Recently, there have been marches and demonstrations throughout the country to protest police brutality, particularly in response to the tragic deaths of Philando Castile in St. Paul and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. At the same time, we have all been horrified by the recent tragedy in Dallas where five police officers were killed. In the wake of these terrible events, I think we mustn’t allow ourselves to be compelled to make a choice between supporting the police or supporting the protesters. These are not two mutually exclusive, competing interests, and we actually can and should support both. If indeed there is evidence of police brutality aimed at the black community, then it would certainly be appropriate to protest this behavior until procedures are put in place to help eliminate such police misconduct. This is then an opportune time to ask ourselves, is there a halakhically acceptable form of protest? While violence against those with whom we disagree is clearly prohibited, what is the halakhic take on non-violent civil disobedience?
In fact, halakha is very sympathetic towards acts of non-violent civil disobedience. Broadly speaking, we follow the position of the Amoraic Sage Shmuel, who instructed “dina d’malkhuta dina hu,” that we are halakhically obligated to observe secular law. However, what specifically does this position dictate? While we must keep secular law, is it ever appropriate to protest government actions that we disagree with? If so, how are we to protest? Some of my Poskim have told me that they view the requirement of dina d’malkhuta dina hu as an obligation to be a good citizen and to avoid behavior that would result in one being called a criminal by American society. Since American society allows for non-violent civil disobedience, it would seemingly be within this interpretation to say that Jews may protest the government by engaging in non-violent acts of civil disobedience, providing that we are willing to pay the price for engaging in such behavior.
In response to the midwives defying Pharaoh’s order to kill all Jewish newborn baby boys in Egypt, the Torah states, “va’ya’as lahem batim,” or “and he made for them houses.” Rashi explains this pasuk to mean that God made houses of Kehunah and Malkhut for the midwives as a reward for saving the Hebrew baby boys. The Rashbam has a different take on the pasuk, and explains that Pharaoh made houses for the midwives and jailed the midwives in these houses. I believe that we can learn from both the Rashbam’s and Rashi’s interpretations of these words. Taken together, I think this pasuk relays the message that as long as one is willing to act like the midwives and pay the price for passive civil disobedience for a just cause, he will be rewarded for his behavior as the midwives were rewarded for theirs. Seen in this light, protesting governmental brutality and even engaging in passive civil disobedience appears to be sanctioned by halakha.
At the same time, we take seriously the mishna in Pirkei Avot (3:2), which states that we should pray for the welfare of the government, because there would be anarchy without fear of the government. Our local police officers put their lives on the line for us every day, and the majority of them do so without ever engaging in the practices that are the subject of the current nationwide protests. These law enforcement workers deserve our thanks and our gratitude for the sacrifices they incur to keep us safe, something that we too often take for granted. In precisely these troubled times in America, when both the black community and law enforcement officials are on edge, we have a responsibility to both communities: advocating for change to eliminate police brutality and racism in our country, while simultaneously offering our heartfelt gratitude to all those who give their lives to protect and serve.