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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34 comments to Public Protests & The Mesorah of Silence

  • Charles B. Hall

    I don’t know anything about what happened in Boro Park last night. But I do think that while the Mesorah of Silence might have been very appropriate for much of Eastern Europe, it is entirely inappropriate and ill-advised in the United States. Public protests in Czarist or Soviet Russia often ended with blood and bullets. Anti-Semites were always an immediate, existential threat to the very existence of the Jewish community. Barter and negotiations generally meant bribes to the usually corrupt gentile officials.

    Not so in America. Jews were here almost from the beginning of European settlement, and were welcomed as full citizens by the first President of the United States. We have served the U.S. at almost all levels; it is not correct to identify the power structure as entirely non-Jewish. Indeed we are very much a part of the power structure, as has never been seen in any predominantly non-Jewish country, ever. For example, a shomer Shabat Jew actually got the most votes for Vice President less than six years ago, and another shomer Shabat Jew is one of the three most powerful people in New York State. What matters in America is not the capriciousness of officials who are the targets of barter and negotiations, but the concerns of the public who elect those officials. Peaceful protest is often an effective method of appealing to the conscience of both the mostly non-Jewish electorate and the people it has placed in power.

  • Joel Rich

    For the sake of completeness I’d like to clarify that the mesorah you describe is not the only mesorah on this issue. Having been in MTA at the time of mass public protests on behalf of Israel (pre-67 war) and Soviet Jewry(SSSJ), I remember being guided by the position of R’YD Soloveitchik ztll”hh that experts in these fields were to be consulted on the cost/benefit ratio of public protest. If it was (as in these cases) positive, then the protests were to be supported. On a related point, aiui, Rthe lack of protest in the US during the shoah weighed very heavily on R’YD Soloveitchik’s ztll”hh mind.
    KT&CKVS

  • mycroft

    ” 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?”

    Very good questions. I certainly will not speculate on the original catalyst as to whether or not there was any mistreatment by the police-I wasn’t there. But the issue of apparent anger acting out against authorities bu certain chareidim in the US and Israel is an interesting one. Especially is that what there leaders desire or is it the leaders can’t control there apparent followers. Either has interesting ramnifications.

  • ao

    I am sorry but by all accounts it was a riot. Don’t mislead and use the word protest.

  • Dov Kay

    I recall from R. Rakkefet-Rothkoff’s “The Silver Era” that during WWII, Rav Eliezer Silver and other gedolim marched outside the Capitol building in Washington in protest against the atrocities in Europe. So I doubt that we can call this a “mesorah”.

  • Seth Gordon

    Also, what position does the community’s Torah leadership have regarding “protests” that involve assault on police officers, damaging police cars, and setting fires? If the answer is “we’re against that”, what are they going to do to prevent it from happening again? As Orthomom points out, “somehow most of these teenaged boys can be prevented from going online, going to movies, or talking to girls, yet why does no one seem to have any control over them when they decide to go on a destructive rampage?”

  • Dov

    It should be obvious that in America, there are mechanisms for people (including religious Jews) to address grievences such as these. It boggles the mind to attempt to equate this situation with past centuries and the radically different place of Jews in the surrounding society. Setting police cars on fire is an approach that should cause deep shame to any Jew. And to compare this hooliganism to the struggle on behalf of Soviet Jewry – trapped in a totalitarian state – or support for Israel (although one could debate the efficacy of support rallies) is just misguided.

  • Bob Miller

    Last night’s event seems more like a breakdown of Jewish discipline than a new policy. While the leaders need to lead, the followers need to follow. This is the same type of breakdown that has led to fistfights or worse among Jews. Some people may have too much free time, which they should use instead for Torah study.

    Also a properly organized march or rally is altogether different from spontaneous mob action.

    By the way, I recently read in the English language Hamodia weekly of a march and rally held by traditional Orthodox rabbinic leaders (including the present Bostoner Rebbe of Boston/Brookline and Har Nof) in Washington DC during World War II to try to focus our government’s attention on the Holocaust in progress. FDR, based on bad advice from Jewish aides, refused to meet with the group, but the event did have positive consequences. See more on this at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/march.html

  • HILLEL

    I am told by people who know the elderly man, Mr. Schick (owner of the famous Schick’s Bakery in Boro Park) that Mr. Schick was talking on his cellphone when he was pulled-over by the Police for the violation of talking while driving.

    Mr. Schick got out of his car to ask the Police why they had pulled him over. The Police told him to get back into his car. Mr. Schick is hard of hearing and he didn’t hear what they wears a hearing aid. He didn’t hear the command and ignored it.

    The Police then started roughing him up, and Mr Schick started yelling in pain. . Concerned bystanders yelled at he Police to stop abusing an old man.

    At that point, more people came over until there was a crowd. The Police then called for help, and there was a confrontation.

    In my opinion, it was a clear case of “Lo saamod al dam re’echa.” All Jews have an obligation to come to the aid of a fellow-Jew when he is being attacked.

  • Chaim B

    I spoke to a number of my frum New York friends yesterday about the riots in Boro Park. I grew up not far from Boro Park. The one thing that I and my friends agreed on is that however you slice it, these riots were a great Chillul Hashem.

  • Brother Bob

    Perhaps its a realization that after Zionism, the Holocaust, the Soviet Jewry movement (among numerous other examples) that what you call “The Mesorah” was mistakes on the part of the Gedolim.

    People now realize that those Gedolim were wrong and we Jews will do what they think is correct, whether or not the Gedolim agree.

  • DovBear

    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?

    I don’t think there was time, on Tuesday night, for the protesters to consult with the Chasidic leadership in Boro Park to see if the Mesorah of Silence was applicable in this case. The protests erupted immidiately, and I rather doubt any of them had the presence of mind to send a shaylah down the street to any of the local luminaries.

    Also, I must note that the New York Times, alone among the NY papers, used the weasel-word “protest.” The others were straightforward in calling it what it was: a riot.

    (I’ll leave it to the editors of Cross Currents to explain why it was the Times who demonstrated this restraint and not the papers more commonly thought to be friends of the Jewish people.)

  • Shmuel Friedman

    As one who was lives on the same block where the incident occurred, and who was present throughout the evening, I have a unique basis for input with respect to what actualy transpired. This was neither a “community protest” or a “community riot”. This was a situation where a crowd of teenage onlookers gathered in reponse to an unusual incident of an “arrest” in this area. The NYPD then called for a level 1 mobilization which included a helicopter hovering overheaed, which just served to attract more people from blocks away, which in turn called for more police. There was no “riot” or “protest”. The small fires of trashthat were set were presumably by several teenagers, out of the hundreds who had gathered. Aside from these unlawful acts (from a hanfdful) there was no violence whatsoever from the hundereds of people present. I would like to add, that there were non jewish people who were in the crowd as well.

  • Yehudah Prero

    To those insisting it was a “riot,” I offer this:

    “To be sure, this was not a riot. If you look closely at photographs of the crowds watching the fires, you will notice that many are standing around casually, and they are smiling, as if they were at a marshmallow roast. These are not rampaging masses requiring aggressive police response.”

    (from today’s editorial in the New York Daily News)

    What ever term one cares to use to describe what happened, the reaction was just wrong, and, as a frum Jew who lives in Brooklyn and works among cops, downright embarrassing.

  • DovBear

    In my opinion, it was a clear case of “Lo saamod al dam re’echa.” All Jews have an obligation to come to the aid of a fellow-Jew when he is being attacked.

    That *may* explain the initial confrontention, but the riot raged for hours afterwards.

  • Bob Miller

    Shmuel said “The NYPD then called for a level 1 mobilization which included a helicopter hovering overhead, which just served to attract more people from blocks away, which in turn called for more police.”

    Did these people have nothing better to do than rush to experience the thrill of a police action?
    Why did the “teenage onlookers” and others stay out on the street? For the greater glory of Torah?
    What did witnesses to the fire-setting do to stop it?
    Which frum politicians on the scene tried to calm things down?

  • david

    How can you compare the reaction of the Lakewood protest to this? In Lakewood, it was a peaceful protest
    in the full meaning of the word, just a march and some speaches-no fires set (what in the world does that accomplish)? All that was required here was a civil march to the precinct. I heard that Rabbi Avrohom Schorr called it a Chillul Hashem that has no comparison.

  • Issac Abraham

    I would like to make clear that there was a tremendous difference between that reaction in Boro Park to that of Lakewood.
    The Torah Community of Lakewood acted in a way that showed Kiddush Hashem, there was only a peaceful protest and it was only based on standing up for Kavod Hatorah.
    Demonstrations that might be acceptable in Yerushalyim in not acceptable in NYC.
    PS I would like to note that most of these kids probably just returned form learning in Yerushalyim are acting like they are in Mea Shearim

  • TG

    The mesora of silence is historically incorrect. In Poland, in between the wars there were frequent large-scale demonstrations in which the religious parties participated. Of course they were not violent ones…

    In ancient Jewish history too, there were quite a few riots, many of which did turn violent. Both the mered hagadol & Bar Kochba’s war are believed to have been started sponateously because of rioting.

    Of course, it is one thing to riot against a dictatorship b’shas hashmad, and quite another to riot in a malchus shel chessed. I just think that to say there is a mesora of silence is revisionary & incorrect.

  • Bob Miller

    I object to the snarky comment “PS I would like to note that most of these kids probably just returned form learning in Yerushalyim are acting like they are in Mea Shearim”. Don’t try to score points without facts to back you up.
    The bochurim I’ve met who recently returned from learning in Yerushalyim behave like gentlemen.

  • Bob Miller

    Furthermore, the stereotype about Meah Shearim behavior may not apply to more than a minority there.

  • mb

    I remember well , R. A J Hershel marching besides Martin L King Jr.
    I was surpised at the time of the absence of anybody visibly Orthodox. Now I know. It was the Mesorah of Silence. Sad.

  • shmuel

    Was it ever truly “a mesorah of silence”? I submit that it was in reality a mesorah of not participating in demonstrations organized by the non-Orthodox.

  • mycroft

    “For the sake of completeness I’d like to clarify that the mesorah you describe is not the only mesorah on this issue. Having been in MTA at the time of mass public protests on behalf of Israel (pre-67 war) and Soviet Jewry(SSSJ), I remember being guided by the position of R’YD Soloveitchik ztll”hh that experts in these fields were to be consulted on the cost/benefit ratio of public protest. If it was (as in these cases) positive, then the protests were to be supported. On a related point, aiui, Rthe lack of protest in the US during the shoah weighed very heavily on R’YD Soloveitchik’s ztll”hh mind.
    KT&CKVS”

    Joel Rich I agree with almost everything you say except that it wasn’t necessarily “the lack of protest” in the R. Avi Weiss sens that RYBS was opposed to-but the lack of Jewish unity in trying to save Jews which made any efforts comparatively ineffective. Thus RYBS was in favor of the Synagogue Council of America as a means of being able to protect Jews klapei chutz. Thus RYBS was certainly opposed to “mesorah of not participating in demonstrations organized by the non-Orthodox.” It doesn’t mean that he was in favor of any particular demonstration-it would be a factual call by experts.

  • mycroft

    “I remember well , R. A J Hershel marching besides Martin L King Jr.
    I was surpised at the time of the absence of anybody visibly Orthodox. Now I know. It was the Mesorah of Silence. Sad.”

    I don’t know the answer but someone check with Dr. Bernard Lander-who I believe was one of the coordinators of Jewish participation in the March on Washington for his impressions.

  • Jewish Observer

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

    Had I written this line, Rav Menken would likely have screened it out for its over the top sarcasm

  • Jewish Observer

    “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 give your high school more credit than mine if you learned such a noble lesson. My grey hat high school was moderate. It understood the need for kids to go to rallies, so it let us pick one; either the Israel Day parade or the Soviet Jewry rally, but not both.

  • Jewish Observer

    “The bochurim I’ve met who recently returned from learning in Yerushalyim behave like gentlemen”

    I second that. The boys I know from Yeshivat Hakotel are gentlemanly and urbane

  • Jewish Observer

    “I remember … RAJ Hershel marching besides Martin L King Jr….I was surpised at the time of the absence of anybody visibly Orthodox”

    You may be right, but please keep in mind that many of today’s gedolim likely did not grow their beards yet and, if they grew up families like mine, wore baseball hats when travelng out of town, especially the south

  • Yitzchok Adlerstein

    Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, a respected educator and public figure, said it all.
    http://www.beyondbt.com/?p=268

  • Perplexed

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

  • Boruch Horowitz

    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.

  • Jewish Observer

    “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

  • ebd

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