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.