The Jewish Attitude Towards Non-Violent Protest and Civil Disobedience


During the past twenty-five years, Israel has experienced a number of periods of civil unrest, including the evacuation from Sinai and Yamit, the War in Lebanon, the Oslo accords and, more recently, the security fence. These events have led to protests, civil disobedience, and refusal by soldiers to serve in certain areas or to fulfill certain duties.

This pattern is repeating itself now, as Israel prepares to withdraw from the Gaza strip and from four settlements in the West Bank in August. As this date draws closer, groups opposed to the Disengagement have escalated their rhetoric and their protest activities. They have encouraged soldiers and reservists to disobey orders, they have staged mass rallies, they have blocked traffic, and they have even thrown oil and nails on highways – leading to traffic accidents.

Some of those in favor of disengagement have expressed opposition to all of the above activities, saying that the majority has made a decision and the minority should not disobey orders, nor protest, nor engage in civil disobedience. I have stated elsewhere that Jewish law allows us to withdraw from the territories and I therefore am strongly in favor of the Disengagement (David Golinkin, Responsa in a Moment , Jerusalem, 2000, pp. 31-36, reprinted in my email column Insight Israel Vol. 5, No. 6, February 2005. For the opposing point of view, see Shochetman’s entire book listed in the Bibliography at the end of this article). On the other hand, I believe that Jewish law and tradition allow Jews to disobey orders, protest and engage in civil disobedience, provided that these activities are non-violent and provided that the protestors are willing to suffer the consequences such as imprisonment.

  1. I) The Jewish Attitude Towards Protest

In general, Jewish law and tradition have a positive attitude towards protest.

Genesis 18 contains Abraham’s classic protest against what he perceived as Divine injustice. Would God wipe out Sodom if contains fifty or forty or thirty or twenty or ten tzaddikim among the guilty? “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (v. 25). A similar protest is uttered by Moses and Aaron in the portion of Korach (Numbers 16: 20-22). God says: “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!” Moses and Aaron fell on their faces, saying: “O God. when one man sins, will you be wrathful with the whole community?!”

The importance of protesting an injustice or a transgression is emphasized numerous times in rabbinic literature: (This section is based on Kimelman).

Rav, R. Hanina, and R. Yohanan taught. Whoever can protest to his household and does not, is accountable [for the sins] of his household; if he could protest to his townspeople, he is accountable for their sins; if he could protest to the whole world, he is accountable for the whole world (Shabbat 54b).

The opponents of disengagement believe that their fellow Jews are committing a sin. I disagree, but l’shitatam , according to their approach, they should protest.

A similar idea is expressed in a midrash about the plan to enslave the Israelites (Shemot Rabbah 1:9, ed. Shinan, pp. 48-49 = Sotah 11a = Sanhedrin 106a):

  1. Hiyya bar Abba said in the name of R. Simai: There were three involved in that plan – Bilam, Job and Jethro:

Bilam who advised it – was slain;

Job who was silent – was afflicted with sufferings ;

Jethro who fled – [his descendants were rewarded].

In other words, those who see an injustice or crime who remain silent, will be punished by God.

The Exilarch was the supreme civil authority of the Jews of Babylonia:

  1. Zera said to R. Simon: Did you rebuke those of the Exilarch’s house? He replied: they will not take it from me. R. Zera said: Even so, you should rebuke them. (Shabbat 55a and cf. Tanhuma Tazria parag. 9).

Another famous Talmudic passage (Gittin 55b-56a) explains why Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. It tells the story of a man in Jerusalem who loved Kamtza and hated Bar-Kamtza. He made a feast and, by mistake, his servant invited Bar-Kamtza. Bar-Kamtza offered to pay for the entire feast if he would let him stay. The man refused and threw him out. Bar-Kamtza said: ” Since the Sages sat here and did not protest. I will go slander the Jews to [Caesar].”. In other words, according to this story, Jerusalem was destroyed because the Sages witnessed an injustice and did not protest.

Silence and lack of protest in the face of evil are also condemned by medieval moralists and philosophers. The Maharal of Prague (ca. 1525-1609) explained ( Netivot Olam , Netiv Hatochecha , end of Chapter 2, p. 194, translated by Kimelman, p. 41):

While a person may be individually pious, such good will pale in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil.such a pious person will be accountable for having been able to prevent it and did not.

A tzadik who remains quiet and passive is ultimately responsible for the communal evil which he could have and should have prevented.

This idea is stated even more forcefully by Orhot Zaddikim (Chapter 24, ed. Seymour Cohen, New York, 1969, p. 404), which was apparently written in fifteenth-century Germany:

If one could protest, but neither protests nor pays attention to the sinful acts, then it is akin to flattery, because the sinners think [to themselves]: since they are neither protesting nor reproaching us, all our deeds are good.

We also have a Talmudic story (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 2:1 = Yerushalmi Horayot 3:1) which shows that one rabbi felt duty bound to rebuke a Jewish leader, even if it meant going to prison. Resh Lakish said that if a Nasi (Patriarch) sinned, he is flogged by a court of three. Rabi Yudan Nesiah – the Patriarch – issued a warrant for his arrest. Resh Lakish fled. In the end, they were reconciled through the intercession of R. Yohanan, but Resh Lakish said to R. Yudan: “Did you think that for fear of you I would stop [proclaiming] the teaching of God!”

Finally, there was a medieval Jewish custom mentioned in many sources which shows that medieval Jews used to protest an injustice in practice . This custom was called ikuv hatefilah or ikuv hakeriah or bitul hatamid (delaying the prayer, delaying the Torah reading or abolition of the daily offering). If a person felt that an injustice was perpetrated upon him by wealthy or violent people or by the community, he or she could interrupt the service before Barekhu or before the Torah service “until justice is done them”. This custom is mentioned frequently in the Cairo Genizah, in the Takkanot of Medieval Germany and even in the Shulhan Arukh (S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society , Vol. II, Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1971, pp. 169-170, 323-325; Louis Finkelstein, Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages , second edition, New York, 1964, pp. 15-18; Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 54:3. See Encyclopaedia Judaica , s.v. Bittul Hatamid, vol. 4, cols. 1061-1062 and especially Avraham Grossman, Milet 1 (1983), pp. 199-219. My thanks to Prof. Elhanan Reiner who reminded me to mention this topic).

  1. II) Civil Disobedience (This section is based primarily on Konvitz. I am including “refusal to obey orders” under civil disobedience because there is only one source on military disobedience – see below).

Civil disobedience was defined by Ghandi as follows:

He who resorts to civil disobedience obeys the laws of the state to which he belongs, not out of fear of sanctions, but because he considers them to be good for the welfare of society. But there come occasions, generally rare, when he considers certain laws to be so unjust as to render obedience to them a dishonor. He then openly and civilly breaks them and quietly suffers the penalty for their breach (Mohandas K. Ghandi, Non-Violent Resistance , New York, 1961, p. 7, quoted by Konvitz, p. 246).

We have many examples of Civil Disobedience in the Bible, Apocrypha and rabbinic literature.

If Joshua Chapter 2, we have an example of a non-Jew disobeying a non-Jewish king in order to help the Jewish people. The King of Jericho explicitly ordered Rahab the harlot to surrender the two Jewish spies whom she was harboring. She lied, saying that they had already left town. She helped them because she believed that God would give the country to the Israelites and she asked the spies to save her and her family. Rahab knew that she was breaking the law and was no doubt willing to risk the dire consequences.

Many of the stories in our classic sources involve Jews disobeying the anti-Jewish laws and decrees of non-Jewish rulers:

According to Exodus Chapter 1, the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah, fearing God, did not murder the newborn Jewish boys as commanded by the King of Egypt. Verse 21 states ambiguously “and he made them houses”. Rashbam (France, 12 th century) explained that Pharaoh made them houses “to guard them lest they go to [assist] the Israelite women giving birth”. In other words, Shifra and Puah were put under house arrest for refusing to murder the Jewish boys. They disobeyed the King and were willing to face the consequences.

In Esther Chapter 3, Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman; he apparently considered it a form of idol worship. He did this for many days and was clearly willing to face the consequences, which as we know, were dire.

In Esther Chapters 4-5, Esther was willing to risk death by going to see King Ahashverosh without being invited, in order to save her people.

In Daniel Chapter 3, King Nebuchadnezzar ordered everyone to bow down to his statue. Hanania, Mishael and Azaria refused to bow down, despite being threatened with death in a fiery furnace. They replied that God could save them from the fiery furnace and even if He does not, they will not worship the statue of gold. In other words, they too engaged in civil disobedience under pain of death.

In Daniel Chapter  (Matityahu and the Macabbees subsequently changed this law – see I Macabbees 2:38-40 and Chanoch Albeck, Shishah Sidrei Mishnah, Seder Moed , Jerusalem – Tel Aviv, 1952, p. 9)., Daniel’s fellow ministers in Persia were jealous of him and sought his downfall. They convinced King Darius to issue a ban that whoever shall address a petition to any God or man besides Darius for the next thirty days shall be thrown into the lions’ den. When Daniel learned that it had been put in writing, he went to his house to pray. The King made every effort not to arrest him, but Daniel continued to pray. In other words, Daniel engaged in civil disobedience even though he knew that the penalty was death.

According to I Macabbees 1: 44-64, Antiochus outlawed circumcision and ordered the Jews to eat impure foods. The women who circumcised their sons were murdered along with their children and many Jews were murdered for refusing to eat impure foods.

According to I Macabbees 2: 29-37, many of the rebels fled to caves in the desert, but would not fight on Shabbat. About 1,000 Jews were killed because they refused to fight on Shabbat.6

According to II Macabees 7:2 ff:, a mother and her seven sons were tortured and murdered because they refused to eat swine’s flesh offered in sacrifice to pagan gods (For the parallels to this famous story, see Encyclopaedia Judaica s.v. Hannah and her Seven Sons, vol. 7, cols. 1270-1272 and Gerson Cohen, Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures , Philadelphia, 1991, pp. 39-60). According to IV Macabees 5-6, an elderly Jew named Elazar was murdered for the same reason.

An ancient example of mass non-violent civil disobedience is reported by Josephus (Antiquities 18, 8, 1 ff., parag. 257 ff., Loeb edition, Vol. IX, pp. 153 ff.) and Philo (The Embassy to Gaius, Loeb edition, Vol. 10, parag. 232 ff.). The Emperor Gaius Caligula (37-41 c.e.) decided to put his statue in the Temple in Jerusalem since he considered himself a god. He sent Petronius to Israel to carry out his order. When he arrived at Acco, Josephus reports:

But there came ten thousands of the Jews to Petronius at Ptolemais [=Acco] to offer their petitions to him that he would not compel them to violate the law of their forefathers. “But if,” they said, “your are wholly resolved to bring the statue and install it, then you must first kill us, and then do what you have resolved on. For while we are alive, we cannot permit such things as are forbidden by our law”.

Then Petronius came to them [at Tiberias]: “Will you then make war with Caesar, regardless of his great preparations for war and your own weakness?” They replied: “We will not by any means make war with Caesar, but we will die before we see our laws transgressed.” Then they threw themselves down on their faces and stretched out their throats and said that they were ready to be slain. And this they did for forty days, neglecting to till their soil, though this was the season which called for sowing. Thus they continued firm in their resolution and proposed to themselves to die willingly rather than see the statue dedicated.

Finally, we have many stories and halakhic discussions related to the Hadrianic persecutions (ca. 132-138 c.e.), when the Emperor Hadrian decreed against twenty-one mitzvot such as reading Torah in public, reciting the Shema, wearing tefillin, eating matzah, and circumcision – under penalty of death (See Moshe David Herr, Scripta Hierosolymitana 23 (1972), pp. 85-125 and Saul Lieberman, Mehkirei Eretz Yisrael , Jerusalem, 1991, pp. 348-380). Many rabbis and simple Jews died al kiddush hashem , for the sanctification of God’s name, in order to fulfill these commandments. These many deaths led to a limitation of the commandments which require martyrdom. Sanhedrin 74a rules that, in general, a Jew should die al kiddush hashem only if forced to perform forbidden sexual relations, idol worship and murder in public. However, in a time of shemad , of general, religious persecution, a Jew should die rather than transgress any commandment. These rulings were codified by Maimonides ( Yesodei Torah 5: 1-4).

However, one could agrue that all of the above examples are totally irrelevant to civil disobedience in Israel today because:

  1. they deal with persecution of Jews by non-Jewish kings;
  2. they deal mostly with the cardinal sin of Judaism – idol worship;
  3. the penalty in each case was death.

Therefore, if we want precedents for civil disobedience by Jews in a Jewish State, we need to find examples of Jews disobeying the laws or decrees of Jewish kings since a Jewish State, according to a number of important rabbis, has the same status as a Jewish king (See Responsa in a Moment (above, note 1), p. 91 and note 8 and Shochetman, pp. 103-104). Indeed there are at least four sources relevant to civil disobedience in Israel today:

1) I Kings 18: 3-4: King Ahab was considered by the bible to be a wicked king of Israel who worshipped idols and opposed Elijah the Prophet.

Ahab had summoned Obadiah, the steward of the palace. (Obadiah revered the Lord greatly. When Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and provided them with food and drink.) And Ahab said to Obadiah.

In other words, Obadiah feared the Lord more than he feared King Ahab and Queen Jezebel who were Jewish. He saved 100 prophets at the risk of his own life (My thanks to Eitan Cooper of the Schechter Institute for referring me to this story).

2) I Samuel Chapters 21-22: David was on the run from King Saul and he and his men received provisions from Ahimelekh son of Ahitub and the men of Nov, the priestly city. Doeg the Edomite learns of this and informs King Saul, who summons Ahimelekh and the men of Nov. King Saul berates them (22:17):

And the king commanded the guards standing by: “Turn around and kill the priests of the Lord, for they are in league with David!”… But the king’s servants would not raise a hand to strike down the priests of the Lord.

The Palestinian Talmud (Sanhedrin, Chapter 10, ed. Venice, fol. 29a) asks:

Who were those servants? R. Samuel son of R. Isaac said: they were Avner and Amasa. They said [to Saul]: “Do we owe you anything beyond this belt and mantle [= insignia of office]? Here, take them back!” (Cf. Greenberg, p. 214 and the sources quoted by Korff, p. 12).

According to this Midrash, the “servants” who refused King Saul’s direct orders were not simply soldiers; they were Avner his Chief of Staff and Amasa, one of his generals. They refused to kill Ahimelekh and the Priests of Nov, either because they thought that the punishment was too severe or because they were afraid to kill Priests. They “resigned their commission” even though the penalty could have been death. They did not take up arms against King Saul; they simply refused to participate. In other words, they acknowledged that the king had the legal right to execute people, but they would not participate in that unjust or excessive punishment.

3) In addition to these two biblical stories, Maimonides discusses our issue in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Kings 3:9):

A person who annuls the decree of a [Jewish] king because he was engaged in performing a mitzvah , even a minor mitzvah , he is not liable: the words of the master [= God] and the words of the servant [=the king] – the words of the master take precedence. And there is no need to say that if the king decreed to annul a mitzvah , one does not listen to him.

In other words, if a Jewish king decrees to annul a mitzvah , one should engage in civil disobedience and not listen to that decree. Maimonides, as usual, cites no source for his ruling. R. Yosef Karo in his Kesef Mishneh ad loc. refers to Sanhedrin 49a. In that Midrash, Avner says that he killed Amasa because the latter took more than three days to gather the men of Judah to go to war (II Samuel 20:4 ff.). King Solomon replies that Amasa delayed because he found the Israelites engaged in studying a tractate. In other words, God’s command to the Jewish people to study Torah takes precedence over the King’s command to gather the troops.

4) A similar opinion is found in Numbers Rabbah (Naso, 14:6), which was edited in the 12 th century, apparently in Provence: (Hananel Mack, Teudah 11 (1996), pp. 91-105).

“I obey the king’s orders” (Kohelet 8:2). that you should not rebel against his command. Does this mean even if he tells you to transgress the words of God? Therefore it says “and uttering an oath by God” – the verse comes to inform you that the [utterance of God] takes precedence over the command of flesh and blood [=the King].

In other words, according to Maimonides and Sanhedrin and Numbers Rabbah, if a Jewish king – or a Jewish State which has the halakhic status of a Jewish king – orders a Jew to desecrate the Sabbath or to eat pig or to transgress a commandment – the Jew should refuse, since the words of God take precedence over the words of the Jewish king or the Jewish State.

The religious opponents of disengagement say that an order to evacuate part of the territories has the exact same status as an order to desecrate the Sabbath. I strongly disagree . However, those who think so have biblical and halakhic precedent for engaging in civil disobedience.

III) Non – Violence

While it is clear that Jewish law and tradition have a positive attitude towards protest and civil disobedience, it is equally clear that such activities must be non-violent in nature. This is because one Jew is not allowed to strike or injure another Jew.

When Moses sees one Jew striking another in Egypt (Exodus 1:13), he says ” Rasha (=evil one), why do you hit your fellow!” and the midrash comments: “Rabbi Yitzhak said: from this you learn that whoever hits his fellow, is called a rasha ” ( Ginzey Schechter , Vol. I, p. 114). Similarly, Maimonides ruled that whoever hits his fellow Jew transgresses a negative commandment ( Hovel Umazik 5:1).

In conclusion, while I believe that disengagement is perfectly permissible according to Jewish law and tradition, I also believe that Jewish law and tradition permit non-violent protest and civil disobedience, provided that those who engage in these actions are willing to face the consequences of their actions.

May both sides on this divisive issue have the wisdom to treat each other with respect and to maintain the unity of the Jewish people without demanding uniformity (See David Golinkin in Naftali Rothenberg, ed., Pothim Shavua , Jerusalem, 2001, pp. 97-102).


Bibliography

Nachum Amsel, The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues , Northvale, New Jersey and London, 1994, pp. 43-45, 334-336, s.v. Civil Disobedience

Rabbi Paul Arberman, Sarvanut L’or Hahalakhah , final thesis, Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, 2002, 29 pages (unpublished)

Stuart Cohen, The Torah U-Madda Journal 12 (2004), pp. 13-15

“Day of Reckoning”, March 29, 2005, www.yom-pkuda.org

” Dvar Hakibbutz Hadati “, Amudim 688 (Kislev 5765), p. 3

Moshe Greenberg, “Rabbinic Reflections on Defying Illegal Orders” etc., in Marc Kellner, ed., Contemporary Jewish Ethics , New York, 1978, pp. 211-220

Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, “What is the extent of the obligation to follow orders?” (Hebrew), Aseh Lekha Rav , Vol. 7, Tel Aviv, 1986, No. 68.

  1. J. Heschel, “The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement”, in Susannah Heschel, ed., Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity , New York, 1996, pp. 224-226

Reuven Kimelman, “The Rabbinic Ethics of Protest”, Judaism 19/1 (Winter 1970), pp. 38-58

Milton R. Konvitz, “Conscience and Civil Disobedience in the Jewish Tradition”, in Marc Kellner ed., Contemporary Jewish Ethics , New York, 1978, pp. 239-254

Rabbi Samuel I. Korff, A Responsum on Questions of Conscience , Rabbinical Court of Justice, Boston, 1970, 54 pp. (unpublished. That court was headed by my grandfather Rabbi Mordechai Ya’akov Golinkin z”l.)

Rinah Lipis Shaskolsky, “Protest and Dissent in Jewish Tradition”, Judaism 19/1 (Winter 1970), pp. 15-29

Rabbi Yehudah Shaviv, ” Samkhuyot Hashilton V’hovat Hatziyut “, Tehumin 15 (5755), pp. 118-131 and the literature listed ibid ., note 2

Yair Sheleg, The Political and Social Ramifications of Evacuating Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip , Jerusalem, 2004, 157 pp.

Eliav Shochetman, Vaya’amideha L’ya’akov L’hok , second edition, Jerusalem, 1995, part II, pp. 67-157

Azriel Weinstein, ” Anahnu Omrim Shebashamayim Lo Rotzim “, De’ot 19 (Winter 5765), pp. 35-37

Yehoshua Weinstein, Disobedience and Democracy (Hebrew), Jerusalem, 1998, 252 pp.


Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at:mailto:golinkin@schechter.ac.il.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.