After the last several years of constant crisis, radical demagoguery, and mendacity at every level of civic life, America has reached a monumental inflection point. There are failures of leadership where it is needed most. People need to be inspired, but inspiration is hard to come by.
And as Texas freezes over, as vaccination programs roll out haphazardly, and as economic uncertainty climbs, there has to be a better and more positive vision for what comes next for a divided nation.
The Jewish community has a significant role to play in this healing process.
And indeed, in the face of social injustices in America, many young Jewish and gentile activists naturally turn to the Civil Rights movement for inspiration. It is only natural to point to Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and so many other leaders of the movement as our spiritual models to emulate. But six decades on, so much has changed and “speaking truth to power” in a prophetic spirit cannot be the only instrument in our social change-making toolbox.
As our ancestors did before us, we must now embrace a post-prophetic age.
In President Barack Obama’s new memoir, the aptly titled A Promised Land, he recounts the advice of an elder civil rights leader he received when he campaigned in the Deep South during his first presidential election: “We are the Moses generation. We marched, we sat in, we went to jail, sometimes in defiance of our elders, but we were in fact building on what they had done. We got us out of Egypt, you could say. But we could only travel so far. You… are part of the Joshua generation. You and others like you are responsible for the next leg of the journey” (122).
The main activist job for Moshe was to speak truth to power (Pharaoh). But Joshua, Moses’ successor, had a very different job where there was no Pharaoh. His job was to build a community, indeed to develop a nation from scratch. It would make little sense for a rebuke of Pharaoh to be his main model to emulate in his new complex landscape.
Today, for us, with more communication tools at our disposal than at any other time in the whole of human civilization, it may feel good to speak like a relentless prophet today and perceive that the ills of the world can be fixed from one’s computer. After all, the world is burning from climate change, the mismanagement of a global pandemic, rampant corruption, wanton violence, and excessive greed (to name just a few elements that cause so much consternation across the partisan spectrum).
Why shouldn’t we all be radical and “speak truth to power” at every waking moment?
Because the intense fire that so many people feel today is, more often than not, a raging inferno rather than a spiritual flame. There are times for prophets and their unwavering absolutism. And there are times for fervent action that carries much more restraint. At this moment, we must balance courage with humility, being radical with unity, and the words of the Prophets with the words of the Sages. The Sages studied the words of the Prophets, quoted them, and were deeply influenced by them. But then they engaged in deep and critical analysis, allowed for open argumentation, and often tempered down their enthusiasm and certainty.
What makes our time so different?
The primary factor is social media. Right now, social media activism changes the game. One tweet, one post on Facebook, one TikTok video can reach millions of willing recipients with a stroke of the keyboard or the click of a button. The scope and scale of personal opinions are amplified beyond belief; all words are saved and stored. And many people, activists included, are tempted to believe headlines that may or may not be true and build immediate campaign responses without data. Today there are over five billion owners of cell phones, over four billion internet users, and around three and a half billion users of social media. There are so many blessings that come with our new technologies and interconnected world.
But there are also curses: impatience, public shaming without investigation or restraint, loneliness, depression, and increased suicide, especially in younger people.
Now, how many readers have stopped reading by this point? How out of touch am I? Do I write from a place of comfortable privilege calling for calmer activism, for unity, and critiquing social media?
Let me be clear: I find inspiration in the prophets. I don’t think unity is the highest goal over agitating for truth and justice. And I am a regular user of social media platforms. Yet, I see the damage that can be done. I see the opportunity in bringing more wisdom, more nuanced values, and more humility into our struggle for social justice.
One of the lessons I’ve learned in my two decades of Jewish social justice activism has been that there are two types in the endless struggle: Those who care about the vulnerable but are mostly driven by their identity and self-consumed emotion and those who naturally care about their identity and about expressing their authentic expressions but are most concerned with actually alleviating the plight of the suffering in a very concrete and tangible way. Rage is expected. Identity formation is only natural. But we must do all we can to adopt strategies that will be most effective at alleviating suffering, uprooting oppression, and dismantling the racist systems of white supremacy.
In an era of instantaneous public rewards for yelling (“likes”), it is easy to become confused about the goals of our justice work. Human motives are sensitive, even for the most altruistic people, and for some they can be easily influenced toward popularity over what is right; so each of us must take a consistent self-accounting. The question we can frequently ask ourselves is “Am I screaming for myself right now? Or I do believe this is a path of spiritual integrity beyond myself and the most effective use of my efforts to alleviate suffering and combat oppression?”
Here, we can quote the great prophets of our tradition. But we do not need to. Our next step is not marching into the streets or tweet-raging. The next steps are spiritual reflection, organizing strategy, and humble collaboration. That is how we get past the travails of today and reach the brighter paths of tomorrow.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of seventeen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.