MLK Day: Judaism & Human Rights

Our week started with MLK Day, during which we paid homage to a great religious humanist of prophetic stature, and to all those who fought for human dignity in our country throughout the 1960’s, and beyond. In this context, it is instructive that the Torah starts with a universal story about humanity at large, about Adam and Eve, and only then moves on to the particular story of Judaism and monotheism, some twelve chapters thereafter.

Our sages of old explicate, that the reason the Torah narrative starts with human beings of no particular ethnicity or religion, is to avoid ethnocentricity and chauvinistic zeal. To avoid, in the words of the midrash, one person condescendingly saying to another “my father was greater than yours.”

In its opening chapter, the Torah revolutionizes human morality and politics, by asserting that we are all in the image of the Infinite, and thus we all possess a-priori intrinsic worth, and inherent dignity and soulfulness. It is instructive that the rabbis of antiquity decreed that during the Shabbat in which we read about the giving of the Torah at Sinai (Parshat Yitro), we also read in the haftarah (prophetic portion), the immortal words of the prophet Amos, who says to the Jewish people in the name of G-d: “You are as Africans to me,” meaning – G-d favors not one human group over another. Allegorically, we are all His children, His spiritual descendants. All of Jewish history – the enslavement in Egypt, the persecutions expulsions and discrimination in the diaspora, culminating in the genocide of our people in Europe some eight decades ago – all the immeasurable sufferings of our people, serve a pedagogical purpose.

Jewish suffering, states the Torah explicitly, was a sustained tutorial in empathy and respect to all human groups: “And you shall know the soul of the stranger, and you shall love the stranger as you love yourself, for you yourselves were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” Einstein spoke of our people’s “almost fanatical love of justice.” About fifty percent of the leading lawyers fighting for civil rights were Jewish. Two rabbis spoke during the March on Washington, before Dr King articulated his dream. At the culmination of the High Holy Days season, we read from the Bible about Jonah, who was sent by G-d to save sinful non-Jews from certain perdition. In the words of philosopher Immanuel Levinas, Judaism is a “difficult freedom,” and a “religion for adults.” It is about care and concern and engagement in the affairs of all of humanity. To be a pious Jew is to be steeped in Godliness and the particular spiritual heritage of the people Israel, but it is also about emulating the universal conscience of Abraham, the founder of our religion, who expressed concern about the life and safety of the innocent of the world, irrespective of their ethnicity or background.

The story in the Torah about the Tower of Babel and its divinely orchestrated demise, reminds us that G-d covets variety and difference. That human diversity- in all its manifestations – individual and collective, ethnic, cultural or religious, is a source for celebration, rather than a source for lamentation. G-d prizes difference, and as Rabbi Sacks observes, it is precisely because we are all different, that each one of us can make a unique contribution, as individuals, and as distinct cultures and collectives, within the rich tapestry of the human story.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Sessler

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