCs nationwide, and the anti-Semitic vandalism of our nation’s oldest rabbinical seminary, all while peppering his messages - including his inaugural address - with old anti-Semitic tropes like the slogan “America First”?

The man who is now our 45th president made disparaging comments about women throughout the campaign, has been repeatedly accused of sexual assault, and was even caught on video bragging about how his celebrity empowered him to do whatever he wants to women. Are women across the country really unjustified in feeling hurt or threatened when such views are sanctioned by the most powerful person on earth?

The man who is now our 45th president rose to political prominence championing the racially-charged “birther” lie that questioned President Obama’s legitimacy and routinely incited violence against protestors, especially protestors of color, at his rallies. He repeatedly instigated antagonism toward the press, threatening reporters and media outlets with lawsuits, the denial of transparency and access, and even the curtailing of civil liberties. Are people of color truly unjustified in feeling unsafe in such a climate? Are we, the people, not to be concerned about the erosion of the free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country?

The man who is now our 45th president has forged unsettling relationships with hostile foreign powers, and has nominated to his cabinet men with similar disturbing allegiances. Are we really not to worry about the direction our country might take if our foreign policy is pulled to align with the interests of strongmen and thugs? The man who is now president habitually traffics in falsehoods and outright lies, according to the nonpartisan website Politifact.6  Are we really not to worry about the direction our country might take if our leaders are no longer expected to tell the truth?

Add to these concerns the policy promises of our new president’s administration and his allies in Congress. Our tradition teaches, for example, that “health care is ultimately the responsibility of the community as a whole.” As Rabbi Elliot Dorff teaches, “Jewish ethics...demands that American Jews work to ensure that the United States, as a society, provides healthcare to everyone in some way.”7 If the new administration indicates that it may move our country further away from the goal of attaining universal access to adequate healthcare, are we only to register our protests after the deed has already been done, or would it not be more effective to let those in power know where Jews of conscience, guided by the principles of our tradition, stand on this issue?

Our tradition argues for enough redistribution of wealth from those who have the most to those who have the least so that “there shall be no needy” (Deuteronomy 15:4). If the new administration indicates that it may alleviate the tax burden of the wealthy, are we only to voice our objection after the fact? Shouldn’t Jews of conscience, guided by the principles of our tradition, let those in power know our thoughts on the matter right now before it’s too late?

One of the Bible's first command’s is for us to stewards of our planet, to protect the environment and the other species with whom we share this earth, to bequeath a world fit for habitation to our children. The new administration is skeptical about the proven reality of human-induced climate change, and has expressed hostility to policies that would protect our planet. Shouldn’t Jews of conscience, guided by the principles of our tradition, tell those in power we insist that they take appropriate steps to address global climate change now now before it’s too late?

From the fundamental Jewish principle of human equality flows the command “You shall have one law” (Leviticus 24:22), that all people should have equal status, privilege, and protection under the law. Should we Jews not voice our concerns about the availability of a quality education for all Americans given the administration’s proposals to erode funding for public schools? Should we not voice our concerns about the enforcement of civil rights laws or the erosion of voting rights given the incoming administration’s record of seeking to limit those laws and curtail those rights?

For all these reasons and more, we cannot afford to “wait and see” what the administration will or won’t do. As King taught:

We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs...Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on..."

Rather, through raising our voices, we, especially those of us in the Jewish community who are heirs to a great tradition of social justice and possessing more wealth and power and access than any other American minority community, have the capacity to ensure that our leaders change course before they do something disastrous.

Finally, I know some of us may still argue, “Why not give Trump a chance?” This objection is an admirable one, for it is rooted both in our tradition’s assertion that any person at any time can repent of their transgressions, turn around, and do the right thing, as well as in a love of our country’s democratic norms, like our tradition of the peaceful transfer of power and respect for the office of the presidency whatever our feelings may be of the person occupying that office.

To this objection I say that protest does not obstruct teshuvah, it facilitates it. Protest is not simply about voicing our disagreement with or objection to a particular policy or action on the part of our leaders. It’s not meant to be mere catharsis. Rather, the purpose of protest is to show leaders the error of their ways in the hope that they will acknowledge wrongdoing and change course. Tokhekha, the biblical word for rebuke, is understood by our tradition to be an integral part of the process of teshuvah. The Torah commands הוכח תוכיח את עמיתך, you shall surely rebuke your fellow (Leviticus 19:17)." About this verse, the rabbis say in the Talmud:8

From where (in Scripture do we learn) that one who sees an ugly thing (like sinful or unethical behavior) in his fellow he is obligated to rebuke him? Since it says, "you shall surely rebuke."

(And from where do we know that) if he rebuked him and he did not accept it (the rebuke), that he must rebuke him again? As scripture states, "surely rebuke" - no matter what.

The purpose of rebuking others is to get them to act differently. It presupposes the notion that is the very essence of teshuvah, that anyone can change at any time, and so we are therefore commanded to continue rebuking a person who is committing a sin until he changes his ways. Protesting the incoming administration is not at odds with giving it a chance. On the contrary, protest asserts our core belief that each moment affords us the opportunity to examine our deeds and change our ways. I stand with those protesting today precisely because protest is about offering our leaders the opportunity to do the right thing.

And protest does not disrespect the presidency, it affirms it. 200,000 people would not be marching on Washington today if Donald Trump were just another reality TV show host and not President of the United States. It is because we acknowledge and affirm the very power and prestige of his office that we are called to conscience. Our tradition insists that leaders must be concerned about and responsive to the will of their constituents. When Pharaoh ignores the cries of the oppressed Israelites, God responds by sending ten plagues, devastating Egypt, and liberating the Israelite slaves. Moses, too, is severely punished for lashing out at thirsty Israelites rather than providing them water (Numbers 20:1-13). Even God, according to rabbinic tradition, governs through popular assent (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a). Our tradition guides us to demand our leaders feel beholden to the needs and concerns of those they seek to lead, and issues warning after warning of the inevitable consequences that ensue when officials cease to care about what their constituents have to say. In this, Jewish and American values are in perfect alignment, as our country’s founders fought a revolution to form a government that derived “its just powers from the consent of the governed.” I believe we are at our most Jewish and our most American when we express our will to our leaders, even and especially if we offer voices of strong disagreement. Protest respects the office of the presidency because it affirms the principles upon which that office was built and continues to stand.

Even as I protest, I pray for the welfare of our government, for our leaders and advisors and all who exercise just and rightful authority; I pray that they “administer all affairs of state fairly so that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst” (Siddur Sim Shalom). Yet I am ever cognizant of the fact that, ultimately, even the mightiest of kings will answer to the Supreme Sovereign, the Ruler of Rulers, the Holy Exalted One, just as you and I will ultimately be required to give an accounting before that same Supernal Sovereign, the Creator of All, a God of compassion, love, and inclusion. I join in protest because I believe that one day - and I don’t know if it will be today or tomorrow or many years down the line - I will have to look my Maker in the eye.

I pray that, even and especially in these uncertain times, all of us, from the lowest among us to the most powerful, will remain ever aware of the time-tested reminder emblazoned across synagogues across the world, דע לפני מי אתה עומד, know before Whom you stand.

1Inauguration Day

2Cohen, Justice in the City, 27

3BT Shabbat 54b-55a




7Dorff, Matters of Life and Death, 309

Sat, August 8 2020 18 Av 5780