It is largely forgotten today, but when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders put out the call for believers and clergy of all denominations to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement, Jews were drastically overrepresented in the response.

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The Jewish people were in the front lines from an early stage, and some, like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, paid for it with their lives.

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I think this was in large part a reflection of the long history of discrimination against Jews, and an act of conscience on the part of each individual. But I am curious as to whether there was also a scriptural, legal, or halachic motivation.

Do Jewish scriptures, laws, rabbinical authorities, or Halacha encourage Jews to oppose oppression of other races and ethnicities?

  • 2
    I have a theory why Ashkenazi Jews are disproportionately involved in left-wing and civil rights movements. In order to avoid a riot, I will focus on one aspect: Tikkun Olam (Reparing the World). Left leaning Jewish denominations (Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc) in addition to atheists and secular humanists, de-emphasized Halacha and focused on humanistic principals such as Tikkun Olam and social action. Jews who are foremost leaders of civil/human rights movements tend to be less (or none) observant. They apparently believe these social actions best represents Judaism
    – JJLL
    Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 2:26
  • If this question is on topic, so is this one
    – Yishai
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 1:45
  • @Yishai - I don't see the similarity. That question was closed as being "comparative", this one is specifically related to Jewish scriptures, Halacha, laws, and rabbinical authorities.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 3:03
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    @Yishai I think that "oppression of other races and ethnicities" is pretty self-explanatory and specific, probably enough to make a question about Judaism's attitude to it answerable without further definition. I do not think that "conservative" and "liberal," the most specific terms in the other question, satisfy that criterion.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 13:30
  • @IsaacMoses, the words "conservative" and "liberal" are only in the Pew quotes, and then with an immediate association with Republican and Democrat consecutively. The question asks why Orthodox Jews align themselves with Republicans and non-Orthodox with Democrats. If you understand civil rights protests to be incidental to this question, then it seems to be a duplicate of this.
    – Yishai
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 14:52

1 Answer 1


Orthodox rabbis involved in civil rights activism did indeed rely on biblical and rabbinic literature, and referred to them when backing their positions. Here are a few of those sources:

Avot 3:18

הוא היה אומר חביב אדם שנברא בצלם חבה יתירה נודעת לו שנברא בצלם שנאמר בצלם אלהים עשה את האדם

[Rabbi Akiva] used to say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of God]; an even greater expression of love is that it was made known to him that he was created in the image [of God], as it is stated: "For in the image of God He made man." (Genesis 9:6)

Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik, who publicly spoke and wrote in favor of civil rights in the 1960s, made the following connection to modern times:

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...[Avot 3:18] implies that every human being, regardless of religion, race, origin or creed is endowed with Divine dignity. Consequently, all people are to be treated with equal respect and dignity. [Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind]

The mishnah in Avot is associated with halakhic principals known as:

Human Dignity and Righteousness

Derived from Genesis 1:27 ("In the image of God He created Man"), kavod habriyot (human dignity) is a concept discussed throughout talmudic literature regarding legal exemptions based on undignified situations. Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik writes that alongside the concept of tzedek (righteousness), it is the Jewish cornerstone of civil rights. He refers to a discussion in the Jerusalem Talmud (Bava Metzia 2:5), in which Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach returned a pearl to an Arab pagan, after the pearl was discovered on the donkey he acquired from the Arab. Although it would not technically be considered stealing, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach argued:

מה אתון סברין שמעון בן שטח ברברין הוה. בעי הוה שמעון בן שטח משמע בריך אלההון דיהודאי מאגר כל הדין עלמא

“Do you think that I am such a barbarian? I am more interested in hearing the exclamation, 'Blessed be the God of the Jews' from the mouths of pagans than I am in making a living.”

Here is how Rabbi Soloveitchik understands this Yerushalmi:

In this story, Shimon ben Shetach gives a remarkable definition of the term “barbarian.” According to him, anyone who fails to apply a uniform standard of mishpat, justice, and tzedek, righteousness, to all human beings regardless of origin, color, or creed is deemed barbaric. From this Yerushalmi, coupled with the concept of k’vod habriyos, one must assume that those people who refuse to grant any human being the same degree of respect that they offer to their own race or nationality are adopting a barbaric attitude.

The concept of pursuing justice and righteousness, of course, is based on "Justice, justice, you shall pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20) and other biblical injunctions to form courts maintaining justice in society.

As mentioned in the comments, many of the Jewish activists during the civil rights movement came from non-Orthodox denominations and may not have relied on or accurately depicted traditional Jewish texts in defense of their actions. We do know, however, that many Orthodox leaders and institutions were in favor of social change, and fought for civil rights based on Jewish principals. See this link for the work of other Orthodox leaders in the 1960s.

  • This makes sense for how Jews need to act but, why should we mix in into what non Jews are doing?
    – hazoriz
    Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 13:28
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    @hazoriz The Yerushalmi was saying that practicing injustice; even where technically permitted is still barbaric. The difference between our improper acts acts, and those of others, lies in the realm of technical law. The motivation of the Yerushalmi, however, is not technical law, but the achievement of social justice. Accordingly, there would be no difference who would be perpetrating the injustice. To use popular "lomdish" terms, the Yerushalmi relates to the תוצאה; not the מעשה. And אל תמהר להשיב. והבן.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Aug 23, 2015 at 15:14

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