We are taught in the Talmud that “The world rests on three things: justice, truth, and peace” (Avot 1:18).
We are also taught that “The world stands upon acts of loving-kindness” (Mishnah Avot 1:2).
Imagine what our world would be like if our leaders and citizens based all their actions on just these simple precepts, along with the Golden Rule.
In Judaism, what we believe is not as important as being sure we put the teachings of our faith into action. A core precept of being a good Jew is to always look for ways to bring about tikun olam, repairing the world. However, looking the other way when our society seems to be devolving into an acceptance that lies, violence and hatred are justified to achieve a goal, will never bring about a more compassionate and just world.
All faith traditions teach that everyone is made in the divine image and that we must show love and kindness to the poor, the hungry, the stranger and always pursue justice. Thus, we must never be silent while basic principles of humanity found in all religions are violated.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel experienced firsthand the consequences of what happened when people looked away as leaders perpetrated horrors on those they deemed “unworthy” or insufficiently loyal to a leader.
After suffering in a Nazi concentration camp for almost a year, his words are powerful in today’s climate of disdain for the “other.”
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation,” he said. “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Martin Luther King Jr. also spoke of how silence, even from good people, enables evil, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
Those who reflect on the horrors of the Holocaust wonder how it could have happened in a civilized nation. And today one wonders where the religious leaders or people with strong moral principles are. Why is there such a deafening silence, or even worse, an actual cheering of despicable actions?
In fact, it looks as if our world has turned upside down where people who show courage in speaking out are vilified and those spewing hatred are cheered on.
Naomi Shulman said about her mother’s experience in Nazi Germany, “Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than ‘politics.’ They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.”
The silence of so many today, even those claiming to be religious, is disturbing.
There must come a time when our faith becomes more than just words.
Do the ends of gaining power justify the means of attacking and humiliating others? What happens to our soul when we see hatred and vitriol as an acceptable price to achieve a personal or political “win”?
Is it enough when a vaccine or mask mandate is compared to Nazism? Is it enough to see people extol the hatred espoused by white nationalists? Is it enough to endure another mass shooting? Is it enough to watch world dictators be given lavish praise? Is it enough to see racist tropes demeaning people of color or suffering migrants?
When does it become enough for the silence to be broken?
More than two years ago, the clergy of the Washington National Cathedral, in a letter to the American people, titled “Have We No Decency?” said it was enough.
They wrote that, as faith leaders, they felt compelled to ask, “… when will Americans have enough?”
They reminded us of the words spoken to Sen. Joseph McCarthy after years of false accusations against people he deemed dangerous and treasonous, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Sadly, two years after that letter was written, things have gotten worse, to the point that decency is disappearing and our civilized society appears to be in danger.
The time for silence and looking away is over. It is enough.
Kein yehi ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected] olympus.net.