ISSUES OF FAITH: Silence enables evil

IN JUDAISM, THE most important principle is not what we believe, or how much we study the Bible, but whether we take the teachings of the Torah and put them into action.

Judaism has never valued the ascetic or required its followers to isolate themselves from the world in a search for holiness or enlightenment.

Rabbis are expected to marry and raise a family, immersing themselves in all that life brings, in order to be better role models and leaders.

A core precept of being a good Jew is to always look for ways to bring about tikun olam, repairing the 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, always pursuing justice.

However, if followers do nothing to put those words into action, then they are betraying those very beliefs.

Even if one practices kindness in their life but sits silently while others violate the basic principles of humanity found in all religions, it is not enough.

To see someone being demeaned or degraded in words or action and to turn away, feeling justified because you aren’t the one committing the offense, it is as if you had done it yourself.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel experienced first-hand the consequences of what happened when people looked away as leaders perpetrated horrors on those they deemed “unworthy.”

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. 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.

Where were the religious leaders?

Why weren’t more good people speaking up?

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 religious people today is disturbing.

There must come a time when our religion becomes more than just words.

Do the ends of gaining something we really want justify the means of attacking and humiliating others in order to get it?

What happens to our soul when we see hatred and vitriol as an acceptable price to achieve a personal or political “win?”

When does it become enough for the silence to be broken?

Last week, the clergy of the Washington National Cathedral, in a letter to the American people, entitled “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?”

Rabbi Chaim Stern tells us, “How easy it is to blame the poor, the weak, the downtrodden for their sorry state. And since not infrequently they do contribute to their own misfortunes, I have no difficulty in justifying myself in my self-righteousness, preferring that to the effort it takes to be righteous. What a difference ‘self’ makes.”

Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, “It is not enough to be concerned for the life to come. Our immediate concern must be with justice and compassion in life here and now, with human dignity, welfare and security.”

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 debeyfam@

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