Would I Break the Law?

As part of the Seder ritual, we read about Shifrah and Puah, two midwives, who begin the defiance of Pharaoh by refusing to obey his orders to kill the children of the Israelites. The Haggadah is unclear whether Shifrah and Puah were Jewish – whether they were Israelite midwives, or non-Jews who were merely midwives to the Israelites. But one thing is clear, we are to honor Shifrah and Puah for their compassion regardless of whether they were members of our tribes. We honor them for their willingness to break Pharaoh’s unjust law. At your Seder this year, ask who among the assembled would be willing to break the laws of this country to perform a compassionate moral act? If you need an example to start the discussion, you might start with Thomas Cardinal Mahoney, Archbishop of Los Angeles. He announced that he would be willing to break American immigration laws that he considered to be immoral. Specifically, Cardinal Mahoney was referring to a draconian enforcement-only immigration bill adopted by the United States House of Representatives. That bill would have required the deportation of all non-citizens currently in this country without legal documentation, widely believed to be many more than 12 million people. Fortunately, the bill died in the Senate. What would you do if a law like that passed? Cardinal Mahoney proclaimed that he would provide sanctuary to individuals and families, even if he would be sent to jail for doing so. Like the old Hebrew National commercial, Cardinal Mahoney asserted that he and Catholics like him had an obligation to adhere to a higher standard. This is not the first time that American religious leaders have had to confront moral obedience questions relating to immigration. In the mid-1980s, for example, refugees from Central America were threatened with deportation. These "illegal immigrants," particularly those from El Salvador, were escaping regimes that were supported by our government. Towns symbolically declared themselves as “cities of refuge,” drawing on the biblical term for places people could flee if they had violated the law but had not done anything truly wrong. Churches were providing sanctuary. In 1985, the Reform Movement went so far as to offer resources and moral support for congregations that joined in providing sanctuary. The Talmud teaches, dina demalchuta dina, "The law of the state is the law." Our ancestors, who often lived under oppressive regimes, were obligated to obey the laws of their rulers. But the rabbis recognized that laws might often come into conflict with one another, with some laws taking precedence over others. Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a leading figure of Conservative Judaism, has declared that the call, "Never Again," does not mean merely that the Jewish people will never again permit ourselves to be subject to the death and degradation that we faced under the Nazis. It also calls upon us to assure that no people anywhere is treated as a stranger, as one who does not belong among us. The matter is of deep Jewish concern. We cannot forget that because of nativist impulses of the type that plague our country today, large numbers of European Jews were denied admission to this country and perished in the Holocaust. Torah teaches us, time and again, to "remember the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt." So, this year at Seder, ask the question, would you break the law? And prepare to answer it for yourself when the youngest one asks, "Why is this night different from all other nights?"