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Juneteenth and How Jews Can Fight Racism

June 22, 2020

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A Message from Rabbi Sam Weintraub

[Sermon given on Shabbat Sh’lach L’cha 5780, June 20th, 2020, in celebration of Juneteenth]

Dear Friends,

This Shabbat, along with many African Americans and their allies, we are celebrating Juneteenth, the Holiday marking the end of slavery in our country and the continued contributions of African-Americans. A question which arises immediately is “Mah nishtana? What’s the difference?” Why suddenly this year?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a 1963 speech about religion and race, said “that equality is a good thing, a fine goal, may be generally accepted. What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality”. History is made not just by the vicious attacks of bad people, or the heroic conduct of saints, but also by the silence of generally good people.

The murder of George Floyd shook this country and the world out of indifference. A cry which was heard before mostly in communities of color suddenly became real and horrifying to all of us. And while we mourn the murder of Mr. Floyd and so many others, we can also see, in the grief and fury, seeds of geu’la, of redemption.

As I’ve studied Juneteenth, I’ve been profoundly moved by the frequent evocation, among African Americans, of our own story of liberation from Egypt, y’tzi’at Mitz’rayim, which we celebrate on Passover. On that holiday, we study and celebrate our journey me’avdut l’cherut , from slavery to freedom.

In other words, ge’ula (redemption), is a process. It is an attempt to recapture and honor the spark of divinity which is in all of us. One of the most beautiful aspects of Juneteenth is the passionately spiritual celebration of the divine worth and divine potential in each of us. The holiday reminds us that before the nightmarish Middle Passage, before the depredations of chattel slavery, before Jim Crow, before current discrimination, before all that, there was creative and independent Black life in Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Ghana and other African places. There was self-governance and family celebrations and music and literature and sacred rituals passed over generations. During slavery, there remained spirit, love and intra-group protection. And after slavery, African Americans enriched all of us, in politics, arts, academia, and more. They gave us Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin and Ralph Bunche and Shirley Chisholm and Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes and Marian Anderson and so many more.

So, from African-American history, as from Jewish history, I have learned that the dream of Ge’ula can never be vanquished. This is, first, because enslavement is not a natural condition. We think of African-Americans as a persecuted minority and we think of Jews as a despised, wandering people, but in fact we were both formed not in slavery but in freedom. African-Americans were Igbo and Yoruba and Wolof, proud African tribes before they were bought and sold on the piers of Charleston and Savannah.

Because enslavement is not a natural condition, because it flies in the face of G?d’s plan for humanity, the passion for freedom is always alive, and it calls out not just to those who are persecuted, but to us all.

How can we support African-Americans, as allies?

One of the promising developments of the last month is the growing recognition by people who enjoy social privilege that they must acknowledge and explore their own biases. I am thankful that a new discussion group at Kane Street, studying the book Me and White Supremacy, is doing exactly that. This is an important first step. I’d also like now to reflect on attitudes in our Jewish tradition which can lead us to devalue other groups, and falsely elevate our own people.

Our tradition—from the Torah and Talmud to our Seminaries and Jewish organizations today—is multivocal. We gave the world some of the most stirring and influential teachings about human dignity and a pantheon of leaders—Moses, Miryam, Isaiah, Amos, Ruth, and more—who risked their comfort and their lives to promulgate these ethics.

But alongside the high moral exhortations, there are also expressions of hostility towards outsiders and assumptions about our own superiority. In the Torah, and especially with regard to the early inhabitants of Canaan/Israel, we find the idea that some foreign nations must be eradicated or subjugated because their incorrigibly idolatrous ways may contaminate the people and land of Israel. In later periods, some of greatest thinkers, such as Judah Halevi in 12th Century Spain and Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook in modern Israel, believed that Jews possessed an intrinsic religious superiority, while Gentiles were less capable of conceiving G?d or reaching spiritual heights.

So we need to always be vigilant about this tendency to “other” different groups. Another good way to combat this tendency is personal encounter with members of other groups. I sometimes wonder how my own racist biases could have survived, given my parents’ extraordinary and sustained involvement in the civil rights struggles of the 60’s, and my own strong personal activism. Even as a teenager, I worked day and night for civil rights, and I meant it to the core of my being. But at the time I was also part of an all white Jewish Day School, all white Synagogue, all white USY, and so had little opportunity to befriend African-Americans, to bring them into my daily life and to bring myself into theirs.

In our work as allies today, we are also emboldened by the historic contribution of the Hebrew Prophets, who preached that t’shuva, radical repentance, was incumbent on nations and groups, as well as on individuals. You and I are not guilty of the murders of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Freddie Gray or Philando Castile or Walter Scott. But we are responsible as members of a society whose inequalities have tolerated, inspired and even directly caused racist violence. We all inhabit a country which was built on stolen land and forced labor. I do not think that white people, including white Jews should feel guilty. Guilt is immobilizing. But we should be adding our voice and our enormous cache of financial, political and professional talents and connections to reimagine and rebuild the under-resourced schools, crumbling housing, decrepit transit systems, and failing hospitals in which many people of color are entrapped. Rabbi Heschel, as always decades before his time, told President John F. Kennedy in 1963 that America needed a “Marshall Plan for the Negro”, a systematic and magnificently funded program to radically transform the institutions which govern the lives and possibilities of Black Americans. It is not too late, and it is even more urgent today.

I want to offer one more reason to combat racism. It is rooted in what some call the 614th Commandment, that is, “You shall not do anything stupid”. In this vein, Maimonides inveighed against pagan and superstitious practices not just because they contravened the laws of Torah but because he thought that they contrary to human intelligence. I bring the same stance to combat racism. It is very stupid. The first gift given to human beings, according to our weekday Shacharit/morning prayers, is the ability to distinguish, to understand differences, especially in the natural, created world. As Jews we are taught to notice and honor differences rather than to group things together. We also know from modern genetics that intra-group diversity is much greater than inter-group differences.

Racism flies in the face of this. Racism fails to take note of the great differences between people within a group. It is profoundly irrational. Let us vow to never again prejudge another human being on the basis of his, her or their pigmentation!

Some of you may have seen a moving column, calling for Jewish activism, which was written by progressive community leader Peter Geffen, and appeared in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel last week. In the article, Geffen recalls his experience, as a twenty something civil rights activist, when he accompanied Rabbi Heschel to the funeral of Dr. King in Atlanta in April 1968. Geffen, as millions of Americans then, was shocked and frightened. So, as they walked in the funeral procession, he asked Rabbi Heschel, “What are we to do now?”  Without breaking his stride, Rabbi Heschel replied, “You must teach the children. You must teach them a Judaism that can re-make the world”.

V’chen Y’hi Ratzon. So may it be G?d’s Will, and our service.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Weintraub

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