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Kol Nidre 5781: A Sermon on Racial Justice

09/27/2020 07:00:57 PM


Rabbi Jeffrey Brown

Shanah Tovah.

In spring 1963, 25 years after being rescued from Germany, Abraham Joshua Heschel left his office at Jewish Theological Seminary. He walked south toward Columbia’s campus, to send a telegram.

He was scheduled, the next day, to meet with President Kennedy to discuss racism and civil rights.

Heschel was enraged about poverty, and the vicious cycle that kept African Americans from economic advancement. And Heschel was concerned that the meeting with Kennedy would be an empty dialogue, without producing action.

So, with chutzpah, Heschel used his telegram to proactively set the agenda for their conversation:

“Dear Mr. President. I look forward to our meeting [...] tomorrow. The likelihood exists that [...] racism [...] will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but no one does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement, not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate those of color. Churches and synagogues have failed. They must repent. Ask [...] religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. [...] I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency. A Marshall Plan for aid to those of color is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”1

57 years later, and our country continues to find itself in a moral emergency.

The results of our systemic racism are plain to see.

The median wealth of white American families is $171,000 as compared to $17,000 among Black Americans. Blacks are twice as likely to live in poverty, and Black children are three times more likely to live in poverty as white children.2 Equally frightening is that the average white American is oblivious. Polls indicate that white people vastly underestimate the racial wealth divide.

Inequality persists in education too. The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office reaffirmed in June that students of color are more likely to attend schools in high poverty neighborhoods, where access to high quality education is more limited.3

And, I do not have to tell you about the racial inequality that is apparent in our criminal justice system. The heart-breaking losses of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and so many other innocents over these last few years at the hands of law enforcement authorities raises difficult questions. Why is a Black person five times more likely to be stopped by a police officer without just cause than a white person? And why is it that 65% of Black adults have felt targeted by law enforcement because of their race?4

Yes: racism is a civic issue, and our local, state, and federal government must address it. But it’s also a Jewish issue.

It’s a Jewish issue because it gets to the very heart of how we are meant to treat one another.

At the core of our faith is the conviction that every person is created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. Every one of us deserves a life of dignity, regardless of the color of our skin. And when one of us is mistreated, it is as if God’s Own Self has been affronted.

Two millenia ago, the rabbis understood how racism could tear society apart. They specifically read the creation narrative as an antidote to bias and hate. Regarding the Torah’s assertion that every person is descended from Adam, the rabbis insisted that God did this, so that diversity could be celebrated, and so that no group of people could claim that they were superior to another.5

As a survivor of Naziism, Heschel understood that our experience with antisemitism must inform our obligation toward racial justice. We ourselves recall the sting of discrimination. And so, we are called to stand up for others who are navigating similar irrational hatred.

The Torah speaks to this in our Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading, from Leviticus 19:16: לא ַת ֲע ֹ֖מד ַעל־ ַ ַּ֣דם ֵר ֶ֑עךָֹ֥ . Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is being shed.

In 2004, Elie Wiesel observed about this verse:

“The word is not achi’cha, [your] Jewish brother, but re’echa, [your] fellow human being, [whether they’re] Jewish or not. All are entitled to live with dignity and hope. All are entitled to live without fear and pain.”

We can’t undo four centuries of bias and violence in America. But on this Yom Kippur – and in the year ahead - we can follow Heschel’s advice from the telegram and repent, by changing ourselves, and inspiring the same in others.

For those of us that are fasting: we can start right now.

If you’re fasting half-heartedly, newsflash: God is not interested in an empty gesture.

Our fast is one in which we’re expected to devote ourselves anew to justice in this world, such that when we break our fast, we’ll find newfound empathy and compassion for those who suffer. And we will be left with no choice, but to stand up and act. By having our voice heard. By serving the marginalized. By making a difference.

So says the prophet Isaiah: “this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free. [...] It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home...”6

The second step we can take is to foster greater self awareness. Let’s begin by acknowledging the diversity of our synagogue community. There are people of color in our midst. But by and large, most of us are white. And for the white members of our community, there is urgency (what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now”) to acknowledging the privilege we experience daily, beginning right here in our own synagogue. In a few days, I’ll be emailing a brief checklist we can use to assess privilege as a white Jew. It has statements on it like “I find experiences and images that I can relate to and faces look similar to my family in Jewish newspapers and magazines.” Do this work with someone you trust. Have them take the assessment also. Afterwards, discuss each other’s results, and give thought to how these learnings might change the way I navigate the world?

The third step is to link our voices with Reform Jews around the country, in partnership with our movement’s Religious Action Center.

The RAC has been a voice for racial justice since the early 1960s, and continues today.

In December 2019, the RAC and our movement’s leadership boldly urged Congress to seriously study slavery reparations as part of a national teshuvah process. We ought to become more informed about that proposal, as we seek to contribute to the constructive healing of our nation’s racial wounds.

The RAC is also leading a Civic Engagement Campaign tied to non- partisan voter registration around the country. It’s not too late to join our synagogue contingent in getting involved. As the late Congressman John Lewis reminded us, now is time to get in trouble. Good Trouble. Necessary trouble.

Heschel, who marched with Lewis and Dr. King in Selma, famously wrote: “What we need is a total mobilization of heart, intelligence and wealth for the purpose of love and justice. God is in search of man, waiting, hoping [we will] do His will.”

God is in search of us. Desperately hoping that we will make things right in the world. By treating each other with love and respect and equality and dignity – so that black lives and brown lives, and all lives, matter.

We have our work cut out for us. May we dedicate ourselves, in this year ahead, to doing this most sacred work.
Shanah Tovah.1
5 M. Sanhedrin 4:5
6 Isa 58

Thu, February 22 2024 13 Adar I 5784