Tablet readers may already be familiar with Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Jeremy Wieder from his inclusion on our September list of “15 American Rabbis You Haven’t Heard Of, But Should.” The youngest rosh yeshiva, or rabbinic dean, in the university’s history, Wieder has long been an advocate for Orthodox Jewish engagement with the broader world, arguing that the secular and the spiritual can enrich each other when carefully considered. During Hanukkah, Wieder illustrated the political dimensions of this philosophy in an unusual address to the Yeshiva University Beit Midrash, or study hall, in which he exhorted the assembled college and rabbinical students to watch the video of Eric Garner’s death and protest the system that allowed it to happen.
“When a fellow human being, with a tzelem Elokim [endowed with the image of God] just like ours, is murdered and we witness it with our own eyes, how can we let the moment pass without some reaction?” he asked. “Every act of murder is terrible, and every loss of innocent life is a tragedy. But when it happens at the hands of the organs of justice of our society, and the system of justice fails to recognize what has happened, some kind of meha’ah [rebuke] is in order.”
Wieder then offered several reasons why Jews in particular should protest the injustice of Garner’s killing, among them the affinities between the legacies of anti-Semitism and racism:
The issue here is not exclusively about race. The destruction of a tzelem elokim and inherent tragedy should shock us regardless of race or creed. But race certainly plays a role in this story. Our history as a people teaches us what it is like to be the oppressed. We suffered for numerous millennia, centuries, at the hands of authorities—official oppressors—from Pharaoh to Antiochus to Hadrian to the medieval Crusaders to Hitler, yemah shemo. And in many corners of the world outside of Medinat Yisrael (Israel) and this country, the specter of anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head again. And sometimes, it is perpetrated or fostered by the authorities. We need to be sensitive to others in the same position.
The African-American community, to the extent that one can speak of it as a monolithic entity, faces many difficulties and hardships. Not all of them are the fault of broader society, and many of them cannot be solved by broader society, but make no mistake: much of that misfortune and suffering is the legacy of slavery, segregation, overt discrimination, and even more commonly and often unconsciously, stereotyping and bias. As Jews, we are no strangers to discrimination and stereotyping, some of which still persists in the dark corners in this country.
The Torah warns us about ona’at ha-ger (inflicting emotional pain on a convert), according to R. Eliezer ha-Gadol in the gemara [Talmud] in Bava Metzi’a (59b), 36 or 46 times. And why does the Torah warn us about ona’at ha-ger? Because “ki gerim heyitem be-eretz Mitzrayim”: “because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” We know what it is like because we have been there, and we should act accordingly.
The gemara in Shabbat (31a) tells the story of Hillel and the ger (convert), who asks him to teach him the Torah on one foot. The essence, according to Hillel, is “de`alakh seni, le-havrakh lo ta`aveid.” “Whatever is repulsive to you, don’t do to someone else.” If we complain—and we do—when the world remains silent in the face of mistreatment of Jews, how dare we remain silent of the suffering of others in our own backyard? Just put yourselves in the shoes of the other person—how would you feel if your kippa (yarmulke) made you suspect in the eyes of law enforcement?”
“The world of the beit midrash needs to be one of concern and compassion for others, a torat hesed (a Torah of kindness),” he continued. “As the Rambam [Maimonides] states in Hilkhot Shabbat 2:3 (the laws of the Sabbath), the mishpetei ha-Torah (laws of the Torah) are not nekamah ba-olam—they are not vengeful and they are not harsh—but they are rahamim ve-hesed ve-shalom (compassionate, kind and peaceful). We cannot solve all the problems of the world, and perhaps we shouldn’t try, either. But we must be models of bayshanim, rahmanim, and gomelei hasadim (possessing a sense of shame, compassionate, and performers of acts of kindness). We must not be, nor appear to be, callous or indifferent to the suffering of those outside our dalet amot (four cubits).”
Wieder concluded with a final exhortation to the students:
I implore you, again, to watch the video [of Garner’s death]. At a minimum, you should be able to feel the pain of a man whose blood was spilled needlessly, the pain of his family, and the pain of his community, that with a good deal of justification, feels oppressed. …We say that when we are in exile, the Ribbono shel olam (Master of the Universe) comes with us—imo anokhi be-tzarah (Psalms 91:15). We may still be suffering, but what alleviates our suffering is that the Ribbono shel olam suffers with us. And in that spirit we, too, need to make sure that we feel the pain of others.”