From Pharaoh to Selma

I have heard great things about the movie “Selma” – I hope to see it soon. And it has evoked a number of controversies. An interesting one is the absence of (virtually) any identifiable Jews in the final march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 to advocate for voting rights for Blacks. This is striking because Jews were in fact heavily represented at the Selma march in particular, and in the struggle for African-American civil rights in general.

There is a long list of rabbis and other Jews who marched from Selma, most famously Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who helped lead the march, standing at its front line with Dr. Martin Luther King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The iconic photograph of the three of them is an enduring image of that era’s struggle.

Regarding this controversy, I have seen three reactions among Jewish critics. The first is dismay at being overlooked – we were there, why don’t we get credit? (This reminds me of the complaints I hear when someone’s birthday is omitted from the Shul announcements.)

The second response is to allege a nefarious reason for the omission, such as anti-semitism. (I find this far fetched.)

The third response is the most interesting and thought provoking. Professor Susannah Heschel, Rabbi Heschel’s daughter, wrote that omitting her father and other rabbis turns the story into one of purely political protest, when in fact it was “a profoundly religious moment.”

Heschel himself wrote about this experience: “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our walk was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

These words made a deep impact on my life and have been my personal religious credo and goal throughout my years as a rabbi.

Dr. King, in Selma and elsewhere, certainly saw his efforts as a religious imperative. In perhaps his most famous speech, at the March on Washington in 1963, King said: “I have a dream that one day ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.'”

These words are taken from Yishayahu HaNavi, the prophet Isaiah (Chapter 40), in a passage we read in the synagogue every year on the Shabbat of Consolation, following Tisha B’Av which commemorates the destruction of our Temple in Jerusalem. The passage begins with the God’s promise to the Jewish People, Nachamu Nachamu Ami – “I will comfort you, I will comfort you – my people.”

Clearly we, like King, understand that prophecy not only as consolation over the destruction of Jerusalem more than 2000 years ago, but equally, that the promise of equality is a necessary and intrinsic goal of redemption.

Clearly, as well, we are taught to understand the exodus from Egypt, and to put it to use in the same way – not just as the recollection of a historical event, but as a directive for ongoing responsibility and effort.

On the one hand, we read in last Shabbat’s Torah portion the famous words we quote at the Passover Seder, which direct us back to the historical narrative: “And when your child will ask you, in times to come, saying: What is this? And you shall answer him: With a strong hand God brought us out from Egypt, from the place of slavery.” (Exodus 13:14) This places the orientation of our religious observance of Passover towards recalling and reliving the past.

But complimenting that on the other hand, five times in the Torah our experience in Egypt is specifically used by God as the basis of obligating us to work continually on behalf of the rights of others. One example teaches (Exodus 23:9): “Do not oppress the Ger [stranger, foreigner, the other who has been mistreated]. You know what is in his soul, because you too were oppressed in Egypt.”

We Jews know what it is like to be persecuted, we know what it is like to be deprived of civil rights, we know what it is like to be despised and humiliated. And because we experienced that in Egypt, God obligates us to help make sure it doesn’t happen to others. Even, in one of the five passages, towards Egyptians, even if at one time they were our enemy and persecuted us – even then.

Along with many other rabbis and Jewish leaders, Rabbi Heschel explicitly expressed this at the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1963: “At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses… The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from being completed.”

I am not very concerned about what is in a movie and what is left out. I am much more concerned with whether we are where we need to be. Our community is very good at, and well known for speaking out whenever Jews are under attack, anywhere in the world. This is to our credit and of that we should be very proud. But I am not satisfied that we, as a community, are doing enough for the rights of others.

The movie,”Selma,” Martin Luther King Day last week, the Torah reading – all of these coming together reminds me that if we are not speaking up loudly and forcefully on behalf of the civil rights and equality of others, we are not living up to what God tells us the exodus from Egypt is supposed to mean for us; we are not living up to what religion is supposed to mean for us.

I think we can do better.

And therefore, we must.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Whitman is the spiritual leader of the ADATH (Adath Israel Poale Zedek Anshei Ozeroff Synagogue) in Hampstead, Quebec since August, 2001. He is also a Sessional Lecturer at McGill University Faculty of Law, and creator if its Talmudic Law Moot Court Competition. Rabbi Whitman serves on the boards of Auberge Shalom…pour femmes, Cote St. Luc / Hampstead / Snowdon Eruv, Westmount Eruv, Rabbinical Council Conversion Program, and (former Executive Board Member) Rabbinical Council of America. He is past president of the Rabbinical Council of Montreal and past president of the Greater Montreal Board of Rabbis. Rabbi Whitman served for fourteen years as the spiritual leader of Young Israel of New Haven, Connecticut, USA. During that time, he worked at Yale University Hillel and taught at Yale University Law School.
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