Lo BaShamayim Hi: Civic Responsibility through Jewish Texts

Rachel Chiel Katz
Eighth grade language arts, social studies, and tefillah teacher at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston

What are the responsibilities of citizenship? How do Jewish texts help us to understand those obligations more clearly? How do our values as Jews align with our identities as engaged Americans? These are the central questions of my Current Events and Judaism elective, which I teach to eighth graders at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton, Massachusetts. 

Even eighth graders can have deeply polarized opinions about current events, so we begin the elective by modeling our code of conduct after two stories from the Talmud. In the days of the Sanhedrin, Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua had a series of clashes on how to interpret the law. At one point, Rabban Gamliel made the elderly Rabbi Yehoshua stand during Rabban Gamliel’s lengthy lecture. For this intentional humiliation, the other sages removed Rabban Gamliel from his position as nasi of the beit midrash. Students learn that they may disagree, but they can’t be unkind; disagreement must be respectful.

Additionally, in the story of the oven of Achnai, the Rabbis debated over whether a certain type of clay oven could be kosher. Rabbi Eliezer was in the minority, and he called upon God to reinforce his opinion. Suddenly, a tree uproots itself; a river runs backwards; even the walls of the beit midrash begin to collapse. Rabbi Yehoshua stops the walls by reminding them, “Lo bashamayim hi”—the law is not in the heavens. Once the Torah has been given, the project of interpreting that law belongs to the people. This too is the governing principle of democracy; through our passionate debating from a variety of perspectives, we interpret our founding documents and arrive at decisions that impact the lives of others.

At a July fourth celebration in 1788, James Wilson, one of the signatories of the Constitution, exhorted his listeners:

Let no one, therefore, harbour, for a moment, the mean idea, that he is and can be of no value to his country… Every one can, at many times, perform to the state, useful services; and he, who steadily pursues the road of patriotism, has the most inviting prospect of being able, at some times, to perform eminent ones.

This idea, students learn, can also be found in Pirkei Avot 4:3: “Ben Azzai taught: Do not disdain any person, and do not underrate the importance of anything, for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is nothing without its place.” Judaism teaches that people are created in the image of God, and therefore, we are all precious. Our actions matter, alone and together.

Mattering as individuals and as a community is central to both Judaism and to citizenship. So much of Judaism is about showing up. We show up for celebrations and for times of mourning. Ten individuals make a minyan; we can pray alone, but everything is enhanced when we collaborate. The power of individuals to make communal change is evident, for example, in this fall’s Boston City Council election, where a candidate won by a single vote.

So, the students ask, how should we direct our individual and collective power? How is it possible to do good when so many causes are vying for our attention?  Should we care just about other Jews, or about everyone? We look at the Talmud, Shabbat 54b:

Anyone who is able to protest the members of his household and doesn't protest, is liable for the members of his household; anyone who is able to protest the people of his city, he is liable for the people of his city; anyone who is able to protest the whole world, he is liable for the whole world.

The idea that we are required to be activists can be exhilarating. However, students relate that while it may feel overwhelming to protest global injustice, like the destruction of the environment, protesting the actions of members of one’s household might have painful consequences. If you disagree with your parents’ beliefs, or witness abhorrent conduct in your community, what will be the consequences of calling out that behavior?

Despite our fears, change cannot be made without the work of motivated, knowledgeable individuals, who note inequalities and strive to ameliorate them. This year, a former student addressed the eighth grade about their experience interning for a state representative. This student worked on issues relating to state abortion laws and ways to help undocumented people report unsafe situations without putting themselves at risk of deportation. Students saw that this type of work is not in the heavens; they can pursue justice themselves.

The story of Bar Kamtza (Gittin 56a) illustrates that we should never stand by when others are mistreated. Bar Kamtza was humiliated by being thrown out of a party when Israel was under Roman rule. He bitterly reflects, “Since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest the actions of the host, although they saw how he humiliated me, learn from it that they were content with what he did.” Bar Kamtza, viewing the Rabbis’ silence as consent, went to the Roman rulers and demanded that they investigate the Jewish people for treason, starting a chain of events leading to the destruction of the Temple.

Feeling another’s embarrassment as acutely as our own is only part of the larger project of tying empathy to action. We are told in Exodus 22:20, “You shall not wrong the stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We are asked to put ourselves in the shoes of the most vulnerable among us and to deal ethically with them, as we would wish for ourselves in similar circumstances. Likewise, when defending the idea of allowing the House of Representatives to be elected from “the great body of the people of the United States,” James Madison argued that,

In the situation of the House of Representatives, restraining them from oppressive measures, that they can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society.

America is founded on the belief that our representatives will argue on not just their own behalf, but on behalf of the community, as they will be subject to the same laws as those they represent, and will therefore advocate for their interests from an empathetic point of view.

“Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.” Why, I ask the kids, must we chase after justice? Why not just love justice, or adhere to justice? Because justice is work. It doesn’t just exist; it is constructed. We have many Jewish examples of individuals who protested on behalf of justice. Shifra and Puah, the Jewish midwives in Pharoah’s Egypt, ignore Pharoah’s dictum to murder Jewish children. Mordechai doesn’t bow to Haman. Tzelophchad’s daughters argue that they should not be denied their inheritance because they are women.

Most significantly, Jews argue with God; Abraham protests the destruction of Sodom. Moshe turns away God’s anger after the Golden Calf. If we can argue with God about what is just and compassionate, then surely we can continue to debate the common good with each other.

My students do not want to be shielded from tough issues. They want to know what Judaism “says” about issues ranging from abortion to the death penalty. What should we do about Holocaust denial? About unethical business practices? There is no one answer to any of these questions, so we look to a variety of sources to help us, from ancient commentators to modern responsa.

We also look to commentators to help us with difficult texts. In a discussion about hunger, we puzzled over the ending of Birkat Hamazon: “I was young and I have grown old, and I have never seen a righteous person abandoned and his children begging for bread.” How can we say this? Surely we have all seen good people in difficult circumstances. Once again, empathy is the call to action. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that the word “seen” should be interpreted as “I have not stood idly by”:

Read this way, not only does it make sense. It also emerges from the core of Jewish sensibility. It ends grace after meals with a moral commitment. Yes, we have eaten and are satisfied. But that has not made us indifferent to the needs of others.

We are reminded that even though we are comfortable, others may not be. We can take our appreciation for the ways in which we are lucky and put those blessings to work for other people. As Americans, we can express gratitude for the institutions that have sheltered us in times of distress, and work to provide that same shelter for those who need it. A commitment to justice and participatory, communal behavior is required of us in both our secular and religious lives. As our students graduate and move into the wider world, I cannot wait to see the ways in which they translate these ethics into action.