It’s not like we haven’t been through this before. As a people, “guests,” really segregated aliens, in Egypt our security was only as strong as that of the establishment (Pharaoh) to those who had enriched Egypt (Joseph). And it didn’t take more than the new Pharaoh to erase that “unbreakable bond,” but nonetheless it still took more than the leader’s executive powers to do us Hebrews in. Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270, Catalonia) in his classic commentary on Exodus reveals the breaks on the system that impeded Egypt from turning against the Hebrews:
- It would be a terrible act of betrayal to turn the sword against a people who were expressly invited in by a prior king. No nation proud of its morality could swallow such an act;
- The populace, which Pharaoh needed to woo, wouldn’t have stood for such treachery;
- The People Israel were already of such a size that a frontal assault would be costly.
So Pharaoh needed to “deal craftily” with this “5th column” people who were never really attracted or loyal to the Land of Egypt. Pharaoh stirs up his people with a promise of a Public Works Project, to be paid by the labors of the Hebrews who live in nearby Goshen, thereby making his nation “Great Again.” Pharaoh doesn’t get his own hands dirty — he tries to entice midwives to deny proper medical care to the enemy Hebrews. And when that doesn’t work, he lets loose roaming gangs to create mortal mischief – for they know what Pharaoh really wants is random acts of violence that can be blamed on the victims themselves who somehow provoked them (the gangs, after all, are only “taking Egypt back again”). In all this chaos, clearly, many of the Egyptian population grew an appetite for anger and violence. The rest of the Egyptians remained silent. They got used to all this disruption. And most likely they themselves became intimidated, scared, in denial, or simply wanting to be on the winning side.
Do these reasons for silence explain why Orthodoxy — from knitted kipah to black cap — can’t bring themselves condemn the source of this past week’s violence and the violence that is sure to follow: President Trump. I had earlier thought that the Orthodox that I’m part of were just saving their energy for supporting Israel or that they were in some ways scared of him… or — as Orthodox we have a penchant for authoritarian leaders — even Putin has his own actual Chassidim. But thinking back to my youth in the civil rights movement I know it lay deeper.
My parents were devout Orthodox Jews who were also liberal Democrats on the old South Side of Chicago — a kind of urban suburb. A baby boomer generation was raised by parents who were back from World War II as either servicemen and their spouses, or as survivors. In a short period of time they built a beautiful modern community with every Jewish institution that one could want. My father was the only shomer Shabbat dentist, and he served a diverse population who revered his gentlemanly ways and his dental prowess. Mother taught literature in the mostly segregated public high schools. They were both very aware of ethnic pressures and conflicts, but I never heard a word of prejudice from them, but rather talk of building a better society.
What I had at home was not true at our day school and synagogue community. Racism was rife and interrelated with a Jewish sense of powerlessness. Jews were fearful of goyim in general and Negroes in particular. On the South Side, the fear circled around the loss of our new community that was just built to a “tide of colored residents.” It all became a self-fulfilling prophesy, and White Flight along with a Yiddishe Yetziah (Exodus) to far Northern suburbs ended a short 20-year experiment. It didn’t have to end that way, but Jewish leaders and rabbis could not articulate a common cause with emergent Black Power. Jews clung to the establishment power base, the original Mayor Richard J. Daley (Hizzoner), hoping to tough it out, with an ignorant crowd of political thugs.
I could find no Orthodox rabbi to offer support much less a vision to this young activist. Meantime, I was volunteering in what was considered a dangerous part of town; I had no problem working the Headstart program for preschool ghetto children. Being the only white kid, I was singled out by Mayor Daley at a City Hall honoring of volunteers, Alderman Leon Despres called out, “He’s the only Jew!” I was a participant in a lot of demonstrations where I was what Woody Allen would call a Bleeder. If a shove fest took place, my nose would immediately give way and my blood would evidently egg on the crowd (on both sides). With all this, eventually, three men gave me courage to be Orthodox and an activist.
To put everything to the test, I saved up my money and bought a Greyhound Bus ticket to join the upcoming march in Selma, Alabama, a long trip. Towards the end of the trip, on the last leg of the bus ride, I was sitting next to a nice man, a farmer named Dee, who took his nourishment from a bottle in a paper bag. Early morning, I carefully took out my tefilin and while putting them on I inadvertently woke up Dee. He let out a holler, and I’m not sure what happened, but there was bedlam. The bus driver slammed on the brakes, and came to interrogate me. I explained that I wasn’t trying to hang myself, that these were phylacteries, and that as an Orthodox rabbinical student I was joining Dr. King on the great Selma march. The driver confiscated the tefilin, had me sit down, and drove the bus straight to the Hackleburg (Alabama) jail. I was arrested and put under lock and key. I spent a difficult day and night with a few older gentlemen sleeping it off. Early in the morning I and my tefilin were bailed out by a Reform rabbi, Benjamin Schultz, who drove five hours from Clarkesdale Mississippi. Rabbi Schultz took good care of me, but the deal was that I get on the next bus back (eventually) to Chicago. He was not a supporter of the March – he “understood” segregation – nor was he pro-Orthodox. But as he waited patiently with me at the bus stop, I had a profound understanding of what Hessed can mean, even, and especially, at a point of tension and confusion.
The second person that redeemed me was the Orthodox posek (legal decisor) of Chicago, Rabbi Hayim Dovid Regensberg. He came from a top rabbinic line, was greatly thought of in Europe as a scholar, studied at the University of Chicago, and was greatly beloved by the community. I posed to him a question, quaking and shaking all the time, how I can reconcile a commitment to the “struggle” and to Torah. He responded with a long obviously thought-out discourse on the significance of civil rights in Halakhic thought. He emphasized that to “act with integrity and to do good” (Deut. 6) was the essence of Torah.
But the person who put the fear and love of God in me was Martin Luther King Jr. himself. Fifty-one years ago (Aug. 5, 1966) he brought his campaign to the South Side, far west of where I lived in Marquette Park, an Eastern European ethnic conclave. I skipped school that day and took the CTA bus out west. The mob that faced him was filled with a hate that Rev. King said exceeded anything he experienced in the (real) South. I was dressed in my brown corduroys, bright yellow shirt, and big chartreuse velvet Bar Mitzvah guest kippah (Mike Green, 1962) that doesn’t fall off easily. In effect, my dress said: Jew target. I later got shoved, and didn’t bleed, but Dr. King was felled by a rock. When he got up after a few agonizing moments, it was as if resurrection itself has occurred. Around 20 minutes earlier, as he and his entourage passed where I was standing, he noticed me in all my sartorial elegance and that chartreuse velvet kippah. He asked quickly, “Are you wearing your fringes?” As if confronted by my 4th grade yeshiva rebbe, I automatically pulled one strand out from under my shirt. He said then in his deep, deep baritone, “Wear them. Remember ALL the commandments.” He was off then to the fray.
I’ve worn them every day since. And as the verse Dr. King of blessed memory referenced (Num. 15:39) I try to remember ALL of the commandments and do them. Because I am a tzitzit wearing Orthodox Jew and rabbi, I am compelled to call out the source of the evil of Charlottesville — I condemn Donald Trump and his minions.
Can I hear a minyan of Orthodox rabbis that will do the same?