The term “take a knee” has long been associated with professional sports, but in the past year or so, and especially in recent weeks and days, it has taken on a new and volatile association. About 14 months ago, Colin Kaepernick, then a player for the San Francisco 49ers, chose to kneel during the pregame playing of the national anthem, to protest police killings of African Americans and the persistence of racial injustice in America.
Like many political protests — especially those involving national symbols such as the American flag and the national anthem — this one surely has angered many people. Some saw it as disrespectful to the flag and anthem, while others recognized that this act was a protest against America’s failure to fully live up to its creed that “all men are created equal.”
When American colonists destroyed a shipment of tea in 1773, it surely angered the British government and British loyalists, who saw this as an attack on England’s financial interests and legal rights. When in 1906 Mohandas Gandhi (as he was then known) led a movement to burn 2,000 registration certificates in South Africa, this surely angered the British government, who saw it as an attack on British law.
When the Freedom Riders poured into the South in 1961, they were decried as “outside agitators” who were intent on challenging the rule of law. And when American Jews marched for years on behalf of Soviet Jewry, the Soviet government complained bitterly about the Americans’ interference in their internal affairs.
But the Sons of Liberty were fighting against British oppression, and their protest led to the American Revolution. Gandhi was fighting against a later chapter of British oppression, and his life work led not only to increased freedom in South Africa, but ultimately to the independence of India. The Freedom Riders risked life and limb to fight the stain of racist oppression that had continued to persist for almost a century following the Civil War. And the struggle for freedom for Soviet Jewry yielded undeniable results; a man who used to be known as Anatoly Shcharansky, long a symbol of the oppression of Soviet Jewish freedom-fighters, remains an icon of the freedom to be a member of a free nation in our homeland for which he and so many had long struggled.
Were these acts of political protest controversial? Surely they were. But they were acts of idealism and courage, examples of innumerable fights for freedom throughout our world history.
Meanwhile, in the past year, an increasing number of athletes have joined this escalating protest of racism in America by “taking a knee.”
The greatest notoriety, though, has been stimulated by President Donald Trump’s extreme and clueless reaction. For the president and his spokespeople, these protests are simply unjustifiable acts of disrespect to the flag, to the national anthem, and to people who have fought and died for defending them.
Trump seems incapable — or obstinately unwilling — to understand the nature of political protest. People of good will and good sense can disagree about the degree to which racial injustice persists in 21st-century America. People of good will and good sense can disagree about the appropriateness of this or that method of political protest.
But I am amazed at the shallowness and stubbornness of thinking among some people, who insist that this increasing tactic of “taking a knee” is, purely and simply, an act of disrespect. In fact, this protest is a principled act of love toward a country that, the protesters believe, is not yet fully realizing its promise to be a just and inclusive society.
Critics of the “take a knee” movement do not understand the nature of symbols. Students of religion understand symbols, because religious traditions are replete with symbols. Theologian Paul Tillich taught that the power of religious symbols is their ability to point beyond themselves, to open us up to realities not otherwise accessible. But Tillich cautioned us not to misinterpret symbols as the ultimate itself. That, he said, is idolatry.
We Jews revere the Torah, because it leads us to God, connects us to God.
But we do not worship the Torah. Similarly, a national flag or national anthem is a symbol — a powerful symbol, but a symbol nevertheless.
One who asserts that people die for flags or anthems is simply ignorant.
Our military heroes fought and died for a nation, whose flag and anthem are symbols of that nation’s moral
aspirations. They fought and died for freedom, which is the bedrock of American values, which is the birthright of every American — and, yes, which includes the freedom to not stand for the anthem.
Not too long ago, I read the First Amendment of the Constitution. Only 45 words long, many of us know many of its phrases by heart: “freedom of speech,” “establishment of religion,” and so on. But less well known is the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Our cherished freedom of speech doesn’t only defend a person’s right to taunt political opponents and international antagonists with schoolyard nicknames. It does defend that objectionable behavior, but that’s not what freedom of speech is really all about. It doesn’t only defend unpopular speech — allowing minorities to stand up to majorities. It does that too, but that’s not what freedom of speech is really all about. The whole point of our freedom of speech is to allow Americans, when they are so moved, “to petition the government.” The Constitution allows us — and, in a sense, encourages us — to complain when we feel that we have a legitimate complaint.
All of that tea sinking into the waters of Boston Harbor created a national ethos that encourages us to stand up — and to speak up. The Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King and countless other freedom fighters in the American civil rights movement taught us that “we shall overcome” — when we stand up, speak up and demand that our country becomes “a more perfect Union.”
But protesting — standing up and speaking up in the name of justice — is not only an American tradition. It is a profoundly Jewish activity.
It’s not only because, after millennia of being oppressed by countless people in countless places, we should identify with all oppressed people. It’s not only because the Torah admonishes us to love the stranger. Most fundamentally, God commands us, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
The biblical prophets railed not only against idolatry; they were iconoclasts who protested moral corruption among kings, princes, priests and common people. It’s injustice that angers God, the prophets taught, and it’s justice that we’re commanded to pursue.
The Rabbis of the Talmud, as well, taught us the lessons of standing up and speaking up. For example, Rabbi Hanina wondered about the verse in the book of Isaiah: “Adonai will bring judgment against the elders and princes of God’s people.” If the princes sinned, Rabbi Hanina asked, how is it that the elders sinned?
Rabbi Hanina’s response: God will punish the elders because they did not protest the actions of the princes.
This leads the Talmud to assert, “Anyone who has the power to protest [a wrong] and does not protest is punished for it.”
We are required to stand up and speak up against injustice, to empathize with the powerless and the marginalized. This is our historical legacy, this is our biblical imperative, this is our halachic obligation.
This article is adapted from a Yom Kippur sermon the author delivered at Landow House in Rockville, part of the Charles E. Smith Life Communities.