In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. – Genesis 1:1-3
Chapter 1 of Genesis teaches us that words create worlds.
That’s all. You can get hung up on “days” or evolution if you wish, but the message there is plain as day: words create worlds.
Jewish tradition teaches us that this kind of creation did not stop with the first Shabbat: each of us has this beautiful, terrible power to create realities with our words. Jewish tradition teaches us that saying embarrassing words can cause wounds so real that they are the equivalent of murder.
Recently I saw a clip of a 1962 speech by Malcolm X, and in it he elucidates the ways in which our media create a reality that frames the way we interpret violence. His point was very Jewish: words create reality. If most of what we see of African Americans in the news is about criminal activity, then we are less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to any African American who is arrested or injured by police. If any good news about an African American is framed as a “remarkable accomplishment,” then we are inclined to think that most are not capable or not willing.
Words create worlds. When I hear that someone has been stopped for questioning, do I assume that they are guilty of something? What if I hear that a person I know has been stopped? What if I hear that a person like me has been stopped? And what if I hear that a person from a stigmatized category has been stopped? What do I think then?
We have to fight for the world in which we wish to live. We have to create a good world every day, with our speech and with the words to which we choose to listen. We have to speak that world, live that world, will that world into being. We have to root out the remnants of any other world from the dusty corners of our psyches and say: Begone! For only then will we be free enough to fulfill the command:
Justice, justice, you shall pursue! – Deuteronomy 16:20
My children grew up in Oakland, CA. They are two white men, and because they’ve grown up in Oakland, they have many friends who are African Americans or Latinos. Since they were in middle school my sons have seen how their friends are treated by the police and as a result, they are distrustful of law enforcement. Conversely, I tend to trust the cops, because I’m white and grew up in the Southeast. We’ve had many interesting discussions on our differences of perception; over time I’ve come to realize that I’ve lived a very sheltered life in this respect.
We have a crisis of confidence in the USA today, one that undermines our system of laws. People of color believe that they are harassed unfairly by police, that they are arrested more often than white peers, that they are convicted more often and spend more time in prison than white peers. In states that permit the death penalty, they are executed far more often than white peers. In short, many African Americans believe that the entire system of justice is geared to treat them unfairly and that they cannot expect justice from it.
One could write this off as paranoia, except that the statistics bear it out. In “Fourteen Examples of Racism in Criminal Justice System” Bill Quigley has assembled a horrifying list of examples of studies which conclude that the US criminal justice system treats people of color unfairly. While African Americans are only 13% of the US population, they comprise 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, even though studies have shown that they engage in drug offenses at rates comparable to the white majority. That’s just the first item on his list – click the link and read the rest of it.
So when an unarmed African American youth is shot dead in the street by a white police officer in broad daylight, it should not surprise us at all that his family and many others believe that there might be something amiss. Given that his is the latest in a string of highly publicized deaths of unarmed young men of color, it should not surprise us that many people are angry and demand justice. And now that a grand jury has returned from its deliberations behind closed doors with no indictment, it should not surprise us that parts of this nation are overwhelmed with anger and grief.
Judaism teaches us that justice is an essential value. Justice is not only punishment meted out to the wrongdoer; it is also the assurance that the innocent will not be punished. Justice is even-handed towards all classes of people: “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; you shall not favor the poor, nor favor the mighty; but in righteousness shalt you judge your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:15) Maimonides insists that judges must have stainless reputations; they must conduct themselves in such a way that not only is justice done, but so that it is seen to have been done. Appearances count: a judge or judicial process which smells fishy is a problem.
President Obama said tonight that “we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.” In other words, he said we have to accept the verdict of our legal system. In practical terms, yes, the grand jury is over and Officer Wilson will never stand trial in a criminal court. But today’s events say loud and clear to me that we must deal with the injustices in our system, precisely because so many people distrust not only this verdict, but the entire system that produced it.
If you are unhappy with the demonstrations, if you are unhappy with today’s verdict, no matter what “side” you are on, surely we can all agree that we should have a system of justice that is truly just, to which every law-abiding person can appeal with confidence. People are out in the street because they believe they cannot trust the legal system or law enforcement. They are not crazy. Again, if you haven’t looked at the list of studies Mr. Quigley offers in his article, I beg that you do so.
The only way to improve our situation is to improve the statistics. For example:
We need an end to traffic stops that target black drivers. When black drivers are stopped, they should get exactly the same treatment as a white driver in the same circumstances.
If whites and blacks engage in drug offenses in roughly equal proportions, then arrests should also match those proportions.
We need to improve the public defender system and insure that every person gets a fair trial, because any individual might be innocent.
There should be no difference in the length of prison sentences for black and white offenders.
I am sure there are other things that need to be done, and experts who have ideas how to get there. My point is that what we have right now is not a good system of justice, because too many people believe it to be unjust. We must work towards a perception of fairness and justice by all citizens, not just certain privileged groups of citizens.
There is no quick or easy fix. “Justice, justice you shall pursue” cannot be reduced to “chase the bad guys.” Guns won’t fix it, Humvees won’t fix it, slogans won’t fix it, and riots definitely won’t fix it. What we need is a national renewal of dedication to the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that in our nation, justice is indeed for all.
Today I was scheduled for jury duty. I kept the day clear, called last night to see if they wanted me at 9 a.m., and then phoned again at 11 a.m. to see if they wanted me at 1 p.m. They didn’t want me. I’m done for the next year.
This year jury duty was no big deal. Some years I go in for one cattle call, and then they release me. A couple of years ago, I went in for my cattle call, and then back again and again as the jury was selected, until I was Juror #8. That year it was a two week job.
That time, I got to see the whole process, including the process of people trying to get released from duty. The judge was tough but fair: single proprietors of small businesses and single caretakers of small children went home almost immediately, serving almost no time. People with long-planned nonrefundable vacations were released, too. A couple of folks who did not have the ability to follow the arguments were gently sent home. People who merely couldn’t be bothered were held to serve, at least one of them on the jury itself. He quit whining about it about the third day, as I recall.
We worked hard. Even the whiny guy who didn’t want to be there worked hard, by the time we got to deliberations. During the days of testimony and waiting, we worked hard at following the rules: no chatting about it, no opinions, just take it all in. We understood that years of a man’s life depended on our behavior and decisions. We saw that witnesses had been unwilling, and we saw the damage to the victim. We heard conflicting testimony. We knew, too, that there were many things we were not allowed to see or hear, and we had to accept that. We knew that the crime in question was too common for the newspapers, but that it represented a small piece of a big problem in our community. We intuited other crimes that the defendant may have committed, but those were not the matter at hand.
After the testifying was done, I served as foreperson of the jury as we processed information and slowly re-covered what we had seen and heard. I took vote after vote, stopping to discuss and process some more after each vote, getting us closer to a verdict. As I said, we all worked hard.
At the end of it, we convicted a man of a felony. At the end of it, I felt that I’d done my very best, that we’d done our very best, and I hope justice was done. At the end of it, I had learned that nothing on television even approximates reality, especially reality shows.
I would just as soon not serve on a jury again. The thing is, every defendant is some mother’s child, a human being who needs a fair trial whatever he or she deserves at the end of that trial. It is an imperfect system, but as the judge said to us at the end of it, it’s better than any other system human beings have devised.
As a Jew, I’m proud of the many contributions of Jewish civilization to the processes of law. As a rabbi, I am conscious of the requirement of Jewish law and tradition that I obey the law and serve: dina d’malchuta dina, “the law of the land is the law.” I did jury duty today serving my responsibilities as an American and as a Jew.
During the three weeks before Tisha B’Av, Jews read the three Haftarot of Affliction warning us about the penalties for ignoring our responsibilities as Jews. Those readings are a bracing antidote to fusses over fine details of liturgy or who-slighted-whom in the High Holy Day honors. A little taste from the first chapter of Isaiah:
Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
According to Isaiah, unless we care about those who suffer, and we do something about poverty and injustice, we have missed the point of Torah.
John Scalzi at the Whatever blog points to an interesting article that includes a calculator for the cost of raising a family in several major metro areas in the U.S. and compares it to the official federal poverty line, which is currently $23,550 for a family of four. The same article points out that a single adult with a full time minimum wage job will make $15,080. To sum up, in my own neighborhood:
Cost for a family of four to live in the SF Bay Area with a minimum level of security: $84,133.
Federal poverty line for that same family: $23,550.
Minimum wage job, 1 adult: $15, 080. Even with 2 adults working: $30,160.
Contemplate those figures for a few minutes.
In my own personal circle of acquaintance, I know of several folks who lost jobs during the Great Recession and who have not managed to find work again above the minimum wage level. Most are middle-aged adults who have responsibility for teenaged children and/or aging parents. They are not stupid people, nor are they lazy people. They are unlucky people in fields where employers would prefer to fill positions with younger employees who don’t have as much experience and therefore cost less.
I know of another person who worked at a job she loved for many years. It wasn’t the sort of thing that made a lot of money, but she saved what she could. However, she could not afford disability insurance, and when her knees and back gave out (it was a physical job) she, too, was middle-aged and uninteresting to employers. She’s been tangled in the red tape of public assistance for months, and I am worried that she will become homeless.
I know way too many young people for whom college wasn’t an option, because they had no wealthy relatives and they have a healthy fear of the crippling debt that a college education requires of such people these days, even for a state college. The ones who went to college are in a different pickle: they are mostly underemployed and drowning in debt. See, they had to work summers to pay for college (even with the debt) and wealthier peers spent that time at unpaid internship jobs. A resume with a well-chosen internship on it trumps one with none – so the poorer student cannot compete.
Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
I’m focusing here on the personal economic misery among people I know, but the cost to us all is staggering. The great boom of the 1950’s and 1960’s was fueled by a large educated workforce in the United States. Now no one but the wealthy can afford to go to school. (If you are grumping about “part time jobs” and “scholarships” you have not sent anyone to college lately.)
Back in 590 BCE, Isaiah preached that if Israel did not take care of her poor, disaster would result. God was fed up with the fancy ritual that substituted for the Torah virtues of hesed [lovingkindness] and tzedakah [relief of the suffering.]
I do not have the eloquence of Isaiah, but if Tisha B’Av has any meaning for us today, it is that we neglect the care of the poor at our peril. When we focus so tightly on the Temple edifice, we fail to hear the voice of the speaker in Lamentations, the scroll we will read this Tuesday: he does not wail at length about the loss of that edifice. He weeps for the suffering that he has seen, the destruction and waste of a great city.
This Tisha B’Av, whether you fast or not, let us consider what we personally are going to do about the suffering all around us. Have we given as much tzedakah as we can to the agencies that relieve suffering? Have we explained to our elected officials that we are not going to vote for them again unless they can manage to get something done? have we organized with others on behalf of those who suffer? Have we done everything in our power to see to it that every neighbor can go to sleep at night feeling “minimally secure?”
Jeremiah and Isaiah are crystal clear that our fast does not matter, is in fact offensive, if we are not doing something to right the wrongs around us. Nor do I think that we get points for indignation, unless we are actually Doing Something.
Tisha B’Av is traditionally a day of mourning, but if it is only that, then we are trapped in the past, a dead religion.
Torah is more than a museum piece. This Tisha B’Av, let us arise, let us say, “Torah is alive, it lives in each of us, and there is work to be done!”
Justice, justice you shall pursue. – Deuteronomy 16:20
This past month I helped out a friend and his parents, Joe and Hideko. He needed to be out of town, and his elderly parents, who live on their own, needed someone to watch over them and do grocery shopping. August is my least busy time of year, and I genuinely like his parents: no problem!
The day after Dave (I’ve changed all the names) left town, his dad took three falls and complained of dizziness and a headache. I bundled the couple into my car and off we went to the emergency room nearest their home, as instructed on Dave’s “In case of emergency” instructions. Good news: no injuries, and no stroke in progress (my big fear.) The doc said, casually, “Be sure and get him an appointment with his VA doc this coming week.”
It seemed so simple: I had a number to call for his doc, and I called it. The person answering the phone said they’d call me back with an appointment.
Days passed. Three days. I began to get nervous. Joe began to fret. I called again.
We had the same conversation, and I was told they’d call back. “Ahh, wait a minute!” I said, “That’s what they told us last time. WHEN are you going to call back?” “Oh, sorry that happened, ma’am, within an hour.”
Two hours pass. My blood pressure is rising. I phoned back.
This routine continued during office hours for a WEEK. I talked with a different person each time. Some of them lectured me on “procedure” and got downright nasty when I suggested that I no longer believed in callbacks. One seemed sympathetic, and assured me that “the doctor will call tomorrow.” Whew!
Then, out of the blue, we got a call from the VA, a doctor’s office, no less, but it was an office calling to set up in-home visits (which my friend had been trying to set up for Joe before he left town.) The nurse (a nurse!) on the other end of the line was very apologetic, but also VERY FIRM that I had to get Joe to the doc soon. I assured her I’d love to, but how?
She said we could just go to the walk-in outpatient clinic in Oakland. No one else had mentioned it.
So, the next business day, I bundle the couple into the car (this time with my partner in tow, because I’d learned that these two intrepid elders tended to wander in opposite directions in public places.) We got to the second floor of the building in Oakland and walked into a mob scene.
Lines and lines of men (mostly men) waiting to talk to someone. There was a line for people with appointments (I wanted to ask them all, how DID you get those?) and a line for people with no appointments. Joe and I got in that line. Hideko and Linda sat in the chairs. We were only the second in line; I figured we’d gotten our first break.
This eighty-something gentleman, veteran of three wars — WWII, Korea, and Vietname — and I stood in the line for thirty minutes. This gave me time to observe the room. The person handling our line seemed to spend most of his time staring at a computer screen and shaking his head. All around us there were vets, many of them elderly, and most of them, judging from their clothing, not well off financially. They interviewed one another about the wars they’d been in (WWII? Korea? Nam? Desert Storm? Iraq? Afghanistan?). They waited, patiently.
Finally we got to the head of our line. At Joe’s request (his hearing is so poor that communication is difficult,) I explained to the guy behind the counter what the nurse had said: Joe needs to see a doc, and soon. He shook his head.
“No can do. You need to call for an appointment.” I explained that we’d already tried that, that the nurse said he could come to the outpatient clinic.
“This is an outpatient clinic,” he said, talking slowly, as if I were perhaps not quite bright, “For a post-hospital-discharge visit, you need an appointment.” Then because I continued standing there, silent, trying to keep a grip on my temper, he said, “Why don’t you go over to the guy in the other line and talk with him?” He pointed us to the line that was marked clearly, “Only enter this line if you have an appointment.”
I looked at Joe. Joe looked at me. We walked over to the other desk. That fellow immediately waved us off. “This is for people with appointments.”
“Have some mercy!” I said, loudly, “We’ve been phoning for a week!” I marched up to the counter, past the line of guys waiting and stood at that counter. Joe stood next to me. I riveted my gaze on the guy behind the desk. “I have to get this veteran to Dr. Marcetti. The nurse said so. A doctor said so. And I don’t know what else to do, so I’m just going to stand here.”
There was a little silence. He typed at his computer some more. He tore something off the printer.
“Here’s an appointment for next Monday.”
Now, what I want to know is, why do we treat veterans this way? Joe was trembling from standing so long (I was trembling from holding my temper.) This is a man who spent most of his eighty two years serving this country. He’s the veteran of multiple wars. His wife followed him around the globe; they’d lived the peripatetic life of military people. THIS is their reward?
I hear from Dave that things have actually gotten better in the last few years. The Obama Administration has reinstated some veteran services that were eliminated or curtailed during the Bush years. That fact left me speechless. This is better?
Justice, justice shall you pursue.
I ask you, where is the justice for men and women who come home broken and hurt? Where is the justice for those who devote their lives to our protection and care? If you call the VA asking for justice, well, just know that no one ever calls back.
Justice, Justice you shall pursue. – Deuteronomy 16:20
Twice in the last month I have had experiences that made me wonder where justice might be found.
One was this morning. I went to register voters at the Emeryville Community Action Program, where folks were taking numbers and lining up for a distribution of food from the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Everyone I talked with was already registered to vote, but I had some interesting conversations.
My politics are way left of center, but I try to challenge my assumptions. This was a golden opportunity to do just that: I’m at a place that is literally handing out free food and free (used) clothing. I looked at the group and asked myself, “Where could each of these people get a job, if there were jobs to be had?”
The only person I saw there under the age of 60 was a charming young man who was setting up. I did not ask if he was a volunteer or a paid worker, but he was definitely working. Everyone else looked quite a bit older than me (57). I also noticed that every hand I shook was callused; these people had done some hard work in their day. Many were both elderly and disabled. There were also a fair number of Asian elderly ladies who did not speak English — but even if they had, I can’t picture them working at Starbucks.
For the life of me, I can’t imagine what any of them would be doing without help from someone, nor can I imagine that there’s anything wrong with them getting help. But I’d rather see them at the grocery store with food stamps than standing in line on the street, waiting for the Food Bank handout. Old people should be treated with dignity, or so I was taught.
That brings me to the second experience: at the Veteran’s Administration. I’ll blog that one tomorrow.
Justice, justice you will pursue.
Where is the justice? It sure isn’t standing out there on San Pablo Ave, waiting patiently for a little food.