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Civil Disobedience, the Boston Tea Party and Jewish Law

Civil Disobedience, the Boston Tea Party and Jewish Law

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An 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier entitled ''The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor.''
An 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier entitled "The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor."

Question:

I recently became interested in Judaism’s perspective on civil disobedience. I read that Judaism does allow for nonviolent resistance to protest injustice, such as participating in sit-ins. Sometimes, though, more drastic measures are taken in order to protest harsh laws. For example, in the Boston Tea Party, colonists used vandalism to protest against the British.

Those who engage in civil disobedience do so knowing that they may be punished for it. Indeed, the British did retaliate. My question is, how would Judaism view acts of civil disobedience that may include vandalism, provided that the perpetrators understand they will be punished?

Reply:

Before I answer your question regarding vandalism, I want to take a step back to address civil disobedience in general.

The Talmud states that dina d’malchuta dina,” “the law of the land is the law.”1 From a purely Jewish law perspective, one is generally obligated to adhere to any “just” civil laws of the land that don’t contradict Torah laws.2

Based on the fact that this rule only applies to “just” laws, the key question is whether the law one is protesting is considered just from a Torah perspective.

In the case of the Boston Tea Party, the colonists’ main complaint was that they were not directly represented in the British Parliament. Therefore, any laws the British passed taxing the colonists were illegal under the British Bill of Rights of 1689. Seemingly, this “taxation without representation” would render the laws unjust.

However, it is debatable whether this argument in and of itself justifies disregarding “the laws of the land.” The colonists did not have to engage in civil disobedience; all they needed to do was simply avoid buying tea. Furthermore, from the perspective of Jewish law, as long as a tax is levied without discriminating against an individual,3 it is a valid tax, regardless of whether or not you are represented in the government (the Torah, after all, recognizes monarchies as valid forms of government).4 In any event, “dina d'malchuta dina” may not apply for other reasons, as explained further in the article.

But whether or not “taxation without representation” is considered unjust, there is another factor in the Boston Tea Party that we must consider.

Who can claim sovereignty over the land?

Before we can determine whether a particular law falls under the criteria of “dina d’malchuta,” we first have to ascertain whether the specific government that made the law is in fact viewed, from a Torah perspective, as the sovereign government.

One of the key indicators of sovereignty is whether the coins issued by the government are the tender of the land. This indicates that the inhabitants of the land have accepted the government and consider themselves to be its subjects. If, however, the coins issued are not the tender of the land, even if a government occupies the land, it is considered no better than common thieves.5

While this isn’t the place for a lengthy discussion about colonial and post-Revolutionary currencies, suffice it to say that besides for the fact that the Spanish dollar was the most widely circulated foreign currency in the colonies at the time (as opposed to the British pound), for the most part, the colonies printed their own paper currencies.

Although the British passed various Currency Acts to try to regulate the printing of paper currencies in the colonies, these Currency Acts themselves only led to greater tensions between the colonies and the British and are viewed as a contributing factor to the American Revolution. Once the revolution was underway, the colonies continued to print their own currencies.

According to historians, one of the underlying purposes of these Currency Acts—in addition to simply dealing with the depreciation of the paper currency in relation to the British pound—was to get the Americans to acknowledge the authority of the British Parliament.6

Based on this, already prior to the revolution, the British were not necessarily considered the sovereign government from a Torah perspective, so“dina d’malchuta dina did not apply. Under these circumstances, civil disobedience would be permitted.

Civil Disobedience Through Acts of Vandalism

Now, to address your question regarding vandalism: Even when “the laws of the land” do not apply, the Torah laws against damaging and stealing still apply.

In general, one is not allowed to damage or steal, even with the intention of returning the object or paying even more that the object is worth. Therefore, one would certainly not be allowed to vandalize anything as a form of protest (even if one’s intention is to get punished).7

The only possible exception to the above is in the case where merchandise is waiting to be sold, and the owner is not present. Then, under certain circumstances, since the seller’s whole intention is to sell the merchandise and make a profit, one can take it and leave the money with a third party.8 However, I highly doubt that is what took place . . .

The bottom line: Civil disobedience is allowed when protesting laws that the Torah deems unjust, or when protesting against a non-sovereign government, but vandalizing another person’s property is not condoned.



Footnotes
1.
Talmud Gitin 10b, Nedarim 28a.
2.
See Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 73:14 and Siftei Kohen ibid 39.
3.
Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 369:6.
4.
See, however, Beit Yosef on Choshen Mishpat 369:14 (citing the Rosh and Rabeinu Tam) and Shulchan Aruch Harav, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Gezeilah 19, from which the case can be made that the tax was considered discrimination (although as noted, all that would have entitled one to do was not to pay the tax—or simply not buy the tea).
5.
Maimonidies, Hilchot Gezeila v’Aveida 5:18; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 369:2.
6.
Sosin, Jack M. "Imperial Regulation of Colonial Paper Money, 1764–1773." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 88, issue 2 (April 1964), 174–98.
7.
Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 348:1.
8.
See Talmud Bava Kama 60b and Rosh ibid 6:12; Tur and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 357:2 and Shach and Sefer Meirat Eynaim ibid.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Yosef Ahron Hollywood, Florida March 23, 2017

Regarding Civil Disobedience and Jewish law--the Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav tells us to set a fixed amount of time each day to learn Torah, and if you are fortunate enough to have ample time on your hands you should use this valuable time to learn Torah. With civil disobedience and vandalism you have to keep in mind that there is the risk of going to jail which might detract from Torah study and make it more difficult to learn. As our Rabbis' tell us if you can learn Torah without additional headaches it is better to learn this way. But if you feel impassioned by a certain issue that is contrary to Torah principles and you feel compelled to protest, it might be commendable under certain circumstances as the Rabbi explained. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem January 27, 2017

Currency "tender laws" are a modern invention and not determinant of sovereignty in any way. A government can rule a territory without even issuing its own currency or allowing foreign currencies to circulate freely without any "tender law". Beyond that, the whole argument is nothing more than "If i reject some law, the government stops being the government". Reply

Anonymous January 13, 2015

thank you.
You said there may not be a requirement to obey an unjust law particularly from a government with questionable sovereignty. The problem with doing that without finding an alternative way to communicate with the British was the way that any disobedient citizen was treated- even if that citizen wanted to pay but could not. People sometimes talk as though the colonists were a bunch of politicians who just wanted their own government- come what may. In fact had the British not been so insufferable it is doubtful that the Revolution would have been fought on such a scale. Considering the lack of room for individual resistance, representation seemed of necessity, and denied the privilege of necessary communication about real problems and needs people banded together and acted out. Many of these people were not fully literate. Considering their circumstances and lack of other options allows a better understanding. We have much that they did not have. Reply

Anonymous usa August 14, 2014

Thank you for a fascinating article.

If the government levied a (tea) tax without discrimination, but the tax is illegal under it's own code (as you write: "the colonists’ main complaint was that they were not directly represented in the British Parliament. Therefore, any laws the British passed taxing the colonists were illegal under the British Bill of Rights of 1689."), why would that tax be legaly binding under Dina Dimalchuta? Reply

Susan Levitsky August 7, 2014

The tea was the personal property of the merchant. The fact that is was associated with a tax is specious. This is akin to destroying a liquor store because you are angry with government, even for valid reasons. The Torah has to be against the Boston Tea Party, there are no mitigating factors. It is one of the commandments: Thou shalt not steal. Reply

Simcha Sun Lakes, AZ August 6, 2014

The rabbis at Chabad never cease to amaze me with their breath and depth of knowledge of secular subjects. The fact that Rabbi Shurpin know about or could even find the reference in Footnote 6 is pretty unbelievable. I am inspired to make sure I do an extra mitzvah tomorrow.
Thanks Reply

Chuna August 6, 2014

Pretty nice reply. I can see a new perspective now on how precious property is viewed by Torah. But when is it justified to use force? I'm sure there's a place for that as well, and I wonder where and when. If the British send soldiers to enforce their unjust laws... isn't even a hairsbreadth of unjustice cause for rebellious force? Please thou reply Reply

Anonymous New York August 6, 2014

You asked a good question, however can you please bring a source where the Rebbe discusses the War of Independence Reply

Thalia Elvidge USA August 6, 2014

To Anonymous Brooklyn: In response to your concern, that you ' don't see why it is evaluated as a protest and vandalism as opposed to war against oppression.' It's because it was because at that the time there was no such person as a United states of America or an American. That didn't happen until after Magna Carta ( June 15, 1215 originated & sited by the first of the American Charters of Freedom--in 1776 [ Dec. 16, 1773 was the date of the Boston Tea Party] , the Founding Fathers searched for a historical precedent for asserting their rightful liberties from King George III and Parliament. ) and various other events. Rebe is very astute in inferring with his teaching that it's G-d's timing adds integrity in following the law. They that wait upon the L-ord renew their strength and they mount up like an eagle ( USA's bird; Is 40:31) and feed the flesh and blood of their foe to their young. If we wait for G-d to give us timing we have the law to overcome oppressors. Ps 37:34. Helpful? Reply

RS August 3, 2014

It is interesting to note that the recognized currency of both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is the NIS (New Israeli Sheqel), despite the promise of Hamas in 2006 to mint palestinian currency for the people of Gaza.

While the Jordanian Dinar and US Dollar are also accepted, the Sheqel is most widely used. Amazingly, Hamas has never rejected shipments of new banknotes in the 7 years they have controlled Gaza. According to Rabbi Shurpin's article, this would be a pretty sound proof that even the ruling party of Gaza recognizes Israel's sovreignity, no? Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn August 3, 2014

There are times when the Torah allows to wage war. From the Rebbe's own statements it is understood that the revolutionary war was a just war. The Boston tea party can then be seen as part of an act of war, not normal vandalism. If so, it should be perfectly allowed, right? I don't see why it is evaluated as a protest and vandalism as opposed to war against oppression. Reply