Friday, October 9, 2015

Bereshit to School Shootings: The Roots and Results of Toxic Masculinity

            Last week, on October 1st, the national news broke over the latest in our nation’s epidemic of gun violence. Ten people died as a result of the shooter on the Umpqua Community College campus, and over the course of the last week there has been a lot of buzz about the source of this violence and what we can do to address it. The United States is the only developed nation in the world with this kind of gun violence. According to Mother Jones magazine, there have been 72 mass shootings as since 1982. The definition of “mass shooting” here is that the killer worked alone (or in the case of Columbine, was the work of two otherwise “loners”), the violence was carried out in a public place, and the shooter took the lives of at least four people. So, for example, the shooting on the Northern Arizona University campus this morning would not be considered in these statistics, because “only” one person died. The next developed country with the second highest rate of gun violence, Switzerland (surprisingly), has about a third of the number of gun-related deaths per year that the U.S. has. While the U.S. makes up about 4% of the world’s population, it makes up about 42% percent of the world’s gun-owning civilian population. See a pattern yet?
            It isn’t just about how many guns we own, or how the select few number of gun owners misuse them, the root of the violence is about the culture that promotes it. Plenty of gun-owners are safe users, but those who do seek to kill do so far too easily, and after the fact their actions are too often excused as “mental illness,” despite the fact that mentally ill people are statistically far more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators, and despite the fact that this diversion tactic away from the conversation on gun control also hasn’t led to helpful reform in providing access to mental health services for those who need it, either. The mental illness most of these killers are, or were, suffering from is toxic masculinity – the ideology that in order to “be a man” you must be aggressive, out of touch with your feelings, and feel comfortable wielding weapons and uncomfortable in a position of perceived powerlessness. Even those who were suffering from a diagnosed mental illness may not have sought the help they needed because of the desire to appear strong and masculine.
Of the 72 perpetrators of mass shootings, only one was a woman, and 63% were young white men. A 2013 study at the University of Washington looked at the disproportionate number of young, white, heterosexual men who committed mass shootings in the United States and found a correlation between “feelings of entitlement” and “homicidal revenge” against those perceived as being the source of the shortcomings on the man’s life. Misogyny and racism often play a part in these mass shootings. Just yesterday, I read of a teenager in Idaho who threatened to kill all the cheerleaders at his school because they wouldn’t send him nudes. We don’t know if he actually had access to guns or exactly how the authorities responded to his threats, but we know his friend was concerned enough of their veracity to report him, and the story became another in a national narrative of violent male entitlement.
Of the many responses that I’ve seen to the Umpqua Community College shootings, my favorite is one that has gone viral, though no one seems to know the original author:
 "How about we treat every young man who wants to buy a gun like every woman who wants to get an abortion — mandatory 48-hr waiting period, parental permission, a note from his doctor proving he understands what he's about to do, a video he has to watch about the effects of gun violence... Let's close down all but one gun shop in every state and make him travel hundreds of miles, take time off work, and stay overnight in a strange town to get a gun. Make him walk through a gauntlet of people holding photos of loved ones who were shot to death, people who call him a murderer and beg him not to buy a gun. It makes more sense to do this with young men and guns than with women and health care, right? I mean, no woman getting an abortion has killed a room full of people in seconds, right?"
 Of course, reproductive rights and gun rights don’t really work as a side by side comparison in a meaningful legalistic way that might dictate how we approach reform on these issues, but the comparison here draws attention to the greater issue of what society expects of women and what society expects of men, and how we respond to the respective disappointments when either lets us down. From the earliest ages, too often little girls who behave aggressively or talk too much are stifled, told to sit down and be quiet, told “Act like a lady,” while little boys are encouraged to be louder and tougher and when they go too far, parents and teachers will say, “Boys will be boys.” In middle school, too often girls are sent to the principal’s office because their blouses don’t cover up their bra straps, but if a boy snaps that bra strap, well, “Boys will be boys.” And when those little girls and boys and middle schoolers are all grown up, how are they supposed to know that it is ok for women to speak up and speak out for their own safety and health care or that men shouldn’t behave aggressively and violently, when their whole lives they have heard, “Act like a lady,” but “Boys will be boys”?
Often we think of the extremists on these issues in terms of the Christian right, but as Jews who want to properly grapple with the issues on our own terms, we have a responsibility to acknowledge where some of this toxic masculinity and double standards between the sexes lies in our own tradition as well. This week’s parasha is Bereshit. I tend to think of the images of “The Fall” and Eve as the “mother of all sin” as very Christian concepts, and assumed it was due to some pervasive Christian ideology that we continue to frame our Genesis story this way, even occasionally as Jews. But after reading the analysis of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in her book, The Murmuring Deep, I feel like I have finally seen clearly how much is in the text itself, and how so much of the double standards we continue to live with today really emanate directly out from Genesis two, the Adam and Eve story. In a key passage that has forever changed the way I read our texts, Zornberg says, “Eve stands, then, at the hub of the narrative of seduction; she is both object and subject of this treacherous activity. She has gone down in cultural memory as both feeble and slyly powerful; incapable of resisting seduction, she is nevertheless irresistibly seductive. The weak link between the serpent and Adam, she has borne the brunt of responsibility for events read, quite simply, as a Fall.” Zornberg also later points out that the serpent’s awareness of Eve’s weakness and strength in the arts of seduction was what so easily allowed him to manipulate her and Adam to transgress, validating the lasting view of Eve, “and through her, of all women,” as “sinister and serpentine.”
This is where I become certain that it is not the fault of pervasive medieval Christianity informing an uncomfortable understanding of this text. This is the basis of patriarchy and a culture in which victim blaming, objectification, excusing of male violence, and a denial of women’s voices are still pervasive even to this day and in the progressive Western world. This is the crux of our double standards and the promotion of toxic masculinity teaching men to stifle their feelings. From the beginning of time we have read and believed that a woman is simultaneously too weak to resist a male’s instruction or her own base instincts and is too seductive to expect a man to resist. It is her own fault she allows herself to be manipulated, but it’s also her fault that Adam allows himself to be manipulated by her. Women seeking abortions are told to take responsibility for their actions, but men who shoot people are given a pass for responsibility, and the men who defund women’s healthcare centers while maintaining loose gun laws that allow this reality say, “Stuff happens.” Act like a lady, but boys will be boys.

Although we may be fighting thousands upon thousands of years of this mentality, I think we are up to the challenge. It is past time to change our double standards and our view of autonomy for men and women. The parasha also contains a verse in which Adam proclaims Eve the “mother of all life,” and Zornberg points out that what we categorize as a “Fall” is really an outward motion: the expulsion from Eden into a new world. The new reality Eve has borne to us is harder, for sure, but also richer and fuller. It is only through obtaining the knowledge of good and evil did we really become fully human, in relationship with God. Instead of giving Eve all of the blame or credit, we should recognize that there are at least three “people” (though not human, the serpent is undoubtedly a person) with full agency participating in this text (possibly four; God’s role in causing this narrative to play out is a little more vague). It is in our grappling with good and evil and rights and privileges and law-making that we become fully human. I think it is absolutely time for us to promote a new, and just as legitimate, reading of this story, one in which we can establish that each and every person is accountable for his or her own actions, and each and every person should have access to that which they need to feel protected and cared for in this world without harming others. Maybe if we start at the source, we really can reframe our cultural shortcomings to become a truly equal and safe society for everyone. May we find holiness in our wrestling with difficult realities, may we find peace outside the Garden of Eden, and may our legislators find an agreement that will allow all Americans to feel secure. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.  

Friday, October 2, 2015

V'zot Habracha

In this week’s Parasha, the Torah comes to an end. Over the last year we’ve read about creation and death, wars and leadership overthrows, plagues and floods, miracles and walking from slavery to freedom. Reflecting on the closing of the Torah, David Levithan says in G-dcast’s V’zot Ha’Bracha video, “It’s hard to end something with a bang when it’s been banging all along.” So instead of trying to end with much excitement, it ends quietly, with a blessing and the peaceful death of a very old, successful leader. The beginning of the Torah, which we will read again next week as we restart the cycle over, is about birth and creation, blessings for goodness and God’s delight at all the works of God’s hand. The end of the Torah is about closure and death, but a natural peaceful death wherein Moses is buried by God alone.
The name of the parasha, “V’zot Habracha,” means “And this is the blessing”. Moses blesses all the People of Israel, speaks to each of the twelve tribes, and properly says his goodbyes. He might not feel one hundred percent ready to go, because goodbyes are often hard, but it appears he knows this is right and natural and important. He has served his purpose, led the people through the wilderness, and he was the last prophet to speak to God face to face. He is, and will always remain, very important to the Israelites and to Jews throughout history, but at this point in the story, it is time to let Joshua step up. The torch was already passed, Joshua was nominated to lead a few portions ago, and after some transition time, it seems Joshua, Moses, the people, and God, are all ready for the change to go into full affect. Moses has lived one hundred and twenty long years, and accomplished a goal he never even knew he wanted.
Not many people live to be 120 like Moses. In fact, only one person is documented to have definitely lived that long, a French woman named Jeanne Louise Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122. She once met Vincent Van Gogh and was thoroughly unimpressed. At the time that, a wonderful site for easy-to-understand lessons on the weekly Torah portions, created its video for V’zot Habracha, the then oldest living woman had just passed. Her name was Gertrude Baines, and she was 115 when she died in 2009. She was the daughter of former Black slaves from the American south, and she lived to see women and Black Americans win the right to vote, and was herself able to vote for the first Black American president. When asked what she thought was the source for her good health and long life, she said simply, “God.” Currently, the oldest living person is Susannah Mushatt Jones. She was the child of sharecroppers, and worked hard in the fields in her adolescence. She was determined to work to get herself out of that difficult life, and was able to graduate high school. She had been accepted into the Tuskegee Institute for a higher education for herself, but couldn’t afford it, so she instead moved to NYC, where she worked as a nanny for wealthy families. Eventually she was able to use her some of her salary and savings to establish the Calhoun Club, a college scholarship for Black students. You don’t have to be a prophet to have a special relationship with God, or to accomplish much and witness even more with your life.
Not everyone lives to be 115 or 120, but we can all choose to make the most out of our lives at any age. May we all live each day in celebration of creation and freedom, appreciate each day’s excitements and moments of quietude, and embrace life’s adventures at every turn and do our best to help others do the same. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Parashat Ha'azinu

            In this week’s Torah Portion, Moses, the aged leader of the Israelite people, is told his death is near. He sings a song, a farewell to the world, full of love and gratitude for God and all of God’s creations, and chastisement and warning to the People Israel, who is continually ungrateful for God’s miracles. Moses is allowed to have a glimpse into the Holy Land that the people will enter soon, though he is not allowed to enter it himself.
            Moses does not get to enter the land of Israel because God says, “you betrayed Me in the midst of the children of Israel at the waters of Merivat Kadesh, in the desert of Zin; because you did not sanctify Me in the midst of the children of Israel.” This is in reference to chapter 20 of Numbers, when God told Moses to speak to a rock and water would flow out to give to the thirsty Israelites. Instead, Moses struck the rock twice and water flowed out. It may seem like a small matter, but God was very angry that Moses did not do exactly as God commanded, and says on the spot that for this transgression, Moses will not be allowed to be the one to bring the people into the Promised Land. Now in our parasha of the week, after some time has passed and God has had time to cool the Divine Temper, Moses’s fate remains the same, and his punishment still stands. He may not enter the land, but instead die upon a mountain overlooking the border, and Joshua will be the one to conquer Israel and settle the people.
            We have just concluded our Ten Days of Awe, a time for repentance, prayer, and righteousness: asking for and granting forgiveness, understanding that humans are inherently flawed, praying for the strength to better ourselves, and increased awareness for tzedakah. To come from that perspective, this Torah portion is a bit scary. How many times have we said that the Hebrew word “het” – most often translated as “sin” – really means “missing the mark”? How often do we declare that we are never too far gone to still atone? How much do we remind ourselves that God wants us to learn from our mistakes and try harder? How frequently do we say that the gates of prayer are never closed to us? And yet, for a seemingly small mistake, Moses is punished to not enter the land of Israel.
            But to see it from God’s perspective, how disappointing it must have been to see Moses make that mistake. God and Moses had a very special relationship, such that none after would have. It is even unique in comparison to the relationship God had with the other Patriarchs. Moses alone got to speak with God face to face, was God’s partner in leading the Israelite people through the wilderness, and sometimes they even squabble over who is responsible for the iniquities of the people, throwing back and forth assertions of “Your People,” the way a tired parent might inform his or her spouse, “Your child misbehaved at school today.” Midrashim depicts them further as true partners, lengthening conversations we see in Torah to show how deep and extraordinary the relationship between God and Moses really is. Imagine how God felt when this one person who seemed to really appreciate all of God’s wonders, who really seemed to understand God’s mysteries, didn’t follow God’s instructions. Of all the times the People of Israel are really ungrateful or unbelieving or afraid in spite of all the things they’ve seen God do for them, Moses is always able to mediate and keep the peace. Then it was him to make this mistake, and there was no one to mediate on his behalf for God. So God rules that he will not see the land of Israel. Further, to be fair, Moses was 120-years-old, and it was probably an appropriate time for him to be laid to rest anyway. When Joshua conquers the land of Israel, there’s a lot of fighting involved, and maybe Moses was just too old to handle that. The Midrash of Devarim Rabbah insists that God never really planned for Moses to enter the land of Israel. His destiny was always to prophesy in the land of Egypt and in the wilderness, and that is all.

            The ending of Moses’s story is sometimes confusing. He worked so hard to get the people through the Wilderness, and now he is told in this week’s portion that he can look at the Holy Land, but not enter it, because of some small mistake. But sometimes even little mistakes have big consequences, and sometimes without meaning to we can hurt people’s feelings by not trying harder to understand them and do what they need us to do, and I think that’s exactly what happened between Moses and God. As we draw near to the end of our Torah cycle, and start a fresh year with a clean slate, having done all that self-reflecting on Rosh Hashanah and that repenting on Yom Kippur, let us take special care to acknowledge the wrongs we do by accident. It is too easy to claim ignorance or get defensive over something that was an honest mistake. Let this year be one of responsibility and accountability. That way we can better learn from our mistakes and move forward more informed, with better understanding, and stronger relationships. May we all find the strength to admit our shortcomings and our ignorances, and the wisdom and humility to acknowledge there’s always more to learn. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Yom Kippur Morning 2015 (A Drash for the Traditional Torah reading)

            This morning’s Torah portion consists of the instructions for the service of atonement that would performed by the High Priest in the tabernacle on Yom Kippur. The Rosh Hashanah portions are narratives from Genesis, stories of the morality and values from our Matriarchs and Patriarchs. The shift to the ritual descriptions of Yom Kippur, especially for rituals we no longer follow, brings into sharp focus the relationship between ritual and ethics. Both are equally important, but neither means anything Jewish unless they are used together. Our Haftarah similarly draws this into focus, as the voice of Isaiah is used to describe God’s disappointment in empty rituals.
            All year we are hopefully doing our best to be good people. We try to do right, and when we mess up we apologize. We try to learn from our mistakes and move forward with our lives. We try to find time in our busy personal schedules to give back to our communities, to volunteer our time or donate our money to tzedakah. We try to be reflective and sincere with our words. But we cannot do these things all the time, and the High Holy Day season is a particularly convenient time to focus on these things. The New Year is when we take the time for serious self-reflection, to wipe our slates clean and return to our best intentions, to recalibrate our lives and values, to apologize to those we’ve done wrong, including ourselves, to give to charities, to set resolutions to do better in the year to come.
            Not everyone feels the need to come to services, but for those here, clearly you find some value in it. For those friends who cannot or choose not to be here, ritual probably is more significant than they maybe know for themselves as well. Lawrence Hoffman writes in The Art of Public Prayer, “Ritual is how we play out prearranged scripts of behavior to shape specific durations of time,” and that can play out in many different ways. It might be coming to services and praying. It might mean fasting. It might just mean joining with your whole community for a meal, even if you weren’t fasting. It might mean recreating your own Tashlich ritual, or writing New Year’s resolutions, at Rosh Hashanah or on January 1st. Though our personal rituals may differ, we all need them. They help us mark time, and infuse particularity and meaning into certain days or specific events of our lives.
            On Yom Kippur, we cleanse our souls. We purify our hearts. This is ritual and ethical. They are inextricably linked on this day. Teshuvah and Tzedakah are necessary not only for Jewish values, but for all people who value honesty and kindness towards others. To do these things better, we need to take the time to cleanse our souls and purify our hearts. We need to clear the air for all the wrong we’ve done in the past year so that we can move forward. We need to feel at peace with ourselves so that we can find the energy to try harder in the year to come. When children are told that they are bad or stupid, they start acting like it. Likewise with adults. If we believe we have become too corrupt, we will stop even trying to act benevolently. If we believe we can cleanse our souls, be absolved of past evils, and move on, we will continue through the year in gratitude for forgiveness and with efforts to spread goodness.
            On Yom Kippur in days of old, the atonement came for all the people when the High Priest sacrificed animals on their behalf. He had to make expiations for his own sins first, and for those of his household and family, then once he was cleansed he could make the sacrifices on behalf of all the people. Today, we don’t have a High Priest or animal sacrifices. I can’t make expiation for you. You have to do the work yourselves, to apologize to those you’ve wronged, to ask for forgiveness from your friends and family, from the Divine, and from yourself. You fast so that you might feel the affliction of those you have hurt or whose oppression you may have contributed to, even if you didn’t realize it. You fast so that you know to take this day seriously. You pray, whether here in services or in moments of quietude with between your own soul and your vision of the Higher Power, so that you can better communicate with that which makes you a better person. We need these rituals to give meaning to our efforts to repair the world, and we need to be earnest about repairing the world to give meaning to our rituals. They are inseparable.
            I’ve spoken quite a bit this holiday season about wanting to carry the spirit of Teshuvah, Tzedakah, and Tefillah with us through the whole next year. Take a moment now to feel the hunger of your fast, to understand the meaning of the sacrifices we still make on this day. Now that you are fully in touch with that feeling of hunger and sacrifice, and its connection to Tikkun Olam and sincerity, I hope you carry that with you through the year. Every time you are hungry, take a moment to appreciate how near to food you really are, and take the next opportunity to volunteer at a soup kitchen or donate to Mazon: The Jewish Response to Hunger, or at least volunteer to help make challah for the next Shabbat. Giving back to the community starts at home, and your friends get hungry, too. Every time you feel the Yom Kippur-esque feelings of contrition, be sure to voice them, ask for forgiveness on the spot. Don’t wait for Yom Kippur to come around again, but start right away to fix what you have broken. Every time you feel worried about what may be wrong in the world, do something to make it better. You won’t be able to end all the world’s problems, but you can always do something to improve it. Think of The Starfish Story, and just starting throwing them back in one at a time.

            And when we get to the High Holy Day season of 5777, may we find our rituals meaningful, our hearts and actions purer, and our world a little more peaceful. Amen.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Yom Kippur Evening 2015

For these ten days, the gates have been open and the world has been fluid. We are finally awake, if only in fits and starts, if only to toss and turn. For ten days, transformation is within our grasp. For ten days, we can imagine ourselves not as fixed and immutable beings, but rather as a limitless field upon which qualities and impulses rise up and fall away again like waves on the sea. Some of these impulses rise up with particular intensity. We may even experience them as afflictions, but they can be the keys to our transformation. Their intensity points to the disequilibrium and dysfunction in us that is in need of transformation.

For these ten days, the field of the mind is like a painting by Kandinsky. Energy and form float in that field and we have the sense that we can shape our lives by choosing where to invest our focus and intention, by choosing which forms to follow and which to let go. This is not a linear process, not something that takes a clear or even discernible path. Rather is happens in fits and starts. Sometimes it may not even seem to be happening at all. But the gates are in fact open, and if our intention is aligned with this spiritual reality, then transformation also opens as a real possibility.
(Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared)

May this dreamlike reminder of the purpose of the High Holy days rejuvenate us as we begin our long fast and the homestretch of our ten days of teshuvah, tzedakah, and tefillah. May we remember to continue to repent and return to the path of goodness throughout the year. May we find moments every day to give tzedakah or perform a mitzvah. May we find prayer in our hearts as we express gratitude for another year of life.
The recurring theme of Yom Kippur liturgy, and particularly of Kol Nidrei is repentance for the sin of wrongful speech, the sin we are all most likely to commit. This evening as we ask for God’s forgiveness for our wrongful speech, I would like to ask that we also think about rightful speech, and how we can all do more of it. The Quakers have a saying, which has been widely adopted in social justice circles – “Speak Truth to Power.” What is your truth that you wish you were more vocal about? What are the powers you wish understood your truth better?  

May the Ultimate Power of the Universe hear our truths now. Amen.   

Friday, September 18, 2015

The accompanying texts for Shabbat Shuvah at Virginia Tech

 Shabbat Shuvah Discussion Questions
1.      Before looking at the handouts, take a moment to discuss your current ideas about civil rights, social justice, and Jewish values. How, if at all, do they all fit together?

2.      Look at the source sheet with Scripture, Talmud, Halakha, and modern Jewish works. Which verse, poem, song, or picture do you like best or you think best encapsulates Jewish values?

3.      What narrative does this chronology of Jewish life tell? Do you think it is accurate, in accordance with your experience of Judaism and/or social action? If not, where does it divert? What would be a more accurate reflection?

4.      Take a look at the Racial Justice Definitions hand out. Is there anything on there that is new to you? What makes sense and what is confusing? Do you agree with these definitions? Why or why not?

5.      Read the poem by Yehuda Webster and Zahara Zahav. Does it resonate with you? Why or why not? What assumptions can you make about the authors based on their names and poetry alone? Do you think they’d fit in at the Virginia Tech Hillel?

6.      This conversation has been centered on racial justice and the civil rights movements of Black Americans. Does the Jewish community have a similar responsibility to protect other oppressed people? How could you use a similar approach as was discussed tonight to defend the civil rights of the LGBTQ+ community?


Leviticus 19:16, 18
You shall not go around as a talebearer among your people. Do stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a false grudge against members of your community. You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 11a
At a time when the community is suffering, no one should say, “I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.”

Rambam (Maimonides), Mishneh Torah Hilchot De’ot 6:7
Whoever is in a position to prevent wrongdoing and does not do so is responsible for the sins of all the wrongdoers whom they might have stopped.

Scottsboro (An Excerpt) by Betsalel Friedman (1931)
Liar! You tell our children of freedom,
while day and night you lock them in chains and cells,
choke children on trees beside their fathers.
Lincoln freed grandmothers and grandfathers, you tell.

Children come out of the movies. Sometimes joy is in their eyes,
fooled by lies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
You’ve poisoned the milk that little babies drink,
poured into little hearts hate for Negro millions.

The joy in Black homes is like starved flesh:
Even when a child is born, one spends joy sparingly.
Who knows where a white ruler draws his blood?
Will he choke the neighbor’s son on a tree?

Pale is the tale of ancient Egypt
and the Hebrew children drowned in the river.
It’s 1931 with a frame-up in Scottsboro . . .
nothing like it in the history of slavery.

Strange Fruit By Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol (1937)
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

“The Hope of How”
By Yehudah Webster and Zahara Zahav, JFREJ leaders
 “My insides are churning”
A most sacred home in flames deemed worthless, disposable
A pastor and worshipers slain, heads bowed, in the sanctuary
A mother sits in the street where her son’s soul was poured out
A world turns its back again, again, again – there is none to comfort her
A people shown their Black bodies, tears, families do not matter
How have we fallen to such disgrace?
How long will we slink away from justice?
How do we allow?
How do we hope?
How do we dance when so heavy with grief?
How do we turn to face each other?
A woman climbs where no one dared, tears down a flag of hatred
A mother refuses to back down, power yields to her demands
A wave of clergy rise up to meet resounding call for a different world
A movement plants seeds everywhere, sprouts flowers over burial ground
A black man’s cry, “I can’t breathe” amplified in the streets for all to hear
With this hope we pray that we do not reach the point of total destruction
We pray that we desist from senseless hatred and brutality
That sacred places remain holy, unstained from the blood of racism
That we do not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors, taking instead honest account of our obligations
We pray that community, allyship and love forge new bridges of understanding and trust
That we continue to hope and believe in each other
Demanding as one that black lives truly do matter
All these things we pray in solidarity together
And let us say,


Shabbat Shuvah at Virginia Tech: Jewish Response and Responsibility to Civil Rights

            Jews have a history of oppression. In almost every age, in almost every country, we have been dehumanized, had our rights limited, were relegated to ghettos or kicked out of countries altogether, and in the worst of times and places, were even subject to large scale violence. Thankfully, the United States has long been a friend to the Jewish community. Although antisemitism is definitely no stranger here, the institutional discrimination we have faced in this country has been fairly limited. In 1790, George Washington issued a letter to the American Jewish community of the time, located in Newport, RI. He said he appreciated their support and made a point of acknowledging the similarities of the Children of Abraham and that we are all equal citizens of the United States:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

            The great irony of this, of course, is that while this kind of support for a Jewish community was unprecedented and monumental, this statement completely erases the existence of the class of people in the United States that were still not awarded any human rights or recognition. This country, though still often problematic in its treatments and expectations of Jewish Americans, has afforded us never before enjoyed privileges, while denying those privileges to others. As Jews, we understand oppression. We experienced it. We recognize it. We know all the ways in which it is wrong and hurtful. But as American Jews, we don’t have to face oppression to the extent our parents or grandparents or great grandparents did in the countries they came from, or to the extent people of color have had to endure right next to us. And that gives us a unique perspective through which to look at racism in the United States.
            I want to pause here to acknowledge the habit of Euro-centricism which the American Jewish community, myself included, is often guilty. I have heard more than once “Jews are white now,” and anthropologist Karen Brodkin even wrote a book entitled, “How the Jews Became White Folks and What that Says about Race in America,” which is the say that the racialization of Judaism is less prevalent in modern America than it has been historically or may still be globally. This does not mean that all Jews are actually white. White-skinned Jews have now, for the most part, been afforded the privileges other white people have in our society, privileges previously denied us. Jewish people of color are still by and large denied those privileges. We are all still Jewish. We are all a part of the same community, and if for nothing else, Jews have a responsibility to fight racism for the sake of our own brethren (who are equally our brethren whether they were born into a non-white Jewish community, were born to interfaith/interracial families, or became Jews by choice) who still experience institutionalized, often violent, oppression.
            That said, there are bigger reasons to fight racism than how it might affect our fellow Jews. Our scriptures tell us to be welcoming to strangers, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. It tells us to treat others kindly and with respect, as our father Abraham did for the messengers that visited his camp. It tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors. Tradition tells us that the whole of the Torah can be summed up as “That which is hateful to you, do not to others.” Jews have understood oppression, understood it to be hateful, and have an explicit responsibility to not allow it to be done to others. We have a responsibility and a tradition for Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.  
Furthermore, Jewish culture, especially in the United States, has a strong history of leftism and social justice advocacy. Modern Yiddish poetry in the early 19th century was primarily written by immigrants who had been associated with anti-czarist movements in the Old Country, and focused on Labor Movement issues, such as protecting sweatshop workers and ethnic minorities. They wrote poems in which they identified with Black Americans and the violent racism they faced. The song, “Strange Fruit,” a hauntingly beautiful tune about southern lynching made famous by Billie Holiday was actually written by a Jewish man named Abel Meeropol in 1937. In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously marched on Selma alongside Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and said of that experience that he was praying with his feet. Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath less famously also marched with them, and can be seen in the front row of the march, carrying a Torah, in one of the famous pictures of the era. Today, there are many Jewish efforts to continue this legacy and fight the racism that persists today. One such effort is the organization Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in NYC. They have put together many resources for Jews invested in understanding racial inequality and how we can better fight oppression.

You are here tonight because you have an interest in Jewish leadership on campus. In the weekly Torah portion for this week – the one on the regular cycle, not the holiday readings we read on Rosh Hashanah or will read on Yom Kippur – Moses transfers his leadership of the Israelites to Joshua. Tonight, and for those of you joining us, the retreat tomorrow, your staff at Hillel would like to transfer some leadership to you. Civil rights and large scale activism might not be the right place for you to exhibit your Jewish leadership, but in being willing to grapple with these topics and to engage with them Jewishly you are showing that you are ready to take on more Judaism and more responsibility in your own community. On your tables, there are several handouts. First look at the Discussion Questions and begin the conversation with your friends and neighbors on how you can use Jewish values to understand oppression in 21st century America. Use the other materials at the table as needed to continue the conversation.