Recent months have seen the tragic killings by police of young African-American men: Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in Staten Island. The decision by Grand Juries to not indict the police officers in these cases has sparked a massive public response in our country. The expression “Black lives matter,” which first came to represent this movement after Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted, has been reawakened.
More recent shootings by police of African Americans Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, twelve year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and John Crawford III in Dayton have further exacerbated civil unrest around the country.
Discussions taking place in many communities about whether police officers should be required to wear body cameras reveals the degree of distrust that exists in our society. How sad that many feel the need to constantly watch those who are entrusted to keep us safe. How frustrating it must be for police officers, who dedicate their lives to protecting people and put themselves in harm’s way every day.
This is not a problem with the police. This is a pervasive issue across all levels of society that happened to have been sparked by the recent shootings and Grand Jury decisions. Nobody wants to not trust the police. What will it take to achieve reconciliation? This is what the Black Lives Matter movement is addressing.
This is a difficult topic for me to discuss in the format of a sermon for a few reasons:
1. I am not African American
2. I am not a police officer.
3. People in this room have vastly different opinions about this topic.
But it is undeniable that we have an issue in our country and our society. That thousands upon thousands of people of all races and backgrounds have been taking to the streets for months is a pretty good indication of that.
As a Rabbi and as the spiritual leader of this community, I struggle deeply with how to address a topic like racial inequality. I have my personal feelings, but those are just one man’s opinions.
My job is not to tell you things that you already know or take positions that you agree with. My job is also not to tell you that you are wrong.
I am not here to make statements that you could read in an Op/Ed column in the newspaper.
I am a Rabbi, and my job is to teach Torah. And hopefully, to teach Torah in a way that challenges all of us to look at ourselves, our experiences, and our values from a new perspective, regardless of where we happen to stand on the religious, political, or socioeconomic spectrum.
As you can imagine, this is a fine line to skirt, but I deeply appreciate those who offer their gentle critiques when I teach something with which they disagree. I learn from being challenged and I welcome it.
It is significant that the protests and anger have not been only by the black community. We have seen protesters from people of all racial backgrounds, including some who work in law enforcement, expressing their outrage at what they see as entrenched racism in American society.
Many people in the Jewish community have been heavily involved in this movement, marching in protests, signing on to statements of solidarity, and being arrested. There has also been a push to incorporate the message of Black Lives Matter into Chanukah observances, and thousands of Jews have responded, including special readings and activities in their nightly Menorah lightings.
We cannot deny that a large portion of the American Jewish community is deeply concerned about issues involving systemic racial inequality in our society and the distrust that exists between police and civilians.
What is motivating Jews to protest? What in our Jewish tradition has compelled so many of our brothers and sisters to get involved in this cause, and to do so explicitly as Jews?
The Torah’s expression of the golden rule appears in Leviticus, chapter 19. V’ahavta L’re-acha kamocha. Ani Adonai. “Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19:18) What does the Torah mean by “neighbor” in this verse? Is it a universal statement of how we ought to treat every human being, or is it a particular statement, to be understood as only how we treat our fellow Jews. I suspect that, despite how it is often used in contemporary times, the Torah’s original intention was the latter. It is about how we treat people who are part of our own community.
But this reading does not undermine the universal message, because it does not end there. Just sixteen verses later, in the same chapter, we read “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens…” And then the Torah uses familiar language: V’ahavta lo kamocha. “You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt…” And then it ends exactly the same, invoking God’s name to underscore the point: Ani Adonai. “I the Lord am your God.” (Lev. 19:34)
These two verses need to be read together. Not only does the Torah challenge us to treat people from our own communities as we would have ourselves be treated, it tells us that we have have to do the same thing for the stranger.
Then, a few chapters later, the Israelites who are on their way to the Promised Land where they are going to build a society, are warned that all residents must be treated equally under the law. “One law shall there be for you, for stranger and citizen alike shall it be, for I the Lord am your God.” (Lev. 24:22)
There are some core Jewish values here. We are asked to treat members of our communities, and people outside of our communities as we would want to be treated. All residents of a land must be treated equally under law. These are Jewish values.
There is one more Jewish value that was mentioned. The Torah commands us, over and over again, that we must care for the least powerful members of our society because we know what it was like to be in their position. The memory of having been slaves in Egypt obligates us to not stand idly by while others are suffering among us.
Thankfully, the vast majority of Jews in the world today, with the notable exception of many living in Europe, have basically reached a point of full acceptance in society. But one does not have to go back very far in our national past to find a time when this was not the case: when Jews were demonized, accused of being inferior, kept out of positions of authority, and denied permission to live in certain areas or enter certain professions. This has been true at various times in pretty much all of Europe, the Muslim world, and even in the United States.
We know what it is like to be denied opportunities, to have the authorities treat us differently, and to have those charged with protecting citizens turn their backs on us. At least, we should know what it is like, because it is undeniably our history.
When we were the victims of persecution, we cried out, and nobody came to our aid. Now that the roles are reversed, are we really going to be silent?
The Torah’s message of remembering the Exodus from Egypt forbids us from being indifferent.
We cannot claim to be the victims of persecution and discrimination for thousands of years, and then do nothing when our neighbors suffer a similar fate, when we have the power to do something about it.
That is why so many Jews in America have gotten involved.
The motto of this movement, “Black lives matter,” is a fitting expression. Black lives matter because every life matters.
Unless you are African- American, you cannot know what it is like to be black in this country. So when significant majorities of African Americans report feeling discriminated against when it comes to their treatment by law enforcement officials, acccess to educational opportunities, and ability to compete in the jobs markets, it is not ok for someone who is not black to deny that experience.
It is the equivalent of someone who is not Jewish denying our own historical claims to being the victims of persecution and hatred. Who are you to tell me that how I see myself is wrong?
And then there are the facts. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with nearly 1% of our population currently behind bars. This is true both in absolute terms, as well as in per capita terms.
Of those prisoners, in 2009, 39.4% were non-Hispanic blacks, even though they comprise only 13.6% of the national population.
Now there are a lot of factors that might explain why people of color are so much more likely to be incarcerated, but I think we can agree that there are systemic problems that need to be addressed if those disparities are going to be reduced. There is tremendous distrust between communities of color and those whom we entrust to keep the peace.
I don’t think anyone wants a continuation of the status quo. We have to find a way to change it, restore trust, and create better opportunities for communities that have experienced generations of poverty and discrimination to finally break the cycle.
So what can we do about it? First of all, peaceful protest has been an incredibly effective method of raising awareness.
Perhaps we can find wisdom from the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers. This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Miketz, opens with a famine. Jacob sends his sons down to Egypt, where careful planning has resulted in food to spare. The brothers arrive, and are taken to appear before the Vizier, who happens to be their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery many years earlier.
When Joseph sees them, he recognizes them immediately, but they do not recognize him. Think of how psychologically difficult this must have been for Joseph. His brothers had nearly murdered him, instead sending him into exile as a slave. Now, when Joseph has the power to do whatever he wants, what does he do?
Maybe we should first consider what he does not do. Joseph does not immediately reveal himself and tell his brothers that all is forgiven, nor does he have them executed on the spot or arrested. Instead, Joseph pretends to be cold and cruel, accusing them of espionage. He eventually sends them home with grain, but he secretly has their money put back inside their bags as if they had stolen it.
All of this is a ruse on Joseph’s part to determine whether his brothers have changed. He knows that for real healing to occur, they must confront their past openly and honestly.
In the course of their interactions, the brothers express regret for what they did to Joseph many years earlier. They indicate their concern for their father’s well-being, and their try to protect Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin, who is now their father’s favorite.
At each expression of remorse and brotherliness, Joseph is overcome with emotion and is forced to turn away so that he can weep without revealing his identity. When he is finally convinced of his brothers’ sincerity in next week’s parashah, Joseph knows that the cycle of hatred and distrust has broken, and that the time has come when he can safely reveal his identity and reunite with his family.
This is a story of a family that is plagued by a history of discrimination that manages somehow to reconcile. To break the cycle of hatred, each side needs an opportunity to move forward. Despite all of his power, Joseph is incapable of wiping away his brothers’ guilt. Only they can do teshuvah. Similarly, Joseph begins this story as a spoiled brat, bragging of his superiority and ratting out his older brothers. He also needs time to mature.
We face a similar situation today.
The problems of racial distrust in our country today go back many generations. We have made great progress, but it seems clear, both from the statistics as well as from the real life experiences of black individuals, that we have a ways to go.
Our communities tend to be separated rather significantly along socioeconomic lines, which in many cases are also racial line. This means that we tend to interact mainly with people with whom we have a lot in common. Our society, however, involves a great deal more diversity than most of our daily experiences would indicate.
As Jews, we must consider how our own experience of persecution sensitizes us to the plight of our neighbors when they experience persecution.