9/11@20 and Shabbat Shuvah: Human Rights at Home

Looking back on the 20 years since 9/11, what is the most important human rights lesson you draw from the American response to those attacks?

Rabbi Gerry Serotta

“Anyone who had the capability to effectively protest the sinful conduct of the members of his household and did not protest, he himself is apprehended for the sins of the members of his household and punished. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the people of his town, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the people of his town. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the whole world, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the whole world.” (Talmud Shabbat 54b)

In the early days of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, from our organizing efforts begun in 1999 through incorporation in early 2002, our primary focus was supporting the courageous efforts of our colleagues in Shomrei Mishpat (Rabbis for Human Rights) in Israel. 

But after the attacks on our country on 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror,” a series of human rights abuses began to emerge that demanded that RHR-NA turn our attention to issues under the authority of the US government within and beyond our borders.  Parallel to the work of our sister human rights organization, PCATI (Public Committee Against Torture in Israel,) which worked with RHR to oppose torture in Israel, RHR-NA led an effort to establish the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. 

Hundreds of rabbis and cantors signed our strong statement against the use of torture. An RHR-NA delegation then met with Senator John McCain in late 2005 to publicly support his efforts to outlaw the use of torture.  His strong statement to us felt to me like a version of this text from Shabbat 54b: “This is not who we are as a country.”  Interestingly, on our way out of his office, McCain actually chided us, saying, if you really are rabbis for human rights then you should be working on the horrendous conditions for migrants who are seeking to enter this country.

As the Talmudic text admonishes us, we have a responsibility to recognize abuse of our fellow human being at every level, from family to community to nation to world.  This is, in fact, the Torah’s preamble to loving your fellow human being as yourself: “You must not withhold your reproof or you will bear responsibility.” (Leviticus 19: 17-18) It is, in other words, the basic mission we fulfill collectively as T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

Rabbi Serotta was the founding board chair of T’ruah, then called Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. He served in that capacity until 2008 and continued as a board member until 2013.

Booklet Section: Remembrance, Prayers for Healing & Peace, Meditations