Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jews and Civil Rights Activism

This Shabbos our beit midrash will be holding an "Is it Jewish to Occupy Wall Street" Shabbaton at a local shul. On Friday night we're having a Civil Rights dinner program, and we'll discuss a pair of scenarios. Each table will have a set of sources to use in preparing their responses to the scenarios. Here's the material we plan to distribute [each table will have a sub-set of these sources]; I'd love to hear your thoughts:

Scenario #1: Police officers are indicted for harrassing members of a local minority, and a protest rally is held to challenge these practices. Should Jews participate in the protest? Why, and why not?

Devarim 10:19
And you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Rambam, 12th century Egypt, Mishneh Torah Hilchot Melachim 10:12
It appears to me that we act with resident strangers [who have renounced idolatry] in the manner of the land and with acts of kindness as we do to Jews, for we are instructed to keep them alive, as it is written, 'You shall give it to the stranger in your gates, and he will eat it.' When the Sages said, 'We do not offer them greetings twice,' that was regarding idolaters, not resident strangers. Even regarding idolaters, the Sages instructed us to visit their sick, to bury their dead as we bury Jewish dead, and to support their indigent along with Jewish indigent, to promote peaceful paths, as it is written, 'Gd is good to all, and His mercy is upon all of His creations,' and 'Her paths are pleasant paths, and all of her ways are peace.'

Bereishit 33:12-17
And Esav said, "We will travel and go, and I will go with you." And Yaakov said to him, "My master knows that the children are weak and the nursing cattle are upon me, and they will be pushed for a day and all of the sheep will die. Let my master go before his servant. I will lead slowly, per the work before me and per the children, until I will come to my master, to Se'ir." And Esav said, "I will leave here with you, abandoning the nation that is with me." And Yaakov said, "Why should this find favour in the eyes of my master?"
And Esav returned to his path to Seir that day. And Yaakov travelled to Succot, where he built a house…

R' Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 19th century Russia, Haameik Davar to Bereishit 33:1
[Yaakov said] "Why would travelling together find favor in the eyes of my master? Do not send me any of your men, for their company would be a burden for me." Esav understood from this that Yaakov's loving company with him was only due to temporary need, and that the idea of companionship with him and his men in general was not pleasing to him, and that Yaakov's eye was really toward dwelling securely, alone.

R' William Malev, Congregation Beth Yeshurun (Conservative), Houston, Texas, 1958; (The Temple Bombing, Melissa Fay Greene, pg. 183)
I certainly agree that martyrdom is perhaps the noblest service which anyone can render to a great cause. My only contention is that no one has the right to martyr somebody else for the cause he believes in. Certainly, the Jews of the South have the sovereign and unalienable right to become martyrs in the cause of desegregation if they so wish. I reject however any claim on the part of the national 'defense' organizations to impose martyrdom on the unwilling Jews of the South and to bask in their reflected glory of their self-sacrifice. It would seem to me that if they think so much of martyrdom, they ought to come down South and try it for themselves.

R' Yosef Dov Soloveichik, Confrontation, 1967
We cooperate with the members of other faith communities in all fields of constructive human endeavor, but, simultaneously with our integration into the general social framework, we engage in a movement of recoil and retrace our steps. In a word, we belong to the human society and, at the same time, we feel as strangers and outsiders.

Scenario #2: A fire destroys a community centre in a low-income section of town. Should the Jewish community rally funds to help rebuild the centre? Why, and why not?

Vayyikra 25:14
And when you sell to your friend or purchase from your friend, one shall not oppress his brother.

Midrash, Sifra Behar 3
How do we know that when you sell you should only sell to your friend? 'When you sell to your friend.' And how do we know that when you purchase you should only purchase from your friend? 'Or purchase from your friend.'

Vayyikra 25:35
And if your brother becomes needy and his hand descends with you, you shall grab hold of it, the stranger and resident, and he shall live with you.

Midrash, Sifra Behar 5
'Stranger' – This is a righteous stranger. 'Resident' – This is a stranger who eats neveilot [non-kosher]. 'And he shall live with you' – Your life precedes his.

Talmud, Gittin 61a
We support needy non-Jews along with needy Jews, we visit ill non-Jews along with ill Jews, we bury deceased non-Jews along with deceased Jews, in pursuit of peaceful paths.

Rambam, 12th century Egypt, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Zechiyyah uMatanah 3:11
A Jew may not give an idolater a free gift, but he may give it to a resident stranger [who has renounced idolatry], as it is written, 'You shall give it [neveilah] to the stranger in your gates and he shall eat it, or you shall sell it to a non-Jew.' To a non-Jew you sell it, but do not give it. To a resident stranger you may sell it or give it, for you are instructed to keep him alive, as it is written, 'the stranger and resident, and he shall live with you.'

R' Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Confrontation, 1967
Jacob continued, my brother Esau will also ask a third question: "And whose are these before thee?" Are you ready to contribute your talents, capabilities and efforts toward the material and cultural welfare of general society? Are you ready to present me with gifts, oxen, goats, camels and bulls? Are you willing to pay taxes, to develop and industrialize the country? This third inquiry is focused on temporal aspects of life. As regards the third question, Jacob told his agents to answer in the positive. "It is a present unto my lord, even unto Esau." Yes, we are determined to participate in every civic, scientific, and political enterprise. We feel obligated to enrich society with our creative talents and to be constructive and useful citizens.


  1. It depends on the situation.

    Sometimes, the cause is noble, but the activist planners or their specific plans are bad.

    Sometimes, the protest would put Jews as a group too much at risk.

    Sometimes, the publicized cause is not the organizers' real cause.

    Sometimes, activity to help will actually hurt.

    Sometimes, a group does not deserve civil rights (gross example: terrorists as a group).

    Sometimes, the action being protested was actually the right action to do.

  2. Very nice. Terrific concept for discussion.

  3. They want America to be the Soviet Socialist Republics of America.
    The Occupy Wall Street movement hate almost everything about America, including the very ideas of limited government, individual rights, private property, self-defense, free enterprise, free speech, etc.

    To them Islâmic fundamentalism, is fully redeemed by its hatred of America (and, well, Jews). Any Jews who do not agree with attitudes like these, it is time for you to get out of that nonsense. If you don't believe that the movement involves attitudes like these, it is time to get wised up.
    As for equity in itself it can be logically shown that there is no a priori value that people should have all money in exactly equal amounts. People that are espousing so called equality simply are the college students and yeshiva bachurim who lazied around for their college years and now want to be supported bu the industrious working guys.
    That's it in a nutshell.

  4. I want to argue it is a right to take money from people just because you want it and can succeed by the force of the State.
    Thus the whole premise of the occupy wall street movement is false.
    Me: I know that it's wrong to take money from people just because you want it.
    Lazy college student: What's your reason for thinking that?
    Me: Isn't it self-evident? Why do I need a reason?
    Lazy college student: Because if you don't have one, then it's just an arbitrary claim.
    Me: How do you know that?
    Lazy college student: Why, that's self-evident.
    Me: But you just claimed that is then what is self evident is just an arbitrary claim.You are being self contradictory. This is called reasoning in a circle.

  5. Bob-
    We can "sometimes" pretty much any ethical decision, no? The exigencies of a particular moment will support one of the multiple competing imperatives.


    Civil rights was an issue before there ever were college students...

  6. Real, inalienable human rights the type discussed by Hobbes and john Locke (and based on the Ten commandments) are few in number and are mostly listed in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
    The concept of right though ultimately comes from the ten commandments it derivation started from saadi geon up to the rambam at which point it was developed into a full blown theory by Aquinas.
    This is legitimate

    But there is no such thing as a right to receive money, goods, or services from anyone else. Social benefits and health care are charities, not rights.

    The federal government of the United States was designed as a government of limited powers that would have no business in matters like provision of relief. The fact that it has gotten into such business means (1) it is run on the basis of colossal dishonesty, since the actual Constitution was never amended to allow for such action, and (2) the politicization of relief has turned charitable concern into just another scam for political gain.

  7. "Bob-
    We can "sometimes" pretty much any ethical decision, no? The exigencies of a particular moment will support one of the multiple competing imperatives."

    Well, we need the proper general approach. However, there are too many factors in each decision to allow blanket answers to some questions ahead of time.

    Communists will often resort to a Popular Front strategy to gradually entice their sympathizers and fellow travelers to join their movement. To me, Occupy Wall Street is an example of this.