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The Minority Report: How the Minority Can Save the Majority©

Parashat Shelach Lecha – (written and delivered in June 2018/5778)



Do you know why we pray in a minyan?


Many think it is because of the story of Abraham and Sodom and Gemorah…(Genesis Chapter 18) And God answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the twenty.” 32 And he (Abraham) said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?” And God answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten.”

And honestly, I wish it was…


But it isn’t. It is actually in this week’s parashah, Shelach Lecha, during a dark time for our people—the incident of the spies—ten men who led our people astray. But the actual number of spies wasn’t ten; it was twelve. Ten led the people astray…and there were two who spoke against the majority. In this case, the minority, the two out of twelve, saved us.

As citizens of a democracy, both here and in Israel, we seem to have a mentality of majority rules, and to the victor go the spoils. But what about the minority – the ones who don’t win? I think there is actually a distinctly Jewish way to look at the minority opinion, how it should be treated, and how it can be used in the future.


This week, Joshua and Caleb speak against the majority, and Caleb speaks first. We all know the majority opinion: the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large...we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so must we have looked to them, and much more, but I want to read you the minority opinion which is only one line (Numbers 13:30):


וַיַּהַס כָּלֵב אֶת־הָעָם אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּי־יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָהּ׃

Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us, by all means, go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.”


Seforno, a famous medieval Italian Biblical commentator, takes note of Caleb's words, Aleh Na'aleh – let us, by all means, go up. He writes: “Calev reinforced Moses’ words by saying: עלה נעלה, it is appropriate for us to ascend for they will not be able to stand up against us to prevent us from progressing.”


It seems that the us that Caleb is speaking about are the giants in Ca'anan, but what if he was talking to the people, and the 'us' were the ten spies? Perhaps he was pleading with the people, follow us two, not the ten.


Here we learn that the purpose of the minority opinion can be to help us ascend at times when all we can see is one path.


There are times when minority opinion pushes the majority to rise—to move—but the majority may not be ready to hear that message. I wanted to share two examples of Jewish radicals, the minority opinion, who were before their time but now are considered prophets.


About a century and a quarter or so ago, when Zionism was just beginning, the first Zionists sought a place at the table of the organized Jewish community. The leadership of the Central European Jewish communities turned them down. They refused to grant the Zionists a place within the community structure. These Zionists, they said, are wrong, totally wrong, and they endanger our place within the general society by their teachings.

Their main opposition were German rabbis, from Reform and Orthodox streams, and the established German Jewish community. I want to read you their response to the publication of Theodore Herzl's, the father of modern Zionism, Die Welt, a weekly Zionist newspaper, and Herzl's call for the first Zionist Congress:


“As long as Zionists wrote in Hebrew they were not dangerous, but now that they are writing in German, they must be opposed...what more can one say, if people are so naive as to believe that the Western European Jews will hand over their money to purchase Palestine from the Turks and to create a Jewish organization that will reverse the entire development of the Jewish nation. 1800 years ago, history made its decision regarding Jewish nationhood through the dissolution of the Jewish state and the destruction of the Temple...we ask the Zionists then, in whose name and by what authority do they speak? Who gave them a mandate to call for a congress in Munich? We are protesting against the organizers who claim to speak for all of Jewry, but behind whom stands not one single Jewish congregation. We are convinced that no Rabbi or Director of a German congregation will appear at the congress. This will be demonstrated to the entire world that German Jewry has nothing in common with the intentions of the Zionists.”1 


Because of this letter, which led to a storm of protest, Herzl was forced to move the first Zionist Congress from Munich to Basle, Switzerland. Can you imagine how embarrassed these people must have felt some years later when the German-Jewish relationship came crashing down, and these people or their children had to scramble to get certificates so that they could escape to Palestine? The group they tried to ban ended up having a truth, or at least a partial truth, that they now needed to hear. They failed, but we should not make the same mistake, for you never can tell when today’s heresy may become tomorrow’s truth. And you never can tell when leaving the door open to all kinds of ideas may lead to new possible solutions that we cannot imagine today. Zionism was once a heresy, which the leadership of the Jewish community tried to ban. For now at least, Zionism is the establishment point of view.





The second story, which I shared a couple of weeks late after there was a holiday in his name on May 22, but I share today, in the month of June, Pride month: Harvey Milk. For those who don't know, Harvey Milk was a gay rights activist who was truly before his time. Milk moved to San Francisco in 1972 and opened the camera store Castro Camera in the Castro District, a neighborhood that was experiencing a mass influx of gay men and lesbians. Between 1972 and 1976, Milk unsuccessfully ran for office in California three times. During these campaigns, Milk dubbed himself the “Mayor of Castro” street and his outrageous antics earned him media attention and votes, although not enough to be elected. He took advantage of his growing popularity at the time to lead the gay political movement in battles against anti-gay initiatives.2


In 1977, Milk made history as the first openly gay man to hold office in a major American city.

Milk began his tenure by sponsoring a civil rights bill that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. He also led the fight to defeat Proposition 6, commonly known as the Briggs Initiative, a proposed law that called for the mandatory firing of gay and lesbian teachers and other public school employees who supported gay rights. He was assassinated by a disgruntled ex-city councilman in his office.


Harvey was not a religious Jews, but his grandfather, Lithuanian immigrant Morris Milk, co-founded the Sons of Israel Synagogue in the heavily Jewish Long Island town of Woodmere, Long Island. But Milk chose to shun religion: he felt organized religion oppressed homosexuals. And it did...and some still do.


Can you imagine if Harvey Milk wasn't killed? Can you imagine if his parents and grandparents, and the Jewish community accepted him for who he was?


But he may have had more of a connection to Judaism than we've been taught. Walter Caplan, Milk's lawyer, hosted a kippah-wearing Harvey at Passover seders in his home, and he instructed those who were preparing his body to lie in state at City Hall to secure a plain wooden coffin, according to Jewish law. At the memorial service held outside of City Hall on Nov. 29, 1978, Rabbi Alvin Fine, a civil rights activist and retired head of Temple Emanu-El, San Francisco’s main Reform congregation, delivered the eulogy. After the City Hall service, an explicitly Jewish service was held at Temple Emanu-El, with Allen Bennett, at that time the city’s only out gay rabbi, delivering the eulogy. It was no easy fete as the less than gay-friendly senior rabbi of the congregation had to be pressured into accepting Bennett at the bima.


I want to read you an imagined Letter to Harvey Milk by Lesléa Newman, first published in 1988, ten years after Milk’s assassination. The story is told from the perspective of Harry, a Holocaust survivor in San Francisco taking a writing class at the local senior center. In this excerpt, Harry is responding to a prompt to “write a letter to somebody from our past, someone who’s no longer with us.”3


“Then they made speeches for you, Harvey. The same people who called you a shmuck when you were alive, now you were dead, they were calling you a mensh. You were a mensh, Harvey, a mensh with a heart of gold. You were too good for this rotten world. They just weren’t ready for you.”


In the Talmud, we read a series of arguments about every issue you can think of, and I can think of no better example than Hillel and Shammai. They had too many arguments to count, but over the thousands of arguments they had, Shammai only won three of them, and yet, when we think of Hillel, the majority opinion, we cannot help but think of Shammai, the minority. Despite their disagreements, they somehow learned to live with each other respectfully. Do you know why the Talmud is so long? It always records both the majority point of view and the minority point of view because today’s minority view may become tomorrow’s majority view.


As Seforno said,עלה נעלה, “it is appropriate for us to ascend for they will not be able to stand up against us to prevent us from progressing;”


As Jews, we love to argue, and we come from a long line of radicals whose view of the world came before their own time.


So the next time you hear the minority opinion from a relative or a friend, even when you are sure that he or she is crazy, perhaps their idea isn't ready for primetime yet, but remember it because they could be Caleb and Joshua, and without Caleb and Joshua, we wouldn't be here. They became the voice of the Zionists who stood up against the Jewish world who didn't have one congregation who supported them at the beginning, and they became the voice of Harvey Milk, who famously said, “Rights are won only by those who make their voices heard.” as he and others demanded an equal place in society, and inspired the Jewish community to embrace our gay brothers and sisters.


The next time you hear the minority report, don't ignore it; record it because you never know how it might improve our world.


May it be God's will...Amen.


1 “Protestrabbiner” Protest Against Zionism (1897) – The Jew In the Modern World page 539-540; also:


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