Wednesday, July 27, 2016

In Praise of Slacktivism

A quick post, because I don't have much time, but I keep promising myself to get back to writing on this blog more regularly...

I'm sure you remember the Ice Bucket Challenge from a couple of years ago--it was a fun, silly way to raise money and awareness around ALS, and it pretty well exploded across the Internet. After a while the hardest part was finding people to challenge, because it seemed that everyone had already done it!

My timing may be off, but I also remember that as around the same time that I started hearing people deriding "Slacktivism," a cute term to describe people who engage in lazy forms of activism. This was a perfect example--all you had to do was pour some freezing cold water over your head and post a video of it to Facebook and, boom, you were done. Of course, you could opt out by donating some money to research, or you could do both.

The problem with slacktivism, according to the critics, is that it gives people the feeling of being involved and making a difference, but without having them actually, you know, make a difference. It let us feel good about ourselves without actually doing something which deserves feeling good about. And, it's not a complaint without some merit.

But, let me say a word in praise of slacktivism. First of all, while doing lazy acts of activism is certainly not as good as doing energetic acts of activism, I'm not sure it's bad. I mean, yes--some people will use it (probably without realizing it) as a way to dodge doing more. But, we live in a age of viral trends and memes--is it the worst thing to put an issue, and an effort to help, at the forefront? Is it bad to make caring and helping cool, even momentarily? I mean, people could be passing around videos of the cinnamon challenge or bad videos, if they wanted to. At least with this, they were raising awareness, and a few dollars.

And, let's remember that, in the end, it wasn't a few dollars. It was $115,000,000. It turns out that when millions of people care a little, and a good number of them care a lot, it adds up to something. Something significant, even.

You may have seen the news that some of that money went to fund research which has just resulted in a major breakthrough in ALS research, and could lead to better treatments or, possibly, a cure.

Let that sink in. All of those people who dumped water on their heads, and donated a few (or many) dollars, and posted the video of it all? They may have just been a part in (eventually) curing a terrible disease.

Sometimes, being a small part of a big thing can be great. Sometimes, it can even be holy.


p.s. If this didn't convince you, just remember that the Ice Bucket Challenge also gave us this:


Friday, July 15, 2016

Nice and Numb

The last time I looked, the death count was up to 84 in the horrific attack in Nice, France. 

Once again, I’m at camp during a horrific attack. I was at Camp Coleman last summer for the horrific massacre in Charleston. I was leaving for Coleman this summer when the horrific news broke of 50 people being murdered in the Pulse club in Orlando. And, I’m ensconced at Kutz now, getting dribs and drabs of horrific news about the dozens dead on a beautiful plaza in France. It’s so strange—camp is, by design, a bubble, cut off from most of the world. The Internet stinks up here, so it’s hard to get updates, but more than that—camp is its own world, and even when I’m absorbed in the news, the minute I step outside, camp-life seems to take over. I’m back to thinking about teaching Mindfulness, or laughing with a kid, or complaining about the food. Horrific as it is to say, it’s like it didn’t really happen.

But, I realize that it’s not just because I’m at camp. A young staff member here said something which resonated deeply with me, when we were processing this news last night. He said that he’s at the point where the news doesn’t even evoke an immediate emotional reaction. He has to search for it. 84 dead? Oh, that’s awful, I say to myself in an almost matter-of-fact way. I have to stop for a minute and really focus, really think about what it means for 84 people to be murdered at once. Maybe try to picture some bodies. Then I can start to feel appropriately horrified. But, these atrocities have become so commonplace that my normal, instinctive reaction has been numbed. One of the other faculty members here wondered if that’s what’s behind the need to actually see graphic photos and video of these kinds of attacks—the spare, objective text doesn’t get to us. We need something more visceral, more assaultive of our senses, to get us to the place where we know we’re supposed to be: horrified.

The thought that I could hear the news of 84 people being killed and, if I’m not attentive and careful, walk away as if nothing really happened is a deeply frightening thought. Disturbing as hell, to be honest.

I had the chance to teach some Heschel this week (to some truly amazing kids). I explained to them Heschel’s idea that religion was, in large part, a program for maladjustment to the world around us. That is, in the course of ordinary life, we tend to get numb to the world—acclimated. That means that we don’t see it in all of its depth. What was once so impactful on us becomes that which just is. Unremarkable. And so, we have to have systems and programs in place which will help us to become de-acclimated, so that we can again see things as if for the first time. Usually, Heschel is talking about the good stuff—about training ourselves to not take anything in this world for granted, from a beautiful sunset to a small morsel of food. But, it also goes for the bad stuff—we have to face each horrific tragedy as if it were the first horrific tragedy. We have to refuse to shrug our shoulders and world-wearily ask, “What is the world coming to?” as if that were a reasonable question to have to ask. We have to refuse to accept that this is what qualifies for normal, no matter how normal it actually becomes. 

It’s painful, to see the world in all of its depth. But, the alternative seems even more painful, in a much deeper way.

It’s been reminding me of one of the poems which I learned through my time with The Institute for Jewish Spirituality:
Behaving Like a Jew Gerald Stern, This Time: New and Selected Poems 

When I got there the dead opossum looked like
an enormous baby sleeping on the road.
It took me only a few seconds—just
seeing him there—with the hole in his back
and the wind blowing through his hair
to get back again into my animal sorrow.
I am sick of the country, the bloodstained
bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of grilles,
the slimy highways, the heavy birds
refusing to move;
I am sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything,
that joy in death, that philosophical
understanding of carnage, that
concentration on the species.
--I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death.
I am going to behave like a Jew
and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,
and pull him off the road.
I am not going to stand in a wet ditch
with the Toyotas and the Chevies passing over me
at sixty miles an hour
and praise the beauty and balance
and lose myself in the immortal lifestream
when my hands are still a little shaky
from his stiffness and his bulk
and my eyes are still weak and misty
from his round belly and his curved fingers
and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.

I’m not trying to imply (and, I’m assuming that the author wasn’t either) that this kind of constant openness to pain, and to caring, is unique to Jews. But, it is characteristic. At least, it’s supposed to be. That is, it’s not that only Jews care so much. But, if you are a Jew, and you don’t care, then what does that say about you, as a Jew? Or as a human being?

Today, I will not be numb. Today, I will behave like a Jew.



Wednesday, March 16, 2016

AIPAC and Trump

For those who don't know, there's been a debate roiling around AIPAC's annual policy conference. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, always invites all candidates to its conference in an election year. This year, that means inviting Trump, a decision which has rankled many within the Jewish community. Far from being a regular case of disagreeing with a candidate, many feel that Trump is beyond the pale--that his hateful and incendiary rhetoric make him inappropriate to include.

AIPAC is in a tough spot. They always invite all the candidates, and to disinvite one, or to put up preconditions (e.g. that he renounce hateful rhetoric) would run counter to their goal of working with all elected leaders in order to support Israel. And, there's a real possibility that Trump could be the next president. What would happen to AIPAC (and, potentially, to Israel) if a candidate got elected after having been publicly shunned by AIPAC? On the other hand, there must be a line--would AIPAC invite a neo-Nazi candidate?* I certainly hope not, no matter how strong his/her polling numbers were. It's a genuinely tough call; I'm glad that I'm not the one who had to make this decision.

* To be clear, I'm not saying that Trump is like Hitler. Yes, I know that there are points of similarity, but until he actually starts planning the mass execution of a group of people, he's not another Hitler. There are plenty of valid ways to compare him, appropriately, to odious historical figures. My point, instead, is to show that there IS a line which, presumably, AIPAC won't cross. Now the question is simply whether Trump is over that line.

At the same time as the "Should AIPAC have invited him?" debate has been raging, there's been a parallel debate about what we, Jews and Jewish leaders, should do now that he is invited, and is planning on speaking. There have been some who have called for a boycott of the whole conference--just don't go. Others have called for loud, angry protests--to try to drown him out. Many are calling for silence--just sit there, without applauding or cheering, greeting him with silence.

To me, the boycotting won't work--too many people are going to go, and the relatively few who won't, won't make a real impact. Angrily protesting? I get the idea, and I instinctively love the impulse, but Trump feeds off this kind of animosity. Plus, I'd worry about the real possibility of violence breaking out, which serves no one's purpose. As for sitting in silence--again, I love the idea, in theory. A room full of people, stoic and silent, could make for a powerful image. But, not everyone is going to join in a silent protest, and that means that everyone who is sitting silently is now, for all intents and purposes, just attending the speech. If 3/4 of the room are cheering, or booing, or whatever, then the silent people aren't really doing anything, and aren't going to get noticed. Unintentionally, they'll get counted in with the majority. The headline will simply be that X number of Jews attended Trump's speech at AIPAC.

Ultimately, the best idea (I think) is from a diverse group of rabbis who are organizing a walkout. When Trump enters, they'll simply stand up and silently walk out, and they're encouraging everyone who is willing to join them. Imagine what that will look like! Even better, they're organizing a teaching session in the lobby on Derech Eretz--civility and decency, as a counter-program to Trump. Beautiful.

I'm not attending the conference--not out of protest, but because of schedule and budget. But, if I were going, I'm pretty sure I'd be part of that group. The title of the conference this year is "Come Together." The response to Trump is being called "Come Together Against Hate." I'm an unabashed lover of Israel, and I greatly appreciate the work which AIPAC does in trying to support our homeland. But, there do have to be lines. I'd be proud to stand against hate, and against anyone who peddles in it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Wasted Environmentalism?

Yesterday was Tu Bishvat*, the Jewish "Birthday of the Trees." For a while now, I've been a bit of a curmudgeon about this holiday. Most of what you see about it focuses on Jewish environmentalism — which seems appropriate on holiday about trees. But, the environmental angle to this day is really pretty recent. Originally, the "birthday of the trees" was just about a kind of fiscal year – any fruits harvested before this day counted towards last year, when we were calculating our required donations to the Temple. Anything picked afterwards is calculated as part of the next year.

* Not Tu B'Shvat. If you really want to know why, and or if you love picayune discussions of transliteration, click here.

A few hundred years ago, the mystics in northern Israel revived Tu Bishvat and updated it heavily. It was now a deeply mystical (and therefore confusing!) day focussing on personal transformation, our relationship with the Divine Worlds and so on. Still, not really an environmental day. The "green" aspect of the day doesn't really show up until the 20th century when environmentalism became a popular topic. Hence my curmudgeonly feelings about the day--it feels to me like forcing a trendy peg into a round hole to talk about planting trees and reducing our carbon footprint because of this ancient fiscal-religious marker.

But, I've had to admit that I'm being unfair--over the centuries, Judaism has been great at reworking, often quite profoundly, our holidays and commemorations, in order to fit new and emerging themes. Heck, the later mystics that I love so much pretty much re-read everything they can get their hands on, often drastically. There's really no reason that we can't choose to re-invent this otherwise unnoteworthy day into one which supports a theme in which I do believe--the Jewish imperative to take care of the Earth. Because, even if Tu Bishvat "really" has nothing to do with environmentalism, Judaism sure does!

But then, today, I came across an attack on Tu Bishvat from a different angle. Writer, activist, and Tampa-alum Jay Michaelson writes that, whatever day we're on, Jewish Environmentalism is pointless, and often potentially destructive.

The pointless part? Put simply--we're attacking an enormous problem with pointlessly, infinitesimally small measures. It's like trying to put out a forest fire with a squirt gun:
The overwhelming causes of climate change are macro-scale, not micro-scale: specifically, fossil fuels in power plants and vehicles. In the United States, according to the EPA, power plants are responsible for 37% of all human-caused carbon emissions. Coal is by far the worst offender. Transportation is another 31%, industry 15%, residential/commercial 10%.
Carpool all you want, lower your heat a few degrees if it makes you feel better; you aren't really doing a blessed thing to make the world healthier. To use a different old metaphor, it's like eating a double cheeseburger with extra fries and a big dessert, but drinking a Diet Coke. I guess it's not hurting, but don't kid yourself that it's helping you lose weight, either.

But, Michelson argues, it actually does hurt (the environmentalism stuff, not the Diet Coke. Although, that hurts too, but that's a different story…).  Because, when we do little things, we often fool ourselves into thinking we've done enough. Small changes which have no meaningful effect make us feel that we don't have an obligation to do something larger, which might have had an effect. And so, these acts actually lead to more damage to the environment, on whole, rather than less.

There's a lot to argue with in his article. He doesn't play out the math, so he leaves open the question as to whether any amount of combined micro-efforts might actually make some impact. I'm willing to accept, without much hesitation, the idea that all the carpooling in the world won't save our environment. But, I'm not 100% convinced that it won't mitigate the trouble, at least somewhat.

More troubling to me is that he mentions but then dismisses the religious value of doing the right thing, whether or not it makes a difference.
As a religious or ethical matter, there is something to be said for refusing, personally, to be part of the problem. Congratulations, you are morally pure.
That "morally pure" line is pretty snarky. But, I don't think that my small acts of environmentalism make me morally pure. I do, however, think they have a value, at least to me as a religious being. I think that doing the right thing, regardless of what everyone else is doing, is good. I think there is a moral and spiritual value in being part of the solution, or at least not part of the problem. But, I do think he's right that this is only true if we can keep ourselves from ignoring the larger, systemic trouble while acting more locally.

But, my arguments and quibbles aside, I think his larger point is important, and has to be made. The environment really is facing a crisis. It really is, in very large part, caused by human action. And, there is basically no chance that it will get better unless we find a way to engage in large, systematic change.

Jews have always known of the importance of acting in community, rather than individually. We've always understood that the mission that we're on — whatever that mission might be — is too big for any one person, or even any small group. That's why we have community, and that's why we have an ancient religious tradition — were only going to accomplish anything we do it together, across the generations.

It would be pretty ironic if a holiday which has the potential to drive us to help the world instead makes it easier to forget our ancient lessons, and to turn away from the world, instead.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Shouting "Fire!"

Today, Pres. Obama signed 23 Executive Orders aimed at curbing gun violence in this country. In his speech about these orders, he talked once again about the reasonable idea of finding reasonable limits on our rights — even our most dearly held rights. And, he uses one of the oldest clichés in the book — we all understand that, as important as free speech is in this country, we still aren't allowed to shout "fire!" in a crowded theater.

I'd like to suggest that using that example actually does a disservice to the point. Because, that one example is fairly extreme and, maybe just as importantly, it's used so often that it becomes the canonical, and seemingly only, example. So, the argument implicitly becomes, "We will accept rare restrictions on our fundamental rights when absolutely necessary." But, if you look at free speech you'll see that we actually accept quite a wide range of restrictions on those rights, for reasons which are far less than existential.

Slander and libel laws tell me what I can and can't say about other people in public. Copyright laws dictate that I can't say something if someone else has said it before. Obscenity laws limit my free speech simply because someone might be offended by it. Truth-in-advertising laws-- doesn't the First Amendment give me the right to claim that my snake-oil will cure your all of your ills? Cyber-stalking and bullying laws. And so on.

I'd argue that the First Amendment is actually more fundamental to American society than the Second — I can imagine a free society functioning without guns, but I can't imagine one without free speech. But, even with that, I accept that the society of which we dream can't really exist without lots of restrictions on that fundamental right.

The language of the First Amendment is absolute, without the confusing (poorly written) ambiguity of the second: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech." No room for debate there. But, still, despite that clarity, we ignore the plain meaning of the text and enact exactly the types of laws that the First Amendment prohibits. We do so because, as fundamentally important as the First Amendment is, it isn't our only value. It isn't our God. It's an incredibly useful ideal, intended to push us towards a better society. But one which, taken to the extreme, becomes destructive. So, we limit it.

That sounds eminently reasonable to me.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Arm Everyone?

In the wake of yet another school shooting, we've all been seeing a lot of the typical "If others had guns, this wouldn't have happened" arguments. The NRA makes it, constantly. Various politicians and political commentators love it, too--"the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." The solution to our problem is not more (or better enforced) gun regulations--those don't work, anyway, because criminals don't follow the law! No, the solution is to arm more people, so that they can stop the bad guys.

First of all, we have ample evidence that gun laws do have a positive effect. States which have enacted them show a decrease in gun-related crime. Of course some people will ignore the law, but it's simply not true that the laws don't keep the guns out of the hands of some criminals. We have data on this; we don't need to guess.

As for the "arm everyone" argument, there is much to say against it. First of all, there's the false assumption that lots of people with guns in an active-shooter situation will reduce the death-toll. Untrained, panicked people are very likely to kill innocents. Can you imagine if a bunch of armed people in a darkened, frenzied movie theater (where some shootings have taken place) tried to shoot back? Plus, if multiple people have guns, how do you even know who to shoot? Am I shooting the shooter, or another concerned citizen? For that matter, how do the cops differentiate between "mass murderer" and "person trying to help" when they get to the scene? One former military person who was armed and was at the Oregon shooting kept his gun holstered for precisely this reason--he didn't want to be killed by SWAT when they showed up.

But, here's the biggest problem with the "Only a good guy with a gun" argument. It's missing the larger reality. All of this rhetoric says nothing about what arming more people does to our safety on the 99.99999% of the days in which we are not faced with an attempted mass-murder. The more guns there are in the room at any time, the more likely one is to be used in an altercation, or to be discharged by accident. My standard is not "how likely is my child to die at school if a mass-murderer shows up?" but "how likely is my child to die at school on any given day?" Even if more guns would cut down on the mass murders (a dubious claim), they would almost certainly increase other deaths. That seems blatantly obvious to me.

I've used this metaphor before--I can imagine a situation in which wearing a seat belt makes it more likely that I'll die (driving into water, for example). But, on any given car trip, wearing the seat belt makes it more likely that I'll live. Focussing only on the rare exceptions only serves to hide the larger, more common truth.

If our goal is to survive a day, then I'm pretty sure that giving more people more guns is not the way to go about it.


Friday, September 25, 2015

The Yetzer of Racism

The Yetzer of Racism

Yom Kippur, 5776
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
[PDF to be available on www.BethAmTampa.org soon]

It was a little past midday, and I’d guess something around mile 10, that the Georgia heat really started to get to us. We had been up since before dawn, and walking since the morning commute. And here we still were, a few dozen of us, mostly in matching yellow T-shirts, emblazoned with the NAACP’s logo, marching. One of us — an almost 70-year-old veteran who had awoken at least three times the night before screaming in terror, from what, exactly, we didn’t know — carried an American flag. His walking partner didn’t carry anything, except for his cane, as he had been for literally hundreds of miles. The rest of us took turns carrying a sefer Torah, a mile at a time. The flag carrier, a wonderful man who had taken the name “Middle Passage” a few decades ago, made it almost 900 miles. Sadly, tragically, 12 days ago, he collapsed and died while marching. His partner, the one with the cane, one or two of the many volunteers from the NAACP and our sacred scroll were now the only ones marching the entire way on America’s Journey for Justice, the 40 day, thousand mile march from Selma, Alabama to Washington DC, sites of two of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous rallies. And, although none of us would be marching the entire way, there has been at least one Reform rabbi, usually several, taking every step. The CCAR, the national organization of Reform Rabbis, has partnered with the NAACP for this march in the name of racial and economic justice. And, it was one of the greatest honors of my life to be one of those rabbis, marching for a single day in mid-August. For years I’ve been reading about my hero, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside King in Selma, and like every rabbi I know, I’ve been quoting him when he explained that marching with King felt like praying with his feet. Now, I got to do more than quote him. I got to follow him.

Why march? What did we expect to accomplish by walking through cities, small towns and farmland? My answer has always been more or less the same — I marched in order to shine a light on a problem. I marched in order to draw attention to the ongoing outrage which is the reality of African-American life, in 21st-century America. I marched, and I did interviews, and I posted articles, and I speak about it, and I will continue to speak about it, because there are people who honestly believe that there is no issue to talk about. There are people who believe that we live in a post-racial society, and there are people who will say explicitly that any problems encountered by any person of color have absolutely nothing to do with the color of their skin, but only with the content of their character and the patterns of their behavior. If there are any such people here today, and odds are there are at least one or two, then I respectfully but directly state that you’re wrong. Racism is alive and well in our country. Racism is alive and well inside of me, and inside of you. Inside of each one of us.

No one is free from racism. It’s within us all. Please listen carefully to what I’m saying; I’m not saying that we’re all terrible people. I’m not saying that any of us are irredeemably evil. Being racist, having racism in our hearts, isn’t always hate spewing, cross burning, maniacal Klan membership. While still too common, for sure, that kind of racism is relatively rare, and less tolerated than ever, thank God. But, that’s just one, extreme form of racism. Real, everyday racism is not all or nothing — it’s something which lives inside of each of us, to greatly varying degrees.

For thousands of years, our sages have spoken about two inclinations or urges which live inside of each person. Yetzer HaTov is the inclination towards good while Yetzer HaRa is the inclination towards evil. People aren’t good or bad. People have inclinations in both directions. Some of us may find one to be stronger than the other, but no person is completely free from either. It’s not wholly unlike the image of the little angel and devil standing on our shoulders. No one has just that angel, and no one has just that devil. We are caught between these two arguing forces every day our lives.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Silly imagery aside, we all know that we have parts of ourselves about which we’re proud, and we also all have parts which we would be embarrassed to share with anyone. Thoughts and desires and impulses and instincts which we wish weren’t there. That’s Yetzer HaRa. We try not to give it a voice, and we try to keep it buried, deep down. But, however successful we are or aren’t at that, it never goes away, completely. It’s always there.

And, like every good devil character in literature, Yetzer HaRa is subtle. It doesn’t work primarily by shouting obviously unacceptable things. It works in quiet, sneaky ways. If it didn’t, it would be easier to fight. But, Yetzer HaRa is like an insect which knows to avoid the light and to survive by escaping notice. Look at the subtle ways that our Yetzer HaRa, our racism, hides, but still leaves traces.

An experiment was done with jobhunting sites. Identical pairs of resumes were submitted with only one change — the names. One version would have a name like “John Brown.” The other something more “black” sounding, like “Jawaan Brown.”  It probably won’t surprise you to hear that the “white” named resumes had significantly more inquiries than the otherwise identical “black” ones. A recent analysis of professional baseball scouts shows that white players are more likely to be described as “intelligent” and “hard-working,” while black players are more often called “naturally athletic” and “instinctive” These recruiters and scouts weren’t vicious racists. They were just ordinary, decent people who were being tripped up by the simple bias which is Yetzer HaRa whispering in our ears.

Claiming that I am not the least bit racist might be exactly as believable as, or it might actually be the exact same thing as saying that I don’t have a yetzer ra.  There’s no shame in having a yetzer ra. It’s part of being human. But, there’s a great shame in letting it run free, and most of us do that when we pretend that it’s not even there. We have to recognize racist feelings within us, and then recognize them as a manifestation of Yetzer HaRa. Of the worst parts of ourselves. They’re terrible, and we wish they weren’t there. But they’re real, and they’re there. Pretending they aren’t only lets them stay.

In the famous scene of Jacob wrestling with the angel, towards the end Jacob asks for the angel’s name and the angel replies, “Do not ask me my name.” Rabbi Y.L. Hasman says that the angel actually answered honestly. The angel, which was long identified by the rabbis as Yetzer HaRa, is named “Do not ask me my name.” Because, its essence is to go unidentified, and unobserved. Not identifying it, ignoring it, is how it wins. The first step in solving any problem, especially one within our own hearts, is to admit there is a problem to solve.

The same dynamic which lives inside of us lives on in society, as well. Societal racism isn’t all or nothing, either. Yes, slavery is gone, Jim Crow is thankfully no more and we have a black president. But, that doesn’t mean that we’ve eradicated racism. Precisely like our own, personal racism, it’s not all or nothing. Getting rid of the rats and roaches which I can see doesn’t mean that there aren’t more living in the walls of my house, just waiting for the lights to go out. If we look, and we don’t have to look all that hard, we’ll still see it, hiding in plain sight.

Study after study has shown that African Americans are more likely to be stopped by the police than whites. And, when they’re stopped, they’re more likely to be frisked than whites are. Banks have historically been less likely to give loans for houses located in predominantly black areas, or to black buyers, making it harder for someone to find economic stability, simply because of how they were born. Black poverty is more concentrated than white poverty — on average, a poor black person is more likely than a poor white person to live surrounded by other poor people. Along with the hard to quantify effects that must have on someone’s psyche and expectations, it also makes it much less likely for them to have good access to the various social services which might help them. Landfills and other waste sites are more likely to be located in largely black areas. That leads to lower property values, which leaves less money for the schools, to say nothing of the physiological, cognitive effects which are just beginning to be understood of living so close to so much pollution. I could quite literally go on for hours.

Much of this — I hope and suspect the vast majority of it — isn’t happening because of a few vicious racists with the intent of destroying black lives. It happens quietly, almost naturally. No one is to blame; it’s just “the system.” But that’s exactly the point. It’s the system. Systematic racism is how generally good people like you and me manage to not see the racism around us, and so we allow it to continue.

In his book Justice In The City, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen shows how the rabbis of the Talmud demanded a very different kind of society. The society of which they dreamed was, out of moral necessity, a force for addressing inequality and suffering in our collective homes. And, it starts with an obligation to ensure that we can hear the cries of the oppressed. We are required to take concrete, deliberate steps to make sure that injustices, which would include racism, are seen and heard by everyone, and never hidden away in ghettoes or across the tracks. Imagine the effect it might have on us if we were forced to walk through a poverty-stricken neighborhood, every day. It would be harder to pretend that it’s not there, wouldn’t it? Moral responses, Cohen teaches, begin with hearing the cries of the oppressed.

We have to learn how to listen, and we have to learn how to hear. We have to open our ears and open our hearts to hear things to which we’re not accustomed, and about which we don’t want to know. I’ve been trying to remember this as I’ve been reading more and more accounts of what it’s like to grow up as an African-American, particularly the book Between The World And Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Written as a letter to his young son, the book is part personal history, part political analysis, and all rage. And from the moment I read an excerpt of it in The Atlantic, I realized that I had to read it differently than most books and articles I’ve read. Not critically, but openly. Not trying to judge his argument or the merit of his case, but instead trying to hear his cry. Even if some of his arguments are wrong, and I’m not saying they are, the pain contained in his words is real. Even if there are some African-Americans who had a very different experience from him, we still have to listen to him telling us of his experience, and of his pain. Because, that pain is palpable. Listen:

Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets America made. That is a philosophy for the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket. It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mother’s hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of ‘race,’ imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods. The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under indictment. They sent the killer of [my friend] back to his work, because he was not a killer at all. He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws[1].

Forget any counter arguments for a moment. Instead, just imagine what it’s like to grow up in a world like that. A world in which you truly believe that the police are more likely to attack you than to save you. Imagine what it’s like having to grow up having what parents of black children often call “the talk,” when they tell their kids exactly how to act, and how not to act, to avoid any possibility of police attention. Don’t wear your hood up. Keep your hands out of your pockets, but don’t move them too quickly. Smile, but not too much.

Don’t argue back at me that the police are actually the good guys. Because, I believe that they are. But, instead, think about what it’s like growing up not believing that.

Reading Coates’ book, and so much like it, with an open heart is simply awful. It’s just brutal. It made me feel sick to my stomach, and it made it hard to sleep at night. And, that’s a good thing. Because that’s what hearing someone else’s cry feels like.

Hearing the cries of the oppressed, really hearing them, is how we start. But, then we have to react. Rabbi Cohen teaches that the Exodus story is actually all about two varying reactions to the cries of the oppressed. When our people cry out, over and over again, God hears their cries, and is awakened to action. Pharaoh ignores their cries. What we’re left with is a very clear choice: do we want to respond like God, or do we want to respond like Pharaoh? There is, of course, only one right answer. Hearing the cries of others has to awaken us. Hearing the cries of others has to lead to action. Not to judgment or denial. What kind of a person would hear someone else in pain and begin by asking if their pain is valid? The pain is valid, because the pain is felt. And, it’s the pain which evokes a response, not the cause of the pain, and certainly not our snap judgment of the validity of that cause.

People are always try to justify or invalidate the pain of others, especially the African-American community. A few hundred years ago, we were told that Africans simply weren’t equal to us, and therefore slavery was justified. We were told, and still are by a few disgusting individuals, that they were actually better off as slaves. The 21st century version of this is claiming that, “They’re animals who bring this on themselves.” That it’s not about their race, it’s about their behavior; they’re just getting what they deserve. It’s no different, really, than what the defenders of slavery used to say. Is that who we want to be? Is that how we want history to remember us?

Respond like God, or respond like Pharaoh. That’s our only choice.

And, our response must be communal. This is our responsibility, not mine or yours alone. That’s one of the core lessons of Judaism, and especially of this day. As Heschel often taught, in a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible. The fact that we didn’t participate in a crime with our own hands does not absolve us of all responsibility for addressing that crime. The only way to be truly moral, and the only way to make any progress in our society, is not through the presumption of innocence, but rather through the presumption of responsibility.

That’s why, today, we confess in the plural — we are guilty. We have sinned. We assume that we are each guilty of each and every possible sin in order to force ourselves to be as aggressive as possible in both identifying our own faults, and in addressing the problems in our society. If we wait to find the person who is truly, directly responsible for racism, and then wait for them to fix it, we’ll be waiting for quite a long time, indeed. Some are guilty. All are responsible.

I’m as proud as ever to stand before you not just as a Rabbi, but as a Reform Rabbi. Because, our movement’s history is tightly, inextricably linked to Civil Rights. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve referenced Rabbi Heschel marching with King at Selma. But, on King’s other side during that march was a man holding a Torah scroll—Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, then president of the UAHC, now the URJ. Isaac Meir Wise. Stephen S. Wise. Barnett Brickner. Gunther Plaut. The list of Reform Rabbis who were active supporters of Racial Equality is a roll call of the greats from our movement’s history. Sadly, shamefully, the last few decades have seen us become less and less engaged with Civil Rights, and with our brothers and sisters in the African American community. But, a cohort of Rabbis within the CCAR, the Reform Rabbinical Conference, under the banner of “Rabbis Organizing Rabbis” has pledged to revive this historic relationship, and to help us, as a Rabbinate, as a movement, and hopefully as a people, to restore this great partnership. Once, together, we were able to make a tangible, essential difference by advancing the cause of justice in our world. Together, we are committed to doing so again. It is my sincere hope, my prayer, that you’ll join us. We don’t have to agree on every detail, and we don’t have to agree on every strategy or policy. But, let us agree that none of us can rest until justice prevails. Let us agree that so long as one of us is oppressed, none of us are truly free. Let us agree that although only some may be guilty, all of us are responsible.

A rabbi was once asked, “Why does the Torah tell us to ‘Place these words upon your hearts?’ Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rabbi answered, “It is because, as we are right now, our hearts are closed, and so we cannot place the holy words within them. So, we place these words on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, our hearts will break open, and the words will fall in.”

May the cries of the oppressed and the words of those who struggle to be free rest upon our hearts. May we feel the weight of those words, as well as the pain which brought them forth. And may our hearts soon break open so that those words may dwell within us, calling us to justice.


This sermon was delivered on Yom Kippur, 5776 (September 23, 2015) at Congregation Beth Am


[1] Ta-Nehasi Coates, Between The World and Me, p. 82-3