Why Jews Should and Are Standing Up for Standing Rock

by Leora Troper

Jews and Jewish communities around the country are standing up to support the Native American Water Protectors and to say no to the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is vital work, and fitting that we do it. There is, of course, what seem like the most obvious reason and most often quoted text – tzeddek, tzeddek, tirdof – “justice, justice, shalt thou pursue.” (Deut. 16.20) In a just country, our government would honor its treaties and respect the sacredness of this land for First Peoples.

But there are more reasons for Jews to stand up against the NDAP. We, too, are a people who are intimately entwined with the natural world. Besides our historical connection to a specific parcel of land in the Middle East, our teachings and commandments repeatedly connect us to the ebb and flow of the natural world in general. We look to the sun, the moon, and the stars to tell us when our holy days begin and end. Annually, we celebrate a new year for trees. Every month, we celebrate the new moon as the marker of a new month. Each week we watch the sun to tell us when the day of rest begins, and count the stars so that we know when to perform the ceremony that marks the end of the day of rest and separates the unique from the everyday.  Our Tanakh, our Bible, repeatedly tells us to care for our land and the animals and plants that exist there. We say the Sh’ma, the oldest fixed daily prayer in Judaism, twice a day, and every time, we remind ourselves that if we “bow down before false gods”, which can be seen as serving the gods of greed and hubris (among other things), our planet will cease to provide us with the sustenance we need to live.

The North Dakota Access Pipeline is one of many constructions and actions that are at odds with a philosophy that respects and cares for the planet. Jews across this country have a duty to stand up and be counted among those who oppose it. The rabbis taught us that the more something is repeated in the Tanakh, the greater its imperative. Thus we should honor and act upon the multitudinous passages that teach us about caring for the land, respecting animals, not wasting resources, ensuring that resources endure for future generations, and giving a “Shabbat”, a day (or year) of rest to the land that supplies us with our sustenance. To ignore them, to ignore the need for action against this unconscionable construction, is to ignore a core value of Judaism.

Shabbat Noakh: The Fire This Time

On this Shabbat we are confronted with an intense and perplexing narrative. First, the world is overwhelmed with hamas, “lawless violence”, and then flooded unto utter destruction. The few who survive the catastrophic end of their world do not live happily ever after: a son takes advantage of his father’s vulnerability, reckless leaders gather followers for an assault on the ultimate authority – the G*d of Heaven and Earth. The parashah ends with human beings scattered over the face of the earth, driven away from the safety of the communities they have created by a new catastrophe of their own making.

The sense of relevance to us right now is terrifying. And this is not the first time. Why does it so often seem that the poem feels true, that “the center cannot hold / mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (Yeats)? 

Even the most responsible among us wishes to avert our eyes from the view: to wash our hands of the whole affair, to declare plagues on both houses, to drop out. But note that not one of those idioms for abdicating one’s responsibility as a human being is Jewish. Not one.

To repeat the message of my Kol Nidre drash: for Jews, it is only through Jewish identity that we can find our way forward in the current hamas that threatens us. One must know who and what one is before one can act; one must feel oneself grounded and secure in one’s footing as a person before one can pick one’s way forward with clarity. When one is called upon to act, one must be able to say hineni, “here I am,” and know who is speaking.

This week’s parashah offers one explanation for the diversity of human cultures on earth. Regardless of how each became so richly different, each human culture offers the human beings who grow within it a home from which to act, to react, and to find meaning. The Lakota people find great strength for a struggle that might be called merely secular and political by seeing great cultural and spiritual depth within it. The Movement for Black Lives offers those within it a rich and clear sense of purpose drawn from similar deep wells that go all the way down to the same life-giving waters.

We Jews (and the people who love them, and who walk with us, to our great gratitude) stand so close to our own deep wells of meaning and support for our lives. There is deep and rich Jewish cultural and spiritual support to help us know how be a citizen of the U.S. in these days. Don’t let the rising waters knock you off your feet; let the lifeline of Jewish knowledge and connectedness keep you grounded.

It is not in the Jewish idiom to give up, or to divorce ourselves from the common good. Parashat Noakh teaches that we must find the strength not to avert our eyes from the vulnerability of our institutions and authorities, hoping that our own little boat will protect us and those we love. It will not. We must find a way to break these cycles of catastrophe and dispersal – we, especially, who know them too well from our own past.

Justice, justice, you must pursue if you would live. (Devarim 16.20) Jewish tradition interprets this verse as follows: we must pursue justice, not wait for it to come to us. And we must do so justly. Jews also do justice by supporting organizations pursuing justice. Consider supporting these organizations in their leadership work:

Bend the Arc – A Jewish Partnership for Justice

Equal Justice Initiative

The Network of Spiritual Progressives

A Rabbinic Statement Supporting the Lakota Nation in its Opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline

From the Shalom Center:

We are living in the midst of a profound spiritual crisis in American society, expressed in the current election campaign and in many other forms as well.

One of the most poignant is the nonviolent protest in North Dakota, led by people of the First Nations, against the imposition of the oil-bearing Dakota Access Pipeline upon the sacred ancestral lands of the Sioux Nation. The pipeline is desecrating their graves, threatening to poison the water of the Missouri River, and endangering the entire web of life of Mother Earth by increasing the burning of fossil fuels.

Already hundreds of representatives from many of the First Nations living in the United States, gathered for the first time in history beyond all previous divisions and alliances, together with growing numbers of other Americans and of indigenous peoples from other countries, have gathered to face this onslaught with prayerful nonviolent resistance.

Yet as they pray, police have already used dogs, pepper gas, and clubs – and with rifles loaded and lifted threaten to use deadly force — to impose this destructive pipeline on the region, on the nation, and on the Earth.

As spiritual leaders and teachers of the Jewish people, we affirm Torah’s commitment to protect the Earth from which the human race was born (Gen 2: 7) and which we are commanded to allow to rest in rhythmic celebration of the Creator (Lev. 25: 1-12, 23).

Indeed, Torah adds that if we block this rhythmic rest, the exhausted earth will erupt against us (Lev 26: 34-35, 43). These commands and warnings were rooted in our ancestors’ deep experience of the sacred unity of all life.

They are confirmed by scientists today.

And already we are seeing these ancient prophecies and modern scientific predictions come to life — in higher rates of asthma and cancer where coal, oil, and fracked unnatural gas are extracted, refined, and burned; in unprecedented floods and droughts and superstorms all around the planet.

On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stood together in Riverside Church in New York City. Dr. King spoke out not only against the Vietnam War but even more deeply against what he called the deadly triplets afflicting America — racism, militarism, and materialism. And he called for a commitment to nonviolent activism to bring about a “revolution in values” for America.

In the Dakota confrontation, all three of those triplets have borne monstrous offspring in one clarifying moment:

Corporate greed has in this case taken the “materialism” triplet to its extreme; the armed police have brought militarism home; the trampling on Native rights and needs echoes the earliest racism of our past.

For all these reasons, we urgently call on President Obama as Commander-in-Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers to firmly and clearly prohibit the Dakota Access Pipeline from encroaching on the Missouri River, and we urge all state and federal agencies to affirm and respect the role of the Native communities in defending the weave of life upon the continent we know as North America, and they have for centuries called Turtle Island.

And we call on Jewish communities and their leaders throughout our country to speak out in congregations and publicly, to gather in prayerful vigils in our own communities, and to assist the Lakota protest as it moves into a stern Dakota winter by sending money to buy clothing, food, and other supplies for a lengthy steadfast stay. Please send your gifts by clicking here: http://www.ocetisakowincamp.org/

We encourage our communities to call North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple at (701) 328-2200 to leave a message stating your opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline; to call the White House at (202) 456-1111 or (202) 456-1414 to tell President Obama to rescind the Army Corps of Engineers’ permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline; and to call the Army Corps of Engineers (202) 761-5903 and demand that they rescind the permit.

In his Riverside speech, Dr. King lifted up “the fierce urgency of Now.” And in our lives today, facing both a spiritual crisis in America and a world-wide spiritual crisis in the relationship between adam and adamah, humanity and Earth, the urgency of Now is far more fierce.

This letter has so far been signed by more than 270 Rabbis and Cantors at the initiative of Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Shalom Center