For Whites Only: After #Charleston

This post is for my readers who are white citizens of the United States. If you are not a US citizen, or if you are a person of color, this isn’t meant for you. Nothing to see, move along, move along; please refrain from commenting, also.

If you are Jewish and wondering if you are white or not, has anyone at synagogue mistaken you for a janitor or a babysitter? If not, for purposes of this conversation, you’re white. Welcome.

I will post again soon for everyone, I promise.

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Ever since the Charleston murders this past Thursday night, I have heard a phrase repeated by several people: “This is not who we are.” I wish I could give you citations, but most of it was on the radio, and anyway, I think you will recognize it. We’ve heard it all so many times.

We want desperately to separate ourselves from a mass murderer. That’s relatively easy to do when he doesn’t look like us, but when he could be my son, my brother, my nephew it is harder. That blonde kid with the bad haircut entering the church in his gray sweatshirt is terrifying to us because he looks like us.

So we say, “This is not who we are.”

“This is not who we are.” We say this because of the horror of his deeds, because of his picture on Facebook with the racist flags on his coat, because of the hateful rhetoric he apparently espouses. We point out every detail that separates us from his ideology: our ancestors, who arrived after the war, our own birth dates, long after 1865, our membership in a group the white supremacists also hate. We assure ourselves that we do not say the N-word. We assure ourselves of our African American acquaintances and friends, maybe even of our votes for an African American president. We are not that man with the gun!

I feel it too: I feel the urge, when there’s a discussion about racist behavior, to point out that not all whites are bad, and that I was just a kid during the civil rights movement. I feel the need to point out that Jews were in the civil rights movement too, that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched at Selma, that white supremacists hate Jews, that … you know the routine. And it’s all true.

But there is a line in the Torah that bursts through all this defensiveness, all this, “Who me? That was not me!”  The line is from Leviticus 19, verse 16:

לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

This phrase, pronounced, “Lo ta-a-MOD al dahm ray-EH-cha” means “Do not stand on the blood of your neighbor.” The “your” in it is singular: this commandment is the responsibility of each individual who hears it. We can’t delegate it. We are commanded to act.

This week, nine African American human beings were murdered in cold blood by a white man with a gun as they sat in a meeting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Those facts are not in dispute. What does seem to be in dispute is each of our responsibility in the face of this crime.

If I am not to stand upon the blood of those nine individuals, then my question must be: What have I done this week to end racism in America? 

  • Do I vote? (Why not?) If I vote, do I know the record of my candidates on issues of race?
  • Have I ever contributed to the campaign of a candidate of color?
  • When did I last donate to an organization that works actively against white supremacy hate groups? (ADL, SPLC, ?)
  • When did I last notice the hiring practices at my workplace? Do I have any co-workers of color? Where are they in the hierarchy at work?
  • When did I last let a friend or co-worker know that racially tinged humor was unacceptable to me? Did I tell them so in so many words?
  • When did I last challenge someone spouting racist language?
  • When did I last question my own behavior and views?
  • If I assure myself that I have friends of color, when did they last eat in my home?
  • When did I last use a phrase like, “I don’t see color”? Do I understand how not seeing it is also a problem?
  • If my child dated a person of color how would I react? Does the particular color matter? Have they dated anyone of color? Would they know how I’d react?

If I am not actively doing something about racism, then I am standing upon the blood of my neighbors. America has a 400 year old love affair with racism. It did not end with the Civil War or with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It did not end when we elected an African American Miss America or a President with brown skin. There are some people who act as an excuse for the rest of us to do nothing, because their behavior is so much worse that we can pat ourselves on the back and say, “That’s not us.” But as long as we do nothing, we are standing upon the blood of our neighbors.

What have I personally done this week to fight racism? What will I do in the coming week?

It is In Our Power: Creating a Better World

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:

 Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof: Justice, Justice, you shall pursue! – Deuteronomy 16:20

Listening to Isaiah: Thoughts for Tisha B’Av

homeless
homeless (Photo credit: Bagunçêiro)

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!”