“We have to learn to speak Jewish,” said the activist rabbi.
We were gathered in an Upper West Side living room to hear from Rabbi Arik Ascherman about the state of human rights work in Israel/Palestine after the elections. Rav Arik, an American born Reform rabbi has been living in Jerusalem and doing the work for several decades. He ran Rabbis for Human Rights for 21 years, and for the last six has been running Torat Tzedek; The Torah of Justice. I’d been to other such events with him before. This time, however, he didn’t spend much time describing his daily work accompanying Palestinian shepherds to their pastures, where they’re routinely attacked by settlers, or other such activities. Instead, his focus was on preparing for this next stage, in which the extreme far right will be in charge of both policy and police. He was talking about the need for lawyers to give a chance for the work on the ground to have an impact, and protect activists.
What was amazing about his talk was that I could not detect a hint of despair. Imagine spending your whole life in the streets fighting police brutality and racism, getting beaten, arrested, almost killed, and then the head of the Proud Boys gets instated as the Minister of Police. You might think he’d be contemplating a return to the States. Instead he’s diving in deeper.
What amazed me more was his hopeful suggestion that we might be able to change the tide of a religious right wing that has washed over the country by changing our language. “The language of human rights and democracy doesn’t speak to them. We have to learn to speak Jewish.” He explained how their language revolves around the Jewish texts and traditions, and the times when he’s managed to get through to them have been when he’s quoted Torah, Talmud or Midrash.
There is of course a lesson for us here in the US, and people all over the world. If we really want to have a chance to reach the religious right, we have to speak in their idiom.
We got a beautiful taste of how that could look this Tuesday night, when a Black reverend from the south told us that voting is “a prayer for the world we desire,” and that “democracy is the enactment of the idea that we each have within us a spark of the divine.”