Orthodoxy and the Civil Rights Movement

By Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky

With Martin Luther King Jr. Day fast approaching, many will recall the key role played by prominent Jews in the 1960s civil rights movement and the wider Jewish commitment to social action.

Advocacy on behalf of non-Jewish causes, widely termed tikkun olam, is often associated with the non-Orthodox denominations. Perhaps less familiar are the many Orthodox rabbis who supported the civil rights movement in a variety of ways, including through activism and impassioned pleas from the pulpit. As an example, I’d like to draw attention to one Orthodox rabbi who went so far as to provide a theological basis for the nascent campaign.

Often lost in the shadow of his brother, the Talmudic and philosophical titan Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik (1917-2003; Rabbi Aaron differed with his brother on a number of important items, including the proper English spelling of their last name) was a giant in his own right. A grandson and son of the brilliant Lithuanian Talmudists Rabbis Hayyim and Moses Soloveitchik, respectively, Rabbi Aaron was primed from a young age for rabbinic leadership. His mother, Rebbetzin Pesia Soloveitchik, was much more worldly, having voraciously consumed in her youth the works of authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

Fusing his parents’ commitments to Torah and general wisdom, Rabbi Aaron studied Talmud intensively, first in Poland under the tutelage of the later-renowned Rabbi Isaac Hutner and then at Yeshiva University in New York. In 1946, Rabbi Aaron completed a law degree from New York University, although he never practiced. After receiving ordination from the famed Rabbi Moses Feinstein, over the next five decades he taught Talmud and Jewish thought in New York and, beginning in 1966, in Chicago. He became reputed for his outspoken, unyielding views on matters of ethical principle. In the words of his student Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, later son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Israel, Rabbi Aaron was, “above all, a pillar of radical integrity.”

During the 1960s, perhaps owing in part to his mother’s cosmopolitanism, and consistent with his own fierce sense of justice, Rabbi Aaron began to speak out on the burning issues of the day. He vigorously protested the Vietnam War, arguing that innocent people were being slaughtered on all sides. He spoke out about the importance of providing aid to Biafra, a small African country devastated by civil war. On the matter of swapping Israeli land for peace, he sided with political conservatives. He was a strident critic of the 1993 Oslo Accords, maintaining that they undermined Israeli security and were unlikely to lead to the peace Israel so desperately craved.

Perhaps above all, Rabbi Aaron was a vocal supporter of the 1960s civil rights movement, penning an influential essay entitled “Civil Rights and the Dignity of Man,” later published in his Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind. Rabbi Aaron observed that, in the upcoming Torah portion of Shemot, Moses engaged in three encounters. First, risking his life, Moses rushed to intervene on behalf of a Jew who was smitten by an Egyptian. Second, again placing himself in harm’s way, Moses stepped in between two Jews, one of whom was striking the other. Finally, upon witnessing seven Midianite girls cast aside by shepherds, Moses rose to the girls’ defense and watered their sheep.

It was Moses’ commitment to justice in all phases of relationships — between Jew and gentile, among Jews and among gentiles — that led the rabbis to declare: “Righteousness — this refers to Moses.” And it was only after Moses had demonstrated his commitment to social justice that God chose him as savior.

For Rabbi Aaron, Moses’ actions — and ours — are rooted in the Torah’s assertion that all people are created in God’s image, and are therefore deserving of kevod ha-briyot, human dignity. Rabbi Aaron goes on to forcefully proclaim: “From the standpoint of the Torah, there can be no distinction between one human being and another on the basis of race or color. Any discrimination shown to a human being on account of the color of his or her skin constitutes loathsome barbarity… A Jew should always identify with the cause of defending the aggrieved, whoever the aggrieved may be, just as the concept of tzedek (justice) is to be applied uniformly to all humans regardless of race or creed.”

Similarly, in a letter to his student Dr. David Luchins, who apparently had inquired concerning the possibility of serving on the board of the Jewish Fund for Justice, a charity dedicated to supporting non-Jewish causes, Rabbi Aaron wrote: “It is obvious that from the Judaic perspective justice is to be practiced equally toward Jews and non-Jews. … We thus see that the Jewish Fund for Justice is a sublime endeavor that is grounded in the ethical doctrines of our Torah.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Day offers us the opportunity to reflect on the ways in which Orthodoxy, alongside other Jewish streams, forcefully opposes racism. All people were created in the image of God and are therefore endowed with sacredness and dignity. As a result, we must engage in social activism on behalf of the needy and aggrieved. Anything less, for Rabbi Aaron among so many others, would run contrary to cardinal Jewish ideals.