03/07/2011 04:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

These Libyan Religious Scholars are My Friends Whether or Not They Want to Be

I do not know how to read or write about Scripture this week without turning again and again to the words of anguish penned by religious scholars among the broad population of Libyans currently under siege by the national government. Today's plea is this:

The Network of Free Ulema has just issued the following urgent statement: "This is to urgently notify the world and the International Criminal Court in particular, that Gaddafi and his criminal accomplices are currently (March 2nd and 3rd 2011) implementing a massive kidnapping campaign in Tripoli and its vicinities in order to 'clean up' key youth leaders before tomorrow's Friday prayers, and in order to 'look good' to the international Media, which has been invited to Tripoli as part of a public relations campaign aimed at covering up the crimes against humanity that have been inflicted upon the brave Libyan people. We call upon and urge every man and woman of good will, worldwide, to do their utmost to save our youth from the hands of Gaddafi, his thugs, and mercenaries."

I am a Jewish scholar and I am aware of how much these same religious scholars condemn the policies and often the very legitimacy of the State of Israel. I do not agree with many of their condemnations. In an immediate sense we are not friends, and perhaps even in a distant sense many of them will not feel friendly toward me and my work.

But today I name them friends whether they want me to or not. And I call on my family of Jewish scholars to name them friends: and I say this whether or not my family wants me to say this or not. They are friends not just because they are humans (a friend has reason to call on our help, literally, and I know no one but God who has the capacity to offer such help to everyone). They are friends because they pray to the God whom Moses served and to whom Rabbi Akiva prayed, because they seek to study His words and deeds and to shape their lives accordingly, because that God calls on them to be friends with us, and because they suffer now in a way that calls us to immediate attention. They suffer in great numbers, they suffer unjustly -- utterly unjustly --, there are signs that they may suffer more, and there are ways in which we who write and read such blogs -- may modestly help.

We may help by disseminating the pleas of these religious scholars as broadly as possible, by urging our governments and the United Nations to respond to the pleas in ways requested by the Libyan scholars, by summoning the attention and energies of fellow religionists internationally, by letting these Libyans know we hear these pleas, and by contributing to humanitarian aid being sent to them.

When I hear their pleas, I think of the children of Israel in Exodus 2: "The children of Israel groaned in their harsh service and cried out, and their cry for help from this harsh service went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the children of Israel and God took notice." The wonderful Talmud scholar, Aryeh Cohen, writes about this passage: "the power of this moment comes from the fact that God will act as a direct result of having heard the cry (za'akah) of the children of Israel ... God articulates the explicit causality between being attentive to -- hearing -- the cries of the oppressed, and doing something about it -- acting on it." The biblical text contrasts God's hearing with the not-hearing of Pharaoh, the emperor who had placed the children of Israel in bondage. Why is the contrast so important to notice? Because, says Prof. Cohen, this contrast will become the basis of a profound biblical law: "Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens [in Pharaoh's land] ... Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me (tza'ok yitz'ak), I will certainly hear their cry (tza'akato)."

In other words, God's hearing the cries of the oppressed is remembered not just on the pages of the Bible's narrative but in this ethical and religious law: "attend to the cries of the oppressed; take notice and act ..." Like the cries of the children of Israel, the pleas of these Libyan religious scholars command our attention. I hear this as a command to call them "friends" and to act ...