The voice (of protest) is the voice of Jacob
Whoever has the ability to protest against the members of his household, and doesn’t, is caught up with the members of his household. Whoever has the ability to protest against the members of his city, and doesn’t, is caught up with the members of his city. Whoever has the ability to protest against the whole world, and doesn’t, is caught up with the whole world.
Talmud, Shabbat 54b
This evocative piece of Gemara is one of the most powerful entreaties to Jews to speak truth to power. And it is something deep in our DNA. Abraham, the bearer of our first covenant is distinguished from all the previous personages in the bible by one trait: he speaks up, even protesting against G-d. Later, the biblical prophets became the archetypes of social critics who would challenge the morality of the ruling powers, at risk of life and limb; and we echo their words in our synagogues till this day. Who can erase the searing power of Isaiah directed at Jewish kings and Priests, “Hear the word of Hashem, you rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our G-d, you people of Gomorrah. For what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me? … Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates; they are a burden to Me; I am weary to bear them. And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; when you make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood…”
However, at many points in our history, we have stilled this voice; because the price of speaking can be very high.
In our own country, we know that while there were Jews across the gamut of political and religious spectrums who did protest the evils of apartheid, the majority of the community was very quiet: some in admiration of the apartheid regime, but most out of fear that as a fragile minority, the target of the world’s longest hatred, it was not prudent to raise one’s profile. Who knew, maybe after blacks they would target Jews?
But it is clear that in democratic societies in which Jews are welcomed, they quickly find that voice.
In the Civil Rights movement in the United States when the push came to register black voters in 1964, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner went down to Mississippi and paid for it with their lives. And as much as the recently released film, “Selma”, erased Rabbi AJ Heschel from the picture (literally and figuratively), that towering Orthodox Rabbi was there with Reverend King.
These voices begin as outliers in a community which was tentatively testing the waters of tolerance, but then they become a flood.
In South Africa, it seems, we are witnessing such a beginning. But why now?
Firstly, I believe, it is a testament to the strength of democracy in South Africa. As much as the organs of state are beset by corruption and cupidity, over the past two years, we have been inspired by the strength of the judiciary and, until recently, the public protector. We are witness to a resilient system of checks and balances which enshrines the democratic process and its freedoms.
Secondly, we have been empowered by the example set for us by powerful leaders. Thuli Madonsela, Pravin Gordhan, Mcebisi Jonas and Nhlanhla Nene have led us with their courage. I often wonder to myself whether, like Mr. Jonas, I would be able to refuse a R600 million “incentive”. It’s mind boggling. The moral strength, the righteousness, the selflessness. And if these people can fight the good fight, surely we can, surely we must, step up to the plate.
Thirdly, we live in the latest epoch in human history: the i-Poch. The explosion of our ability to voice our views (on Facebook, Twitter and the like) has had some awful side-effects, least of which is having to put up with narcissists who insist on regaling us with the exact details of how they chose their latest brand of deodorant. The i-Poch is so self-centred, it is often nauseating. But on the other hand, people have lost many of the traditional inhibitions against making their views known; and this has spread from the virtual world into the real world.
Fourthly, as Jews, whether we are conscious of it or not, the fact that we have the State of Israel, strong and always open to us, is a source of incomparable security and pride. Throughout the millennia of our wanderings, the price of speaking up could have been exile or worse. Those of us born after the founding of the State have the incomparably dangerous capacity to take Israel for granted – we simply have no experience of what it was like to live as stateless, wandering Jews, always fearing the next “decree”. This lack of fear alone plays a large role in how outspoken Jews are today.
Lastly, on a deeper, spiritual level, I would return to the quote from the Talmud above. The commentators ask what is meant by the statement that if we do not protest that we are “caught up” with those who should have been the targets of our objections.
The standard, but harsh explanation is that of Rashi who says that if we are silent in the face of evil, we are complicit in it. However, Rav Kook’s comment on this opens up a unique perspective. He writes as follows,
Sometimes a human being has a special, personal ability which is suited to address an issue – he or she has the capacity either to remove a negativity in the world or to bring about a positive addition. When one views this with a clear understanding, then often, realities which seem separated are actually seen to be part of one system – to the point that one can sense the link which has been made by Hashem between a “problematic issue” and the power which can solve it.But since every ability is aimed at a particular purpose, when that ability is not actualised it becomes a destructive force.
Rav Kook explains that often we have been entrusted with a gift in order to combat an evil in the world. But that gift needs to be used, it needs expression. When we are confronted with that evil and we miss the moment to manifest that part of us, it lies dormant and festers, and eventually rots within us and this is what the Gemara means, that we are “caught up” with the evildoers. When we do not manifest our abilities to make a difference, it harms us.
Perhaps then, the final reason that the new generation of Jews is engaging in such processes for change is because we have been gifted with the power to help those changes become reality and on the deepest level we sense that if we do not channel these powers positively, we will be left frustrated and empty. But if we do act, then we will become who we are meant to be.