How rootedness in biblical tradition might inspire civil disobedience
Ordained from Hebrew College of Boston in 2014, Rabbi Alana Alpert serves a dual position as rabbi of Congregation T’chiyah and as a community organizer with Detroit Jews for Justice. Because they have been working closely together on the Michigan Poor Peoples Campaign, she invited Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann to share the teaching for Rosh Hashanah. A graduate of Union Theological Seminary in NYC, Bill is a non-violent activist, author, and United Methodist pastor recently retired from St Peter’s Episcopal, Detroit. What follows are their remarks for the day.
Rabbi Alana Alpert: Shanah tovah!!!
I suppose you are used to most of my heresies by now, but I’ll admit a new one: vegan coneys. There is a new place in Brush Park. Just a few weeks ago, I sat around a long table of Detroit Jews for Justice leaders discussing the implications of our recent arrests as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, a national campaign uniting tens of thousands to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation & the nation’s distorted morality.
I was proud that the movement with which we are affiliated, Reconstructing Judaism, was an early and enthusiastic endorser of the campaign. It was a spirit-filled 6 weeks — so much so that I gave myself serious bruises from my tambourine.
The 40 days was meant to launch grassroots organizing in every participating state. Every week, there were creative direct actions, resulting in arrests at state capitols around the nation. One of the questions local chapters are wrestling with is: should the arrested activists take plea deals for fines and community service, or should we go to trial, which could continue to raise awareness of the fight.
As we sat around eating vegan coneys discussing the strategic and moral implications of the choices we might make next, one of our young leaders said something which surprised me: “Whatever we do, I want to do it Jewishly.” Doing something Jewishly can mean a lot of things — it could mean reflecting on Jewish history or drawing on Jewish spiritual practice. When I asked what he meant, he said “I want the choice I make to be rooted in Jewish thought”
Of course! One area we had not explored as a community in preparation for these actions was what on earth Judaism has to say about the practice of civil disobedience.
Justin turned to me and said: “eyn lanu melech!’
I replied “Sure, well “dina d’malchuta!”
Our comrades at the table were perplexed by this exchange. We explained that we had been nerding out, offering prooftexts in answer to the young activist’s question
Justin threw out a verse that is core to the theology we sing in Avinu Malkenu on the High Holidays. It means “there is no king but God” —as Jews, we recognize only the high authority of the Holy One and resist the deification and even the fundamental authority of earthly sovereigns.
My rebuttal was the rabbinic principle that the law of the land is the law, that Jewish law enjoins us to follow the civil legislation of whatever country in which diasporic Jews make a home.
Even within the realm of Jewish thought, our sages pull in different directions on the topic of civil disobedience.
This is a question that our tradition has much—sometimes even too much!—to offer us contemporary activists, when we seek to do our activism Jewishly.
These High Holy Days offer a precious opportunity to develop our praxis of Jewishly-rooted social change work.
All year long we have opportunities to develop the practice side of the praxis and today we have a rare opportunity to develop the theory and thinking that undergird that practice. So I wanted to invite someone who can help us in that effort, who can speak to what it means to live a deeply spiritual life fully integrated with a serious commitment to social justice. We are incredibly lucky to have such a teacher in the Detroit community. I’m honored to share the bimah with Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann, a prophetic community activist and Methodist pastor recently retired from St. Peters Episcopal Church in Corktown.
When Bill graciously agreed to teach this morning, we discussed what Rosh Hashanah is all about.
And as with all great hevruta, or study partner, matches, his question led me to connect with an idea I hadn’t previously connected to: the theme of trial on the High Holidays.
Rosh Hashanah is the opening day of a court trial culminating on Yom Kippur. Indeed, our tradition teaches that on Rosh Hashana, God rises to sit on the seat of din — of judgement. We spend 10 days pleading our case before the throne of the Holy One, only to be saved by the shofar on Yom Kippur. This piercing blast causes God to move from the seat of din- judgement to the seat of rachamim – compassion.
This made me wonder: How does our belief in a heavenly court impact our understanding of the power of an earthly court?
How can we navigate and make strategic use of earthly authority structures, given that, as Jews and as agents of social transformation, are also bound to a moral and ethical code to which our earthly authorities do not always adhere?
As we stand in the court of the Holy One, how can we cultivate our own wellspring of rachamim, of compassion, and let it feed our work for justice?
It is extra special for Bill Wylie-Kellermann and I to be teaching together today, on this day when the Jewish people are arraigned in the heavenly court, because Bill was arrested the same day as those of us who deliberated over vegan coneys. He and I, along with Justin and over a dozen others, will be going to trial. This is only the 2nd time I have been arrested for civil disobedience — I’m not sure Bill can count.
So the question I asked Bill to reflect on this morning is:
How does your theology or rootedness in biblical tradition inform/inspire your experiences of civil disobedience, trial and spending time in jail?
I feel so lucky that we get to get learn from him, as we are gathered in sacred community.
Thank you SO much for being with us today.
Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann:
First, let me say thank you for the honor of this invitation, for the summons to a conversation ongoing and so, to common action. Let me say further that one of the loveliest and, by my lights, important events of the Poor People’s Campaign was set in motion by your Rabbi. She asked if it would be possible to do a non-violence training for a handful of other rabbis, one focused on moral and religious authority in public action. I said yes, but asked if it could be opened to other clergy and religious leaders. Of course, she replied. In the end we convened a training event at Congregation Shaarey Zedek for 40 clergy – pastors, priests, women religious, seminary faculty, an imam, and a host of rabbis. Though there were no arrests the following Monday, at least half of those leaders risked arrest, praying in the street, and shutting down traffic in front of the State Capitol for an entire afternoon.
As to the day, what a gift to have a season in which to trust oneself to the judgement and mercy of God! Even if we know our sin – the trust, the risk of faith, is in not knowing that judgement (God alone is God) and yet trusting ourselves to it, submitting to it.
In one sense that is a basis of non-violence. Gandhi had this idea of humility before the truth. Though utterly committed to its pursuit, he said he was not so certain of the truth that he was willing to kill for it. The truth of God’s judgement is much the same. Only those who are convinced they ultimately know the judgement of God, know who should live and who should die, are willing to execute the judgement they imagine, to wield the power of death. Pharoahs, Caesars, and despots imagine that for themselves almost by definition.
The prophets certainly bring Israel before the judgement of God and often as not announce the judgement. They may, like the action prophets, Jeremiah say, symbolically enact the judgement even upon themselves – wearing a yoke of wood or iron in public, or crashing pots to bits in the public square. But they do not execute the judgement – that is for God alone. As I understand it, the vocation which the prophets suffer is to bring the community into the Lord’s court of judgement and there to level a complaint, a covenant lawsuit against the community – for crushing or abusing the widow, the orphan, the stranger, for forgetting or breaking the covenant law.
With respect to civil disobedience (publically breaking an unjust law) or direct action (using your body to enact justice even if illegal), my own experience of court is that, depending on how it’s approached it can be a place for faith, conscience, and moral value to be given voice. Just as I’m prayerful and conscious of my heart and intent in doing an action, so I always try to stay conscious of making a trial something of a gift to the movement for justice. As a place where truth is honored and spoken, where one may testify to the deepest of motivations, it can even take on the form of liturgy.
One of my mentors in such things was Daniel Berrigan, a member of the Catonsville Nine. Fifty years ago next month their trial took place in a Maryland court. The Nine had burned 1A draft files with home-made napalm as a protest against the War in IndoChina. Berrigan, as priest and poet, made the liturgical character of the trial explicit by turning the transcript into a play which has been translated and, to this day, is performed all over the world. Though they were all found guilty, the trial and play, almost as much as the action itself, exposed the violence of the war.
I think that is so because, even under state contempt and charge of guilt, they called the nation, the rulers and authorities, to account. In effect, they called them before the judgement of God. Behind, beneath, around, and even above the one courtroom is another. Or so, I take it, says Rosh Hashanah.
I specifically had this understanding in mind when I made my closing argument in our Homrich trial a couple years ago. Nine of us were charged with blocking the trucks of a private company hired to shut off water to some 3,000 homes a week. We demanded a jury trial. Detroit was under Emergency Management and every elected official in the city (as in every black city in the state) had been replaced by a single man appointed by the Governor. In the manner of corporate fascism, he could set budgets, write ordinances, repeal laws, privatize departments, break union contracts, rewrite the city charter, sell city assets like the water department, and order water shut off to anyone more than two months, or $150 behind in their bill. A jury was the last vestige of democracy in the city. And we were bound to have them vote on this matter.
I defended myself in that trial which gave me lots of freedom, and in my experience generally humanizes a pretty rule-bound process. That meant that when I put myself on the stand I could just speak directly to the jury about what we did and why. Eye to eye. Heart to heart if you will. Just as I now speak to you.
In cross examination, the prosecutor asked if I thought the Emergency Manager or the Detroit Water and Sewage Department were on trial here. I paused, long. Yes, I said. She went ballistic, lambasting my theatrical hijinks to the jury. Frankly, I thought specifically in that moment of the court of the Lord and how we all stand in the dock before God’s judgement. This came back round in my closing statement to the jury, I referenced the exchange with the prosecutor saying finally: I believe in this moment of history we are all on trial. I was able to look them again in the eye and ask, What role are each of us going to play? How in this moment will we act in conscience? What will we bring before the Court of the Lord?
Grace Lee Boggs taught us to constantly ask ourselves the question:
What time is it on the clock of the world?
Today, we actually have an answer—it’s the first day of a new year.
The New Year is a new chance to rededicate ourselves to bringing the world as it is a bit closer to the world we want to see.
There’s a reason Jewish years count from the creation of the world
The Source of Life is mechadesh b’chol yom tamid maaseh bereishit — we are constantly reminded that the work of creation is ongoing always.
As partners in that work of creation, it is our responsibility to make sure that our creative efforts go in the direction of liberation and justice for all beings.
We now call up for shofar…………….
Every year we are commanded to hear the sound of the shofar. We don’t need to own a ram’s horn or know how to sound it ourselves, we just have to put ourselves within earshot and listen. In the call of the shofar, the rabbis teach, we are meant to remember the anguish of Sara, our mother, at the very idea of losing her beloved child. The obligation, to this way of thinking, is to not let a year pass without opening our ears to suffering.
So, for those who were brave enough (or foolish enough) to listen to the audio recording of little children in detention centers, separated from their parents at the border, calling out in sorrow, you are yotzei/you’ve fulfilled your ritual obligation. You can get up and leave. Because, in all honesty, you’ve heard the sound of heartache and I imagine that it seared itself into your consciousness. And, when you went to close your eyes that night you probably continued to hear the sound of a tiny voice calling “Mami…Papi.” And, if you were shaken, unsure of how to move forward, eyes open to injustice and all its brutality-then you don’t need the shofar.
But, if the sound has receded into the background as the months have gone by or maybe you’ve even actively pushed it from your memory so that you might go about your daily business, or you know that deep down you want to stay awake to the misery of our militarized borders, then please feel free to linger. Stay within earshot and push yourself to listen again.
In these times we don’t need a shofar and in these times we need to hear its call desperately. So stay. Obligated or not, we will better heed its call together.
Because this year we can be strong enough to listen, and resilient enough to remember and courageous enough to act.