A Call for Moral Clarity

By: Rabbi Ezra Schwartz  |  January 8, 2021

By Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, RIETS Rosh Yeshiva

There is no need for yet another voice to come forward and talk about how despicable Wednesday’s attempted putsch was. There is no need for someone else to speak about the awfulness that the current occupant of the Oval Office brought about. I hope that those with more sway in the larger American community, from both sides of the aisle, will speak forcefully about this.  However, whether or not they do so is not my concern. 

My concern is for my community.  Sadly, there is a genuine need to address those closest to me, people I daven (pray) with and with whom I share a commitment to Torah, mitzvos (Jewish commandments) and traditional morality.  There is a need to address the Orthodox Jews who participated in the rally, those who celebrated the event even silently, those who sympathized with its goals if not with its implementation, and even those who in their Monday morning quarterbacking fell short of voicing uncompromised condemnation of the entire event. In short, what happened on Wednesday should force our community to recalibrate our moral compass and take careful stock of whether we are being true to hashkafas ha’Torah (the outlook of the Torah). I believe that the event needs to be reacted to with the strongest possible condemnation. 

Let’s think about some of the imagery from the event. We saw not only the disruption of Congress and the desecration of our halls of government, we also saw Confederate and Nazi flags raised; symbols of hatred, oppression and murder proudly flown in the halls of our government.  But most disturbing of all we were witness to at least one Israeli flag flying next to these most odious symbols. Wednesday’s attempted putsch runs counter to all the values Degel Yisrael (the Jewish flag) represents. The Israeli flag stands for thousands of years of longing for freedom. Degel Yisrael should be a modern articulation of a prophetic promise; that Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people) will rise from slavery and oppression and champion the values of justice articulated by the Neviim (prophets) to the entire world.  Degel Yisrael proudly flies against the hateful symbols of Confederacy and Naziism. It certainly has no place being flown in tandem with these most putrid symbols of hatred and oppression. Moving the embassy may have been very positive, peace with our Arab brethren is certainly wonderful; but for that nezid adashim, for that bowl of lentils, we cannot give up on the true meaning of Degel Yisrael and moral place Medinat Yisrael was founded to represent.   

More than that, I am sickened by the image of my brothers and sisters, people wearing yarmulke (skullcaps) and tzitzis (ritual fringes), skirts and snoods, who were not embarrassed to align themselves with the most vulgar parts of America. I cannot fathom how Jews, Shomrei Torah u’mitzvos (observant of the Torah and its commandments), stand arm in arm with those wearing sweatshirts that state 6 Million Were not Enough. How can anyone with a beating Jewish heart march arm in arm with those who wear shirts glorifying Auschwitz?    

I am deeply disturbed that so many in my community, even if they did not join in person, were sympathetic to the cause and therefore unwilling to condemn the rally even after we witnessed the desecration it brought forth. I am pained to read supposed condemnations of the event that come with a “but”. The argument that anger against a biased media and against a society bent on subverting what they consider American values somehow justifies violence or at least places it into proper perspective, is specious. No anger can justify what happened on Wednesday.   

Perhaps, (although this is factually incorrect) an election was wrongly decided. But in no rational way should this lead to ransacking the halls of government that we all supposedly hold dear.  When writers in Orthodox periodicals refuse to issue a full-throated condemnation of violence and instead create a false equivalency between the ransacking of government with localized political violence this past summer, this speaks to how far our communal values have deviated.  We must do serious cheshbon hanefesh (internal reckoning). We must be able to say unequivocally that what happened on January 6 was an onslaught on American values and Torah ideals. Without any hesitancy, we must say that it was a travesty. 

Even accepting that the election was decided incorrectly (which it wasn’t), halacha (Jewish Law) demonstrates that we should accept a single erroneous decision rather than undermine the entire governmental process. The Sefer HaChinuch in mitzva 496 famously explains the mitzva of lo tassur, understood by him to mean that we follow Beth Din even when they issue an erroneous ruling, articulating a social contract theory. In order to maintain society, we must accept certain risks and even errors. A system that may at times be wrong is better than no system at all.  Absence of a system will allow everyone to act on his or her own wishes. This would destroy society. The Chinuch presents an insurmountable question to any ben or bat (male or female follower of) Torah who possibly felt that attempting to overturn the election was proper. 

As we read Parshas (the weekly Torah portion of) Shemos, we can’t fail to recognize the moral clarity of first the meyaldos (midwives) and then Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our leader). The Torah extolls those who stand against oppression in all its forms.   

It is worth noting the subtle difference between the way Moshe Rabbenu reacted to injustice compared to the approach of the meyaldos. The meyaldos attempted to appease Pharaoh and explain away why they were unable to kill the Jewish babies. Their act of heroism was rewarded by Hashem (God). Moshe Rabbenu however develops an even clearer sense of morality. Moshe Rabbenu made no excuses. He could not tolerate any injustice, whether perpetrated against one of his Jewish brethren or a non-Jew. He develops from one who first was reticent to act justly (as the verse says, he turned here and there and saw there was no man) to one who acts on his sense of moral justice even when it came at great personal cost forcing him to flee Mitzrayim (Egypt).  Moshe represents our ideal leader because he stands for pure morality and justice. The developed image of Moshe Rabbenu is unapologetic and unequivocal on moral matters. Like Moshe we must call out injustice. We must do so unequivocally and loudly. We must not apologize or make excuses. The attempted putsch was an unmitigated travesty and an assault on American and Torah values.