Kol Nidrei Sermon by Rabbi Nathan Martin
In August 2014, an African American man, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. One of my students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was experiencing considerable distress over the shooting. She is partnered with a person of color who is from Ferguson. At the time, I sought to respond as best as I could. I reached out to the student and together we composed an email about ways people could show up at demonstrations or to send tzedaka to the organizers of protests then happening in Ferguson. Yet, I still felt somewhat helpless and ineffective in the wake of it all.
For the last two years, we have witnessed a replay of this unfortunate type of violence again and again. Deb Kraus, in her introduction to the Unetane Tokef prayer on Rosh Hashannah, helped us to take note of the many black lives that have been cut short through police shootings.
As a liberal Jew, I grew up with a narrative of how Jews were allied with and instrumental in helping to fight for civil rights in the U.S, particularly the American south. And how we too, physically or symbolically, marched alongside our African American brothers and sisters to work for change. This remains an important part of my picture of American Jewish history of which I am proud.
And, I have come to realize that simply holding onto that picture is not enough. It’s not enough for this moment in which we find ourselves today. I have been asking myself what can I do to support our Jewish communities to be important players in the work toward eliminating institutional racism that people of color face everyday in America. Some of the hardest questions I have had to ask myself are: “what role do I play in perpetuating discrimination?” and “what can I do to make a difference?” These are difficult questions to face.
Part of my exploration has involved exploring ways in which I, as a white person, live with privilege that others don’t. I recently looked through Peggy McIntosh’s “white privilege checklist” –copies of which are in the back of the sanctuary—which asks you to note ways in which one carries privilege like, “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” or “I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race,” or “I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.” I could go on and list others, and encourage people to take a look at the list. But the point is that, as McIntosh notes, I as a white person carry around “an invisible package of unearned assets, which I can count on cashing in each day.”
I am aware that I have absorbed the biases and stereotypes that are the unspoken currency of American culture. I grew up in a primarily white, middle class suburb in Seattle. I went to Jewish day school. And because of this limited upbringing, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience the richness (and challenge) that comes with growing up in a more diverse community. Instead, I absorbed attitudes of distrust and fear of people who were different than me. And even today, when I read about yet another shooting of an unarmed person of color, I can see how challenging it is for me to stay engaged. I don’t want to have to face the imperfections of our country. I want to turn away rather than turn toward confronting potential bias. But now is the time to turn toward. I want to help create a country where my children, and their children, can grow up in less isolation than I did, and where we can eliminate the systematic privileging of whiteness.
And, I know that I am not alone in this struggle.
Our tradition reminds us daily to reach beyond ourselves. Our daily prayers ask us to imagine ourselves in the position of the most vulnerable in our society; they tell us that we were strangers in the land of Egypt and from our long history of experiencing anti-Jewish oppression we know what it is like to be harassed, expelled, and killed. Our tradition teaches us the radical teaching of “tzelem elohim” that we are compelled to remember that we are all created in the image of the divine, that we are all infused with divine goodness. Our tradition thus constantly calls us to spiritual transformation which is a core part of how we transform the world. One small exercise that I sometimes do, and not frequently enough, is to walk down the street and every time I see another person I say in my head “be-tzelem elohim” “in the image of God.” Spiritual practice such as this is one way to harness the wisdom of our tradition towards change.
We also get to reach for each other in this important work. For several years, I have been meeting regularly with a group of white men and women whose focus has been specifically on examining our own racism and how it limits us having the life we want to live. When we get together we listen to each other to share where it is difficult to notice our privilege, where we appreciate our efforts for combating racism, and talk about how we are doing building relationships with people of color in our lives. I also participated in a race dialogue last week as part of a training to facilitate challenging conversations where I listened to the messages that African Americans received about white people growing up. These are not easy conversations to have but they are important. And It is heartening to notice that more of these kinds of meetings and conversations are happening. What would it be like for more of us in this coming year to explore ways in which we can have frank and challenging conversations about race, whiteness, and the ways in which we have had to settle for less because of how we both experience and perpetuate institutionalized racism?
Finally, I am conscious that we are living in a moment of an important national conversation on race, a conversation that has coalesced around the Black Lives Matter movement, most recently with the issuing of the The Movement for Black Lives Platform. The platform, divided up into six categories, includes dozens of demands backed up by policy briefs, strategic plans, and links to model legislation and organizations working on those issues. It includes issues of mass incarceration and inhumane prison conditions which we will be exploring as a community tomorrow afternoon with Margo Schlanger and Ronald Simpson-Bey.
And while I do not want to downplay or diminish the hurt that many American Jews have experienced with regard to the platform’s position and wording around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the vast majority of the document is focused on some practical and some visionary ways that we can change American society for the better. I hope that we can hold this complexity in mind as we do the work of supporting change here at home while also voicing our hope that situations elsewhere in the world are not overly simplified or essentialized in their characterizations. We have an opportunity here to commit ourselves to standing up, in whatever way we can, for a new direction in our country. A direction where we work not only for our own welfare but for the welfare of those who face the daily indignities of personal and institutional discrimination.
Yom Kippur is an important moment in our Jewish year to not only take a close look at our individual drifting from the mark in which we set for ourselves. It is also a moment for us to take a careful look at how we as a society are fulfilling our obligations to support those who are vulnerable to discrimination. It is a time when we re-commit to act in addition to pray.
The Untene Tokef prayer which I talked about on Rosh Hashannah hints at this as well. The prayer notes that works of justice, of tzedaka, lessen the harshness of the decree. We need to enter this new year with the faith and the hope that our tzedek work, our work to right societal wrongs will lessen the harshness of the decree for ourselves and others in our country.
My challenge to all of us tonight is simple.
What is a concrete step you can envision taking in your personal and communal tzedek work that will move us towards a fairer, more just, and more loving and welcoming country for everyone? What can you see yourself doing in your own life to have the conversations about how racism has affected you? What would you need to do this year to be able to come back next high holidays and say, “yes, I made some important progress this past year. It’s not done, but I can be pleased with how I am contributing.”
There is a parable in the Talmud that seeks to answer the question of why the blessing over bread is given such high status among Jewish blessings. The parable talks of a king who has two sons, each of whom he gives an equal amount of harvested flax and wheat and is given the instruction to guard these items. One son builds a storehouse and puts the bundles of flax and wheat under lock and key. The other son takes the flax and processes it into a beautiful linen tablecloth and takes the bundles of wheat and processes them into two beautiful challot. The king rewards the son who took the time and attention to take the raw materials he provided and enhance their meaning and ritual beauty.
As a Jew one of the things I am particularly proud about is the way my people have made the righting of inequality central to our being in the world. The opportunity to do tzedek work in our world can be likened to the children of the king being asked to guard the wheat and flax. Will we take the opportunity to weave these materials into something more beautiful, to help create more equitable ways in which we can live together and share in the benefits of society? Or will we simply build walls around the status quo?
In the coming year may we all be called to harvest and transform the brokenness so that we may live into our commitment that all of us are created in the divine image.