The Torah of Protest: Til The World Be Perfected

“You have been told what is good, and what HaShem requires of you: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with the holy.” Micah 6.8

On the day I write this, we have witnessed 50 days of daily protests in the streets of downtown Portland Oregon. After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, it was awe-inspiring to see myriads of thousands rise up across the US. Horrified by the blatant injustice, peaceful crowds observing safe physical distancing demand mercy and human decency under the slogan Black Lives Matter. Walking with those who marched across bridges and filled parks, I knew I was in the presence of something holy.

Something drew many of us to the Justice Center; perhaps its name. There I have seen young people, and some not so young, create meaningful community around a shared consciousness of urgency. Pizza and hand sanitizer are shared, musical instruments accompany are played, signs naming too many dead at the hands of police (over 1000 in 2019) are raised.

The police violence wreaked upon our fellow residents is shocking, unjustifiable under any circumstances. And it is an ongoing problem. In December of 2012, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 against the City of Portland based on the conduct of the Portland Police Bureau, because the police were the ones committing the violent crimes.

The blood of our Black sisters and brothers cries out to us from the ground. The world is broken in terribly difficult ways and the work of tikkun olam is a profound, and inconvenient – and sometimes incoherent – struggle of good against evil. Our ongoing obligation (mitzvah) is to learn, to participate, and to care. The words of Portland’s NAACP President summon us to our Jewish dream of a world perfected in the Image of G*d:

“A belief in our perfectibility is written right into our constitution, and defines what it means to be a hopeful nation. We the people, in order to establish a more perfect union…establish justice.” (Pastor E.D. Mondaine)

It is unjust to blame protestors for the violence perpetrated upon them, the press, and the medics with them. It is absurd to decry protestor graffiti when we give no thought to the much more violent graffiti inflicted upon the bodies of protesters with rubber bullets, mace, tear gas, sound weapons, and batons and fists. 

We are not free, in any case, to only support those whose behavior we like.

When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it. (Ex. 23.5)

If an enemy, how much more so a fellow human being with whom you agree and only have an issue with tactics? 

Jewish tradition charts a clear path for us to follow:

If a person of learning participates in public affairs and acts, one strengthens the world. If a person sits at home and says, “Why should I bother with social problems? What do I care about their laws? Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest? I want peace!,” if one does this, one destroys the world. (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2)

The protestor who yells an obscenity at a police officer is not the problem, and certainly not deserving of being shot with a rubber bullet or tear gassed. That protestor is a symptom of social agony; we must learn, and participate, and care, if we would understand the real challenges of our day, and heal them.

The rising up of bodies and spirits in Portland’s streets is a holy moment; the prophetic voice of G*d is heard everywhere downtown. May we hear it. May we obey it. May we rise to this moment.

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