Is Protest Prayer? - Episode 56
Rav Avi: Hi, and welcome to Responsa Radio, where you ask and we answer questions of Jewish law in modern times. I'm Rabbi Avi Killip, and I am here with Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Rosh Yeshiva of Mechon Hadar, and we are live from Mechon Hadar in New York City! Should we get started?
Rav Eitan: Let's do it.
Rav Avi: Okay. This next question was submitted by a couple different people, actually, and it's something that probably has come up throughout generations, and feels more present in the recent moment than in the past. And the question is — it's again in our category of "can I do x on shabbat?" And, as always, I'm so curious to see where these questions take us, because they take us in so many different directions. This particular question is: "Can I attend a protest on shabbat?"
Rav Eitan: It's a great question. This is one of those questions where I feel like I'm not sure there's a super clear up or down answer, and for me I'm more reach for categories and precedents that can be useful for thinking about a way of talking about this. Of course, I think, to clarify the question — you're of course going to have to address all the issues that might come up on shabbat with a protest — is there an eruv, can I carry a sign, are people getting on buses — all those things, but I don't think that's what we're talking about. I think here the question is, is the act of protesting itself somehow problematic on shabbat, even if all those things have been addressed and grappled with in whatever way they need to. I just want to start with one sort of odd precedent that came to me in thinking about this, which is the story in the Torah about the man who goes out and gathers sticks on shabbat, and he is arrested by people in the camp.
Rav Avi: This is an ominous start, actually.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, I'm not going to the end. I'm actually just stopping at the opening scene, not getting to the execution.
Rav Avi: Yeah, it's like, if you don't know the story, it doesn't end well for that guy.
Rav Eitan: Right. It's not a protest, but it is a group of people, the people who found him — there are these people who are sensing that something bad is going on and it has to be stopped. And they do that on shabbat, when they arrest this man. And I just think that's, like, an interesting thing as we'll get into this a little more, that gives some sense, albeit about a shabbat violation and so very locally focused, of the idea of sensing something in your environment that is a problem and stepping in to do something about it — that, we have some precedence about.
Rav Avi: That's fascinating. Your bringing that story here makes me realize I don't think I've ever heard anybody address, but who were the people who were arresting that guy, and what were they doing on shabbat? I've never thought about it from that reverse perspective. The story seems so much about the other person, and that's such a core story of what not to do, you know — "Can I do x on shabbat?" That's the story.
Rav Eitan: That's right. And they don't seem to be in the wrong — what were you doing out there, looking around, et cetera. Alright, that's why I threw it out — I thought it might be fruitful and interesting. Going more to sort of what might be more direct analogues to what we're talking about here — so I think we have to be honest, right? We don't have too many analogues to the kind of political protest that we take for granted as part of a robust democracy. But we do have cases of gathering for urgent national needs on shabbat. So the Mishnah in Tractate Ta'anit talks about a process of matri'in — we'll get to defining that in a minute, it seems to be similar to the root teruah, like used in blowing a shofar — a process of matri'in, which you can do even on shabbat for certain kinds of crises. So the Mishnah says here are some of the things you can do hatra'ah on shabbat for: if your city was surrounded by marauding gentiles, right, the favorite boogeyman of the Mishnah, or a river is gonna flood things, or you realize that there is a big ship that is threatening to sink. Okay?
Rav Avi: So, impending doom of all kinds.
Rav Eitan: Some kind of impending doom. And Rabbi Yose then says, you know, you can only do that to ask for help, but not to sort of scream out just because you're upset about it. Which seems to indicate that the first view thought it was okay, actually, to do this just to scream out, but not necessarily in order to get help. In any event, what happens is later on, the Talmud tries to figure out, well, what is this "matri'in"? Like, what is this action that people are doing when they're gathering? And there's basically two possibilities, right? Could it be blowing shofarot, like taking a shofar or trumpets or various things and blowing them, either to call for help, or —
Rav Avi: It's a very literal understanding of "matri'in" — what is teruah, right?
Rav Eitan: And like we blow it on Rosh Hashanah, in the sense that there's a certain element of calling out to G-d and wanting something to happen, or does it mean the other possibility is it means crying out loud prayers, like prayers that we say also on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and fast days — answer us, right, answer us, in almost this sort of yelling out to G-d, but with the human voice, right, not with an instrument. So the Talmud ends up concluding, well, if we're talking about shabbat, there's no way we could be talking about allowing blowing a shofar — that's the Talmud's assumption, no way we would allow that, right? We don't even blow the shofar on shabbat on Rosh Hashanah itself, when the Torah says you're supposed to. So it must mean that on shabbat we're talking about some kind of loud, demonstrative public prayer.
That provides, like, one interesting model, I think, for a protest, even though this is more like prayer. But there's sort of again a sense of, we have a major problem, we feel we need to gather the community and start screaming about it. Okay? And you can do that on shabbat even though the interesting thing is the implication is you can only do that for the things listed in the Mishnah as being okay to scream for on shabbat. And the way you know that this is the case, right, is, what do we say when we pray for sick people in shul on shabbat? We're not allowed to yell on shabbat. We say shabbat temi lizok. Nevertheless we're going to sneak in this little prayer, you know, which we hope G-d will be okay with. But there's a sense of actually, in general, you're not allowed to get huge bands of people together on shabbat and yell about stuff and pray about stuff in a loud voice, unless it's one of these, you know, municipal — by extension national — crises.
Rav Avi: So, I think this is a fascinating text, and I want to pull out, I think, three different questions that I hear this text raising, that help me think about what am I doing if I show up to a protest on shabbat, but also the on shabbat is, I think, secondary. I want to ask these questions to understand what am I doing when I show up at a protest, period. The first one you said there was a distinction between, do you think it's going to make a difference, or not? Which — or are you just screaming? And I think that different protests feel like they're different answers to that, and different people who show up to a protest — I don't know how many people who are listening, when you're deciding or if you're deciding whether or not to show up at a protest, if you calculate, well, will it matter, do I think it will matter if I show up to a protest?
And that maybe that's a change that's happened for people in recent months, that people who used to think it won't matter now think it might matter, so they show up. Which is not to say that that's more important, but I think it's just different than the need to scream about something publicly, which I think is the sort of second model that I hear in this text that you're bringing. And the third, and I think potentially most powerful, is the idea that maybe what you're doing at that protest is in itself prayer, which is certainly an image that we inherit from Heschel, of, you know, very clearly believing that protest, and, you know, his language of praying with your feet, is actually prayer, but wondering for ourselves when you show up at that protest on shabbat, do you think of what you are doing in that moment as prayer? And maybe when you show up at a protest not on shabbat, do you think of what you're doing in that moment as prayer? I think all of those are really powerful models and frameworks.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, what I really like about what you said at the end is, I could even take that to a different place, and we could say even — let's assume we use some of these models to say we can imagine it being appropriate to go to a protest on shabbat, I want to share a couple of other things that I think even fill that out — does a Jew behave differently at a protest on shabbat than during the week? And you could actually imagine having a little bit more of a mindset of saying, well maybe I want to, actually, when I'm at a protest on shabbat, want to be more in a prayerful mode — like I'll be there so my body can be counted, that's important, because I know that will make a difference, but my stance there will be different than it might be if I were going on a Tuesday night, where then I might be screaming at the top of my lungs, et cetera. That's one way of thinking about it.
The other thing I think this text makes a distinction with regard to, which is very important, is the difference between something that feels really important to you as opposed to something that feels like a national and communal crisis. And I think that while all protests present themselves as if they are, of course, about a communal and national crisis — and I'm not sure where the line lies here — I think there is a difference between gatherings that are about advocating for one's position, as opposed to things that feel like, you know, if this bill passes, if this bill is repealed, there's going to be some kind of actual national disaster around this, or people are going to be hurt in a very serious way. And perhaps asking the attendee, the Jewish attendee of a protest, to make the shabbat calculation with a little bit of an eye to that feels like another important thing that comes out of the tradition.
Rav Avi: I also think the very practical suggestion or dictum, demand, to say, well, but on shabbat you leave your shofar at home — you know, it makes — my brain automatically wants to take the metaphor of, you know, if shofar is your loud piece, then it's like, oh, normally I would tweet the protest, I would be live-tweeting, or normally I would be Facebook Live, you know, taking videos and making sure everyone knows I'm here and taking pictures — it's like maybe I'll show up, but without my shofar. So it's a little bit different, right?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, it scales it down in that way, in some way.
Rav Avi: I have to say, I've never known exactly why there's a Jewish human rights organization called T'ruah — it's never been quite clear to me why they were called T'ruah, but this text certainly makes that seem like a great name for that organization.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, it has some great resonance. I just wanted to share one other thing here, which is another dimension of why do this on shabbat at all. Now, truth be told, I think most of the places where this question is being asked is in a context where people who are, you know, not Jewish or perhaps they're Jewish but not involved in this discourse that, you know, we're engaging here, are scheduling this, and the person who's asking is, okay, now do I go, right?
Rav Avi: Right, it's, can I come to your protest that you scheduled on shabbat?
Rav Eitan: It's fair to say that if we're thinking about how one would plan this out, right, just having come back from Tel Aviv, it's like many Saturday nights there are protests in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. They're on Saturday night, right? In other words, you can say yeah, a Jewish space doesn't schedule those things for shabbat. But that's what makes actually so interesting — there's a few sources that confront the fact that sometimes shabbat was the only time they could get everyone together. So, you have a whole set of prohibitions around things that you sort of shouldn't be speaking about on shabbat, like ways in which you should just sort of guard the verbal zoning, as it were, right, of Jewish space on shabbat, that you find get chipped away at in all kinds of ways, but one of them is the permission to talk about things on shabbat that are basically inappropriate for shabbat, but there's no other way you're going to get the message out. Right? This happens in shuls all the time, right? The only time everyone's there is on shabbat morning — when else are you, right —
Rav Avi: Or then you say, like, dues! Pay your dues!
Rav Eitan: The biggest, of course, is the Kol Nidrei appeal. Right? You are, like, asking people for money on the holiest day of the year, when you can't be handling money. But when will I see them again? Right? That's when they're there! So there's a long-standing sensitivity to this — like, the Shulkhan Arukh says if you find a lost object, you are allowed to announce it on shabbat, because even though that's a kind of transactional thing, of people's property and returning, it's not really appropriate for shabbat at all — they say you can even do this if it is an object that you're not allowed to use on shabbat. Right?
Rav Avi: They didn't have listservs back then, they didn't have e-blasts!
Rav Eitan: Exactly. So, before they had e-blasts, they had the biannual fair in Lublin, okay? And in the sixteenth century —
Rav Avi: But not on shabbat!
Rav Eitan: No — yes, here's the thing!
Rav Avi: Yes on shabbat? No way!
Rav Eitan: It wasn't Jewish fair, okay, it was a major — it was the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom had these twice-a-year major gatherings, right, and in the sixteenth century all the Jewish merchants, which is a high percentage of the Jews, okay, are going to this fair. And, you know, for folks who have ever heard of the Va'ad Arba Aratzot, the Council of the Four Lands, this was a sort of rabbinic group that would basically convene around this fair. And the place you would basically get the absolute largest audience would be at the Yerid Lublin, at the Lublin Fair. And the Bakh reports, Rav Yoel Sirkis, in Poland at that time, reports that it was the practice at the Lublin Fair and at all other kinds of gatherings like this, that basically a person, a figure of the Jewish community would get up and make all kinds of public announcements about people who were in cherem, who had been excommunicated, and people who were totally negligent in repaying any of their debts, so that people would kind of know about them, and that was the only place, basically, to do it.
And the various poskim, like, they don't love it, but they all justify it because they say this is the day when people come together, there's no other way to do it, and the Arukh Hashulkhan has a nice formulation where he basically says here's the rule: anything where it's clear that that the thing you are announcing and talking about impacts the welfare of the city or of the broader community, you're allowed to announce it on shabbat. And that, I think, again, is not so much a model of protest per se, but it is a way of putting getting up and talking about and demonstratively, you know, protesting in some sense, the character of the people involved here, is something that was done on shabbat in part for the functional need, which is not entirely different from why protests are often scheduled on Saturdays — it's often the day when people can come.
Rav Avi: That also makes me think — we've talked about what's going on for you personally when you're protesting, and what's the topic you're protesting about? This feels like adding in an additional dimension, which is how big a deal is this protest — how big is this protest? It makes me think of a protest that happened this past year, where there were different shul communities where the synagogues themselves gathered people together to, you know, have services in the morning, and then here's some drashot, here's some Torah on the topic, and then go together to join a New York City - wide protest. That feels like, oh, if this is something that New York City is doing today, that's maybe different than joining 100 people or 20 people. Maybe the size actually matters. I think this is a very live question for many people and many, again, as we were saying, many people who weren't thinking about this before, and struggling this before, and I hope that the ideas and images here help us better understand not just what it means to protest on shabbat, but what it is we're doing when we protest in general.
Rav Avi: Responsa Radio is a project of Hadar, and is produced by Jewish Public Media, which creates, curates, and promotes excellent Jewish content. Have a halakhic question you'd like answered on the show? Email us at [email protected] Or you can leave us a voicemail message at (215) 297-4254.