Jewish teachings on Involvement and Protest

This material is chapter one from my book, “Judaism and Global Survival”

“Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does not do so is punished [liable, held responsible] for the transgressions of his family. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of his community and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of his community. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.”

Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b

Judaism urges active involvement in issues facing society. A Jew must not be concerned only about his or her own personal affairs when the community is in trouble:

“If a person of learning participates in public affairs and serves as judge or arbiter, he gives stability to the land. But if he sits in his home and says to himself, “What have the affairs of society to do with me? … Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest? Let my soul dwell in peace!” — if he does this, he overthrows the world.”[i]

Judaism teaches that people must struggle to create a better society. The Torah frequently admonishes: “And you shall eradicate the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 13:6, 17:7, 21:21, 24:7). Injustice can not be passively accepted; it must be actively resisted and, ultimately, eliminated. The Talmudic sages teach that one reason Jerusalem was destroyed was because its citizens failed in their responsibility to constructively criticize one another’s improper behavior.[ii] They indicate that “Love which does not contain the element of criticism is not really love.”[iii]

The essential elements of Jewish practice include devotion to Torah, study, prayer, performing good deeds and other mitzvot (Commandments), and cultivating a life of piety. But, as indicated in the following Midrash (a rabbinic story or teaching based on Biblical events or concepts), in order to be considered pious, a person must protest against injustice. Even God is challenged to apply this standard in judging people:

R. Acha ben R. Chanina said:

“Never did a favorable decree go forth from the mouth of the Holy One which He withdrew and changed into an unfavorable judgment, except the following: “And the Lord said to His angel: ‘Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed there”‘ (Ezekiel 9:4). (Thus, they will be protected from the angels who are slaying the wicked.)

“At that moment, the indignant prosecutor came forward in the Heavenly Court.

“‘Prosecutor: Lord, wherein are these (marked ones) different from those (the rest)’?

“God: ‘These are wholly righteous men, while those are wholly wicked.’

“Prosecutor: ‘But Lord, they had the power to protest, but did not.’

“God: ‘I knew that had they protested, they would not have been heeded.’

“Prosecutor: ‘But Lord, if it was revealed to You, was it revealed to them? Accordingly, they should have protested and incurred scorn for thy holy Name, and have been ready to suffer blows… as the prophets of Israel suffered.”

“God revoked his original order, and the righteous were found guilty, because of their failure to protest”.[iv]

Hence, it is not sufficient merely to do mitzvot while acquiescing in unjust conditions. The Maharal of Prague, a sixteenth-century sage, states that individual piety pales in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil, and a person will be held accountable for not preventing wickedness when capable of doing so.[v]  One of the most important dangers of silence in the face of evil is that it implies acceptance or possibly even support. According to Rabbeinu Yonah, a medieval sage, sinners may think to themselves, “Since others are neither reproving nor contending against us, our deeds are permissible.”[vi]

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a refugee from pre-World War II Nazi Germany and former president of the American Jewish Congress, spoke to the 250,000 people who took part in the “March on Washington” organized by the Reverend Martin Luther King and others in 1963 on behalf of Civil Rights. He stated that under Hitler’s rule, he had learned about the problem of apathy toward fellow human beings: “Bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and most tragic problem is silence.”[vii]

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading twentieth century philosopher, believed that apathy toward injustice results in greater wickedness. He writes that “indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself ” and that silent acquiescence leads to evil being accepted and becoming the rule.[viii]

Jews are required to protest against injustice and to try to agitate for change even when successful implementation appears very difficult. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Zera states, “Even though people will not accept it, you should rebuke them.”[ix] We can never be sure that our words and actions will be ineffective. Thus the only responsible approach is to try our best. In Rabbi Tarfon’s famous formulation in the Mishna:

“It is not your obligation to complete the task. But neither are you free to desist from it.”[x]

Just as many drops of water can eventually carve a hole in a rock, many small efforts can eventually have a major impact.

There are times when a person must continue to protest in order to avoid being corrupted:

A man stood at the entrance of Sodom crying out against the injustice and evil in that city. Someone passed by and said to him, “For years you have been urging the people to repent, and yet no one has changed. Why do you continue?” He responded: “When I first came, I protested because I hoped to change the people of Sodom. Now I continue to cry out, because if I don’t, they will have changed me.”

In his article “The Rabbinic Ethics of Protest,” Rabbi Reuven Kimelman observes that the means of protest must be consistent with responsibility to the community. He states that protest must involve both love and truth since love implies the willingness to suffer, and truth, the willingness to resist. Together, he concludes, they encompass an approach of nonviolent resistance, toward the ends of justice and peace.[xi]

The Talmud teaches that controversy and protest must be “for the sake of Heaven”.[xii] The protest of Korach against the rule of Moses in the wilderness (Numbers 16:1-35) is considered negatively by the Jewish tradition because it was based on jealousy and personal motives.


From its beginning, Judaism has often protested against greed, injustice, and the misuse of power. Abraham, the first Jew, smashed the idols of his father although his action challenged the common belief of the time. He established the precedent that a Jew should not conform to society’s values when they are evil. Later he even challenged God, exclaiming, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” (Genesis 18:25). By contrast, Noah, though personally righteous, was later rebuked by the Talmudic sages because he failed to criticize the immorality of the society around him.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the Torah relates three incidents in Moses’ life before God chose him to deliver the Israelites from Egypt. They teach that Jews must be involved in helping resolve disputes, whether they are between two Jews, a Jew and a non-Jew, or two non-Jews.  On the first day that Moses goes out to his people from the palace of Pharaoh in which  he was raised, he rushes to defend a Hebrew against an Egyptian aggressor (Exodus 2: 11, 12). When Moses next goes out, he defends a Hebrew who is being beaten by another Jew (Exodus 2:13). Later, after being forced to flee from Egypt and arriving at a well in Midian, Moses comes to the aid of the shepherd daughters of Jethro who were being harassed by other shepherds (Exodus 2: 15 –17).

Balaam, the biblical pagan prophet, intends to curse Israel but ends up blessing them. He describes the role of the Jewish people: “Lo, it is a people dwelling alone, and not reckoning itself among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). To the Israelites, the keynote of their existence is: “I am the Lord thy God, who has separated you from the nations that you should be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26). Throughout their history, Jews have often been nonconformists who refused to acquiesce in the false values of the surrounding community.

When the Jews were in Persia, Mordechai refused to defer to an evil ruler. As the book of Esther states: “… And all the king’s servants … bowed down and prostrated themselves before Haman…. But Mordechai would not bow down nor prostrate himself before him” (Esther 3:2). Mordechai believed that bowing down to a human being is inconsistent with his obligation to worship only God. Later Mordechai condemns inaction in urging Esther to take risks to save the Jewish people (Esther 4:13, 14).

The greatest champions of protest against unjust conditions were the Hebrew prophets. Rabbi Abraham Heschel summarizes the attributes of these spokespeople for God: They had the ability to hold God and people in one thought at the same time; they could not be tranquil in an unjust world; they were supremely impatient with evil, due to their intense sensitivity to

God’s concern for right and wrong; they were advocates for those too weak to plead their own cause (the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed); their major activity was interference, remonstrating against wrongs inflicted on other people.[xiii]

In sharp contrast, although Jews are supposed to be b’nei nevi’im (descendants of the Biblical prophets), our communities often respond rather placidly to immoral acts and conditions. We try to maintain a balanced tone while victims of oppression are in extreme agony. But not so the prophets:

Cry aloud, spare not, Lift up your voice like a trumpet, and declare unto My people their transgression…. Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the chains of wickedness, to undo the bonds of oppression, to let the crushed go free, and to break every yoke of tyranny.  (Isaiah 58:1,6)

The prophet Amos berates those content amidst destruction and injustice (6:1,4-6):

“Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,

And to those who feel secure on the mountains of Samaria….

Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory,

And stretch themselves upon their couches,

And eat lambs from the flock,

And calves from the midst of the stall;

Who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp….

Who drink wine in bowls,

And anoint themselves in the finest oils,

But are not grieved on the ruin of Joseph!”

In order to carry out their role, to be a kingdom of priests and a light unto the nations, Jews throughout history were compelled to live in the world, but apart from it — in effect, on the other side. This, the sages comment, is implied in the very name “Hebrew” (ivri), from “ever,” the other side: “The whole world is on one side [idolaters] and he [Abraham, the Hebrew] is on the other side.”[xiv] Jacques Maritain, a French Catholic philosopher, wrote in 1939 that the Jewish people were found at the very heart of the world’s structure, stimulating it, exasperating it, moving it… It [the Jewish people] gives the world no peace, it bars slumber, it teaches the world to be discontented and restless as long as the world has not accepted God.[xv]

Several distinguished Orthodox rabbis of the past two centuries, including Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch, Jonathan Sacks, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as well as Lord Immanuel Jakobovitz, stress that Judaism has a message for their surrounding cultures and that Jews should convey it to their host societies.[xvi] Rabbi Soloveitchik (the Rav), one of the foremost Torah leaders of the twentieth century, believed that Jews have a responsibility to work with others to promote the welfare of civilization. He felt that Jews must aid the needy and protect human rights, because such obligations are “implicit in human existence.” He states: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of civilized society over against an order that defies us all.”[xvii] Rabbi Sacks, the current Chief Rabbi of England, believes that working for tikkun olam (healing and improving the planet) can be a powerful counterforce to the dominance of secularism as well as an antidote to religious isolationism. He notes:

“One of the most powerful assumptions of the twentieth century is that faith … belongs [only] to private life. Religion and society, many believe, are two independent entities, so we can edit God out of the language and leave our social world unchanged.”[xviii]

Based on Jewish tradition and values, Jews have been active in many protest movements. Some of these movements have fought on behalf of Jewish needs, such as the effort to rescue European Jews from the Holocaust, the battle to support Jewish independence and survival in Israel, and the struggles for Soviet Jewry and later for Syrian and Ethiopian Jewry. But Jews also have been actively involved in struggles for a more peaceful world, human rights, and a cleaner environment. A group of rabbis, acting in accordance with the Jewish ethic of protest, explain why they came to St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 to demonstrate against segregation in that community:

“We came because we could not stand silently by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence…. We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came because we know that second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.”[xix]


Religious practitioners frequently mischaracterize  God’s demands. Instead of crying out against immorality, injustice, deceit, cruelty, and violence, they too often condone these evils, while emphasizing mostly ceremonies and ritual. To many Jews today, Judaism involves occasional visits to the Synagogue or Temple, prayers recited with little feeling, rituals performed with little meaning, and socializing. But, to the prophets, worship accompanied by indifference to evil is an absurdity, an abomination to God.[xxi] Judaism is mocked when Jews indulge in or condone empty rituals side-by-side with immoral deeds.

While ritual is extremely important, God’s great concern for justice is powerfully expressed by the prophet Amos (5:22-24):

“Even though you offer Me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, And the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.”

The prophet Hosea (6:6) similarly states God’s preference for moral and spiritual dedication rather than mere outward ritual:

“For I desire kindness and not sacrifice, attachment to God rather than burnt offerings.”

Yet all too often, today’s Jews have failed to speak out against an unjust, immoral society. While claiming to follow the ethical teachings of the prophets, many Jews have equivocated and rationalized inaction. Rabbi Heschel blames religion’s failure to speak out and be involved in critical current issues for its losses:

“Religion declined not because it was refuted but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by habit, when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past, when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain, when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.”[xxii]

Many Jews are turned off to Judaism by the lack of moral commitment and  involvement in struggles for a better world within some Jewish religious institutions. Rabbi Abraham Karp, who taught at Dartmouth College, felt that students would only be attracted to a “church or synagogue which dares, which challenges, which disturbs, which acts as a critic, which leads in causes which are moral.”[xxiii] Reinhold Niebuhr, the prominent Christian theologian, attributes religion’s failure to attract idealistic people to its failure to protest injustice. He states that the chief reason that many people turn from religion is that the “social impotence of religion outrages their conscience.”[xxiv]

Many Jews today justify their lack of involvement with the world’s problems by stating that Jews have enough troubles of their own and that we can leave it to others to involve themselves in “non-Jewish” issues. Certainly, Jews must be actively involved in battling anti-Semitism, working for a secure and just Israel, and with many other Jewish issues. But can we divorce ourselves from active involvement with more general problems? Are they really “non-Jewish” issues? Don’t Jews also suffer from polluted air and water, resource shortages, the effects of global climate change, and other societal threats? Can we ignore issues critical to our nation’s future?

Perhaps the situation is, in mathematical terms, one of conditional probability. If conditions in the world are good, it is still possible that Jews will suffer. But if these conditions are bad, it is almost certain that Jews will be negatively affected. Hence, even considering self-interest alone, Jews must be involved in working for a just and harmonious world.

It is essential that Jews (and others) actively apply Jewish values to current critical problems. We must be God’s loyal opposition to injustice, greed, and immorality, rousing the conscience of humanity. We must shout “NO” when others are whispering “yes” to injustice. We must restore Judaism to the task of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” We must act as befits “descendants of the prophets,”[xxv] reminding the world that there exists a God of justice, compassion, and kindness. Nothing less than global survival is at stake.

As later chapters will show, the world is moving on a very perilous path due to its failure to take seriously religious values that have a direct impact on society at large, such as justice, kindness, compassion, peaceful relations, and concern for the environment. We must act to inform and influence Jews (and others) to become involved and to protest to help move the world to a more sustainable path before it is too late.

[i] Tanchuma  to Mishpatim.

[ii]  Babylon Talmud: Shabbat 99b.

[iii]  Midrash Genesis Rabbah 54:3.

[iv]  Shabbat 55a, Tanchuma Tazria 9.

[v]  R. Judah Loew, Netivot Olam, Shaar Hatochaha, end of chapter 2.

The result of failing to speak out against injustice is well expressed by the following statement by the German theologian Martin Niemoller:

In Germany, the Nazis first came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the gypsies, and I didn’t speak up because I was not a gypsy. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me … and by that time, there was no one to speak up for me.

Quoted from Jack Doueck, The Chesed Boomerang: How Acts of Kindness Enrich Our Lives, Deal, New Jersey: Yagdiyl Torah Publicatios, 1999, 83.

[vi]  Orchot Zaddikim 24 (Jerusalem: Eshkol 1967), 160; see also Rabbeinu Yonah, Sharei Teshuvah, Shaar Sh’lishi, No. 5, 187, and 195.

[vii]  American Jewish Congress, Congress Bi-Weekly 31/8 (May 11, 1964): 6.

[viii]  Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom , New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967, 92.

[ix]  Shabbat  55a.

[x]  Pirke Avot  2:21.

[xi]  Judaism 19 (1970): 38-58.

[xii]  Pirke Avot  5:20.

[xiii]  Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets , Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1962, and The Insecurity of Freedom , 9-13 and 92-93.

[xiv]   Midrash Genesis Rabbah.

[xv]  Quoted in Norman Lamm, The Royal Reach , New York: Phillip Feldheim Inc., 1970, 131.

[xvi]  David Shatz, Chaim I. Waxman, and Nathan J. Diament (eds.), Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law,  Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1997, 3.
[xvii]  Ibid, 4; also see Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Confrontation,” Tradition 6:2 (1964), 5-29.
[xviii] Jonathan Sacks, The Persistence of Faith , London: Jews College, 1990, 27.

[xix]  “Why We Went,” (paper of the Social Action Commission, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York); quoted in Rabbi Henry Cohen, Justice, Justice: A Jewish View of the Black Revolution, New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1969, 18.

[xx]  Many Jewish groups which are actively working on environmental and social justice issues are discussed in Appendix C. This section focuses on components of the Jewish community that are not sufficiently involved.

[xxi]  Heschel, The Prophets, 10-11.

[xxii]  Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom, 3, 4.

[xxiii] Quoted in Samuel Chiel, Spectators or Participants , New York: Jonathan David, 1969, 57.

[xxiv] Quoted in Albert Vorspan and Eugene Lipman, Justice and Judaism: The Work of Social Action, New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1969, 231.

[xxv] Pesachim  66b.

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