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Can a single passage of Talmud help us think about Black Lives Matter?

Welcome to the first of what we hope will be a recurring feature in which we explore a passage from the Talmud that resonates with current events. The goal is not to determine “the Jewish view” but to prompt thought and discussion. You can find more about this passage — Sanhedrin 74a-b — at the author’s Twitter feed.

Preserving life is the most important commandment, according to Sanhedrin 74a-b. At least, that’s how the passage begins: 

With regard to all other transgressions in the Torah, if a person is told: Transgress this prohibition and you will not be killed, he may transgress that prohibition and not be killed, because the preserving of his own life overrides all of the Torah’s prohibitions.

We are comfortable with voting and sometimes with protest, but shocked by violence.  After all, lawlessness has so often led to Jewish deaths. Another rabbinic passage:

“Pray for the welfare of the government, for without the fear of it, man would swallow his fellow alive.” (Pirkei Avot 3:2)

Yet Talmud Sanhedrin 74a-b, beginning with its emphasis on the sanctity of life, also expresses a mood not far from that expressed by many of the Black Lives Matter protesters who are risking death for dignity. It recognizes that there may come a time when you have to put your own life on the line because your society is ready to kill you and make it seem like it’s your fault.

Talmud Sanhedrin 74a-b came out of a particular historical moment. It is talking to the Jewish generations that came after the failed Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome. It is talking to a minority people who lived under an oppressive system. Sometimes, that system nominally guaranteed their rights. But it also left them vulnerable to the whims of whoever was in charge at the moment.

Yes, it starts with the premise that preserving life is the most important commandment. It invokes the frequently quoted rule that, if necessary, we should even break almost every biblical commandment in order to survive.

But then it contradicts itself:

When Rav Dimi came from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia, he said that Rabbi Yocḥanan said: The Sages taught that one is permitted to transgress prohibitions in the face of mortal danger only when it is not a time of persecution. But in a time of persecution, even if they issued a decree about a minor commandment, one must be killed and not transgress. (Click here for more text, and commentary.)

In other words, Rav Dimi, newly arrived from Israel to Babylon, is quoting another rabbi, Yochanan, when he says this: The rule about preserving life only applies when the laws and social order aren’t persecuting and degrading the Jews. If the degradation becomes overt, one is expected to die rather than yield on anything.

Another rule: Even when the degradation isn’t the explicit law of the land, when the authorities try to humiliate you in public, one must die rather than yield on anything, even something insignificant, even if all they want you to do is change your sandal strap.

The Gemara asks: What is a “minor commandment?” Rava bar Yitzḥak says that Rav says: Even to change the strap of a sandal. (Click here for more text, and commentary.)

Such an absurd demand — “Change your shoes or we’ll kill you!” — but it’s how the Talmud draws our attention to the way an oppressive society crushes its minorities while hiding the violence it does under a framework of reasonable-seeming laws.

There are obvious parallels between a society willing to kill one over a sandal strap and one that marks someone as dangerous because of their hairstyles, or a style of clothing. A month after white protestors carrying weapons capable of massive casualties were endorsed by the president, we find unarmed protestors resisting police brutality assaulted again and again.

In the language of the Talmud, we find ourselves in a time of persecution, not of Jews, but of people of color, and especially of black people. This text, I think, argues for empathy with those willing to put everything on the line for justice. Even better, we should find a way to join and support them.

Dov Nelkin teaches Talmud, Tanakh, and philosophy at the Abraham Joshua Heschel high school in New York City. He holds a doctorate from the department of religious studies at the University of Virginia. He welcomes questions, comments, and disagreement via Twitter @drnelk.

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