Our Tradition of Dissent

Dissent: The act of expressing opinions at odds with those officially held.

In the Jewish tradition, even God handles dissent with grace.

When God tells Abraham about the plan to obliterate Sodom, Abraham objects. He bargains. God listens and negotiates, but ultimately stays the course. The city is destroyed, but the relationship between God and Abraham endures and God fulfills the promise to establish Abraham as the father of a great nation.

In the wilderness of Sinai, the daughters of Zelophehad – Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah – come before Moses to object to God’s already announced plan for the allocation of the land of Israel. God tells Moses that “the plea is just,” and these women are given their share.

The rabbis of the Talmud also embraced debate and dissent. The houses of Hillel and Shamai vigorously argued the law. Almost always, the majority sided with Hillel. But the dissent was heard, honored, and recorded for posterity. And then the two houses would break bread together and marry their children to each other.

The examples of dissent as a valued and embraced Jewish tradition go on and on.

This weekend we celebrate the life and legacy of another great dissenter, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King’ leadership in the civil rights movement challenged America and all Americans to aspire to live to our potential and enact our expressed values. He taught - or more accurately reminded - us, that active dissent against an unjust law was an act of moral responsibility.

Dr. King affirmed his faith’s teachings on dissent through acts of love. He taught us to embrace and explore our capacity for empathy for the other in service to bringing about a more compassionate and just world.

A half-century later, we’re still learning to embrace that vision and message.

At a time when hate is ascendant in our discourse, when journalists are bullied for questioning those with power, and when the fractures that divide our communities seem almost unbridgeable, we are called to remember our Jewish tradition’s deeply held appreciation for the expression of dissent.

Dissent with love: work for greater empathy in ourselves and others; Listen to, honor and record for posterity the voice of the dissenter; Be open to change – as even God is. And then, when the debate is done for the day, invite each other to break bread.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy