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