Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Moses was a radical -- and Judaism is a radical religion!

From its beginning, Judaism has often protested against greed, injustice, and the misuse of power.  Abraham, the first Hebrew, smashed the idols of his father even though 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 the Judge of all the earth not do justly?” when God informed him of His plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:25).  By contrast, Noah, though personally righteous, was later rebuked by some 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 fighting injustice and helping to resolve disputes, whether they are between Jews, Jews and non-Jews, or only 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 Jew 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 2:17).In all three cases, Moses pursues justice, no matter who the victims are or what group they belong to. One could argue that it was these three actions that demonstrated to God that Moses was the right person to confront Pharaoh and later lead the Israelites out of Egypt

The story of Moses has become an archetypal model for liberation movements today. This is a great gift from the Jewish people to the world. When Dr. Martin Luther King said to a gathering of civil rights activists in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated, “I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land,” he was evoking the eternal story of Moses as a model for the United States civil rights movement. Like Moses, Dr. King was confronting the Pharaoh of his own day with “Let my people go!”

...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 involvement, remonstrating against wrongs inflicted on other people.

So prophets, in Judaism, are not fortunetellers. They are social activists, protesters, and yes, radicals. They care about the common people in the here and now and call the community to decisive action. They do not claim that human suffering is some sort of karma to be accepted with resignation. They challenge us to change ourselves, change the fabric of society, and "make the world a better place to live in." The prophets rage against injustices and demand that we fix them in the here and now. In the words of Rabbi Heschel in his now-classic book, The Prophets:

What manner of man is the prophet? A student of philosophy who turns from the discourses of the great metaphysicians to the orations of the prophets may feel as if he were going from the realm of the sublime to an area of trivialities. Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the marketplace… Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man.  God is raging in the prophet’s words.

In sharp contrast to this prophetic heritage, today’s Jewish communities (and most others) often ignore or respond 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.   Isaiah cries out:

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)

(Excerpted from chapter 2, "Is Judaism a Radical Religion?" in Who Stole My Religion?  by Richard H. Schwartz)


As we head into the Passover season, let us all try to rekindle this spirit of righteous protest within ourselves.  What is your personal "burning bush" calling you to action?  Who are the Pharoahs oppressing society today?  How do we confront them?  And if not now, when?