Opposition to the executive order banning refugees and Muslims should be visceral for Jews. Even if the Exodus was not our foundational story, with its resulting commandment to love the stranger, our collective historical experience demands it.
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But was the arrest of 19 rabbis for protesting President Trump’s refugee ban in front of the Trump International Hotel in New York City, an appropriate way to make the point?
As one of those 19 rabbis, I believe it’s important to understand the internal decision-making process that goes into determining whether to risk arrest.
When asked by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights if I would take part in this action, I asked two questions, one of T’ruah and one of myself.
I first asked about the external rationale for resisting arrest. Traditionally, an act of civil disobedience occurs when an oppressive law permits no other remedy than to break it. I am enormously privileged by the color of my skin, by being born a U.S. citizen, by my education and employment.
There is nothing in this particular executive order that will not impinge on my life one bit. And yet, this order strikes at the existential condition of being a Jew, which even in the 21st century means living with a family legacy of persecution and survival. This act would be a dramatic and emphatic reminder of the urgency to marshal the voice of the modern Jewish soul.
But anyone who is asked to commit an act of civil disobedience must ask themselves if she or he is fit to do so. Every rabbi harbors a secret desire to be a savior, but civil disobedience demands that each of us is merely a conduit for love and justice.
Ultimately, I was convinced to participate because of the support of the synagogue where I serve as Rabbi in Northampton, MA. Having received the request to participate on Friday afternoon, I took some time on Shabbat morning to reflect with my community. As I brought the Torah scroll around as part of the service, an 80-year-old woman dedicated to the shul for over 45 years said to me, “I’ll put up your bail money.”
Those words of encouragement, along with many others, reminded me that I had the opportunity to represent the yearnings for a way to act. Having been offered the privilege of such an opportunity, I came to realize it was a sacred obligation I couldn’t refuse.
Later that week, in preparing thoughts for Parashat Bo, I came across a passage by the 18th Century Hasidic teacher Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, author of a book of homilies called Ma’or va-Shemesh. Reflecting on the contrast between Pharaoh and Moses and their personification of oppression and liberation, Kalonymus distinguishes between two ways of presenting oneself to the world.
When a person is full of ego and assumes a position of superiority over others, such a person obfuscates the nature of reality. But, says Kalonymus, when one presents oneself as “ayin v’efes,” as literally nothing, one represents an essential truth, that all life force comes from the source of creation of which we are an infinitesimal part. By implication, this is the great insight that brings liberation.
In an era when a spirit of gross objectification rules over our country, we as Jews have the obligation to embody a countercultural spirit. That expression should take many forms, and we hope that this one small act of civil disobedience serves as an enduring reminder that we cannot abide the abuse of the vulnerable.
Going against the grain, we choose to be part of that vulnerability and hold it close, even when, and especially, as we thrive and flourish in this new land.
Rabbi Justin David is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton, Massachusetts.