Why I have to thank the Movement for Black Lives for helping me to clarify my Jewish identity.
Once upon a time, years ago during a visit to London, I took a tour to a town called Salisbury where I actually got to see a copy of the Magna Carta. I love historical artifacts, and so I was entranced – until I got to line 5, or thereabouts, where I discovered that according to the Magna Carta’s medieval writers, none of its provisions would be applicable to Jews.
Once upon a time in the modern era, European Utopian Socialism was born in a rush of excitement over the chance to participate in the creation of a better world. We Jews were as excited as the next group, and we rolled up our sleeves to help – until we were informed that we were not invited. The anti-Semitism of early nation-state utopian socialism is one of the factors that led Jews to develop Zionism – itself a form of national state utopian socialism – instead.
It keeps coming down to being Jewish. Those British Jews probably were hoping to be considered equally subjects of the crown. The Jews of Western Europe wanted to be socialists, anarchists, comrades in arms. They wanted to be included in the great dramatic wave of human effort toward a better world – only to be told that, because they were Jewish, they were not wanted.
In America the story has been different. American social justice work – Jews have been involved in it all: the establishment of labor unions, the civil rights movement, feminism, and LGBTQ rights. Jews – even who hardly would self-identify as such – are drawn to social justice causes. We don’t necessarily call our social activism part of our Jewish identity. Sometimes it seems beside the point. We are involved because that’s what it means to be a good citizen, a good member of one’s community. We may even hold up a vision for ourselves and others of a world in which it no longer matters if you’re Jewish or Christian or secular, black or white or brown, gay or straight or trans.
In America the story has been different – or has it? Why does it keep being so hard, then, to be involved in social justice work as a Jew? Why does it sometimes feel that I am welcomed to feminist work as a woman but not as Jew? And why do people who know I’m Jewish keep surprising me by linking me with Israel when I’m acting as a U.S. citizen?
Jews Do Social Justice
Shir Tikvah is a shul which, like many if not most other congregations, was created to allow Jews to learn and grow spiritually, either ourselves or, for some of us, at least for our children. As we have grown to our current size (which is not any longer so small) we have become a home not only for Jews who want to learn and pray, but for Jews who expect that learning and prayer are only two parts of the three-legged stool that I mentioned on Rosh HaShanah. The third is g’milut hasadim, which we typically translate as social justice. So we do social action.
But G’milut hasadim isn’t exactly “social action.” It means “loving kindness.” We are urged by our tradition to understand that what keeps our world going, what makes life worth living, what allows our world to survive – is Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Hasadim: learning, prayer, and acts of loving kindness.
This is a shul’s raison d’etre. These are the three primary activities that a shul exists to offer. Everything else that we do, if it is not one of these three activities, it’s nice, but it’s secondary.
We have always participated in certain activities of g’milut hasadim: the Oregon Food Bank is a major recipient of our tzedakah, both during their Annual Blues Festival and also through our yearly High Holy Days Drive. We act in other ways as well – our Hevre youth group has developed a relationship with the NorthEast Emergency Food Pantry, and we’ve begun to support a women’s shelter called Rahab’s Sisters. On a bi-monthly basis we go there to serve a meal we’ve cooked.
We react to other causes and take our place in support where we can. The signs on this building indicate some of our causes: we are an LGBTQ Safe Space. We welcome immigrants. We reject Islamophobia. And we have posted the sign out there that declares that Black Lives Matter.
Since Ferguson, if not before, we at Shir Tikvah have been saying to each other that we have to do something.
We knew we must act: first, because we are liberal Americans, and this is an expression of our values. And second, because we are Jews, and Judaism declares to us over and over again that we must pursue justice. In our Torah, in the Rabbinical Judaism that created our prayers, and in the social justice movements our people helped to found and lead in this United States, we are exhorted:
do unto others as you would have done to you,
do not do unto others that which you do not want done to you,
and each of us and all of us are created in the Image of G*d.
How to Begin
Okay, so we have to do something – but how? when? where? We were not sure how to begin. We knew one thing, though: the time for dialogue seems to be over. You know the kind of dialogue events I mean: they might take the shape of encounter groups that gather dissimilar people in a room so that they could see that they are really the same, or holding a Freedom Seder at which Jewish hosts invite Black guests to sing Go Down Moses and eat matzah. That kind of event is laudable in its time, but only when it leads to acts. As we know, Pharaoh does not let the people go because of a song.
A few first acts which I undertook on your behalf:
*seeking out a black pastor – that didn’t work and in retrospect I know exactly why: I tried to schedule it, according to my convenience.
*attempting to get in touch with SURJ (Stand Up For Racial Justice), meeting local Jewish activist (and one of the local SURJ chapter’s founders) Eleyna Fugman
* seeking out books and articles, and reading them, and sharing them with you
Now it Gets Complicated
In our conversations, Eleyna shared with me her disappointment and discouragement over the anti-Semitism she experienced on the left, and the lack of understanding within SURJ
Then the Movement for Black Lives issued their platform. It is tremendously intelligent and sophisticated. The introduction impressed me very much.
It is organized into xix sections; one of them calls for divestment and investment. “A cut in US military expenditures and a reallocation of those funds to invest in domestic infrastructure and community well being” sounds wonderful to me.
And then in the second paragraph of the Platform, in the context of their argument for divestment from military support for Israel, words were posted that described Israel as a state that was committing genocide against the Palestinians.
There has been a lot of dismayed public comment by different Jewish organizations. Some have asked whether Jews can support the Movement for Black Lives; others have asked how Jews can do anything else. Many Jews were deeply pained.
Is this another case of “everyone is welcome to help – except the Jews”? Again??
I found myself wanting to reach out my white hands to help lift others up to my place of privilege – certainly that’s laudable, right? – but reacting as a Jew to the Movement for Black Lives platform, feeling misunderstood, attacked, and rejected.
It took me a while to realize the bifurcation that I experience, between being Jewish and being White.
I realized that I wanted to have it both ways: to be White when it suited me, and to be Jewish when that part of my identity was called forth. But what I have learned is that the two identities don’t exactly mesh.
Duh. You can be White and not Jewish. And you can be Jewish and not White.
I once wrote an entire book offering the perspective that one’s Jewish identity can ground all of one’s acts and guide one through all of life’s challenges, and I did not see that my reaction to Black Lives Matter was really part of my White liberal values system, not my Jewish values system. Like many other Jews in this country, I had assimilated my Jewishness into that of the American social justice movement.
Let me explain what I mean by that.
Jews tend to quote civil rights ideals first when we engage in racial justice efforts. We demand of our society that it live up to its promise of equality for all its citizens. We bring out the Jewish citations that support the demand, sure, but we are making an American demand, not a Jewish demand.
But watch what happens: I join a group as an American, and I work for the ideals the group shares. Then something happens that makes me feel singled out as a Jew. No one in the group necessarily even knows that I am Jewish, because I joined the group as an American. Now I have to come out as a Jew, and defend myself as a Jew, and maybe either leave, or have to ask for equal treatment as a Jew in this group. I thought I was equal in this work, and now I feel vulnerable in my Jewishness.
Here is the issue: we can’t have it both ways. We can’t be American when we join a group and then turn Jewish when we’re made to feel vulnerable.
There are Jews who know this – they’ve dropped their Jewish identity as much as a Jew can. They may feel that the work they are doing, the human beings they are being, they are despite their people.
But we who are here this evening have not made that choice. What does our choice look like?
The Way Forward
What does Jewish involvement in the struggle for racial justice look like?
As American Jews, we have always taken for granted that there is plenty of overlap between those two identities. And there is, especially when we are encouraged by so many American social influences to conform.
Do you remember the Gary Larsen cartoon of the penguin, indistinguishable in a sea of penguins, singing “I Gotta Be Me”?
Do you remember the Reebok advertising campaign which suggested that if you buy the same pair of sneakers from their company as 100 million other Americans, you will be in some way asserting your individuality? “Reebok lets you be you.”
Some years ago Rev Tara of Bridgeport UCC and I organized a lunch for our two congregations – United Church of Christ and Shir Tikvah – so that we could explore our differences, but each table reported back on all the similarities they found.
But true diversity doesn’t require you to minimize your difference with another human being; it celebrates the wonder of so many different ways to be human.
As our tradition teaches: “The amazing thing about the creation of human beings is this: when many coins are stamped from the same mold, all the coins are exactly alike. But the Holy One stamps every human being with the Image of G*d, yet no two are exactly alike.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.5)
This bit of ancient Jewish insight can help us begin to consider how all of us who work for social justice are alike, yet each of us has an essential quality that is different from all others.
How does Jewish teaching and a Jewish perspective help? What can it offer us? Only the opportunity to explore the essential quality that each of us has more deeply, in the hopes that it will help us feel more grounded, more confident, and more powerful when we go out into the world as human beings bearing a stamp that happens to be Jewish.
It’s interesting to consider the difference between a prevailing American idea and a Jewish idea by comparing the words “charity” and “tzedakah”. Charity is derived from the Latin word caritas, which is related to love, and the heart as the seat of emotion. Tzedakah has a very different etymology: it is derived from the word tzedek, which means justice. It has nothing to do with love. Therefore, a Jewish understanding of the concept of tzedakah is not interested in whether you love the person you are called upon to help. It is a simple matter of justice that you must help – no matter how you feel about it.
It’s fascinating to take this focus and consider the difference, in essence, between the concepts of social justice and g’milut hasadim.
Social justice is defined as justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. The political philosopher John Rawls wrote in his book A Theory of Justice that, “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others.”
The Jewish principle of g’milut hasadim is, actually, not too different from this, except in one respect. It may be possible for a society to be just in an indifferent way. This is actually a good way to think about the Jewish definition of justice – it doesn’t matter how you feel, you must act justly.
But that’s not considered good enough in our Jewish tradition. Otherwise we would have asserted that the three pillars that hold up our world are learning, prayer and justice. And indeed, that’s exactly what I used to say, deliberately mistranslating the last pillar’s meaning in order to bring it into line with social justice rhetoric.
What g’milut hasadim literally stands for is the principle that justice is expected, but that it is not enough. In the same way that people don’t want to be tolerated but accepted, Jewish tradition insists that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard than justice. Justice is expected from every Jew; what we are to aim for is kindness: acts of loving kindness.
Why do racial justice as a Jew? because it demands that we aim higher than justice, not only for those we seek to help, but for ourselves as well. We can’t help others if we aren’t helping ourselves as well – and denying part of who we are is not helping.
Tomorrow during our regular Yom Kippur discussion at 2pm I will share with you a page of Jewish teachings that I collected as a starting point for us, so that we can begin to learn our way into Jewish racial justice work.
Why? because we’ve learned that we can’t be who we’re not. So we might as well be who we are….
Identity is not merely about recognition, or acceptance, or representation; it is about becoming a people again, about finding our potential within that, about power. We must acknowledge the advantages we’ve been given by this system so we can use them as weapons to destroy it. But we must also acknowledge that we are an oppressed people — not so that we can evade responsibility for the ways we are empowered, or use our victimhood to shame and tear others down — but so we can align ourselves deeply and authentically with the titanic struggles for collective freedom before us. It is the only way we will ever genuinely stand in solidarity with others, the only way we will truly become our most powerful selves, the only way we will become whole again.
And as we become whole, we can play an even more grounded role as partners in the struggle for a free Palestine by refusing to allow Israel and the US to shed blood in our name. We can show up in this moment for Black Lives as true partners, as we are being called upon to do. Those of us who are white can disrupt white supremacy by using the benefits it gives us as tools to destroy it, sabotage it by reclaiming our Jewishness and refusing to do its dirty work. We can make all the movements of which we are a part stronger, smarter, fiercer, kinder, and funnier. And we can reclaim the peoplehood that is at our fingertips, protect our people — love our people. We can even, perhaps, give ourselves permission to grieve — for ourselves and our children, but also for our Savtas and Sabas who never got the chance.
Imagine how the entire movement would benefit from this, how much better off we’d all be if we fought from a place of wisdom, pride, and love, instead of guilt, shame, and fear. Imagine how much closer we’d be to winning freedom for all people. And this is where the lesson transcends the question of Jewishness and anti-Semitism and goes hand in hand with the most essential questions the movement must ask itself today: What do we — each and every one of us — have to do to become our most powerful selves? We had better have a good answer, because becoming our most powerful selves is the only chance we have at winning the world we all deserve.
What a humbling challenge, then: to become whole again.
– Yotam Marom, Toward the Next Jewish Rebellion
Today, October 11 2016, is National Coming Out Day. We need to come out – to ourselves, and then to our community – as Jewish. It is our Jewishness that will ground our social action.
And then it will turn it into something richer. It will be g’milut hasadim.
רצון יהי כן