“Racist / Not Racist” – It’s Not a Check Box

Since police officers murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, our nation has been torn asunder.  Largely peaceful protests in cities all across America, and even abroad, are unlike anything I have witnessed in my life.  It feels like we have been building to this moment.  What happens next will be determined by how well we can listen to each other and whether we are willing to look honestly at ourselves and our institutions.

Speaking about race is so difficult.  It is deeply personal.  It is tragically polarizing.  

While our congregation is diverse, the majority of Congregation Sinai’s members have white skin. As someone who is not black, I am cautious to speak about the Black Lives Matter movement.  I do not want to condescend or claim to understand someone else’s experience.  I come to this as a man with white skin, as a Jew, and as a Rabbi.  

I am not a racist.

I wish it were as simple as that, but racism is not a binary question.  There is no check box that says “I am a racist” or “I am not a racist.”  If there was, I would hope that all of us would check the “I am not a racist” box.  But that would be too easy.

This is a really touchy subject for white people.  Many of us reject the idea that we are complicit in racism.  Why should I be blamed for somebody else’s hate?  At that point, the conversation about race is over.  We have to be able to get past the racist/not racist – check the box approach.

Every system contains inherent biases.  Every person is permeated by them.  I see a human, and my mind immediately makes assumptions based on what I perceive: the color of someone’s skin, the shape of their eyes, their name, their accent, their gender.  These biases come from our family, our society, our community. We cannot eliminate these biases, but we can strive to become aware of them.  

In 1619, the first ship filled with African slaves arrived in Virginia.  400 years later, our society is still infected with the virus of racism.  It permeates all of our social institutions: law enforcement, the justice system, healthcare, education, and housing.  Talking about “a few bad apples” misses the point.

Terms like systemic racism and inherent bias have become part of the national conversation.  Major corporations, organizations, schools, and religious institutions are rushing to look at how their own policies and practices, whether intentional or not, have discriminated unfairly against black people and perpetuated racism in our society.

My email inbox is flooded with official position statements issued by nonprofit organizations, institutions, and companies – including a local sporting goods store.  I am sure yours is as well.

Both schools my children will attend next year sent out emails yesterday announcing multi-step plans to better support students of color.  These emails were sent after alumni publicly shared their experiences of racism when they attended those institutions.

Congregation Sinai has a great relationship with the San Jose Police Department.  When we have a concern, we get a quick response.  Joelle and I have direct cell phone numbers of the officers who are tasked with counterterrorism.  Officers join us every year for our Emergency Preparedness Shabbat evacuation drill.  They proactively call us to warn us of potential areas of concern.

Personally, I have never been afraid of the police.  I have never been pulled over for any reason that was not legitimate.  When I have felt the need to call the police, I have never hesitated.  I have never felt that I was being followed around in a store.  I have never had a random stranger cross the street to get further away from me.  I have never been considered for a job on anything other than my merit.  I have always lived within a short distance of vast quantities of healthy, affordable groceries.  I have always known that if I got sick, I would be able to see a doctor who would take my concerns seriously.

None of this should be remarkable.  This is exactly how it should be.  For everyone.

But we know that it is not.  Forget the studies and the statistics.  Just listen to black people.  When a black person in this country says they are scared of being shot by the police; that they do not think the justice system will give them a fair trial, that they were followed around in a store while shopping; that they were pulled over while driving the speed limit; that they were not given pain medication while they were giving birth in the hospital – I don’t have the right to tell them they are wrong.

After all, we hate it when people do that to us.  As Jews, when someone who is not Jewish denies or belittles our history of suffering persecution and genocide, we get furious.  You don’t get to tell me that, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, that part of my identity is invalid.  It is patronizing and anti-semitic.

If we are going to accuse those who were silent while Jews were being slaughtered, what does it say about how we should act when our neighbors are being mistreated?

When African Americans say “I can’t breathe,” both literally and figuratively, we have to listen and act.

As living creatures, we are hard-wired, biologically, to discriminate.  We are essentially tribal in our social behavior.  I favor those who are part of my group over those who are not.  That is the animal part of us – our survival instinct.

As human beings made in the image of God, our essential task is to rise above that instinct.  The Torah’s challenge to us, to humanity, is to answer Cain’s fundamental question to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with an emphatic “Yes!”

This does not come naturally or easily.  We Jews, of all people, should know that.

It should not come as a surprise to learn that all three major Jewish movements issued statements this week.  I am going to read a section from each, without identifying its author. 

“The national rage expressed about the murder of Mr. Floyd reflects the depth of pain over the injustice that People of Color – and particularly Black men – have been subjected to throughout the generations. In recent months we have seen, yet again, too many devastating examples of persistent systemic racism, leading to the deaths not only of Mr. Floyd but of other precious souls, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.”

“We call upon those in government and law enforcement not only to preserve the law, but also to restore justice, fairness and a sense of compassion to all. Inciteful language must cease, and efforts must be expended which will educate our society away from racism and towards a better understanding each for the other.”

“We join in the collective call for peace and reflection during civil unrest, but understand that to achieve this end we must act. For these reasons, [we] call on legislators at the national, state, and local levels to fundamentally change their approach to law enforcement and the justice system so that they serve and protect all Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity. We encourage our own members to reach out to other communities, to Jews of Color, as well as to local law enforcement to help lead and shape these endeavors within the community.”

That was from all three movements, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, although not necessarily in that order. You probably could not tell which statement came from which.  The point should be obvious.  Institutional racism exists at all levels of society.  Continuing to go about our lives, with the “I am not a racist” box checked is insufficient.  Every major Jewish institution in America agrees with that.

Elected leaders, law enforcement, civil servants, and the rest of us have an active role to play. My wife pointed out an inspiring passage from one of the Psalms that we sang together during this morning’s services.

Who is the person who desires life, who loves long years discovering goodness?

Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies

Turn away from evil and do good, demand peace and pursue it.

Psalm 34:13-15

If we want to see goodness and peace in the world; if we truly love life—we cannot be passive. We have to actively demand and pursue it. This moment surely calls for such action.

So what can we do?

First of all, we need to go out of our way to listen, without judgment, to Black people.  Before jumping in with solutions, we have got to listen to those who are suffering.  Reach out, with sensitivity, to black friends and acquaintances.  Hear their stories

Donate money.  Whether you care about education, health care, justice, poverty, job training, or political action.  There are plenty of ways to put money to work.

Get involved with justice efforts led by Black organizers.  It is not for non African Americans to set the agenda.

We have to take an honest look at ourselves.  How do issues of race play a role in our lives, with friends, neighbors, coworkers, and classmates?

We also need to look at our own institutions.  I have been thinking a lot this week about how inclusive we are at Congregation Sinai.

One of our core values, which we developed with our Vision Statement a few years ago, is:  We welcome all types of families and individuals into our community.

Are we living up to that value?  To answer that, we need to hear from all of our members, listening especially to the voices of Jews of color.

It will take time, but I pray that we are reaching a turning point.  Our nation is desperately in need of healing.  

I would like to recite a prayer that we know well.  The Prayer for Our Country.  We have said it many times during Shabbat services, so many times that we tend not to pay attention to what it means.  Like many of our prayers, it strikes a discordant tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be. 

Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask your blessings for our country, for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them the insights of Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may once again abide in our midst.

Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country.

May this land under Your providence be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom and helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more.”  And let us say: Amen.

It Is Time To Do Something About Sexual Harassment – Noach 5778

Noah is described as a “righteous man, perfect in his generation.”  God singles him out to build the ark and collect animals of every species on earth to preserve life after the coming flood.  We take the Torah’s word for it.  Noah was indeed a righteous man.  But as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks claims, righteousness is not the same thing as leadership.

For one hundred twenty years, Noah builds an ark according to God’s specifications.  In all of that time, we do not have a single record of a conversation with his neighbors.  Noah does not try to change God’s mind.  He does not try to convince anyone to change their ways.  He does nothing to try to avert the flood that he knows is coming or save any lives other than the ones God commands him to save.

Can you imagine Abraham or Moses being so complacent?

Noah’s lack of leadership raises questions about his righteousness.  In what way, exactly, is he so righteous?  In an age in which all life on earth has become thoroughly corrupt, perhaps it is sufficient to maintain one’s own personal moral integrity.

Does this make Noah innocent?  Is it enough to be righteous in one’s own personal domain while everyone else is wicked?  The ambiguity is reflected in a Talmudic argument.  One Sage argues that to behave properly in a society that has lost its way reflects a person of extremely high moral character and strength.  Another Sage argues that Noah’s righteousness is only in comparison to his own generation.  In Abraham’s time, Noah would be merely average.

The question goes deeper than this.  Noah is a bystander.  Does this make him innocent?  Or, is there no such thing as an innocent bystander?

The recent revelations by numerous victims of sexual assault and harassment by Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein have shed light on a pervasive problem.  A couple of weeks ago, Rose McGowan publicly revealed that Weinstein had raped her in 1997 when she was 23 years old.  Her revelation opened the floodgates for dozens of other women who shared that they had also been assaulted and raped by the media mogul.

It did not stopped there.  Millions of women have been using social media to share their own tragic experiences of being assaulted, harassed, and raped – some going into detail, and others by responding with the hashtag #metoo.

We are now facing evidence that millions of victims have kept silent out of shame and embarrassment for abuse that was not their fault.

As far as we have come in establishing equal rights for all people regardless of gender, we have to ask ourselves honestly if there are still cultures of misogyny and patriarchy embedded in our social institutions that allow someone like Harvey Weinstein to commit these horrible crimes over and over again for years, without ever being held accountable.  The answer is clearly yes, and the outpouring of stories indicates that it is not limited to Hollywood, but permeates every aspect of our culture.

It has emerged that plenty of people knew about Weinstein’s crimes, but nobody said anything until the floodgates opened.  How terribly heartbreaking.

Sometimes, I find as I study Jewish texts that I stumble upon a passage that speaks so clearly about the present situation that it feels like it cannot have been a coincidence.  This week, as I learned Talmud with my friend and colleague Rabbi Philip Ohriner, we came across a passage that seemed eerily relevant (BT Shabbat 54b-55a):

Rav, and Rabbi Ḥanina, and Rabbi [Yonatan], and Rav Ḥaviva taught…: Anyone who has the capability to protest [the sinful conduct] of the members of his household and does not protest, he is apprehended [ and punished] for [the sins of] the members of his household; the people of his town, he is apprehended for the people of his town; the whole world, he is apprehended for the whole world.

In other words, we bear responsibility for the actions of the people around us.  Note that they are careful to say that this is the case when we actually have the power to make the protest.  It is not difficult to imagine that someone might not be in a position to raise his or her voice.  The Talmud then shares a story.

Rav Yehuda was sitting before Shmuel [his teacher] when a particular woman came and cried before Shmuel [about an injustice that had been committed against her], and [Shmuel] paid no attention to her.  Rav Yehuda said to Shmuel: Doesn’t the Master [i.e. you] hold: “Whoever stops his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard” (Proverbs 21:13)?  [Shmuel] said to him: Big-toothed one (i.e. you have a sharp, keen tongue), your superior, [i.e., I, your teacher] will be punished in cold water.  The superior of your superior [i.e. my teacher] will be punished in hot water.  Mar Ukva sits as president of the court.

To summarize, a woman comes before a respected Rabbi to complain about a wrong that has been done to her.  We do not know what this injustice is.  We can only imagine.

In rabbinic literature, the scene of a woman bringing an injustice before a rabbi is not uncommon.  She is representative of someone without power.  Someone who is not able to get justice for herself.  So she turns to a respected religious authority.  In this story, Shmuel, the respected religious authority, ignores her.

Rav Yehudah, his student, observes the entire episode, and is shocked.  Bringing a verse, he basically asks his teacher, “how can you pretend not to hear the cries of this powerless woman before you.”  For a student to rebuke his master in this way is quite courageous.

Shmuel accepts the rebuke, admitting that not only is he fit for punishment, but Mar Ukva, the most senior Rabbi of the time, is fit for even greater punishment.

Here the story ends.  We do not know what happened next.  Did Shmuel go chasing after the woman to hear her complaint?  Probably not.  Did Shmuel or Mar Ukva receive any punishment or consequences for their dereliction of moral duty?  I doubt it.

This is a description of a society with injustices that are so embedded that the rabbis themselves, the ones who are supposed to be the moral consciences of the community, do not even see them.

How sadly fitting for the current conversation.  It is the complaint of an unnamed woman that sparks this episode.  But take note whose experiences are included, and whose are ignored.  The Talmud, a book written by men for a male audience, does not share her perspective.  What is her complaint?  Could it be that she has come to report a case of sexual harassment or rape?  Quite possibly.  How much courage did it take for her to even bring her case to the Rabbi?  How did she feel when he refused to listen to her?  Will she come back the next time she suffers an injustice?

What was she thinking when she got home?  If she was married, did she tell her husband what happened?  Her friends?  Her daughter?  Her son?  Her parents?

If the #metoo comments of this past week are at all indicative, she probably felt shame and embarrassment, and likely told nobody.

Although two thousand years have passed, we still live with a societal plague of our own making in which sexual harassment is passively or actively encouraged.

Rav Yehudah had the courage to speak out against his teacher’s indifference.  Shmuel had the willingness to admit to making a mistake.  But neither of them took it any further.

As the Talmud clearly teaches, if we have the ability to protest and remain silent, we are guilty.  In 2017, this is something that all of us can effectively do something about.

As a male, I have to consider all of the ways in which my life has been made easier due simply to my gender, in subtle ways in which I was not even aware at the time.  I have to listen to the stories of women who have experienced discrimination, harassment, and abuse – often made possible by institutionalized power imbalances.  And I have to suspend my temptation to reject or judge their experiences.  It is not my place to do so.

We parents have to teach our kids very explicitly to be able to say no to things that make them uncomfortable, and to always respect another person’s request to be left alone.  As kids get older, we need to teach them that consent must be explicit.  If I do not bring this up with my children, I am guilty.

In the workplace, and in social situations, it is not enough for me to simply respect other people’s boundaries.  I have to be an upstander.  If I see someone else crossing the line, I have to do something.  If I do not, I am guilty.

I think that there is a real opportunity to change the way that our society treats sexual harassment, discrimination, and rape.  The laws are mostly in place.  But the change that needs to happen now has to come from us.  We have the ability to make it happen.