Shayna Abramson

As A Religious Jew, I Cannot Stay Silent

Recently, I’ve found myself turning away from news articles. With all the stresses of daily life, I don’t have the energy to deal with the emotions that come from reading beneath the headlines. The Brexit deal-or-no-deal game, the Trump impeachment scandal, the ethnic cleansing of Kurds – all of these make me sad, and sometimes, that sadness seems too much to bear.

The worst of all is that I feel powerless: Of course, I can exercise my right to vote in Israel and America, and I can sign a petition or even attend a rally. But none of that feels like it matters anymore. I don’t believe that Trump will reverse American policy in Syria if he realizes it’s unpopular, and I think it’s safe to say that Erdogan does not care about international opinion.

I used to consume information, because it was necessary to create effective change. Staying informed helped me decide which issues I cared about, and how to act. Without the belief that by obtaining information, I empower myself to affect the stories I read about, I am much less motivated to read the stories in the first place – especially when doing so makes me anxious.

Additionally, with so many different news sources and conflicting stories, sometimes it’s hard to know what the facts are in the first place. Most days, I believe the major news outlets* I grew up with, but faced with so many conspiracy theories and alternative versions of events greeting me on social media, there are days when I wonder: Could everything I think I know about the world be wrong? Is it possible that this really is a giant plot that I’m simply too naive to see?

And that niggling voice of doubt, even though it’s only a whisper, and it only appears on certain occasions, also means that I’m less likely to read the news on days when I know it will upset me -which is most days, nowadays. 

And yet, to remain uninformed is the choice of the privileged. It is a choice based on an assumption that what affects other people doesn’t affect me, when in fact, we are one giant connected web of humanity, and problems that start off one place have a habit of quickly spreading to other places as well.

As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I spent years wondering: How could people just stand by and let it happen?

I think now, I’m beginning to understand. People let it happen because they didn’t know it was happening. They knew that maybe it was happening -but maybe it wasn’t. And hearing about it made them upset. And what was the point of hearing such information when you couldn’t do anything about it? And they were worried about their kids and the bills and a million other things in their daily lives, with no leftover energy to try to investigate whether or not the rumours were true, or what actions they could take to try and stop it.

Recently, I heard about a rally about the situation in Syria at 2 hours notice. 

Was I required to cancel plans with family coming in from abroad in order to attend? What if the rally had required missing work? How far would my obligations go? What if a rally required violating Shabbat? Would there be an issue important enough to classify as pikuach nefesh*? If so, would rallying count as an effective enough act to classify as saving lives? 

I don’t know the answers to these questions, yet as a religious Jew, I believe that I have an obligation to speak out when mass atrocities against humanity are being committed. 

According to Isaiah, prayer and fast are meaningless if one does not use their voice to stand up for the oppressed and powerless:

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the LORD; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations–I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly.And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:11-17)

This obligation, to stand up to injustice, is incumbent upon me even if I know that my actions might have the desired outcome. In the words of Ethics of the Fathers, “The work is not yours to finish, but nor are you free to desist from it”.

Innocent people created in God’s image are being killed. How can I stay silent?

As a religious Jew, I believe that people are created in the image of God, and that gives me hope. For it means that every person has a spark of goodness within them. I believe in each person’s potential to get in touch with that spark,  such that they will desist from their evil ways. And that means that we as a society are not doomed, because we might yet discover our inner spark of kindness.

And it is because I have hope for the future of humankind, that I am driven by thoughts not only of my family’s personal Holocaust history, but also of the future:

When my future hypothetical children say to me, “Mom, where were you when the ethnic cleansing in Syria happened?” I want to be able to look them in the eye.

*mainly the New York Times

** pikuach nefesh means saving a life. In Jewish law, one is allowed (perhaps even: required) to violate Shabbat in order to save a life.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.