The 4th of July: A Jewish Perspective

Image of fireworks in Seattle, 2016 from CBS Seattle.

It’s probably easiest to say that I’m not a patriot because of how our country was founded on and continues to be maintained by violence, slavery, oppression, inequality, and propaganda that silences the truth and promotes the very opposite narrative. As Frederick Douglass famously proclaimed: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim...There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

But when I just say this, the response I often get is something like, “You’re not grateful for America!? Well, would you rather then live in [INSERT NAME OF ANOTHER COUNTRY THEY THINK IS WORSE]?”

But this doesn’t actually make the point that they think it does — in fact, it demonstrates that the only way to maintain belief in America is to compare it to countries that are worse.

But why are people alright with comparing America to worse instead of better examples and what could be possible? Why do people willingly accept this scarcity mindset that keeps our sense of possibility limited for the benefit of those in power? Why do people let themselves be indoctrinated by this abject lack of vision and imagination?

When they say this, I respond that there is a third way. I’m a hospital chaplain and so much of my work as spiritual caregiver is to help people shatter the binaries that cage people living in survival mode. When people think the only options or A or B, I try to help them consider, find, and create an option C.

So too here, it’s not a choice between loving or hating America. For me, there is a third way that is — believe it or not — criticizing America.

I’m not just a hospital chaplain but a Jewish chaplain and my tradition has taught me how important dissent and argumentation are in the pursuit of truth. In fact, this is so fundamental that it is founded in the very notion and character of the Jewish God.

In Judaism, God is not an absolute ruler or authoritarian who issues immutable demands that we must blindly follow out of passivity and compliance. On the contrary, the Jewish God is bound to the Jewish people through a covenant. This covenantal relationship places requirements on BOTH parties and therefore allows individuals to challenge and hold God accountable. This radical idea, outlined in one of my favorite books entitled “Arguing With God: A Jewish Tradition” where Rabbi Anson Laytner describes our heritage as one of “continuous doubt and protest,” is further seen throughout our history, texts, and values.

We value concepts like ‘חוצפא כלפי שמיא’ which translates to something like ‘audacity against Heaven’ which promotes challenging Divine justice and questioning Divine power. This is famously demonstrated in the Talmudic story of Rabbi Eliezer arguing with Rabbi Joshua over whether a coil clay oven is ritually clean or unclean. Rabbi Eliezer called for a carob tree to be thrown from it’s grounding, a river to begin flowing in the opposite direction, the walls of the study hall to collapse in, and finally for God to proclaim that he was right from the heavens. All of these signs occurred but when a heavenly voice proclaimed: “Why do you quarrel with Rabbi Eliezer who is always right in his decisions?” Rabbi Joshua still refused to concede and proclaimed “לא בשמיים היא” or ‘the Law is not in the heavens.’

My favorite is the biblical command “הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ” (Lev. 19:17) which translates into “Rebuke you shall rebuke your kinfolk.” The Talmud asks why the word for ‘rebuke’ is repeated and explains: “Had there been only a single verb I would have known that the law applies to a master reproving his disciple. How do we know that it applies even to a disciple reproving his master? From the phrase, hocheach tochiach, implying, under all circumstances.” According to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, this establishes the Jewish notion of critical followership which he explains is exemplified by biblical characters. Abraham challenges God by saying, “Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen. 18:25) as does Moses who said, “Why have you done evil to this people?” (Ex. 5:22) as well as Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Job. The most powerful of kings are challenged by the prophets like Samuel to Saul, Elijah to Ahab, Isaiah to Hezekiah, and Nathan to King David. What we learn, Sacks powerfully writes, is that “A disciple may criticise his teacher; a child may challenge a parent; a Prophet may challenge a King; and all of us, simply by bearing the name Israel, are summoned to wrestle with God and our fellow humans in the name of the right and the good.”

I was sharing this idea with my uncle who has fought for social justice for decades as a prominent rabbi and activist and he asked me, “Abby, do you what a din Torah mit got is?” I said no and he encouraged me to look it up.

It’s a concept related to the great Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, a Hasidic Master whose stories I grew up reading and who was one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezeritch who was the successor to the Baal Shem Tov. Rav Levi was known for “his fiery service of God, his love for the Jewish people, and his advocacy before the heavenly court” and a din Torah mit got refers to actual lawsuits he would bring against God on behalf of the Jewish people when he saw them suffering.

If the holy Berdichever could bring a lawsuit against God, I will use every ounce of strength in my body and voice in my throat to shed light on the vast and immoral gap between who our country says it is and who it actually is — especially on the 4th of July which often acts as a national opportunity for further collective historical erasure of our sins.

After all, imagine telling someone in an abusive relationship to be quiet and praise their abuser. We would never do this and yet we do this often in our relationship with God and country.

Imagine also how one of the signs of healthy relationships is the ability to stay connected through conflict, understanding healthy conflict is necessary for authenticity and growth, instead of seeing conflict as inherently bad and a sign to disengage.

So too, we need people to speak up, especially when it’s criticism, and understand that this isn’t mutually exclusive from having gratitude for certain rights and privileges we do have. As President Theodore Roosevelt said, being
“servile” is not only “unpatriotic” but“morally treasonable to the American public.” And as Senator Willim J. Fulbright said: “To criticize one’s country is to do it a service… Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism — a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals and national adulation.”

Be loud. Speak up even when your voice shakes (mine does every single time). And be emboldened even in the face of calls for restraint, patience, and civil discourse which I suspiciously have only ever heard called for from people with power who aren’t the victim’s of our society’s worst marginalization. These concepts promote progress only happening at the speed of white comfort. They silence people from speaking their pain and sharing their truth. They exclude important voices from the table who are deemed inappropriate or unprofessional. They further burden and force people to conform to our limited and/or stinted emotional capacities instead of taking on the work of deepening one’s own internal capacity. They make dialogue timid instead of courageous, center subservience over authenticity, nurture facade instead of fact, quiet those who deserve to be heard and need to speak truth to power, and clamp down on the prophetic voice that seeks to ring out and rattle bones. And they rely on the weaponization of peace, as explained by Pastor Christian Briones who writes:

Peace is not an inherently good thing, even peace can be used violently. I have often heard and seen some fellow Christian neighbors of mine advocate for “peace,” or “harmony” in the face of injustice and suffering. And as well intentioned as this rhetoric is, this is just as violent and dangerous as people who openly, proudly, or ignorantly, inflict violence and suffering on people. When peace is used as a tool to silence the voices of the suffering, it is unholy and it is to be condemned.

Just as I would never expect the grieving families I work with to curtail their emotions based on what I can handle, having needed instead to learn how to meet them where they are at and however they are presenting, so too does our society need to learn to listen to the pain and criticism expressed instead of dictating, controlling, invalidating, or silencing it.

Tonight, as I sit here writing this while listening to the fireworks go off, I hope these words can play a small part in living the Jewish tradition by calling for justice, speaking truth to power, and reminding all of us to hope, dream, build, organize, and criticize towards a better world.

“If not now, when?” — Rabbi Hillel, Pirkei Avot 1:14

Hospital chaplain, community organizer, writer. Shamelessly laughs at the same jokes over and over and believes there are gateways to holiness everywhere.