By Ilan Bocian
On June 11, 2020, Rabbi Saul Berman, Professor of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, Stern College for Women, addressed over 140 members of the Yeshiva University community via Zoom in the first of a series of talks entitled “Crisis and Hope.” A participant in a multitude of anti-racist protests, including the famed 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, Rabbi Berman shared his unique experience as an Orthodox rabbinical figure in the fight against racial injustice. At a particularly apropos time — on the heels of the of murder George Floyd and during the ensuing country-wide protests — Rabbi Berman shared the lessons he learned from his experiences in Selma that apply to today’s pivotal national reckoning over our country’s long history of racial injustice.
Reflecting on his time as an advocate during the Civil Rights movement, Rabbi Berman spoke on the Jewish obligation to fight against the oppression of disenfranchised minorities. As Jewish citizens of the United States, we share a responsibility in the shaping of our national character. The Torah teaches that the citizens of Shechem (a biblical city) were complicit in the development of their corrupt society, and thus the Torah imposes upon us the same obligations as it does upon Bnei Noach (the children of Noah, referring to non-Jews), to uphold the integrity of our civilizational values. To fight for the rights of the oppressed is to be God-fearing, Rabbi Berman taught, and as a corollary, we must not permit the justice system to practice favoritism.
Rabbi Berman extended the Torah stipulation of lifnei iver (not to place a stumbling block before the blind) to mean that Jews are forbidden from aiding and abetting others in the commission of wrongdoing. In this sense, enabling a social evil constitutes a violation of this prohibition. Likewise, the obligation of Jews to deliver tochacha (rebuke) means we are obligated to morally improve both Jewish and non-Jewish societies.
If our society allows Black people to be more threatened than any other segment, tolerates levels of poverty in Black communities that are greater than in any other segment, and sanctions the demonization and imposition of indignity imposed on Black citizens, then we, Rabbi Berman stated, exist in a society that is amidst a crisis of values. However, while our society at its core is fundamentally good, we cannot allow our own loyalty to this country manifest as silence in the face of deprivation of the rights of Black people. Loyalty to a society, Rabbi Berman maintained, does not mean supporting or enabling evil by shrugging our shoulders.
In addressing whether Jews should engage in protests against racially-motivated police brutality and racial injustice, Rabbi Berman reminded us that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in its affirmation of the right of peaceful assembly, grants us the right to engage in Torah-mandated rebuke. Public protest and demonstration, Rabbi Berman argued, is the mitzvah d’oraita (commandment from the Torah itself) of tochacha.
Rabbi Berman concluded his keynote address by telling the story of an Erev Shabbat (Sabbath Eve) he spent while jailed in Selma having been arrested — along with dozens of other Jewish and Christian clergymen as well as many young Black men — for peacefully protesting. After release from jail the next morning, Rabbi Berman stood back as his comrades began to board the buses that would transport them to the church where the renowned march from Selma to Montgomery, alongside the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would start. Rabbi Berman told his non-Jewish friends that in observance of the Jewish Sabbath he would be walking to the church. However, all of the other protesters refused to let Rabbi Berman proceed alone and joined him afoot through the white side of Selma, a dangerous journey in that day for Jewish and Black people. Altogether, 250 people marched, white and Black together, flanked by police for their protection.
For the first time, the entire white community of Selma became deeply cognizant of the alliance that had been forged around the issue of legal protection accorded to Black people. It was vital for everyone, Rabbi Berman recalled, to learn not just to demonstrate, but to listen to each other. Jews need to listen to Black people, Rabbi Berman said in closing, and to understand what for Black people constitute the indignities of society. If we listen, and then raise our voices together, we can solve social issues of racial injustice. There is great hope in the demonstration taking place, Rabbi Berman concluded, as people of every race and religion join together to understand that these are societal problems that need to be addressed by us all.