A Rabbi’s Take on #TakeAKnee

Image: Oakland Athletics’ rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell was the first Major League Baseball player to #TakeAKnee during the national anthem during their game Saturday. (Image Source: YouTube screenshot)

I am not a football fan. The only pro sport I follow with interest is baseball.

Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback, now unemployed, began to kneel during the National Anthem last year as a way of protesting systemic racism in our society. He found a respectful, high profile way to speak his mind, as is his right. People I know who care about football say that speaking his mind has something to do with his state of employment. Whatever the truth, it was no longer a news story.

This past week, President Trump said some vulgar things about several sports stars including Mr. Kaepernick. He said them at a rally in Alabama, then tweeted more trash-talk. First it became a Twitter brawl, then it turned into a big news story.

Here’s the thing: Mr. Kaepernick’s protest was last year’s news until the President saw fit to breathe new life into it by bringing it up.  Now the NFL is involved, all the sports fans are involved, and even one baseball player (Bruce Maxwell from my beloved Oakland Athletics) is involved.

But let’s focus on the real news item here: none of this was news until this weekend, when the President went out of his way to make it news.

Others have pointed out that the President should be busy with more important things: the human crisis in Puerto Rico, where American citizens are dying from lack of assistance, the looming nuclear threat in North Korea, and the upcoming vote on an unpopular healthcare bill. All these things are his job, the job the American people hired him to do.

Mr. Trump wants us outraged and polarized so that we won’t pay attention to other things – things like Puerto Rico, the nuclear war looming with North Korea, and the healthcare bill that could pass next week and kill citizens just as surely as the nuclear war would. He has learned that he can push the racism button and get a reaction every time. His supporters love it, and the lefties hate it. Either way, it works.

Don’t allow yourself to be derailed. Have your opinion about the NFL mess, sure. But call your Senators to express your feelings about the Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill. That bill is opposed by the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, the March of Dimes, and 14 other medical associations. Even if your Senator is a Democrat, call. If your Senator is a Republican, call and call and call – unless you don’t care about your future access to healthcare and that of your family.

THEN – take action against racism, which is what this #TakeAKnee protest is really about. Let’s lower our defenses and educate ourselves. Knowing that Rabbi Heschel marched in the 60’s is NOT being sufficiently educated about racism. Thinking that we have no dog in that fight is a sure sign that there’s more to learn; we all have a stake in systemic racism. Where to look? I suggest reading anything by TaNahisi Coates to begin. Even if you finish reading and still disagree with me that there is systemic racism in America, you will have an educated opinion. Then come back and argue – I welcome a good machlochet l’shem hashamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven.

For those who are saying to themselves, Rabbi, quit the politics: this is not about politics. The health care bill and racism are moral issues. I have a duty as a rabbi to address them, for they are quite literally at the heart of Torah. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Leviticus 19, the chapter that is in the center of every Torah scroll.

I look forward to the day when I can go back to worrying about my baseball team.

May 5778 be a year of peace and health for the citizens of our country and for all around the world. Until then, let us use our phones.

 

 

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Part 2: 10 Things We Can Do Now About #Charlottesville

Image: “Seek Justice” written on a brick wall. Art by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

This message is aimed primarily at readers in the United States. It is a follow-up to the previous post Part 1: Why #Charlottesville is Different.

We can:

  1. Remember that we are all in this together. We Jews may have disagreements on some topics with each other or with other groups, but now is not the time to focus on that. What we have in common with Black Lives Matter and other minority groups is that white supremacists hate us all. Benjamin Franklin once said, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
  2. Write, fax, call, and email our Congresspersons and Senators, demanding that Congress forthrightly condemn the events in Charlottesville and the ideology of white supremacy.
  3. Write the White House, condemning the President’s support of white supremacists and his association with staffers like Steven Bannon and Sebastian Gorka who have publicly espoused “alt-right” ideology. We each have to decide exactly what we will ask him to do.
  4. Write our local papers asking for a clear statement from our local officials condemning white supremacy. This is one time when it’s good to be a NIMBY.
  5. Support organizations that track and fight hate in the USA. This includes the NAACP, the ADL, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
  6. Get on the mailing list of the Religious Action Center.  It describes itself as “the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity in Washington, D.C.” The RAC is a great place to learn about social justice initiatives and to join with others to protest injustice. If not the RAC, find some other organization where you can combine your effort with that of others.
  7. Recognize that there are Jews of Color, people who face both the oppression of anti-semitism and the oppression of racism. Learn about them. One place to learn is the website of Be’chol Lashon, “In Every Voice.” Another is JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. Recognize that there have been Jews with brown or black skins back to the very beginnings of Judaism.
  8. Drop the defensive attitude about other people’s oppression. When someone talks about their people’s troubles, we should not immediately reply “But not all of us…” or “But Jews are oppressed too…” When someone is talking about their people’s troubles, we need to LISTEN. Just listen. If they ask for a response, say, “I’m listening.” Listen and learn.
  9. Educate ourselves. We have a responsibility as Jews to study and to learn. Start with one article or book. Then read another. Some reading lists from the internet:
    1. Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race – articles as well as books
    2. Tim Wise’s Reading List – categorized by topic
    3. White People Challenging Racism reading list
    4. Suggested Reading from the Social Justice Training Institute
  10. Speak up. I have an awful time speaking up to my elders, but the situation is dire. When someone says something hateful or disparaging about people of another race or religion, we must speak up. I have been practicing in front of the bathroom mirror, saying firmly: “I don’t like that kind of talk. Please don’t.”

These are things we can do. If you have ideas about more ways to fight this situation, I hope you will suggest them in the comments.

Justice, Justice you shall pursue! – Deuteronomy 16:20

 

Why I Don’t Do “Race.”

torahscrollsTwitty
Michael Twitty is an observant Jew, a teacher of Torah, and an eminent food historian.

I am reposting an article from Michael Twitty’s blog Afroculinaria because it is a beautiful teaching about racism, a subject that surrounds us but which most of us don’t understand.

I encourage you to read it and pass links to it among your circle of friends. I also encourage you to click the “Donate” link on the right side of Mr. Twitty’s blog. Supporting a teacher of Torah is an important mitzvah, because it preserves Torah for the next generation.

– Rabbi Ruth Adar

Afroculinaria

Race.

The minute I say that I’m African American people cast that word “race,” on me faster than the net that they used to catch Kunta Kinte in Roots.

Race is a dangerous concept and it’s source, the evolution of the Western response to human differences and diversity, from treating non-Europeans as titillating alien curiosities to enslaved chattel, colonial subjects and global pawns in a game of winner take all; is the end result of 2000 years of wrangling over what human means, what the divine means, what our destiny means when it doesn’t look like us.

African American is not a race. African American is a cultural designation. It’s as socio-political as Black, Negro, Colored, before it. Its an old term, first appearing in print in America in the late 18th century. Jesse Jackson didn’t invent it and please don’t bore me with “you’re not African,” because it’s…

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The End of the Zero-Sum Game

“Zero-sum game” – a game in which the sum of the winnings and losses of the various players is always zero, the losses being counted negatively. (Dictionary.com)

Lately I hear arguments about a zero-sum game:

IF we pay attention to institutional racism,

     we might miss an opportunity to deal with gun violence.

IF we focus on gun violence,

we might drop the ball on disability rights.

IF we focus on the rights of disabled people,

we might forget the violence against women and transwomen of color.

IF we focus on justice for transgender people

what about women’s rights?

IF we focus on women’s rights

what about economic justice for all?

And if we are so focused on economic justice for all

what about… surely by now you get my point:

Justice is not a zero-sum game in which I am the natural enemy of another.

Justice is when we notice that we are natural allies: the queers, the browns, the blacks, the ones on wheels, the blinds, the poors, the last in line, the fats, the funny-looking, the girls, the trans, the bis, the dispossessed of all nations, the Palestinians AND the Jews, all the people who usually get shown the back door…

Until we notice that we are all at the same door

Until we notice that we are all

One.

And on that day, we will be One

And God’s Name will be One. – Jewish Prayer Book

I don’t know exactly  how we get there, but I am determined to work for it. I am determined to see the miraculous spark of the Holy One in every single face before my own. I won’t lie down in the road to be run over, but I will do my best to lift up every other person that I can. I will deal with my fears.

Because I am really, really tired of zero-sum games.

Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof.

Justice, Justice, you shall pursue.

In a Time of Anger and Hurt

Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar used to say: Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger, nor comfort him while his dead lies before him. – Pirkei Avot 4:23

On the face of it, this saying makes no sense. Why shouldn’t we appease someone who is angry? Why not comfort a person when he is bereaved?

The clue to Rabbi Shimon’s meaning is hidden in the second clause. In Jewish tradition we do not attempt to comfort a mourner until after the burial of the dead. The stage of bereavement before burial is called aninut. During that time, mourners are relieved of all Jewish responsibility except the responsibility of providing for a proper funeral and burial. We do not speak to them unless absolutely necessary and we do not bother them with comfort. This is not a cruel practice, but a kind one: we understand them to be in terrible pain and to be carrying a great burden (the funeral.) Anything we might say would only be a distraction.

So the teaching here is: don’t try to comfort people until they are in a position to take it in, until it is time.

Then we can look at the first part and make more sense of it:

Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger.

Rabbi Shimon is advising us that when people are very angry, they can’t listen to reason, any more than a person who has just lost a loved one can be comforted. Appeasing an angry person won’t work, and arguing with them definitely won’t help matters. In both the case of the mourner and the angry person, the only thing that will help is time.

As time passes, the mourner will bury the dead, and will gradually become ready for comfort and human connection. The angry person, too, may have a chance to cool off and have a genuine discussion (unless, of course, they choose to work themselves into greater and greater anger.)

Over the last months, as the discussion on racism and America has heated up on social media, many good people have been very upset. African Americans have very literally had to mourn their dead, and they are legitimately angry about the way too many of them have been treated. Some white Americans have felt attacked by things that African Americans and other whites have said. Some whites have been taught to fear African Americans, too, and that feeds the evil of racism. Attempts at communication have gone awry. Angry words have flown.

So when I happened to read Rabbi Shimon’s words today, I was glad to be reminded of Jewish teachings about grief and anger. Shimon is saying that we do not get anywhere when we tell people how they “should” feel. When emotions are high, it’s a time to listen, not to argue. If listening is impossible, then it’s a time to step back.

Now some readers may be thinking, but rabbi, didn’t you just write that whites need to challenge one another on racist talk? I did write that, and I’m not backing down from it. Rebuke can be a mitzvah when it is properly done. There are better and worse ways to go about it, all informed by Jewish tradition:

It is important to treat every person with dignity. The rabbis tell us that embarrassing a person is no different than shedding their blood. Take a person aside to say privately, “Are you aware of how your words sounded? The words “x,y,z” sounded racist – surely you didn’t mean it that way!” Calling a person racist is just going to enflame the conversation, but pointing out words or behaviors gives them something they can change. Maybe they need help hearing themselves. And maybe, if the words were angry, they need time to cool off before they can hear anything at all.

Name calling never helps. We get farther if we talk about racist behavior and language, rather than racist people. Calling people names never won their heart. Pointing out behavior is different than calling names. People can do something about their behavior.

Leave politics out of it. So many insults have been hurled between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, that we’re all walking wounded. When someone says to me in a spiteful tone, “That’s just like you liberals,” I feel that nothing I have to say will get a hearing from them. I am sure, from what conservative friends tell me, that the converse is also true. For our own sakes, we need to lay off one another, no matter what the folks at Fox News and MS-NBC do. Let’s drop the insults and name-calling: have you ever known it to add to a fruitful discussion?

Give each person the benefit of the doubt. Actually, that’s another quotation from Pirkei Avot. When it is time to rebuke someone in private, assume that they meant well. Maybe they did or maybe they didn’t, but how can anyone know for sure?

Finally, when we are beside ourselves with strong feelings, it’s time to take a step back. It is only natural sometimes to feel angry or hurt, especially if we feel that we’re doing our best and we are not understood or appreciated. There is no shame in saying, “I am too angry/upset/tired to have a conversation right now.”

None of us are perfect. Torah calls us to love the stranger and who is stranger than the person with whom we disagree?  Let us embrace this difficult task together, and work towards a day when

…everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid. – Micah 4:4

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

Rx for the Human Spirit

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria/Metzora deals with genital discharges and skin diseases, very unpleasant things. Worse yet, people have taken this portion to some very unpleasant conclusions, framing human illness as a punishment from God.

Ick.

What if, despite the lovely descriptions of skin eruptions, this portion isn’t about a physical illness at all? Let’s take a short passage:

18 When an inflammation appears on the skin of one’s body and it heals, 19 and a white swelling or a white discoloration streaked with red develops where the inflammation was, he shall present himself to the priest. – Leviticus 13: 18-19

What if we reread this, but instead of someone having something on their skin, it’s a moral failing: racism, sexism, enviousness, unkindness? Perhaps some family member has pointed out our unkind behaviors, or a friend has mentioned that a dearly-held opinion is actually quite racist. Our first impulse on realizing these things is to deny it or hide it, because we’ve been told it is shameful. (We have also been taught to feel shame about skin diseases and genital discharges, come to think of it.)

What if, instead of hiding or denying, we went to a counselor, our rabbi or a therapist, and said, “My wife says I am unkind,”  “I am envious when I see friends get honors,” or “I would hate it if my son dated a black woman.” The good counselor would take a close look at the evidence and the context. They’d explore it with us. And perhaps things are not what they seem (“he is clean”) or perhaps there are changes that need to happen. Then they could help us toward the changes until we are “clean.”

This is not an easy fix. It requires honesty, humility, and bravery. It is not fun saying to a counselor, “I have unkind/envious/racist thoughts.”  We hear over and over that nice people don’t have those thoughts. We may have them and then squish them down quickly, because we are ashamed. On some level, we know it isn’t OK.

But as with the mysterious disease in the Torah portion, these things affect others in our community. Some of them are communicable (children learn racism and sexism from someone) and some are just plain contagious (I am unkind to Joe, and Joe kicks the dog.) Some can’t heal on their own; we may need help to change.

Here in the 21st century, there are many diseases we can cure, and many more that we can manage; even AIDS and some cancers are now somewhat manageable. However, besides physical illnesses there are other plagues with which we have made much less progress. Perhaps the prescription in Tazria/Metzora is really for them, the plagues of the human spirit.