Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: What Judaism Requires of Us
“We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes… The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in a telegram to President John F. Kennedy
It was 52 years ago this month that religious leaders, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and other Reform Jewish leaders, joined the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1964 March for Voting Rights from Selma to Montgomery.
Speaking out took courage. Many of us know about Bloody Sunday, when local police savagely beat marchers; fewer remember the Unitarian minister, James Reeb, who was attacked and killed by an angry mob days later. When our brave rabbis chose to join the march, it was a controversial and scary decision. Now, we look back on their actions with pride.
Times have changed. Many of the objectives of our predecessors have been achieved, and we can gain strength from remembering not only their courage, but also their success against intransigent powers.
And yet, the hour is again perilous. Our Muslim neighbors are being harassed; our Latin-American friends are being threatened; our transgender children are being bullied. Hateful and degrading speech – which, only months ago, was beyond the pale – has entered the public discourse.
What must we do, as individuals and as a community, to live our Jewish values? What must we do today that shows moral grandeur, and that we will look back upon with pride? What risks will we take, putting what is right before what is comfortable? The Reform Jewish community has already taken the first steps.
We must support the vulnerable.
Our prophets entreat us: “Devote yourselves to justice. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17). In these times, there is a dizzying array of issues deserving our attention. Staying true to our core value of supporting the vulnerable – whether directly, like Temple Sholom in Toronto, which is sponsoring a refugee family, or through advocacy, as the Religious Action Center has done for so long – can provide focus in the storm.
We must speak out.
As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook said, “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I do not have the power to remain silent.” By speaking out, we energize ourselves and our allies, and we comfort the downtrodden, who know they are not alone. We let our elected officials know that our Jewish values drive action, as our Jewish teens do during the RAC’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminars and on Jewish Disability Advocacy Day. We will continue to speak out for justice wherever our voice is needed.
We must learn.
We must learn about the challenges we face, and the practical tools we can build to address them. But even more than that, we must study the wisdom of our sages, wisdom which provides clarity and direction and provokes us to act.
We must reach for the holy.
In the hard labor of building a just world, or the passionate moments of taking a stand, it is easy to forget that each person carries within a spark of the divine. Indeed, we must seek that spark both in those whom society spurns, and also in those who disappoint or disagree with us.
We must build for the future while we wrestle with the present.
Many are familiar with the midrash about the old man who planted a carob tree: He enjoyed the fruits of the trees his grandparents had grown, and now he planted so that his descendants could benefit. Even as we work to address newly emerging concerns, we also must continue to plant carob trees: sowing seeds of justice that will bear fruit in the future. Visit the Urgency of Now resource center to learn about and act on the Reform Movement's most urgent legislative action alerts and resources.
“Let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24) Reform Jews have a long history of social action, and within our community today, the urge to make an impact is growing with each passing week. The lives of our prophets cry out for justice. Our own history provides examples to inspire us to act.
It is again a time for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.
Loree Farrar is the president of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA.