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Bringing Our Moral Voice Into the Public Square

July 1, 2019


Rabbi Nathan Martin

When King David had Uriah the Hittite killed on the battlefield so that David could take Bathsheva to be his wife, the prophet Nathan told the king a parable of a rich man who takes a poor man’s only sheep and slaughters it to entertain his guests. After hearing the story “David burned with anger against the man” and said “the man who did this deserves to die!” Nathan the prophet responds, “You are the man!”

The prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power is not new but is embedded in the Jewish DNA of our communal identity. In his analysis of the prophet’s character, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes that “of paramount importance in the history of Israel was the freedom and independence enjoyed by the prophets, their ability to upbraid kings and princes for their sins.” (Heschel, The Prophets).

While the traditional era of prophecy is long past, of the many “kippot” that rabbis wear, in addition to teacher, ritual leader, and pastor, is using the prophetic voice as well. Alas in today’s tumultuous political environment that voice is needed by religious leaders and all of us more and more often.

A particular opportunity came in early June when along with nearly 400 clergy, chaplains, and other religious leaders from the East Coast, including tens of Reconstructionist rabbis, we gathered under the leadership of Rev. Dr. William Barber, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church - a church that played a role in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Together we prayed, sang, and marched in groups of five (perhaps a midrashic reference of the fact that the Israelites left Egypt in groups of five) to the White House to raise our concerns and moral voices about the direction of our country.

What I particularly appreciated about the march was the integrated message that Rev. Barber shared. Using the text of Jeremiah 22 which directs the prophet to go to the King of Judah and remind him of his responsibility to care for the vulnerable in his land. Tell the king Judge fairly and do what is right. Rescue those who have been robbed from those who oppress them. Don’t mistreat foreigners, orphans, or widows, and don’t oppress them. Don’t kill innocent people in this place (Jer. 22:3). Barber and many other powerful speakers argued that many of the policies of the administration - from ones that cut back needed health care benefits to ones that lead to the despoliation of the earth and the polluting of vulnerable communities to policies that separate refugees from their children - are all a broad attack on the most vulnerable in our country. He went on to preach that those in power who turn their back on the vulnerable face two “moral indictments,” one from the tradition of Jeremiah to use power responsibly and one from our own constitution which is supposed to guarantee equal protection under the law.

As I stood there as a witness with my fellow Reconstructionist rabbis and other leaders of faith I knew that this would not be the last time I would be raising my moral voice for change in our country. I knew that in order to try to embody the Jewish value of tzedek, of manifesting righteousness, that there will be future marches and a lifetime of work ahead. But I was also heartened to see that I was not alone, and that we are truly stronger together.

While I know that our community may not agree on every policy and direction in our country - hence the old adage of two Jews and three opinions - I do hope that we can nurture each other to each wear our own prophetic kippah and find our own way to bring our moral voices to the public square. And, as we do this important work, I hope that we can draw from the rich tradition of our people to give us strength: traditions of song, prayer, study, and ritual — all of which help us to develop clearer moral compasses for ourselves and the world. Wishing all a summer and beyond of nourishment and strength in this work!

Wed, June 7 2023 18 Sivan 5783