By MARI CHERNOW
When we bring change too quickly, we risk moving faster than participants and members can handle and support. Too slowly, and we risk further injury to anyone hurt by the status quo. Such was the case when Rabbis Raphall and Einhorn formulated their responses to slavery. Such is the case today in many areas of Jewish debate – most notably the ones centered on those who are excluded from or marginalized by traditional Jewish life: women, the LGBT community and interfaith families, to name a few.
Mari Chernow is rabbi of Temple Chai, Phoenix, Arizona, and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of Shalom Hartman Institute
From a distance it is easy to dismiss the former concern. Who cares about moving too fast when people are being mistreated or when societal norms are morally misguided? Who better than Jewish leaders to challenge and enlighten the masses? Who else could we possibly count on to lead the way to the prophetic cutting edge?
The problem is that there are a limited number of times that a leader can bring about radical change. He or she must either (a) have a hunch that there is an underlying broad base of support and/or (b) be certain that a particular position is a moral imperative worthy of great risk. Rabbi Einhorn ultimately fled Baltimore for Philadelphia as an angry mob threatened his livelihood and his safety. How many times in a career or in a lifetime can a person take such a stand? How many times can we be forced to leave town?
On the other hand, capitulations are often not viewed kindly by history. Consider Rabbi Raphal’s conclusion that slavery in and of itself is not sinful. Consider how it plays now, to see that an abstract concern about anti-Semitism overpowered opposition to the ongoing use and abuse of human beings.
There are good reasons to worry about public reaction and deep resistance to change. But these forces, of course, cannot always rule the day. In addition, the approach of adaptive change – an ongoing commitment to “never give up” might offer little comfort when wrong is being done, right here and right now.
Dr. Hain highlights those who push change from inside and outside of a given system, such as the federal laws of the United States and halakha. Indeed, lasting change often comes because of the passionate work of people both inside and outside of the system. I would like to extend that line of thinking with a question: When a system prolongs suffering or opposes moral action, is it time for change on a larger scale and more comprehensive nature? Is there a point at which we declare the system itself broken?