Atticus Finch, Rav Kook and the Message of Passover

Written together with my colleague, Dr. Eileen Watts, and inspired by our interdisciplinary course in American literature, general philosophy and Jewish thought at Kohelet Yeshiva.

Published by the Forward here.

For many American Jews, Passover is not only about recalling the history of the Exodus; it is also about internalizing one of its fundamental messages: the importance of battling all forms of discrimination. Indeed, because we were slaves in Egypt, the Torah commands us to heed the plight of society’s outcasts. However, there is another message, equally important but oft-overlooked, that calls on us to combat ignorance with dignity, even as advocating for ‘others’ rains disgrace and debasement upon us.

The character familiar to most American Jews who answers both of these calls is, of course, Atticus Finch. The central figure in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is the attorney who defends in vain an innocent black man, Tom Robinson, on charges of raping a white woman in 1930s Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus endures verbal abuse and threats to his and his children’s lives, meeting disgrace with grace and decency. When the accusing woman’s father spits in Atticus’s face, for example, the lawyer merely responds, “I wish Bob Ewell wouldn’t chew tobacco.” For his noble, albeit doomed, challenge to the South’s entrenched racism, Atticus became a (fictional) hero of the Civil Rights Movement.

What is unusual, however, is Atticus’s decidedly non-combative style. Eschewing direct confrontation, he lectures his seven-year-old daughter Scout to first seek to understand one’s adversaries, explaining: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all sorts of folks. You’ll never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Instead of taking a chainsaw to the town’s blatant bigotry, Atticus opts for a long-term war over a short-lived battle.

Numerous instances exemplify Atticus’s forbearance. Early in the novel, for instance, we learn that the Ewell family is so impoverished and dysfunctional that their children attend school for just the first day of each academic year. When Scout expresses concern, Atticus counsels that while the situation is imperfect, it is best if the children accept the Ewells’ handicaps and not try to impose upon them the strict letter of the town’s laws. Similarly, after Atticus accepts the Tom Robinson case, he urges Scout not to allow the schoolchildren to goad her into a fist fight. Instead, Atticus recommends non-violent resistance, suggesting: “Try fighting with your head for a change.”

When Mrs. Dubose, an elderly racist morphine addict, mocks the children each time they pass her house, Atticus advises his twelve-year-old son Jem that “Mrs. Dubose is just an old lady and she’s ill. Hold your head high and be a gentleman.” Later, recognizing her extraordinary feat of freeing herself of morphine dependence before her death, Atticus goes so far as to tell Jem, “I wanted you to see a hero before she died.” In refusing to stoop to the tactics of his ideological opponents and even recognizing their exemplary qualities, Atticus cuts a rather different figure of the anti-racism warrior than the one we typically imagine.

For all his inner heroism, though, Atticus would not have been able to draw a connection between his attitude and the holiday of Passover. That was left to an historic personality who met his own abuse with similar grace and nobility: scholar and mystic, Rabbi Avraham Yehuda Kook (1865-1935), first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine.

From his move to Jerusalem in 1919 until his final breaths, Rav Kook was subject to merciless abuse at the hands of anti-Zionist zealots. Repeatedly denounced as a heretic, his philosophical classic Orot was tossed into flames. On Purim eve 1932, the youth of Jerusalem went so far as to try Rav Kook on charges of heresy in a mock trial. As in To Kill a Mockingbird, the outcome was predetermined. After his “conviction,” Rav Kook was mutilated in effigy. In his brilliant biography Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, Yehuda Mirsky notes that despite the malevolence, the chief rabbi “never responded in kind, but instead did favors, wrote letters of recommendation and fund-raising appeals, and arranged favors and benefits, for even some of his bitterest foes” (Mirsky 204). To put it in Talmudic parlance, the rabbi embodied the maxim (Gittin 36b) that “those who are insulted but do not insult others, who hear their shame but do not respond, who act out of love and are joyful in their suffering, about them the verse states: ‘And they that love Him are as the sun going forth in its might’ (Judges 5:31).”

It is therefore not surprising that in the Introduction to his Hagadah, Rav Kook defines freedom in terms of

the essential freedom, the freedom of the body from any external mastery, from any mastery that coerces the divine image within a person to become enslaved to any force that degrades his value, the splendor of his greatness and resplendence of his sanctity. (Hagadah Shel Pesach, 8)

Rav Kook here summarizes the maxim by whose light he lived his own life: freedom is defined not by our outward behaviors but by our inner spirit, by our unwillingness to allow others’ anger to define us or break our resolve.

The lesson of these two champions is a complex one, especially at a moment when many rightly call for an unyielding stance against all forms of discrimination. Still, it is precisely at such a time that we need to pay close attention to Atticus and Rav Kook’s moral voice. All too often in our world, bigotry is met not just with opposition but with underhanded, churlish tactics. Atticus and Rav Kook project a clear moral mandate to opposite effect: we must never lower ourselves into the gutter.

Of course, this does not absolve us from the responsibility to combat ignorance and unjust bias. Quite the opposite. The proper lesson for the current moment is that in addition to our external behaviors, there is an internal question of retaining our dignity in the process. All too often, contemporary discourse emphasizes the change we seek to effect in the world around us. Atticus and Rav Kook remind us that even as we respond to abuse and vitriol, we must take care to tend to our soul. Even as we push back, we dare not sacrifice our humanity. It is not a popular message, yet it is a crucial one.

Atticus managed to live with Maycomb’s bigotry while fighting the long fight against the Deep South’s abhorrent attitudes. He also bequeathed to his children the gifts of patience, wisdom and insight. Much the same may be said of Chief Rabbi Kook, who inspired generations of Religious Zionists to see the good in the Secular Zionists, despite their many fundamental points of disagreement.

This Passover, let us remember not only to combat bigotry but also that real freedom is embracing that noble spirit by which we become loyal to our inner essential selves, and doing so with grace and dignity.

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