Channeling Abraham, Fighting for Civil Rights
Almost as soon as the Central Conference of American Rabbis' conference began in June of 1964, the presiding rabbi stepped forward with an urgent telegram from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. King needed rabbis to take part in demonstrations against the segregated city of St. Augustine, FL, and he needed them immediately. The next morning, 16 rabbis and Al Vorspan, then-leader of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, were at the airport, answering King’s call.
In St. Augustine, these 17 civil rights activists answered a call from Dr. King. Just this past week in parashat Noach, Noah answers a call from God. In the portion, God instructs Noah to build an arc and fill it with animals to protect them from the flood that will wipe out the rest of the Earth. Noah does exactly as he is told and is praised as “a righteous man; blameless in his age” who “walked with God.” In the midrash, Rabbi Judah explains that Noah was only blameless because of his age, and had he lived in future generations, he would not have been considered righteous. After all, Noah is obedient but surprisingly undisturbed by the destruction of life- he neither questions God’s decision nor advocates for the rest of humanity. He answered his call, but went no further.
Noah’s behavior directly contrasts that of Abraham. When God informs Abraham of his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham asks, “will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” In raising his question, Abraham advocates for others and attempts to save their lives, unafraid to question even God. Abraham’s question causes God to think twice about his plan. He wonders if he should hide his actions from Abraham, but decides to reach out to Abraham and include him in the decision-making. Through Abraham’s actions, God acknowledges the importance of critically thinking about decisions and their impacts on all people. Abraham’s courage and readiness to act allow God to undergo this transformation.
As opposed to Noah who “walked with God,” we are told that Abraham “walked before God.” Thus we see their fundamental difference: Noah follows Gods instructions and is obedient in completing a task, whereas Abraham attempts to transform a situation, acknowledging the injustice. Abraham engages deeply with the issues in front of him, modeling leadership and righteousness- and thus we identify ourselves as descendants of Abraham, not descendants of Noah.
Though we identify as descendants of Abraham, we cannot disregard Noah’s important role. Reform Jews have many times answered calls, as Noah did. However, there have also been many times when we have gone beyond this call, as Abraham did, to forge a path for justice, even when it was uncomfortable and inconvenient.
And I hope we will continue to do so today.
On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black teenager, was shot multiple times and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO. In response to his death, hundreds of people gathered at the scene to organize vigils and demand answers, and were met with a heavily armed police response.
Several of our area congregations and rabbis, most prominently Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis led by Rabbi Susan Talve, have been and continue to be active in the communal response. Rabbi Talve and her congregation not only answered the call, but have gone above and beyond to support the community and fight for justice. She has joined together with a religiously and denominationally diverse group of clergy members to participate in and support the protests that are happening on a daily basis. They have also begun preparing their congregations to serve as sanctuaries should riots erupt if the police officer is not convicted.
In the middle of the night last month, one of the synagogue rabbis picked up a few of their congregants who had been teargased, and just this week, two African-American members of the congregation, one of whom serves on the board, were arrested. Rabbi Talve and her colleagues are using their position as people who are generally respected by authority to protect and lift up the voices of the black youth who are leading this movement. In recognizing the value of every life, Rabbi Talve and her congregation have acted as modern-day Abrahams.
What happened in Ferguson was not an isolated incident; it was a tragic result of racism that is ingrained in our institutions. Rabbi Talve is fighting for justice in Ferguson because these are our children, and they are dying. We must not only denounce the killing of Michael Brown but also challenge the structures that allowed it to happen. We have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to act as Abraham and fight the injustice of others. Abraham risked the wrath of God to save the lives of people he had never met. He posed grand questions about the value of human life, and though legal desegregation has ended, we must continue to ask these questions about the value of minority lives in our country. The Rabbis went to St. Augustine because they “could not stand quietly by their brother’s blood… as [they] had done too many times before.” We must realize that our brothers’ blood is still being shed. We can, as Rabbi Talve and her congregation have done, risk the system that we have inherited in hopes of achieving a more moral, equitable world.
This week, as members of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism hold their biannual meeting in Atlanta - imbued with the presence of Dr. King and sitting in a temple that was bombed because of hate and intolerance - I think it is fitting to listen to the words of the rabbis in their best rendition of Abraham:
“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.”