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Woke in 2023

“I’d rather be a woke rabbi than a slumbering conservative”, especially at Pesach.

If being woke means possessing a strong social consciousness, a sense of justice, and promoting inclusive policies; count me in.

I’ve been accused of being many things in my life. When you choose to challenge the status quo, you’re going to be attacked and criticised, called different names, put on blacklists and ridiculed.

Of late, a few of my critics have decided that the worst possible thing they can call me is a woke Rabbi.

So just what is woke and is it an awful insult, or a badge of honour?

The idiom originated in African-American Vernacular English (some associate it with Martin Luther King Jr.) and refers to being woken up to or being to alert to issues around racial injustice. It has been popularised by the Black Lives Matter movement, and subsequently been widened to incorporate other popular social causes. Those on the political Right have weaponised it as a way to denigrate those who disagree with their beliefs. Anti-woke has become an ideology in itself, and it has been suggested that it can be seen as an attempt by the far-Right to rebrand bigotry as a resistance movement.

I would define the contemporary use of the term woke as: “Of or relating to a liberal progressive orthodoxy, possessing a strong social consciousness and sense of justice, and promoting inclusive policies or ideologies that welcome or embrace ethnic, racial, or sexual minorities”.

If that’s what being woke is about, then I proudly assert that I would rather be a woke Rabbi than a farshlofende (slumbering) conservative. And that’s especially at Pesach time. There are many faces to the Torah; our sages talk about the 70 faces of the Torah. This is the beauty of our tradition – it’s not about one single hue, one monolithic monopoly of the truth; but rather about the many strands and colours that make up the warp and woof of the Talmud and Rabbinic tapestry. I don’t expect all my Rabbinic colleagues to read tradition the way that I do. I don’t expect all other religious Jews to concur with all that I have to say about racism, gender issues, the LGBTIQ + community, or the need for an acute social consciousness. I do, however, ask them to listen thoughtfully and respond respectfully to ideas that are not the same as theirs, just as I strive to understand and respect their viewpoints. I appreciate that not all contemporary ideas are necessarily moral or acceptable within the Halachic system.

I am not so open-minded that my brain has fallen out and I am not so permanently woke that, like a desperate insomniac, I have become hallucinatory. I do, however, believe that if we fail to wrestle with our contemporary world, its ideas and ideals, its ideologies and idiosyncrasies, we do so at the peril of the Torah that we hold so dear. If we fail to be awake to the real issues and angst of our generation and our children, we will continue to lose them and leave them floundering on the shores of a stridently secular society. I feel confident enough that the resilient wisdom of our ancient tradition can be a strong sparring partner to the best of contemporary culture and an embrace of the wonder of being woke.

My Torah admires a woke agenda, it appreciates the beauty of staying awake to the cries and concerns of the world. I find it hard to read the rousing words of our prophetic tradition as being unconscious to social injustice and exploitation. I simply can’t read the Passover (Exodus) story without seeing it as one of the most powerful and potent protests against injustice and inequality.

As the great leader of Modern Orthodoxy, Rav Soloveitchik, asserted: Whenever the Torah wants to emphasise the mitzvah of having compassion and sympathy for the oppressed, it reminds us of our helplessness and lowly status in Egypt. The most vulnerable are usually the slaves, the widows, the orphans and especially the strangers. Like a plaintive protester, the Torah exhorts us in no less than 36 references to remember you were an alien in Egypt: 36 is the numerical value in Hebrew of twice Chai or a double portion of life. You become truly alive when you reach out to ease the life of those ostracised by colour, estranged by gender or sexual identity, dismissed by circumstance or culture, rejected by migration policies.

How can I be truly awake at the Seder, the festive family evening meals, if I can’t see the obvious implications of authoritarianism and hatred of the other in the Haggadah (the traditional book read at the meals) if I simply reject that the plagues may alert us to the dangers of climate chaos, that sexual harassment is explicit in Pharaoh’s killing of first-born males and the subsequent consequences for the females, that the treatment of people as chattels resonates in contemporary slavery, that the treatment by Pharaoh of his own people was a refusal to hear their Voice? That freedom and democracy are at the heart of the struggle on the streets of Israel today.

Pesach in 2023/5783 calls on us all to be awake, if not woke, to the problems not only of Judaism but of our suffering world. In the words of the Shabbat service: Wake up, wake up, for your light has come: rise, shine! Awake, awake, break out in song. 

Chag Sameach

Rabbi Ralph

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