Heroes and Heretics in the Struggle for Justice

What are the limits of the Jewish peoples moral responsibility?

"Who do you love more: me or God?" My then-5-year-old sons question still haunts me. Abraham, my Biblical hero, was willing to sacrifice his son to God. Would I be? Would I risk my job, my life or my family for my beliefs?

Last week, on a trip to South Africa, I encountered Jewish people who did just that. One put it to me starkly: "Apartheid was unfair and brutal; the only question was whether we had the courage to fight it." Many did not. Living in the shadows of the Holocaust among Afrikaners, many of whom were anti-Semitic, they feared further persecution. So they witnessed the suffering of the blacks, and in some cases profited from it without protest.

Albie Sachs was one of the exceptions. As a young lawyer, he fought injustice. It was a precarious existence. When he rented an office from another young activist, he found that the room was not properly furnished - it was not worth furnishing it since anyone who challenged apartheid would soon be relieved of their work and incarcerated.

His turn soon came. Albie was imprisoned in a tiny cell, alone, with little to fill his days. When he was finally released, apartheid agents planted a bomb under his car. It ripped apart his body, condemning him to months of recuperation and robbing him of one arm and an eye.

After years of exile, he finally returned to South Africa, by now a professor of law to write the new constitution guaranteeing full human rights to every citizen. His moral record was astounding, but like many of the activists, while proud of his Jewish roots, he felt little connection to religion.

Another courageous fighter was Rabbi Ben Isaacson. A graduate of Bnei Akiva and some of the finest yeshivot, he understood that the oppressive apartheid regime ran counter to Jewish values. As a rabbi, he felt compelled to condemn such injustices from his pulpit and he did so with gusto. Not all his congregants were sympathetic to these fiery sermons. As he berated successive communities for their compliance with apartheid, they responded by firing him.

Unable to reconcile the high values of the prophets with the cowardice of his community, he began to search elsewhere, looking first to the Reform Movement then to the Conservatives for salvation. He did not find it. They too rejected his zealotry and intemperate preaching. It seemed to him that their high sounding moral proclamations were not backed by real commitment. Disappointed, Rabbi Isaacson recanted, returned to tradition and successfully established, a "Centre for Orthodox Judaism and Universal Justice" for teaching his deeply-held beliefs.

Should we dismiss those who abandoned Jewish ritual as treacherous assimilationists? As an Orthodox rabbi, I cannot agree with everything they stood for, yet I feel humbled by them. These were no lightweights. They were heroes who suffered terribly in their stand for some Judaism's highest Jewish values.

How many of us who live in relative comfort have made significant sacrifices for the oppressed? How much have we cared for half of the world's population who survive on less than $2 a day? We dare not judge others, for we too may be found wanting.

This moral and religious complexity was recognized by Chief Rabbi Harris of blessed memory in a fulsome eulogy for Joe Slovo who lived his life as an atheist, but stood at the forefront of the apartheid struggle. Likewise, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein and his Beth Din presented an award to Rabbi Isaacson marking his exceptional courage in challenging the Jewish community to reexamine its moral compass.

In our Rosh Hashanah prayers we look forward to the day when "injustice will have nothing more to say, and all human evil will fade away like smoke as You sweep the rule of arrogance from the earth."

We still face plenty of challenges. Wherever we live, poverty, brutality, and injustice are not far away. If we cannot be front-line heroes in the battle to safeguard human rights, let us at least support those who are fighting on our behalf. Or is that too much of a sacrifice?

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel and director of the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hillel House of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

A young black man, in an act of resistance to South Africa's apartheid policies
Reuters / Haaretz Archive