On some matters of principle, there is no room for compromise. When well-meaning but cautious liberals asked Martin Luther King to proceed slowly in pursuit of civil rights, he responded in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail:” “For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ ”
Dr. King’s wisdom was grounded in the words of the Torah, which also warns against making concessions on human rights. In the book of Exodus, we learn that after each of the first seven plagues in Egypt, Pharaoh refuses to free the Israelites. But after the eighth plague, as locust devour the land, his advisers urge him to relent, lest all Egypt suffer ruination. Pharaoh’s response is to offer a “compromise:” he will allow the men to go out — if he can hold the women and children as hostage to ensure that the men return. To which Moses responds: “We will all go, young and old, with our sons and our daughters, our flocks and our herds.”
This passage is instructive, for Moses wisely recognizes that Pharaoh’s so-called compromise is, in fact, a callous political ploy. He is not offering freedom; he merely wishes to create a diversion — which Moses rejects out of hand. Moses knows — as should we — that in matters of justice, when human lives are on the line, we must never settle for half a loaf.
This message could not be more pertinent as, at the time of my writing this piece, our state’s lawmakers are said to be considering an “Add the Words” bill that would completely gut its effectiveness by giving so-called “religious exemptions” to those who would discriminate against the LGBT community, and deny full protection and accommodations to transgender Idahoans. Idaho’s Human Rights Act already offers ample protection for religious institutions, as its author, Gov. Phil Batt, ensured. All we need to do is add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the existing act. Proponents of a so-called “compromise” bill — who, it should be noted, have consistently refused to hear any input from the LGBT community — offer something worse than no bill at all, because they would use (or, more damningly, abuse) religion as a shield for injustice. The Hebrew prophets had a name for this: idolatry.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, following in the footsteps of Moses, wrote on civil rights, so, too, here: “Let us dodge no issues. Let us yield no inch to bigotry, let us make no compromise with callousness. In the words of William Lloyd Garrison: ‘I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, to speak, or to write with moderation. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — and I will be heard.’”
Or to quote a less likely source, conservative Republican icon Barry Goldwater: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.