Civil Disobedience

Over the past few days, we've see protesters take to the street opposing the stay-safe orders of several put into place by many states, including here in California. This kind of civil disobedience has a long

tradition in America. In fact, our country was founded upon a type of civil disobedience in the form of written appeals to George III and evolved to armed rebellion.


We, the inheritors of the American Revolution, view the armed rebellion of our fore-bearers as completely justified and appropriate. Once established, however, the American government changed its perspective on armed rebellion. Although Thomas Jefferson believed that 'a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,' neither Jefferson nor anyone else in the American government would sanction such a thing once the American government was set up in the 18th century. Yet, we have largely the same perspective on civil disobedience: citizens of this country have the right, perhaps the obligation to peacefully seek redress for their grievances, including public protests.


Those protesting the stay-safe orders of governors pose an interesting dilemma: most Americans support the right of all to engage in acts of civil disobedience. In this particular case we are faced with a conundrum: their act of civil disobedience endangers the lives of others. They want to be free from obeying the stay-safe order, but their willingness to congregate in contravention of social distancing rules, testing requirements etc., put others at risk if and when they contract the virus and spread it to others. And, their very act of protesting without social distancing safeguards might mean they actually get sick while protesting and thus, they potentially endanger others.


Here, we are are asked to balance two deeply ingrained American values: the right to peacefully assemble for a protest versus the right of others to be safe from (in this case) a virus that poses a significant risk (at a minimum, 10 times more deadly than the seasonal flu and far more contagious). Distilled to its essence, this reflects a tension between the individual and the community. America tends to side with individual rights unless there is an overwhelming reason to come down on the side of larger community interests, as in the fight against slavery or WWII.


Judaism recognizes this tension. The idea of civil disobedience, as we understand it today, doesn't have an exact analogue in Judaism. Yet, there is some relevant discussion that can help us approach these kinds of issues from a Jewish perspective.


There is a shockingly large amount of rabbinic texts devoted to issues such as: can an individual be compelled to financially contribute to the building of a gate house and a door in a community that shares a jointly owned courtyard? If you're surprised that Judaism deals with this kind of issue (legally, a tort) don't be: these issues reflect the very Jewish concern of balancing the needs of the individual against the needs of the community. In this particular case, the basic ruling is that an individual can, in fact, be forced to contribute financially to this project. This ruling is modified and restricted in certain situations, but the bottom line is clear: in this instance, Judaism comes down on the side of the community.


This is but one example of the way in which Judaism balances the interests of the individual against the needs of the community. In general, I think Judaism does a good job, perhaps a very good job, in maintaining this balance. If anything, Judaism does tend to favor the community over the individual. For example, Judaism as understood in the classical texts and by most Jewish communities until the 20th century, understood a family to be a man and a woman, married beneath a chuppah who would go on to have children Obviously, this left many people 'out' of the Jewish community. Fortunately, Reform Jews have expanded our Jewish understanding of a family. I would argue that this makes our community stronger, not weaker.


America is different. We tend to value individual rights in most things. Unfortunately, historically, individual rights have too frequently meant 'individual rights for white men only.' Individual rights have not easily been extended to women, people of color and homosexuals, just to name a few. I think COVID19 will change this: I think we will come to recognize that there is a greater good that must be served here in America in order to safeguard the rights (by which I mean the health and safety) of all Americans.







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