Jonathan Freirich
Listener, learner, thinker - leading to better actions.

No straight lines

The arc of history doesn’t bend towards justice. Not by itself.

We must bend and break the arc, again and again, to pursue justice.

Time and patience always favor the oppressors. Falling apart is the natural direction of things.

This holds for individuals, peoples, and nations.

I am a moderately lucky person. My life does not move in a straight line of progress. I worked hard, got lucky, faced challenges, got unlucky, and struggled. Life is filled with interruptions of any easy path forward. I can look back and see progress over time, which is lucky, but only by smoothing over all the falls and drops and times of difficulty. And sometimes, in the middle of one of those “valleys in the shadow of death”[1], seeing any progress feels impossible. The arc of my personal history may bend towards justice over time, but it is no smooth climb. It is rocky and challenging and sometimes every step forward is an enormous effort. And still, I am much luckier than most.

As a Jewish person working with many multi-faith partners, I often explain how Jews are not a “people of the Book”[2]. Judaism is a culture of many books, even Hebrew Scriptures themselves are a library written and compiled over centuries. Most importantly, the books that help define who Jews are today and how we organize ourselves were written much later, they are rabbinic works like the Mishnah, the Talmud, all the interpretative stories of the Midrash, and the commentaries and legal codes written about them starting in the Early Middle Ages and continuing today. And like our own lives, while we can smooth out the struggles and show a steady progress in Jewish history, many Jewish innovations overturned and upended all Jewish culture sometimes all at once.

One of the biggest interruptions in Jewish history was the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. We can easily break Jewish civilization into before and after this moment. To this day, Jews are the heirs of the culture developed in the wake of that time. We are no longer a Biblical people, adhering explicitly to customs and laws laid out in Hebrew Scripture. We are no longer a people of burnt offerings and a hereditary patriarchy of monarchs and priests. Rather, in the millennia without a center, the Jewish people became varied in our identities and ethnic cultures, often trying to be pluralist in our acceptance of our differences, and in our best moments, struggling towards becoming democratic and meritocratic. Our many ways of reading and living were outlined and explored by the authors of all those later works.

Judaism responded to that great historical tragedy, the destruction of our central place of worship and rulership, with a revolution. Instead of that central ancient Temple run by an elite few, we became a decentralized people with local leaders who usually convinced nearby Jews of their authority by answering Jewish questions in ways that Jews felt were most authentically Jewish.[3] The many Jewish peoples continue to make our way into the future with progress fought for and lost and fought for again.

Americans like to think that American History follows an arc of inevitable improvement – that progress comes as time passes. This is not the case in Jewish History, and it is not the case in American History. Progress by fits and starts, through disruptions and steps forward and back is the norm. Kermit Roosevelt III convincingly makes this point about the United States of America in The Nation That Never Was[4]. Roosevelt argues that the United States didn’t set out on a course of justice for all and a democracy that would expand to include everyone. The United States course-corrected violently during the Civil War, needed to course-correct again during the Civil Rights Era in the 1960’s, and must do so again now. Furthermore, we obstruct our own progress when we hold that the ideals the mythological “Founders” held and fought for are the same principles we hold dearest today and that those principles were clearly articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the original US Constitution.

Our understanding of “all people are created equal” is not the same as Thomas Jefferson’s, who not only owned slaves but refused to free his own children from slavery. The American Revolution was fought by insiders, people who were British citizens – white, landowning men – so that they could govern themselves. They were not interested in sharing government with anyone else. President Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. both used Thomas Jefferson’s words and the principles of the Declaration of Independence differently than Jefferson intended. Lincoln and Dr. King aimed to establish more inclusive and expansive understandings of American citizenship and democracy than Jefferson ever considered. Their versions weren’t perfect, they still needed work, like the inclusion of women. Yet their versions were improvements, and we can improve upon them still.

The people who took Jefferson most seriously, the ones who felt they could throw off the yoke of a government they disagreed with for the sake of their own advancement, were the Confederates who sought to preserve slavery against the democratic will of the American people in 1860 who chose Lincoln to abolish enslaving people. American history does not lead neatly and directly from Jefferson, to Lincoln, to King, to the electing of the first African American president. It is a crooked path of oppression and fighting for justice and Americans are still in the thick of it today. Roosevelt lays this all out in detail and I recommend his book to anyone interested in helping make a better, more inclusive, more egalitarian, more democratic, and more “e pluribus unum – out of many one”, American future for us all.

We must be clear and honest about who we are and what we think and why. The Civil War was fought against slavery and the people who thought that owning people was their American way. Most of the American Founders agreed with the Confederates. Progressive Americans have been refighting the issues of the Civil War since the end of Reconstruction in the 1870’s. Fighting against Jim Crow which was slavery by another name for a century and fighting against the abuse and misuse of due process and citizenship in the Fourteenth Amendment for the sake of the powerful against the powerless for nearly a hundred and fifty years. This fight continues today as those who would oppress still use the same words against us all. They call it “originalism” and mean minority-rule, or religious freedom and mean freedom to restrict other people’s rights with whom they disagree, or “history and tradition” and mean the protection of gun rights and no rights for women.

People of faith who are also of good faith tend not to quote scripture at one another because we know that we can justify almost anything with a good Biblical quote. How we use an ancient source and for what principles are more important than whether we’ve found a clever text to support our opinion. Judaism evolved to read our ancient sources in ways that created a more just society over time. Not a perfect one, not one that we can’t question, but one that we are responsible for making better as individuals and as members of a community. In my own life the guideposts that led me down roads into trouble before are not permanent. I must reinterpret them, learn from them anew, and find a better path forward.

As thoughtful Americans we must embrace the complicated history and figures in that history, flaws and all, and see ourselves as empowered participants in building something better and new. We have no one in the past who “got it right”, whose words are the blueprint for “getting it right again”.

Let us leave aside simplifications that close us off to a better future and instead boldly walk forward together, creatively equipping ourselves with ancient wisdom and contemporary innovations and everything in between, so that our thoughts are guided by good values and lead to better practices and a better existence for us all.


[1] Psalm 23, Verse 4, my own perspective on the Hebrew, בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת, as seen in:

Jewish Publication Society. (1999). תנ״ך = JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: the traditional Hebrew text and the new JPS translation (2nd ed.).

[2] “People of the Book” seems to originally come from Muslim sources, and not Christian characterizations. Now, in my opinion, it is inappropriately embraced by many contemporary Jewish people. For Muslim roots of the term, see:

Dana, N. (2014). Part Three: The Qur’an’s Approach to “The People of the Book” (Ahl al-Kitab). In The struggle for Jerusalem and the Holy Land: A new inquiry into the Qur’an and classic Islamic sources on the people of Israel, their Torah, and their links to the Holy Land (p. 185).

[3] This is a description of Judaism sourced from many places throughout the course of my learning as a rabbi. I am happy to explore my references and reasons for this portrayal in future conversations.

[4] Roosevelt, K. (2022). The nation that never was: Reconstructing America’s story. University of Chicago Press.

About the Author
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich, a Reconstructionist and Reform rabbi, with training in public policy and community organizing, originally from New York City, now coalition-builds, facilitates, listens, learns, and writes in Buffalo, New York. Dedicated to compassion and cooperation, thoughtfulness and thinking, and effective collaborative actions, Jonathan aims to contribute to a better connected, more peaceful, and more sustainable world.
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