Public Protests & The Mesorah of Silence


Last night, the religious, Jewish community of Boro Park came out in droves to protest the alleged mistreatment of an elder Jew by the local police. The protestors believed that the police had been unjustifiably physical and assertive against an unthreatening 75 year old. The authorities assert that the police did nothing improper, and in any event, the elder man had violated the law, and had acted in an uncooperative and belligerent manner.

Not long ago, the religious community of Lakewood, New Jersey responded in similar public protest when word spread that an elder rabbi had been physically mistreated by local police. There, too, the authorities maintain that the police, responding to a traffic violation, acted in accordance with proper police protocol. The Lakewood community, led by leading local rabbis, nevertheless, held an organized march to the Lakewood police station, seeking to ensure that the police mistreatment not be ignored, and certainly not be repeated.

As a young boy, not yet in high school, I often participated in local rallies in support of Soviet Jewry. Just a bar mitzva boy, I attended rallies in support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. But then I enrolled in a yeshiva high school. Though the plight of Soviet Jewry had yet to be remedied, while in high school my participation in rallies subsided. The rabbis taught me that public protest is not the proper practice of Jews in a foreign land and while under gentile rule. I was advised that the mesorah, the tradition, of Torah Judaism is that in the era of golus, exile, we Jews employ alternative ways of making our case to the powers that be, whether friendly country or foe, and that public protests were the failed methods of the uninitiated and less religious. Rather than protesting, I was advised that religious Jews seek out the authorities privately, and behind the scenes plead the case of our community and bretheren . Barter, negotiate, pray and provide assistance, but refrain from raising a fist in protest against a gentile power, whether it be against a host country or another. Nuanced distinctions among types of rallies and gatherings may occassionally be noted, but the mesorah of silence has dominated the practice of most of the Torah community.

I have always borne a nagging concern that the failure to protest the suffering of others might reflect, or generate, a diminished sense of concern regarding the plight of fellow Jews. In their day to day lives, however, many of the very rabbis from whom I learned this mesorah of silence exhibited a greater degree of personal love and concern for other Jews than I ever observed of others. But for the students who refrain from protest because they are so guided, I have feared that they must experience by their silence a dimunition in their love and concern for others. Unless, of course, they assume other compensatory roles to express their concern.

I will not even begin to speculate what really occurred in Boro Park last night, or in Lakewood several months ago. The events that triggered these protests are likely of less than long-term consequence. Of greater significance is whether these communal reactions of protest reflect the end of an era, the end of the mesorah of silence. Has there been an deliberate shift in the mesorah? Have the Yeshiva leadership in Lakewood and the Chasidic leadership in Boro Park decided that the mesorah of silence is no longer applicable, or were the protesting individuals in Lakewood and Boro Park acting contrary to the leadership’s guidance? Was there never actually such a mesorah of silence, and were other factors actually dictating the policy of public silence? Or is the mesorah of silence applicable only to the suffering of others that is unlikely to visit your own doorstep?

As always, I await the guidance of the community’s Torah leadership regarding this important community issue.

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9 years 5 months ago

I have never read an article that was more to the point.I laud the writer and his perceptiveness!

Jewish Observer
9 years 5 months ago

“We need to speak out loudly so both the perpetrators as well as the non-Jewish public know”

Continued and consistent behavior demonstrating civic propriety will speak louder than any words

Boruch Horowitz
9 years 5 months ago

I agree with Rabbi Horowitz that there should be a “universal and broad-based condemnation of these actions from responsible community leaders, rabbonim and heads of schools”. Apparently, as commentators on a different thread have already indicated, such condemnations have already appeared by Rabbinic leaders. It is a shame that the misdeeds of a few paint, in the public media, an entire community in a negative way. We need to speak out loudly so both the perpetrators as well as the non-Jewish public know that this does not represent the behavior of the Torah or of the vast majority of the Orthodox Jewish community. I have found the following two stories to be helpful in forming a perspective on this type of issue.

The first story is that of the soap manufacturer who lamented to the rabbi that the people that he had seen studying Torah were not behaving in accordance with what should be expected of them. The rabbi points to a sandbox full of dirty children, and questioned why the manufacturer’s soap didn’t help keep the children clean. When the business man responded that the children had not used his soap yet, the Rabbi used this response as an analogy to explain why people ostensibly learn Torah, but are not inspired by their Torah study to become better people; i.e., they were not using the soap.

The second incident is a story involving– I believe– Rav Eliezer Silver ZT’L. When visiting a DP camp after WWII, he met a man who had a negative attitude towards Yiddishkeit because of an incident which he witnessed. This person told R’ Silver how one religious man had the only Siddur in the concentration camp, and he would demand a piece of bread to use it. Many people would give up part of their rations to this person to be able to pray. This, related the man to Rav Silver, caused him to view religion negatively. Rabbi Silver brilliantly responded, “instead of focusing on the one person who acted improperly, why not focus upon the many people who gave up their daily bread to daven” .

In this unfortunate incident as well, I think that we can see beyond the few rowdy youth which caught the media’s attention. I noticed two points which reflect well on our community, and which were quoted in the press; I believe that these reflect the attitude of the community on a whole who did not participate in the “riot”. Arthur Schick himself, although elderly and unfairly manhandled by the police, condemned the riotous behavior. Also, one of the observant community politicians, despite being outspoken on Jewish rights, was quoted as saying that “we don’t want [Joseph Esposito’s] head. We want an apology”. These level-headed responses are not always found in other communities when responding to incidents with the police, and point to the fact that the Brooklyn Orthodox community has had a long and positive working-relationship with the NYPD. One hopes that once the unfortunate behavior of the few misguided individuals is condemned and totally ostracized from our midst, that there will be no need for these responses, nor the need to focus upon them.

9 years 5 months ago

Calling it whatever you want where does one have the right to torch a police car?

9 years 5 months ago

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, a respected educator and public figure, said it all.