Shabbat Talmud Study: What Does Moral Courage Look Like Today?


It is much easier to identify moral courage in a historical piece than in today’s headlines. Moral courage is much cleaner and clearer when you are talking about 1939 than when you are talking about 2018. Consider two pieces that made the news this week.

In this piece, Rabbi David Wolpe tells the story of a Japanese man named Chiune Sugihara who worked in the Japanese consulate in Lithuania in 1939. He knew that Jews in German-occupied Poland were desperate and could not get out. No country would take them. The Japanese government ordered him: do not give visas to Jews. He violated the explicit order of his own government and wrote out 6,000 visas. Rabbi Wolpe writes: “Day and night he wrote visas. He issued as many visas in a day as would normally be issued in a month….It has been estimated that over 40,000 people are alive today because of this one man.” Most of us would look at the story of Chiune Sugihara and conclude that he is a moral hero.

How then shall we understand the story reported in this link?

What does moral courage look like today? If we admire Chiune Sugihara saying yes
to desperate people, in violation of his government’s orders, how ought we to see
desperate people today, and our fellow citizens who have the very hard job of doing
border control and law enforcement?

On Shabbat we are going to look at a great set of texts assembled and taught by Yehuda Kurtzer at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem called “Moral Courage in Jewish Tradition.” We will see what the prophets had to say about moral courage; the rabbinic critique of the prophetic voice; and a bridge position which will give us language and categories as we think about our complicated world and how to be moral actors in it.

History is hard. Headlines make finding our moral voice even harder.

Shabbat shalom,
Wes