Michael Brown and Eric Garner – A Jewish Perspective
The following is a sermon I gave last Shabbat, Parshat Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40). I welcome comments.
This week’s Parsha opens with an unflattering depiction of the adolescent Joseph. He is the spoiled son of his father, and tattles on his hard working brothers while he does not share in their labor. In a fairly transparent dream he seems to imagines his parents and brothers bowing to him, and unabashedly shares the dream with the family. While his sale to the traveling caravan of traders is not justified, one can understand the brothers’ resentment.
In Egypt, Joseph matures. Because of his wisdom and self-restraint, in the palace and in the dungeon, the Rabbis call Joseph a paradigmatic Tzaddik, or saint. Joseph is also the paradigmatic exile. He is ripped apart from his home and placed early on in a marginal position in a totally new society. Yet, instead of accepting isolation and defeat, he develops a vision which can include everyone. His magnanimity and insight allow him to understand all the residents of the Kingdom from the serfs to the vassals, from the despised to the elite.
At that time, the Egyptian empire was at the time a large and powerful but also anxious and fearful place. The Hyksos, an Asiatic Tribe who had settled in Egypt, were a fifth column, other nations stood ready to invade, there was constant warfare in Eastern provinces, and, as we see in next week’s Parsha, a massive and potentially murderous drought.
I studied this narrative this week, not only as Parsha of the week but also in light of the fear and resentment now simmering in our own cities. The killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the protests which followed highlight a longstanding problem in many American cities, where a stunningly high number of African American men are involved in lethal encounters with police.
The shootings are not limited to poor communities. Prince Georges County, Maryland, where my older son attends college, is one of the most affluent counties in America with an African American majority. There, African Americans experienced in recent decades a pattern of abuse so persistent that it led to Justice Department intervention in 2004. (The abuse is at the hands of black as well as white officers, which should give us pause before hurling accusations of racism at the police.) Sixty years after the Little Rock Supreme Court School Desegregation decision, innocent, law abiding African American Congressmen, professional athletes, professors, physicians, and my African American ministerial colleagues report hostile stops and questioning by police.
How should we as Jews respond to all of this?
Let’s return to this morning’s Parsha:
“When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit.” (Genesis 37:23-4)
Taking Joseph’s coat was a way to humiliate him, to take away his identity, to break his spirit and force him to recognize that he is no longer the master of his own fate.
As Jews we believe that there is a form of oppression which is more painful and more deeply injurious than physical assault or economic deprivation. It is public humiliation. When you challenge a person’s character or motivation because of the pigmentation of his skin or the size of his body, you have not physically assaulted him, but you have personally degraded him.
According to the Talmud, the ongoing scar and the sin of verbal humiliation is greater than that of a physical attack. And it is public humiliation, often repeated, which many innocent black men report that they suffer at the hands of police.
On January 14, 1963, in Chicago, Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel gave the opening address to the National Conference of Religion and Race. In that speech, Dr. Heschel analyzed the inner shame and guilt that many whites understandably felt about the treatment of people of color in our country. He explained that there were six ways that a person can deal with a bad conscience:
• Extenuate the responsibility.
• Keep the victims out of sight.
• Alleviate our qualms by pointing to the progress already made.
• Delegate the responsibility to the courts.
• Silence our conscience by cultivating indifference.
• Finally, and here Dr. Heschel is speaking sarcastically, “dedicate our minds to issues of a far more sublime nature.” This characterization referred to clergymen who opposed civil rights activism by declaring that the job of the clergy was to lead souls to G-d in houses of worship, not to get involved in social movements.
In watching the civil rights of work of my father, zichrono livracha, I was privileged to have a front seat at some of the 1960’s struggles for racial equality. I know that progress has been made, significant process. But when we see, hear or read about the killing of unarmed African Americans by police officers, or the massive numbers of black men in prison, or the stopping and frisking of so many law abiding men of color, because we are human and hate to see suffering, we still resort to the six evasions which Dr. Heschel described.
Yes, it is true that the problem is complex, involving issues of poverty, the drug trade, unemployment, gangs, difficult choices in policing, etc.
Yes, great progress has been made, with the prohibition or rescinding of discrimination in business, education, housing, voluntary social organizations, etc.
Yes, to my mind at last, we need in the matter of killings by police more intervention by the courts.
However, none of that should be an excuse for cultivating indifference, for quieting the horror that we feel, as G-d’s children, over the unnecessary suffering and death of another.
I pray that we will marshal the wisdom and appropriate resources to remedy this problem of police violence against unarmed men. We must see this pattern as part of a much deeper systemic malaise in which our police, who are almost all decent and fair, and the unarmed black men, who are often nonviolent, are caught. There are much deeper problems of poverty, unemployment, and despair. Unless these are treated then the violence within the black community, and between police and black men, and within our community at large will continue.
The worst response for us would be to throw our hands to the heavens and decide that that the problems are too vast and too entrenched to be solved. Now is the time where the active and interfering voice of religion can help.
As Jews we believe that we are all created in the image of G-d, that every human being deserves compassion and justice.
In the first Chapter of Genesis we are told of the creation of different kinds of plants and different kinds of animals, but, in contrast, one single human being. That is why different treatment of blacks and whites is evil, indeed blasphemous. It not only abets injustice and violence, but attacks the fundamental religious understanding that that we are together children of a loving G-d.
We live in a moment of emergency. We are threatened with the breakdown of respect for the guardians of public order and safety. We witness a chasm between the basic experience of black and whites, who see the same video clip, or read the same newspaper account, and offer entirely different, race specific interpretations.
But we have also been given here, as we were in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a moment of spiritual opportunity. So, I would like to conclude with a brief selection from Rabbi Heschel’s address to the Conference on Religion and Race in 1963:
“These are those who maintain that the situation is too grave for us to do much about it, that what we might do would be ‘too little and too late’ and that the most practical thing we can do is to weep and to despair. If such a message is true, then G-d has spoken in vain.
Such a message is (also) four thousand years too late. It is good Babylonian theology. In the meantime, certain things have happened: Abraham, Moses, the Prophets, the Christian Gospel.
History is not all darkness. It is good that Moses did not study theology under the teachings of that message. Otherwise, I would still be in Egypt building pyramids. Abraham was all alone in the world of paganism. The difficulties he faced were hardly less grave than ours.
…What we need is the involvement of every one of us as individuals. What we need is restlessness, a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice….The greatest heresy is despair, despair of men’s power for goodness, men’s power for love.