Kol Nidre: thanking the Movement for Black Lives

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 weeach and every one of ushave 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

 

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Shabbat Bo: You Are Here In Ferguson

In this week’s parashah, we read of how we went out of Egypt.

That’s the command: “in every generation, to see ourselves as those who go out of Egypt.” (Talmud, Pesakhim 116b) Not to imagine as if, but to experience the going out ourselves, in an immediate way. How is that possible? I can’t feel myself enslaved as we were in Egypt; I can’t feel what it’s like to leave home at a moment’s notice and without any possessions.

Isn’t it much more comfortable to regard the stories of our religious tradition from a certain distance? Easier to condemn when necessary, to condescend, to dismiss as primitive and under-developed. But the ancients had an ability to sense reality just as acutely as we moderns. Perhaps theirs was a capacity felt in a different register, but it is a perspective that we might benefit from considering. It requires immersing ourselves in a different kind of mind-set, and heart-set.

Consider:

The story goes that the Israelites left Egypt in the middle of a terrifying night during which every first born child and animal in Egypt died. This is hard to take at face value for a true story, but this is where our tradition offers us another way to understand. The story before us is brutal: slavery by degrees, from which we are extricated with wrenching, overwhelming, all-encompassing suddenness. Innocents die in the process – many Israelites and Egyptians whose names we do not know, many more Egyptians with the onset of the plagues even before the death of the first born, and more still to come at the Sea of Reeds.

There is much suffering in a time of great change, and there is destruction ringing the edges of the most beautiful freedom story. Many are dead, with no clear reason or meaning to their tragic deaths. Refugees may be alive, but their futures are bereft. Those whose action or passive compliance allow the suffering to occur also find themselves suffering, for no direct reason that is discernible to them. We drift in darkness and confusion, and turn upon each other with fear rather than compassion.

If we can see ourselves in Egypt, then we can begin to see ourselves leaving Egypt – that is, not each of us personally, but all of us communally. We can begin to discern the beginnings of movement, the promise of upheaval. “Who is wise?” the Talmud records a Rabbi saying, “the one who can see what is being born.” (Pirke Avot 2.9)

Reading this parashat hashavua (weekly parashah, Torah reading) in the same week as Martin Luther King Jr day, after a year in which some of those whose deaths would normally go unrecorded came to prominence – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and, only today, Jerame Reid, brings a special resonance. Their tragic deaths seem meaningless. Their families and communities are refugees in their own nation, and we suffer the echoes of the far-reaching, inchoate destruction without any clear sense of connection.

Jewish tradition insists that we will not leave Egypt until we all go out together – and we as individuals will not all get there, but we as the human race must. When we know this in our hearts we will have understood the meaning of the mitzvah: b’khol dor vador hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim, “in every age and age, we are required to see ourselves as going out of Egypt.” In every age so far, we have not done it. Until we can see it, we cannot do it; until we are here together, we will never get there.

Shabbat Miketz: Enough Already, Let’s Wake Up

This parashat hashavua (parashah of the week) is called Miketz, “at the end”. The word refers to a period of time, as the Torah specifies: “It was at the end of two years….” It describes the Egyptian Pharaoh in the grip of dreams that start out innocuously enough, but then turn into terrifying nightmares: happy, fat cows grazing on the lush grass by the side of the Nile are eaten by horrifyingly gaunt, zombie-like cows who look no different after consuming the healthy cows. Then, in a literary echo of the parashah’s name, we read vayikatz Par’oh, “Pharaoh’s sleep came to a sudden end”. The dream was repeated, this time with stalks of grain, and once again the Pharaoh was startled out of a troubled sleep. 

The King of Egypt became desperate to find a meaning for the dreams, and a way to answer them, to understand and therefore to escape from the nightmare they presented. And a dream interpreter was found: Joseph, son of Jacob, who in the process becomes the first “court Jew” of many in our people’s history. 

When the dreams are related to him, Joseph declares to Pharaoh, “the two dreams are one and the same. You have been shown what is to be.” (Bereshit [Genesis] 41.25)

Joseph is able to correctly foresee the coming catastrophe and to offer guidance to meet it which Pharaoh was able to accept. Disaster, in the form of a years-deep, deadly famine, was successfully averted by centralized government planning, led by a wise and capable “Famine Czar” – Joseph himself, appointed by Pharaoh. Disaster is averted because the Egyptian Pharaoh woke up startled from a nightmare and took action.

In Israel right now, our fellow Jews are trying to wake up from a dream of Israel that has slowly turned into a nightmare. If the “public square” of Israeli media is any indication, more and more Israelis are desperate to find a way out of the ever-recurring nightmare which is the ethical and political morass of the status quo. 

But that’s not all:

In the United States right now, our fellow citizens are trying to wake up from the recurring nightmare of the interrupted march of our nation toward equal rights that started as a beautiful dream, but is being consumed, just like the healthy cows of Pharaoh’s dream, by harbingers of death and disaster: persistent racism, sexism, economic classism. It is known by many names, and its evil threatens to consume us.

The two dreams are one and the same.

The only real question is whether we will wake up, and take action to avert the catastrophe. For us as American Jews, there is supportive action we can and must undertake, and it is dictated in our traditional Jewish ethics: “justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live.” (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 16.20)

The dream of Israel: It is true that we are not in Israel, not part of the Israeli polity, and not subject to Israeli taxes; nor can we vote in an Israeli election. But it is a mitzvah, an obligation incumbent on every Jew, to build the land and to care for it, to do our part in help the Jewish homeland become the light to the nations that the prophets foresee as its destiny. We do have a relationship with the land and people of Israel. We can and should support those Israeli causes that further the Jewish values of justice and equality as proclaimed in the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence  In so doing we are helping Israel become what the people of Israel aspire to be as their best selves, most fully reflecting the presence of G-d in the world. In the declaration’s own words:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

The dream of the United States of America: “You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” (VaYikra [Leviticus] 19.9) Those of us who used to feel safe, who thought that we would remain untouched by civil wrongs, are coming to see that we live in a truly inter-connected world. There is nothing wrong with money – it is a gift and those who have it are privileged to do good with it – but there is clearly something wrong with the way wealth is used in our nation.  There is nothing wrong with being white, either, unless those of us who identify as white are blind to the obligation to help our neighbor lift his load when we see that he has fallen under it, as our non-white neighbors suffer under the racism that drives them to their knees. And there is nothing wrong with celebrating one’s own sexual identity, unless one is driven to defend it by hurting others. The ethical obscenity of the inequality we see demonstrated every day requires an ethical Jewish response, as the Prophet Jeremiah demanded: that of working for the welfare of the community in which we live, that it may prosper. (Jeremiah 29.7)

For the sake of all that is good in our dream, we must wake up and take action against the looming nightmare it is becoming. Let your kindling of the Hanukkah lights be sanctified this year by your own personal urgent search for Joseph’s way forward. 

Shabbat VaYishlakh: What Message Do You Carry?

Two opposing sides confront each other; one has been wronged and is angry, and the other is guilty, afraid, and feels that it must defend its very life. Ferguson? New York? Portland Oregon last night outside the Moda Center?

No, the situation described is part of this week’s parashah; in it, Jacob and Esau walk toward their fateful confrontation. The wrong has been festering for twenty years; now is the moment of truth.

Esau is the wronged: as our commentators have put it, he was not the right person to carry on the legacy of the People of Israel, so that prerogative, in the form of the Blessing of the First Born, was taken from him by guile, against his well, without anyone even bothering to try to talk with him.

Jacob represents the side in this conflict which clearly has “systemic deficiencies”. He deceives his brother when they are young, he does it again with his mother’s collusion later in their early life, and when he has to escape the “situation” for which he is responsible, he continues to live and act in a world full of deceit in his new surroundings. 

Yet Jacob is not “all bad”; he learns from his very bad mistakes, he struggles with his own inner nature, and he does make progress. In this excellent example of teshuvah that takes a lifetime, he does begin to behave better; he does become a better person. 

And Esau is not “all innocence”; his response to being wronged is not to seek redress but to seek to murder. He may be justified in his anger, yet killing leads only to more killing, and war to more war, when what both sides need is peace, safety and mutual respect.

As we try to understand the outrage and protests erupting all around us in instance after instance of police violence and the suffering of the African-American community, we hear these same ideas voiced in every conversation: the Cleveland Police Department is found to have “systemic deficiencies”. Of course, that does not mean that the police department is all bad. Most police officers are good, and try their best to serve their community. Yet for many generations much hurt has been caused, and teshuvah is clearly necessary. The African-American community and all those who stand in solidarity with them are naturally, righteously angry. Yet anger is destructive, the Rabbis teach; it is the most dangerous emotion of all, and must be channeled lest it lead to sin.

Many years later, Jacob approaches a face-to-face confrontation with Esau. In our parashat hashavua that is precisely the scene, and it echoes the protests which bring protesters and police face-to-face. Years of righteous anger and defensiveness underlie such a meeting; days of brooding, nights of obsessing over possible outcomes. 

What should Jacob do? How might Esau choose to act? In the first verse of our parashah, we read (Genesis 32.4):

ד  וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם.

4 Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom.

The word for “messengers” in Hebrew is מלאכים, mal’akhim, which is also the term used in the Torah for “angel”. This is because the function of an angel in ancient Israelite belief was primarily that of being a messenger for the word of G-d. For us the coincidence of these two translations offers a significant insight: what seems to you to be simply a messenger sent by someone else to you is actually, just possibly, also someone who bears for you a word of G-d, that is, a message from the Universe that you need to hear.

Jewish mystical speculation suggests that each of us, reflecting G-d’s image as we do, function as messengers to each other, in ways of which we are unaware. Both in word and in act we send the message forth of some truth about the world as it is, or as it should be. And of course, we do so also by the act of inaction, or by withholding a word.

We are told that on the night before the fateful meeting, Jacob is up all night wrestling with a messenger. We are not told what the message is, only that Jacob needs the encounter, yet is wounded by the encounter, and limps forever after. This is the harsh reality: our nation will never completely overcome the racist “limp” inflicted upon us by the slavery our predecessors practiced. But the only way forward is to hear the message, to wrestle with it, not to turn away.

That is what Jacob finally does. He stops running away from the encounter, and he faces Esau. The key is this: what makes the encounter successful, what allows the two brothers to recognize their connection rather than that which distanced them, is the messengers that are sent first.

All of us find ourselves in the position of messenger at some point. Our Jewish tradition obligates us to step forward and recognize our responsibility in social discourse and political action. When you find yourself confronted with a messenger, can you listen? When you realize that you are in the position of messenger, what word are you carrying? By your words and acts, are you taking sides, judging justifications, and reveling in the gory details of anger and fear – or are you helping to bring Jacob and Esau together toward their longed-for reconciliation, toward the peace of wholeness and trust? 

Ferguson, and here: What Is a Jew To Do?

It was Monday evening when the news was announced: that there would be no indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown Jr, in Ferguson Missouri. An indictment does not assume guilt; it merely declares that there’s reason to go to trial to ascertain guilt or innocence. 

According to the path of Jewish law, we are commanded: Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live. (Deut.16.20) Why, the Sages asked, was the word “justice” repeated? Because, they answered, one must pursue justice justly. In Ferguson on Monday justice was denied, in the denial of a fair and open trial.

What are we, as Jews who are obligated to work for the prosperity of the country in which we live, to do? How shall we respond? what is the next step? We are also commanded to use our best learning to ascertain how best to fulfill a mitzvah, in this case the mitzvah of you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. (Lev. 19.16) 

For that purpose, yesterday afternoon I attended the rally downtown at the Justice Center called by the Albina Ministerial Coalition and others, to respond to the news. There I heard a call to action toward those of us “who identify as white” to “use your privilege to further justice.” As local coverage put it:

Bring in a special prosecutor when deadly officer-involved shootings happen, to keep the case unbiased. And after at least four controversial minority deaths that resulted in no charges against Portland police over the years, they want a review of the deadly force policies here, too.

“The killing of Michael Brown has also brought to light many of the unfortunate blemishes – criminal justice disparities, volatile police-community relations, unemployment and economic inequities – that tarnish our nation and that prevent us from being the best of whom we can be,” said Dr LeRoy Haynes, Chair of the AMA Coalition. “This tragedy has exposed the persistent state of emergency that grips not only Ferguson, but our city and our nation as a whole.” (see the complete report here.)

There were no Jewish speakers at the rally. It was an absence I felt painfully, for it speaks of the gap that has widened between Jews and African-Americans in the years since Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr Martin Luther King Jr walked hand in hand over the Selma Bridge. Much bitterness has passed under that bridge in the meantime, but we cannot let the distance fetter our efforts to fulfill the mitzvah of working for the prosperity of our country. To be Jewish is to hope, and to work, for a better world. It’s in our prayers and our ethics.

Pray for the peace and prosperity of the city in which you live. (Jeremiah 29.7) For Jews, to pray is to imply action based on the prayer. 

But for those of us who identify as white, our collective white liberal guilt, as it is called, can blind us to the best way to take action. We can’t simply approach an African-American of our acquaintance or in the street and offer a hug and a statement of support. That might make us feel better, but it’s not about us. There is real anger in Portland’s minority and disenfranchised communities, as we saw demonstrated when some of the marchers last night turned violent.

Listen carefully, then, to what the leaders of the Ferguson press conference said. Watch for the small acts that we can effectively do to work toward equal justice. Most of all, as one speaker pleaded last night at the Portland rally, “don’t go back to your routine.”  

“You have broken our hearts, but you have not broken our backs.” So said Rev Al Sharpton Tuesday at a press conference in Ferguson. There is an ongoing Federal investigation; let’s stay focused. Watch for ways to be supportive. Raise your voice; write a letter; don’t go back to your routine.