Anti-Racism & Civil Rights


  • What do the sources tell us about our relationship with those that are “other”?
  • What role should Jews play in standing up when others are being oppressed?
  • What voice(s) did Jewish leaders lend to the Civil Rights narrative in the 60s and 70s?
  • What does a view on justice have to do with a view on equality?


רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, יְהִי כְבוֹד חֲבֵרְךָ חָבִיב עָלֶיךָ כְּשֶׁלָּךְ

Rabbi Eliezer said: Let the dignity of your friend be as dear to you as your own


  • What does it mean to value another's dignity as our own?
  • Why would a scholar-rabbi choose to remind us of this value?

Challenges to Grapple With:

  • Is there ever a time you can conceive that you would not want to consider someone else’s dignity as your own?

מקדש ראשון מפני מה חרב מפני ג' דברים שהיו בו ע"ז וגלוי עריות ושפיכות דמים... אבל מקדש שני שהיו עוסקין בתורה ובמצות וגמילות חסדים מפני מה חרב מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חנם ללמדך ששקולה שנאת חנם כנגד שלש עבירות ע"ז גלוי עריות ושפיכות דמים

Due to what reason was the First Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there were three matters that existed in the First Temple: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed... However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, and that they did not perform the sinful acts that were performed in the First Temple, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was wanton hatred during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of wanton hatred is equivalent to the three severe transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed.


  • What three things does this text equate with “wanton hatred?” Can you explain in your own words what the three things might have to do with hatred?
  • This text says that the people were studying Torah, observing rituals, and practicing charity. Why might “wanton hatred” outweigh all that good they were doing?

Challenges to Grapple With:

  • The text mentions that “wanton hatred” is the justification for the Temple destruction. Is there ever a case for justified hatred?

The following three sources are all statements from contemporary Jewish leaders. Comprehension questions will address them together.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, "The Eternal Light,” December 1972"

God is either the father of all men or of no man, and the idea of judging a person in terms of black or brown or white is an eye disease

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, speech at March on Washington, August 1963

I speak to you as an American Jew. As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice which make a mockery of the great American idea. As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience -- one of the spirit and one of our history. In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody's neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man's dignity and integrity. From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years we say: Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom.

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, “Torah Concept of Empathic Justice Can Bring Peace,” The Jewish Week, (New York, 3 April 1977), p.19

[Empathic justice] seeks to make people identify themselves with each other – with each other’s needs, with each other’s hopes and aspirations, with each other’s defeats and frustrations. Because Jews have known the distress of slaves and the loneliness of strangers, we are to project ourselves into their souls and make their plight our own.


  • What commonalities exist between two or more of these excerpts?
  • What does Rabbi Heschel mean when he says, judging a person … is an eye disease?”
  • When Rabbi Prinz says, “one of the spirit and one of our history” – can you think of examples of both spirit and history for why Jews would want to help those being oppressed?
  • In your own words, can you explain Rabbi Prinz's statement that “neighbor ... is a moral concept?”
  • How do we make someone else’s plight that of our own, as Rabbi Rackman suggests? What actions would we need to take?

Challenges to Grapple With:

  • At times during the Civil Rights era, rabbis and Jewish communities who stood up for the rights of the Black community, were then targets of retaliation hate crimes. Should Jews take a risk to themselves in the fight to stand up for others?
(יד) לֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה לְךָ֛ בְּבֵיתְךָ֖ אֵיפָ֣ה וְאֵיפָ֑ה גְּדוֹלָ֖ה וּקְטַנָּֽה׃ (טו) אֶ֣בֶן שְׁלֵמָ֤ה וָצֶ֙דֶק֙ יִֽהְיֶה־לָּ֔ךְ אֵיפָ֧ה שְׁלֵמָ֛ה וָצֶ֖דֶק יִֽהְיֶה־לָּ֑ךְ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יַאֲרִ֣יכוּ יָמֶ֔יךָ עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ (טז) כִּ֧י תוֹעֲבַ֛ת יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ כָּל־עֹ֣שֵׂה אֵ֑לֶּה כֹּ֖ל עֹ֥שֵׂה עָֽוֶל׃ (פ)
(14) You shall not have in your house alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. (15) You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the LORD your God is giving you. (16) For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to the LORD your God.


  • What does it mean to use “alternate measures?”
  • What do just/equal weights and measures have to do with human equality?
  • Why would doing something to promote intentional inequality (in business or between people) be an abomination?


    1. Justice and our neighbors

    שוב מעשה בגוי אחד שבא לפני שמאי אמר לו גיירני על מנת שתלמדני כל התורה כולה כשאני עומד על רגל אחת דחפו... בא לפני הלל גייריה אמר לו דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד זו היא כל התורה כולה ואידך פירושה הוא זיל גמור

    There was another incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai pushed him away... The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.

    (יז) לִמְד֥וּ הֵיטֵ֛ב דִּרְשׁ֥וּ מִשְׁפָּ֖ט אַשְּׁר֣וּ חָמ֑וֹץ

    (17) Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged.

    2. Prayer Through Action