December 28, 2004

End of Year Analysis - 2004


Please note: (1) the statement below is written for a primarily committed vegetarian audience, so some of the arguments should be softened when dealing with non-vegetarians; (2) the statement is long, and some repeats previous arguments for completeness, but I hope it fits together to make a compelling case for increased and more effective involvement in promoting vegetarianism. I plan to send a much shorter summary statement in the next regular JVNA newsletter.
We have a very strong case for vegetarianism based on Jewish teachings, and we have truth, morality and justice on our side, but we have made very little progress in getting a consideration of vegetarianism and related issues onto the Jewish agenda. I hope that the thoughts below will help us consider how we can greatly increase the effectiveness of our efforts to move society toward plant-centered diets. For completeness, some of the material is repetitious of points we have been trying to emphasize for a long time.

This document is a work in progress so, as always, comments and suggestions are very welcome.

This statement has the following items:

1. Madness and Sheer Insanity

2. The Moral Madness of the Biblical Prophets

3. The World Threatened as Perhaps Never Before

4. Vegetarianism as a Societal Imperative

5. Vegetarianism as a Spiritual Imperative

6. Getting Vegetarianism Onto the Jewish Agenda

7. Avoiding Criticism of our Views

8. Final Thoughts and Action Ideas

Appendix: Some Jewish Teachings On Involvement and Protest

1. Madness and Sheer Insanity

In order to properly consider how to be most effective, we should first consider what we are dealing with. We should call the production and consumption of meat today what it is: madness and sheer insanity. While people can be properly nourished and healthier on vegetarian/vegan diets, consider the many negative effects of the production and consumption of animal products.

* The production of animal products is a major contributor to soil depletion and erosion, extensive pesticide use, air and water pollution, the rapid destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, rapid species extinction, and potential global warming.

*A meat-based diet requires up to 20 times more land and 10 times more water and energy than a vegetarian diet. Non-vegetarian diets also require vast amounts of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and other resources.

* Over 70% of the grain grown in the United States and almost 40% of the grain grown worldwide is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while 20 million

people die annually due to hunger and its effects. The US is also a major importer of beef and fish, and these imports are generally from countries where people are starving.

* Over 10 billion farm animals are killed for their flesh annually in the United States. Most have suffered a lifetime of extreme confinement in filthy, overcrowded sheds without sunlight, fresh air or normal activity and stimulation.

As a person with many problems and shortcomings in my life, I generally refrain from advising others on how to live their lives. However, because of their many threats to the planet and so many people, and the horrible ways that animals are raised on "factory farms," I think it has to be said that animal-based diets and agriculture today constitute madness and sheer insanity and that it is essential that there be a shift toward plant-based diets. It is scandalous that the Jewish community (and other communities) are not protesting about the many violations of religious mandates, and that environmentalists are generally not speaking out about the devastating environmental consequences of raising 10 billion farmed animals in the US and 50 billion worldwide.

I could give many more examples of the madness and sheer insanity of modern intensive "livestock" agriculture, but I hope the following eloquent brief excerpt from "Beyond Beef" by Jeremy Rifkin will suffice for now:

"The ever-increasing cattle population is wreaking havoc on the earth's ecosystems, destroying habitats on six continents. Cattle raising is a primary factor in the destruction of the world's remaining tropical rain forests. Millions of acres of ancient forests in Central and South America are being felled and cleared to make room for pastureland to graze cattle. Cattle herding is responsible for much of the spreading desertification in the sub-Sahara of Africa and the western range land of the United States and Australia. The overgrazing of semiarid and arid lands has left parched and barren deserts on four continents. Organic runoff from feedlots is now a major source of organic pollution in our nation's ground water. Cattle are also a major cause of global warming... The devastating environmental, economic, and human toll of maintaining a worldwide cattle complex is little discussed in public policy circles... Yet, cattle production and beef consumption now rank among the gravest threats to the future well being of the earth and its human population."

Return to Top

2. The Moral Madness of the Biblical Prophets

If current animal-based diets and modern intensive livestock agriculture constitute madness and sheer insanity, how does one respond to this madness. As Robert McAfee Brown, former professor and theologian at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, stated in 1979 at Riverside Church, while referring to the "madness and sheer insanity" of the nuclear arms race, we need what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called "moral madness"-- the madness of the biblical prophets.

While there are no biblical prophets today, Jews are "b’nei nevi’im," decendants of the prophets. So let us consider some of the challenging ideas of the prophets whom we are to take as our models. The statements below about the prophets and related issues are from the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of my great heroes. It is particularly fitting that we consider these teachings now because Rabbi Heschel’s 32nd Yohrtzei (anniversary of his death) started on the evening of December 29th this year, and this Shabbat we begin reading in synagogues the Torah portions about Moses, the greatest of the prophets, and how he helped free the Israelis from slavery in Egypt and led them for 40 years in the wilderness.

Here are some of Rabbi Heschel’s writings about the prophets:

The prophets were some of the most disturbing people who ever lived.

Their task was to convey a divine view.

Their words are onslaughts, scuttling illusions of false security, challenging evasions, calling faith to account, questioning prudence and impartiality.

The prophet was a person who said no to his society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, syncretism.

The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. His ear is attuned to a cry imperceptible to others.

The prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered and awesome.

The prophets knew that man could distort what the Lord demanded of man...

Behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind.

The prophet disdains those for whom God’s presence is comfort and security; to him it is a challenge, an incessant demand.

The prophets' great contribution to humanity was the discovery of the evil of indifference. One may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.

The prophet is a person who suffers the harms done to others. Wherever a crime is committed, it is as if the prophet were the victim and the prey. The prophet's angry words cry. The wrath of God is a lamentation. All prophecy is one great exclamation: God is not indifferent to evil! He is always concerned, He is personally affected by what man does to man. He is a God of pathos.

The prophets passionately proclaim that God himself is concerned with "the transitory social problems," with the blights of society, with the affairs of the market place.

What is the essence of being a prophet? A prophet is a person who holds God and men in one thought at one time, at all times. Our tragedy begins with the segregation of God, with the bifurcation of the secular and sacred. We worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love. We think of God in the past tense and refuse to realize that God is always present and never, never past; that God may be more intimately present in slums than in mansions, with those who are smarting under the abuse of the callous. (From "Religion and Race," in The Insecurity of Freedom , pp. 110-111.)


"The beginning of prayer is praise. The power of worship is song. To worship is to join the cosmos in praising God. . . . Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision." ("On Prayer," pp. 257-267, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Susannah Heschel, ed. (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996).

Inspired by the words of the prophets, Rabbi Heschel wrote: "Our civilization is in need of redemption. The evil, the falsehood, the vulgarity of our way of living cry to high heaven. There is a war to be waged against the vulgar, against the glorification of power, a war that is incessant, universal. There is much purification that needs to be done, ought to be done, and could be

done through bringing to bear the radical wisdom, the sacrificial devotion, the uncompromising loyalty of our forefathers upon the issues of our daily living."

I hope that we will also be inspired by the teachings of the biblical prophets as we respectfully challenge the religious establishments re vegetarianism and related issues.

Return to Top

3. The World Threatened as Perhaps Never Before

The world is arguably threatened as never before today, in terms of global climate change (with the respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting a 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 100 years), species disappearing at the fastest rate in history, the destruction of tropical rain forests, widening droughts, and many other environmental threats, all of which have strong connections of animal-based diets. When we try to feed not only the world’s 6.3 billion people, but also 50 billion farmed animals, it requires far more land, water, fuel, and other resources than plant-based diets would, and contributes to many environmental threats and widespread hunger (seventy percent of the grain produced in North America is fed to animals destined for slaughter). Although ignored by many, animal-based diets are also contributing to an epidemic of chronic, degenerative diseases, and attempts to cure these diseases has required huge expenditures which has resulted in major changes in our health care systems.

There is a need for major changes if the world is to avoid increasingly severe threats. In 1992, over 1,670 scientists, including 104 Nobel laureates -- a majority of the living recipients of the Prizes in the sciences -- signed a "World Scientists' Warning To Humanity." Their introduction states: "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.

The scientists’ analysis discussed threats to the atmosphere, rivers and streams, oceans, soil, living species, and forests. Their warning: "We the undersigned, senior members of the world's scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated."

I believe that it is essential to help make people aware of the many threats to humanity as we continue to promote a shift toward vegetarian/vegan diets as an essential part of the necessary changes. When we consider all of the negative environmental and climate-change effects, and then add the harmful effects of animal-based diets on human health and global hunger, it is clear that animal-centered diets and the livestock agriculture needed to sustain them pose tremendous threats to global survival. It is not surprising that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) ranks the consumption of meat and poultry as the second most harmful consumer activity (surpassed only by the use of cars and light trucks).

Return to Top

4. Vegetarianism as a Societal Imperative

Because of the many great threats to humanity, and the major role that animal-based agriculture plays in many of these threats (as discussed in many previous messages), a shift toward a plant-based diet is not only an important individual choice today, “it is a societal imperative, essential for global sustainability and fiscal solvency.

A shift toward vegetarianism is arguably the most effective way to:

1) reduce disease rates sharply;
2) halt soaring medical costs;
3) reduce the mistreatment of animals;
4) protect the environment;
5) conserve resources;
6) help hungry people;
7) reduce violence.

The aims of vegetarians and environmental activists are similar: simplify our life styles, have regard for the earth and all forms of life, and apply the knowledge that "the earth is the Lord's." In view of the many negative effects of animal-based agriculture on the earth's environment, resources, and climate, it is becoming increasingly clear that a shift toward vegetarianism is imperative to move our precious but imperiled planet away from its present catastrophic path.

Return to Top

5. Vegetarianism as a Spiritual Imperative

There are many violations of Jewish teachings associated with the production and consumption of animal products:

* While Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to heart disease, stroke, many forms of cancer, and other chronic degenerative diseases.

While Judaism emphasizes tsa'ar ba'alei chayim, the prohibition against causing needless suffering for animals, animals are raised for food today under cruel conditions, in crowded, confined cells, where they are denied fresh air, exercise, and any natural existence.

* While Judaism teaches that "the earth is the Lord's" (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God's partners and co-workers in preserving the world, modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes substantially to soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, global climate change, and other environmental damages.

* While Judaism mandates bal tashchit, not to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value, or use more than is needed to accomplish a purpose, animal agriculture requires the wasteful use of land, water, fuel, grain, and other resources.

* While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, an estimated twenty million human beings worldwide die each year because of hunger and its effects, over 70% of the grain grown in the U.S. is fed to animals destined for slaughter. It takes up to sixteen pounds of grain to produce just one pound of feedlot-finished beef.

* While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, animal-centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that often lead to instability and war.

Return to Top

6. Getting Vegetarianism Onto the Jewish Agenda

Based on the contradictions between the realities of the production and consumption of animals and basic Jewish values discussed above, we should very respectfully raise the following question In discussions: In view of Judaism's strong teachings with regard to preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving resources, and helping the hungry, and the very negative effects that the production and consumption of meat has in each of these areas, shouldn't Jews eliminate or sharply reduce their consumption of animal products?

Some other questions and arguments that we should use to respectfully challenge the establishment are:

* Since Jews can only mistreat or kill animals to meet an essential human need, and it is not necessary to consume animal products in order to maintain good health (the contrary is the case), how can we justify the slaughtering of animals for food?

* Could G-d possibly prefer us to have an animal-based diet when the production and consumption of animal products harm our health, mistreat animals, threaten ecosystems, waste resources, and make war and violence more likely? In fact, doesn't the Torah only allow the consumption of meat under numerous restrictions, as a concession to human desire?

* Why is it that while some Jews are building fences around some ritual mitzvot, other mitzvot such as tikkun olam (repair the world), bal tashchit (do not waste resources), bakesh shalom v'rodef shalom (seek peace and pursue it), and tsa'ar ba'alei chayim (do not cause "pain to living creatures") are often ignored?

* Can we justify the force-feeding of ducks and geese to create pate de foie gras? Can we justify taking day-old calves from their mothers so that they can be raised for veal in very cramped conditions? Can we justify the killing of over 250 million male chicks immediately after birth at egg-laying hatcheries because they cannot produce eggs and have not been genetically programmed to be able to have much flesh? Can we justify artificially impregnating cows every year so that they will be able to continue to produce milk? Can we justify the many other horrors of factory farming?

As b'nei nevi'im, with a mandate to be "a light onto the nations" and G-d's witnesses, can we remain silent when so many basic Jewish values are being violated and while present policies are leading the world to an unsustainable future?

Since we are to be "rachmanim b'nei rachmanim" (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors), we worship a G-d who is "Harachamon" (the compassionate One) and "Av Harachamim' (the Father of mercies), and "the soul of all living beings shall praise G-d's name", can we continue to partake so heavily in a diet that involves so much cruelty to animals?

I have been thinking about how we can express the case for Jewish vegetarianism in the simplest way. Here is my "first draft", and I would welcome input very much.

a. Judaism teaches that we may not harm animals unless an essential human need will be met that cannot easily be met in any other way.

b. It is NOT NECESSARY to eat meat (or to consume any animal product. We can sustain our lives completely on plant foods. As a matter of fact, animal-centered diets have very negative effects on human health, on the environment, on hungry people, and on animals, and are very wasteful of resources.

c. Possible conclusion: Consuming animal products seems to be contrary to halacha (Jewish law).

Perhaps, we should adapt the song, "It ain't necessarily so", and make our message to the Jewish community, "It ain't necessary, and SO?" The SO is meant to question the Jewish community as to why animal-centered diets are continuing, when they appear to violate basic Jewish mandates.

Return to Top

7. Avoiding Criticism of our Views

We have an extremely powerful case for vegetarianism based on Jewish teachings and the realities of the widespread production and consumption of animal products, and we should take every opportunity to engage as many people as possible in dialogues about it, while striving to avoid arguments and comparisons that will turn people off and/or give them a chance to shift the focus of the discussion.

Here are some considerations:

* We should always be respectful.

* We should stress that we are trying to start respectful dialogues, not to assert that we have the complete truth.

* We should also stress that we are not arguing that Jews are forbidden from eating meat, but, rather that Jews have a choice in their diets, but we believe that this choice should be based on a consideration of the realities of producing and consuming animal products and how they impinge on Jewish values.

* We should acknowledge that Judaism teaches that people have been given dominion over animals, but that our sages interpret this as "responsible stewardship," so our "dominion" obligates us to treat the earth and the animals on it with reverence and care.

* We should also acknowledge that Judaism teaches that only human beings are created in G-d’s image, but this too is positive for our causes, because it mandates that we imitate G-d’s positive attributes of compassion, justice, and concern for the earth and its inhabitants.

Return to Top

8. Final Thoughts and Action Ideas

It is urgent that vegetarianism be put squarely on the Jewish agenda, and on other agendas, because the revitalization of Judaism and the sustainability of the global environment depend on a shift to plant-based diets.

In trying to get the issue of vegetarianism onto the Jewish agenda (and other agendas), we are willing, ready, and able to discuss or respectfully debate "Should Jews (and everyone else) Be Vegetarians?" We are also calling for the formation of a commission of rabbis, other Jewish scholars, health experts, nutritionists, environmentalists, and other objective experts to investigate the realities of the production and consumption of animal products and how they impinge on basic Jewish values.

We should also point out that additional information may be obtained at, from my book Judaism and Vegetarianism, and from books by Roberta Kalechofsky, including Vegetarian Judaism.

ACTION IDEAS As indicated above, vegetarianism is increasingly a societal imperative because of the many negative environmental and economic effects of the mass production and widespread consumption of animal products. Hence, since it is essential that people shift toward vegetarianism, here are some suggestions to promote plant-based diets:

1) Become well informed. Learn the facts about vegetarianism from the JVNA web site (, including my over 100 articles at and other Internet and printed sources. Learn how to effectively answer questions about vegetarianism, and use such questions as an opportunity to inform others.

2) Help educate others about vegetarianism. Wear a button. Put a bumper sticker on your car. Make up and display posters. Write timely letters to the editors of your local newspapers. Set up programs and discussions. There are a wide variety of interesting vegetarian slogans on buttons, bumper sticker s, and T-shirts and sweat shirts. For example:

Love animals. Don't eat them.
Vegetarianism is good for life.
Happiness is reverence for life. Be vegetarian.
Use the world vegetarian symbol on correspondence. This will help the vegetarian movement obtain publicity that it badly needs and, because of prohibitive costs, cannot be easily obtained otherwise. Stickers and rubber stamps with the world vegetarian symbol can be obtained from the International Jewish Vegetarian Society.

3) Use the material in this message and other vegetarian sources in discussions with doctors. Help increase their knowledge of the many health benefits of a vegetarian diet

4) Ask the rabbi of your synagogue if Jews should eliminate or at least sharply reduce their consumption of meat today because of important Jewish principles such as bal tashchit, tsa'ar ba'alei chayim, and pikuach nefesh that are being violated. Ask if these concepts can be included in sermons and classes.

5) Request that meat or fish not be served at synagogue and Jewish organizational functions and celebrations. Ask school principals and school directors to provide students with nutritious vegetarian options.

6) Ask the rabbi and/or head of a Hebrew school to organize a trip to a slaughterhouse so that people can observe for themselves how animals are slaughtered. A trip to a factory farm to see how cattle, chickens, and other animals are raised would also be very instructive.

7) Arrange synagogue and Jewish organizational sessions where vegetarian dishes are sampled and recipes exchanged.

8) Speak or organize an event with a guest speaker on the advantages of vegetarianism and how vegetarianism relates to Judaism.

9) Get vegetarian books into public and synagogue libraries by donating duplicates, requesting that libraries purchase such books, and, if you can afford it, by buying some and donating them. Ask local librarians to set up special exhibits about vegetarian foods and vegetarian-related issues. I am offering complimentary copies of my book "Judaism and Vegetarianism" and a related tape cassette to anyone who contacts me and indicates how he or she would use it to help increase awareness of Jewish teachings on vegetarianism.

10) Work with others to set up a vegetarian food co-op or restaurant or help support such places if they already exist. Encourage people to patronize such establishments.

11) Register yourself with a community, library, or school speakers' bureau. Take advantage of your increased knowledge and awareness to start speaking out.

12) Contact the food editor of your local newspaper and ask that more vegetarian recipes be included.

13) When applicable, raise awareness by showing how values of the Sabbath and festivals are consistent with vegetarian concepts. For example: Point out that the kiddush recited before lunch on the Sabbath indicates that animals are also to be able to rest on the Sabbath day; on Sukkot, note that the sukkah (temporary dwelling place) is decorated with pictures and replicas of fruits and vegetables (never with animal products); on Yom Kippur, consider the mandate expressed in the prophetic reading of Isaiah to "share your bread with the hungry," which can be carried out best by not having a diet that wastes large amounts of land, grain, water, fuel, and other agricultural resources.

14) Join the International Jewish Vegetarian Society, the Jewish Vegetarians of North America (addresses given later) and local vegetarian groups.

15) Support groups that are working to reduce world hunger, especially, these groups that generally go beyond merely providing charitable aid to the needy, but rather strive, in accordance with Maimonides' concept of the highest form of charity, to make people self-reliant in producing their own food.

16) If people are not willing to become vegetarians, encourage them to at least make a start by giving up red meat and having one or two meatless meals a week (perhaps Mondays and Thursdays, which were traditional Jewish fast days).

17) Do not concentrate only on vegetarianism. It is only part of the pursuit of justice, compassion, and peace. Become aware and try to affect public policy with regard to vegetarian-related issues: preserving health, showing compassion for animals, saving human lives, conserving resources, helping hungry people, and see king and pursuing peace. If you ever feel overwhelmed by the many crises facing the world today and the difficulties of trying to move people toward vegetarian diets, please consider the following: Jewish tradition teaches, "It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it" We must make a start and do whatever we can to improve the world. Judaism teaches that a person is obligated to protest when there is evil and to proceed from protest to action Each person should imagine that the world is evenly balanced between good and evil and that his or her actions can determine the destiny of the entire world. Even if little is accomplished, trying to make improvements will prevent the hardening of your heart and will affirm that you accept moral responsibility. The ver y act of consciousness raising is important because it may lead to future changes.

Return to Top

Appendix: Some Jewish Teachings On Involvement and Protest

The following is from the preliminary section of my book, "Judaism and Global Survival."


Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of his own family and does
not do so is punished [liable, held responsible] for the transgressions of his
family. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the people of
his community and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of his
community. Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire
world and does not do so is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.
(Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b)
Judaism urges active involvement in issues facing society. A Jew must not be concerned only about his or her own personal affairs when the community is in trouble:

If a person of learning participates in public affairs and serves as judge or
arbiter, he gives stability to the land. But if he sits in his home and says to
himself, "What have the affairs of society to do with me? ... Why should I
trouble myself with the people's voices of protest? Let my soul dwell in peace!"
-- if he does this, he overthrows the world.

Judaism teaches that people must struggle to create a better society. The Torah frequently admonishes: "And you shall eradicate the evil from your midst" (Deuteronomy 13:6, 17:7, 21:21, 24:7). Injustice can not be passively accepted; it must be actively resisted and, ultimately, eliminated. The Talmudic sages teach that one reason Jerusalem was destroyed was because its citizens failed in their responsibility to constructively criticize one another’s improper behavior. They indicate that "Love which does not contain the element of criticism is not really love."

The essential elements of Jewish practice include devotion to Torah, study, prayer, performing good deeds and other mitzvot (Commandments), and cultivating a life of piety. But, as indicated in the following Midrash (a rabbinic story or teaching based on Biblical events or concepts), in order to be considered pious, a person must protest against injustice. Even God is challenged to apply this standard in judging people:

R. Acha ben R. Chanina said: Never did a favorable decree go forth from the mouth of the Holy One which He withdrew and changed into an unfavorable judgment, except the following: "And the Lord said to His angel: 'Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed there"' (Ezekiel 9:4). (Thus, they will be protected from the angels who are slaying the wicked.)

At that moment, the indignant prosecutor came forward in the Heavenly Court.

Prosecutor: Lord, wherein are these (marked ones) different from those (the rest)?

God: These are wholly righteous men, while those are wholly wicked.

Prosecutor: But Lord, they had the power to protest, but did not.

God: I knew that had they protested, they would not have been heeded.

Prosecutor: But Lord, if it was revealed to You, was it revealed to them? Accordingly, they should have protested and incurred scorn for thy holy Name, and have been ready to suffer blows... as the prophets of Israel suffered.

God revoked his original order, and the righteous were found guilty, because of their failure to protest. (Shabbat 55a, Tanchuma Tazria 9)

Hence, it is not sufficient merely to do mitzvot while acquiescing in unjust conditions. The Maharal of Prague, a sixteenth-century sage, states that individual piety pales in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil, and a person will be held accountable for not preventing wickedness when capable of doing so. One of the most important dangers of silence in the face of evil is that it implies acceptance or possibly even support. According to Rabbeinu Yonah, a medieval sage, sinners may think to themselves, "Since others are neither reproving nor contending against us, our deeds are permissible."

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a refugee from pre-World War II Nazi Germany and former president of the American Jewish Congress, spoke to the 250,000 people who took part in the "March on Washington" organized by the Reverend Martin Luther King and others in 1963 on behalf of Civil Rights. He stated that under Hitler's rule, he had learned about the problem of apathy toward fellow human beings: "Bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and most tragic problem is silence."

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading twentieth century philosopher, believed that apathy toward injustice results in greater wickedness. He writes that "indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself " and that silent acquiescence leads to evil being accepted and becoming the rule.

Jews are required to protest against injustice and to try to agitate for change even when successful implementation appears very difficult. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Zera states, "Even though people will not accept it, you should rebuke them." We can never be sure that our words and actions will be ineffective. Thus the only responsible approach is to try our best. In Rabbi Tarfon’s famous formulation in the Mishna:
It is not your obligation to complete the task. But neither are you free to desist from it.
Just as many drops of water can eventually carve a hole in a rock, many small efforts can eventually have a major impact.

There are times when a person must continue to protest in order to avoid being corrupted:
A man stood at the entrance of Sodom crying out against the injustice and evil
in that city. Someone passed by and said to him, "For years you have been urging
the people to repent, and yet no one has changed. Why do you continue?" He
responded: "When I first came, I protested because I hoped to change the people
of Sodom. Now I continue to cry out, because if I don't, they will have changed
In his article "The Rabbinic Ethics of Protest," Rabbi Reuven Kimelman observes that the means of protest must be consistent with responsibility to the community. He states that protest must involve both love and truth since love implies the willingness to suffer, and truth, the willingness to resist. Together, he concludes, they encompass an approach of nonviolent resistance, toward the ends of justice and peace. The Talmud teaches that controversy and protest must be "for the sake of Heaven". The protest of Korach against the rule of Moses in the wilderness (Numbers 16:1-35) is considered negatively by the Jewish tradition because it was based on jealousy and personal motives.

The result of failing to speak out against injustice is well expressed by the following statement by the German theologian Martin Niemoller:
In Germany, the Nazis first came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up
because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the gypsies, and I didn't speak up because I was not a gypsy. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for me ... and by that time, there was no one to speak up for me.
Quoted from Jack Doueck, The Chesed Boomerang: How Acts of Kindness Enrich Our Lives, Deal, New Jersey: Yagdiyl Torah Publicatios, 1999, 83.

Return to Top