Civil Disobedience: Baltimore and the Bible

May 3, 2015

5 min read


We must speak out against wrongs, but only justice – by way of justice – is legitimate.

(This article was written before Baltimore’s State Attorney charged six officers with felonies related to the death of Freddie Gray.)

How should we as Jews feel about civil disobedience?

Respect for the law is surely one of our defining features. We are the people of the book who gave mankind the legal code of the Decalogue as well as the immutable teachings of the Torah. More, Jewish law states that “the law of the land is the law.” As good citizens of whatever country in which we find ourselves, we are required to abide by its rulings, whether they are rabbinic in origin or the decisions of the society in which we reside.

And yet…

Strange to think that if it were not for a heroic act of civil disobedience the greatest leader of the Jewish people would never have survived his infancy. Moses was put into a little basket floating on the Nile by a mother who felt it was her only hope for her son. Perhaps someone would take notice and show compassion in spite of the edict of Pharaoh commanding the death of every Hebrew child. We all know that thankfully one person did. It was none other than the daughter of Pharaoh himself. Knowing this was a Hebrew child, she was well aware that in saving and subsequently raising Moses she was subverting the law of the land.

Yet she made a profound decision. It was a decision only acknowledged by the world millennia later in its ruling at Nuremberg in 1946, a year after the conclusion of World War II and the Holocaust. Those who claimed their innocence by virtue of the fact that they were “only acting under orders” – the orders of the Nazi regime which they argued were no less than “the law of the land” – were unequivocally disabused of the notion that evil laws warrant unquestioned obedience. Nuremberg validated the view of the daughter of Pharaoh: there is a higher moral law to which human beings owe allegiance. Governments cannot overrule God; the Decalogue must always trump depraved leaders and their immoral policies.

Indeed, there was an act of civil disobedience which biblically preceded the daughter of Pharaoh’s disregard for the law. It too had a great deal to do with Moses – in fact his birth was no less than a Divine reward for the courageous act of his mother in refusing to obey a cruel and unjust law. Pharaoh had decreed to the chief Hebrew midwives, identified in the text as Shifra and Puah, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth stool: if it’s a boy, kill him; if it’s a girl, let her live.” According to rabbinic commentators, these two midwives were none other than Yocheved and Miriam. They refused to obey. They kept the Hebrew boys alive and defied Pharaoh’s command. For this, the Torah tells us, they were blessed with prominent children, one of whom would become Moses, the greatest of our people.

Early on the Torah tells us insurrection against unjust law, more than merely permitted is forcefully demanded; indeed it is also source of supreme blessing. It seems Martin Luther King was right when he declared that “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

But that is only part of the story. And that is why we need to be extremely careful before we extrapolate from these biblical instances a defense for the actions of the Baltimore protesters who rioted, looted, burned and destroyed in reaction to what they felt was the racism and injustice of the legal system.

True, Judaism taught the world the concept of truth over power. Jewish history demonstrated that the rebuke of the prophet was more relevant than the edicts of an evil king. Jewish law stressed that we are meant to speak out against wrongs even if they are camouflaged under the rubric of governmental policy. Yet protest is not the same as violence, nor is justifiable civil disobedience the same as unjustifiable violation of moral and ethical behavior.

Nonviolent resistance doesn’t confuse justified grievances with unjustified actions.

I have no problem with those who publicized their concern with police brutality. I concur with those who feel it a moral obligation to speak out if they sincerely believe that Freddie Gray was brutalized and killed by improper police procedures. But I cannot see how that grants anyone permission to burn homes, to physically assault the police, to loot and to steal from businesses – many owned by African Americans – who bear no responsibility for the societal ills the protesters seek to redress.

Nonviolent resistance was the reason the civil rights movement proved to be so successful. It merged a moral claim with obedience to a higher law. It did not confuse justified grievances with unjustified actions. It spoke of equal rights for all and did not contradict its goal with rationalizations for evil.

That was the real message of the Torah when it taught us to dream of changing the world with the immortal words, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Why, asked the Rabbis, is the word justice repeated twice in the verse? The answer goes to the heart of the biblical ideal for the achievement of a just and honorable universe. Only justice – by way of justice – is legitimate. The end does not justify the means. Seek the good – but do not embrace evil in order to achieve it.

That is the biblical message that now needs to be heard in Baltimore.

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