In recent months and years, our nation has witnessed numerous protests, some against the killing of civilians by police officers and others against economic inequality. Some of these protests have blocked streets and bridges, and some have become violent, causing destruction of property and even injury and loss of life. It’s worth asking if social protest works. If so, what purpose does it serve? Do we have an obligation to protest events in society and decisions of our government? What does Judaism teach us about the right and obligation to protest?
The Talmud teaches that we not only have an obligation to protest evil and corruption, but that we are accomplices to those perpetrating that evil if we don’t.
“Rav, Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Yohanan taught…Whoever can protest to his household and does not is accountable for the sins of his household; if he could protest to his townspeople and does not, he is accountable for their sins; if he could protest to the whole world and does not, he is accountable for the whole world.” (Shabbat 54b)
Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal of Prague, taught that being a good person in the way we relate to others and in our own actions is admirable but insufficient when facing evil.
“While a person may be individually pious, such good pales in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil…such a pious person will be accountable for having been able to prevent it and did not.”
When witnessing evil and corruption, it is inadequate to claim to be a good person who doesn’t harm anybody. “Passive goodness,” not being a part of the problem or an instigator, are desirable traits, but they’re not enough to overcome evil. Our tradition teaches that for goodness to prevail over evil, every person must rise up to voice their opposition and put pressure on those committing acts of evil to change their actions.
The importance of social protest can be found in this week’s Torah portion Toldot. Isaac famously displays his doubts about whether it is Jacob or Esav sitting before him to receive the blessing of the firstborn by saying “Ha-kol kol Ya’akov v’hayadayim yedei Esav…I hear the voice of Jacob but I feel the hands of Esav.” Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman, known as the Vilna Gaon, comments on that passage.
“An alternate translation is ‘If Jacob’s voice is faint, the hands will be the hands of Esav.’ Note that the word ‘ha-kol’ (the voice) is spelled in the Hebrew text without the vav, and may therefore be read as ‘ha-kal,’ meaning light or faint. This is to teach us that whenever the voice of righteousness as symbolized by Jacob becomes faint, evil embodied by the hands of Esav will gain control. But when the voice of Jacob gains full strength (when ‘kal’ becomes ‘kol’) the hands of Esav will no longer be in control.”
Jews have a long history of social protest and of advocating for what is right in the public arena, all the while respecting the idea that social protest must be non-violent. Strength in numbers is all that’s necessary to apply pressure to those who oppress others and send a message that acts of evil are not acceptable in a decent society.
Social protest brings together good people to advocate for important causes and unite in a desire to confront oppression and wrong. As individuals our resolve to bring about change for the better is strengthened when we protest togethert. As the Elie Wiesel z”l said, “there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”