Civil Disobedience: When is it Right? EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS
Jewish World

Civil Disobedience: When is it Right?

As is typical in Jewish wisdom, the truth lies somewhere between two opinions.


In light of yesterday’s attempted takeover of the US Capitol to prevent the certification of the presidential election results, I thought it appropriate to republish a piece about Jewish views on civil disobedience originally published back in November when it became obvious that civil disturbances were brewing around the US vote.

To try and summarize how the Jewish sages understood civil disobedience, I would say it is “The refusal of citizens to obey certain immoral laws in order to influence government policy through non-violent resistance.” To understand their approach, we must note that through the centuries Jews often lived under foreign, oppressive regimes, and their discussions reflect a situation where they need workable options to protect themselves and limit antisemitic violence. Nevertheless, their wisdom is just as relevant today for those who contemplate civil disobedience because they believe their lives are in danger or the moral foundations of society are crumbling under an increasingly secular, anti-God government.

For starters, the rabbis looked at examples of civil disobedience in the Bible. Pharaoh demanded that the midwives let the male Jewish babies die at birth, but they refused and obeyed God instead of the king (Ex. 1:15-19). When King Saul ordered his guards to kill all the priests, they refused (I Sam: 22). When Daniel was forbidden to pray to his God, he ignored the order and prayed publicly in protest, resulting in him being thrown to the lions (Dan. 6).

These and other examples pointed the rabbis to determine that there are times when government actions should be resisted. In fact, Judaism demands involvement whenever a grievous wrong is committed. Jews, for example, are required to save life whenever possible and are held responsible if they remain silent.

Another Jewish principle seems to contradict this basic idea. The Mishna (Avot 3:2) tells us to “pray for the government,” a requirement repeated in the New Testament (Rom. 13). For the Jews, especially living in the midst of antisemitic hatred, a strong government was often the only way they could be protected. Praying for the government, whether one agrees with its policy or not, remains a custom until this day in synagogues and churches around the world. There is, of course, the famous prayer of Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof, “G-d bless the Czar, and keep him far away from us.”

On the one hand, strong government is necessary to maintain law and order, but on the other, civil disobedience can weaken the government’s ability to protect its people. This problem can be seen in the Book of Judges where we find the oft repeated, “Each man does whatever is right in his own eyes.” This dilemma eventually led Israel to choose its first king to try and bring some order to a lawless society. Sometimes a strong government is more important than protests that weaken the rule of law.


How did the Jewish sages deal with these conflicting goals?

They ask the hard questions. How to keep a strong government while disobeying when it acts lawlessly or immorally? And perhaps more fundamentally, who determines what and when legitimate civil disobedience is called for? How are we to determine when civil disobedience is called for when some people think their cause is legitimate, and others not?


Who’s willing to pay the price?

These questions led the Jewish sages to consider what kind of person should disobey the government. Not only what to do, but who should do it. When people are willing to act in protest of a perceived immoral or unsavory government law or policy, they must consider the consequences. Effective protesters, the sages say, must be willing to suffer the potential punishment for their civil disobedience. It is this willingness to accept the consequences for resisting that adds the necessary moral strength to their protest. This noble and principled attitude of legitimate resistance can be seen in the first instance of civil disobedience in the Bible.

When the midwives refused to kill the Jewish babies as commanded by Pharaoh, they gave him the excuse that Jewish mothers were different than others and gave birth quickly without needing a midwife (Ex. 1:18-19). It is not clear if Pharaoh believed this paltry explanation or not. What did happen is that Pharaoh ordered all Jewish infants to be killed by throwing them into the Nile! So their protest seems to have achieved nothing.

And yet, we learn two things from this example. First, civil disobedience doesn’t always achieve its desired goal. That is something not every protestor wants to admit. This does not mean, however, that we should not protest, as the Bible shows great appreciation for the midwives’ actions.

We also learn that whether or not our protests change anything, we must never allow immoral actions to be at our own hands.

What happened to the midwives? The Bible simply says that “because they feared God, he made them houses” (Ex1:21). Rashi interprets the pronoun “he” as God, and not that He made them actual houses, but rather one of the midwives became the House of Priests of Yocheved who was Moses and Aaron’s mother, the other the House of Royalty who is Miriam and ancestor to King David according to Jewish tradition.

Rashbam does not accept this interpretation of his grandfather Rashi (back then families could disagree and stayed together!). Rashbam says the houses were “jailhouses” built for the midwives and the “he” refers to Pharaoh who wants to punish them for their disobedience. There is clear grammatical support for both interpretations.

It appears that Rashi wants us to understand that there is ultimately a reward for legitimate civil disobedience, even when we do not see immediate results, or things seem to get worse.

Rashbam, who lived in a time of much greater persecutions than his grandfather, himself understood that there is often a price to pay for civil disobedience, and that we must be willing to do the right thing no matter the cost.


What is the right way?

As is typical in Jewish wisdom, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It is possible that both Rashi and Rashbam are right and that the midwives were incarcerated and yet went on to establish great houses in Israel as a reward for and result of their willingness to stand up for what is right in spite of the consequences.

In Jewish thinking, it is not enough to know when or why we should protest by civil disobedience, but even more importantly who we are, when and how to protest. There are serious consequences for every act of disobedience against government, both intended and unintended.

Sadly, this kind of moral compass, discernment and willingness when confronting wrong in any nation is rare.

May G-d bless America in these difficult times and give wisdom to all people of faith to know how to serve their nations with integrity, honor and hope.

I am indebted to Nachum Amsel and his Encyclopedia of Jewish Values for his invaluable source materials found in this article.

All articles in this series can be found here: Jewish Wisdom for the Everyday Man


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