After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

One Saturday last month I was sitting by the pool after services, watching my son and his friends swim, when my cellphone started to buzz with messages from friends. I picked it up, and I watched in horror as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville.

Angry white men with flaming torches had stormed the university campus on Friday night. On Shabbat they marched through the city, some of them carrying swastika flags and giving Nazi salutes. They shouted the old Nazi slogan “blood and soil.” They shouted, “white lives matter.”

Of course I knew that hatred of Jews existed. But I’ve never encountered it in my daily life. I thought of Jew-hatred, along with Nazism, as a largely defeated ideology of the past. On the day of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville I recoiled in horror. This hatred of us is real, and I was completely unprepared. And it’s not just hatred of us: it’s hatred of everyone who doesn’t fit the white supremacist mold.

Nazis and white supremacists must be stopped. And the fact that some people draw a false moral equivalency between the Nazis and the counter-protestors also horrifies me. But on this day of remembrance and introspection, I want Charlottesville to spur us to do some inner work… and the first step in that work is acknowledging that we weren’t the only ones triggered, or targeted, by Unite the Right.

The Nazi chants and swastika flags in Charlottesville were badly triggering for many of the Jews I know. And the mob of angry white men with burning torches was badly triggering for many African Americans. Their communities carry the memory of of Ku Klux Klan attacks and lynchings, just as our communities carry the memory of pogroms and the Shoah.

While many of my white friends were as shocked as I was by this display of bigotry, none of my non-white friends were remotely surprised. Sad and angry, yes. Surprised, not at all.

In recent months, when I’ve had cause to say, “this isn’t the America I thought I lived in,” my non-white friends have said, “…this is the America we’ve always known.” And they’ve pointed out that the fact that I’m surprised by this kind of ugliness shows that I’ve never had to walk a mile in their shoes.

They’re right. No one throws racial slurs at me because of my skin. No one tells me to “go back where I came from” because of the way I dress or because of my mother tongue. My one visible marker of difference is my kippah, and I’ve heard people exclaim, “I didn’t know a woman could wear one of those,” but I’ve never been accused of supporting terrorism because of the way I cover my head. My Muslim friends have.

I have the luxury of being surprised by racism and bigotry because I don’t live with them every day. That’s part of the privilege I inhabit as a person with white skin. But we who had the luxury of being shocked by racism do not have that luxury any more. We need to open our eyes to the privilege we’ve unconsciously enjoyed as people with white skin; to the systemic injustices faced by people whose skin is brown; and to our obligation to dismantle the systemic privilege that benefits us over them.

When I say “systemic,” I mean something more entrenched than individual acts of bigotry. I mean that prejudice is embedded in institutions and structures: from whose schools are well-funded, to how we’re treated in the workplace, to who gets “stopped and frisked,” to who gets deported. That systemic prejudice benefits those of us in this room who are white. We didn’t ask for those benefits, but we receive them.

Many of us have experienced antisemitism, whether overt or covert. Many of us are living with the inherited collective trauma of thousands of years of persecution: the destruction of the Temples, expulsions, pogroms, the Inquisition, Hitler’s attempt at genocide. Anti-semitism is notably on the rise. Many of us don’t feel safe. When I say it’s our job to dismantle white privilege, it may feel like I’m ignoring the trauma that we carry with us as Jews.

I understand that. I feel it too. But this isn’t an either/or. Yes, we live with generations of inherited trauma, and many of us experience antisemitism now. And those of us who have white skin experience privilege because of that skin, whether we want to or not. Those two things don’t cancel each other out.

What would happen if we could expand our hearts and our minds far enough to see the whole within which we can be both oppressed (as Jews who experience antisemitism) and oppressors (as whites who benefit from the color of our skin)? What actions would we take to create justice and healing then?

You may be thinking, “hang on, wait a minute: being white doesn’t make me an oppressor!” I want that to be true too. And what I’ve learned from people wiser than me is this: all of us with white skin benefit from white privilege, and that itself is oppressive even if we don’t “do” anything to make it so. The nation in which we live is oppressive to people who are not white. If we don’t act against the oppression, we align ourselves with those who oppress. As Elie Wiesel wrote, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

In the words of poet Naomi Shihab Nye, “I’m not interested in who suffered the most.” I’m interested in healing the disease of racism and prejudice. While any community suffers from that toxicity, then no community is safe from its poison.

It’s our job to stand against that ugliness. And we must do so specifically as Jews. Not only because we have often been the targets of bigotry — though we have been, and we still are. We must act against racism because our tradition calls us to meet the needs of the disenfranchised and the powerless. Because the verse most often repeated in Torah is “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Loving the stranger means loving not only the people who are like us, but loving those who are not like us.

And when you love someone, you ask them what they need, and then you strive to meet that need. People of color need us to work against racism in all of its forms. They need us to do this as white people. Because as scary as it can be to stand up to racism when you’re white, it’s a lot harder to do so when you’re not. We need to speak loudly against racism, and act boldly against racism. Because if we don’t, then our silence gives tacit approval to the kind of boundless hatred we witnessed in Charlottesville.

White supremacy also hurts us as Jews. Antisemitism and white supremacy have long been deeply intertwined. Although most of us in this room have white skin, white supremacists don’t see us as “white.” To them, “white” means “Christian.” But I believe that we need to work against racism not just because doing so is good for us, but because we aspire to be a people who stand for justice.

We all tell ourselves stories about our nation. We want to believe that this is the “goldene medina,” that anyone who works hard can “make it” here. We want to believe that we live in a “post-racial” society that’s safe for everyone regardless of race, creed, or gender expression. These stories are not actually true. And by clinging to these comforting falsehoods, we give ourselves an excuse to ignore the realities with which so many of our fellow Americans live.

We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves, too. Stories about who we are and who we intend to be. Sometimes they’re stories about why we couldn’t live up to our aspirations, stories that make us feel better about our shortcomings and our flaws. This is the season to take a long, hard look at the stories we tell, because some of those stories become excuses for us not to grow, not to change, not to live up to who we mean to be.

Torah too is a set of stories we tell about who we have been. Torah is a mirror for all of who we are: from our best impulses to our worst ones. In today’s Torah reading Sarah feels threatened by the presence of Hagar, whose name means “the stranger” or “the foreigner.” וַתֹּ֨אמֶר֙ לְאַבְרָהָ֔ם גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָֽאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ — and Sarah said to Avraham, cast out that woman and her son! She doesn’t want the other woman’s son to share in the inheritance, to receive the blessings and the bounty of being part of the family.

The word for “woman” or “handmaiden” is amah, spelled with an aleph. But it sounds like amah with an ayin, which means nation. If you hear it that way, the verse reads, “cast out that nation and its children.” Sarah’s rejection of the stranger, the woman who is not like her, mirrors the ideology that leads to closing our borders, to rejecting or deporting the immigrant, to denying the refugee entry.

The tradition that we love has a shadow side — a rejection of the outsider, a tendency toward us/them thinking — that we need to face, and we need to help to heal. In this we are not unique. Christianity also has a shadow side. So does Islam, so does Hinduism, so does Buddhism. Particularism can lead to triumphalism, and we’re not immune to that. Our task is to be aware of that danger, and to choose to strengthen not our history of insularity but our tradition’s powerful call to moral responsibility.

The cancer of bigotry has damaged America: with racism, with antisemitism, with white supremacy, with islamophobia, with homophobia and transphobia, with so many forms of triumphalism that say that there is only one right kind of skin, only one right way to pray, only one right way to love, only one right way to be.

But our tradition teaches that we are all made in the divine Image: all races and genders, all sexualities and gender expressions, all nationalities and religions.

It’s easy to want to ignore this brokenness altogether. And it’s easy to get so caught up in the brokenness that it becomes all we can see. The High Holidays invite us to resist both of those impulses, and instead to live in the tension of knowing both that things are broken and that repair is possible.

We have to face the brokenness in our nation in order to be able to repair it. And there’s no better time for that than now. This is the work of teshuvah, repentance and repair. This season calls us to discernment: who have we been? Where have we fallen short? Where do we need to re-align ourselves?

Rebecca Pierce, an African-American Jewish filmmaker, wrote recently for the Forward that “Real racial justice struggle is courageous work that involves self-examination, honest assessments of privilege, and a willingness to admit and be accountable for harm.” Self-examination, honest assessments, willingness to admit our missteps and take responsibility: that’s exactly what teshuvah is.

Racial justice work requires us to make teshuvah… and I believe our teshuvah work requires us to engage with racial justice.

The inner journey of teshuvah calls us to work against all kinds of bigotry. The inner journey of teshuvah calls us to stand up for those who are vulnerable. The inner journey of teshuvah calls us to the ongoing work of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

The inner journey of teshuvah calls us to make our nation a better place: to sign a petition, attend a vigil, support a candidate, combat voter suppression, educate ourselves about how we can work to end racism and then do that work. This is true no matter which political party we call home. Whether you are Republican or Democrat or independent, I pray that your teshuvah this year lead you to step up and get more involved with building an America where racism and white supremacy are a thing of the past.

That white supremacy and Nazism must be condemned and disavowed is something on which I suspect we can all agree. But there’s also a subtler kind of racism in which we all partake — an unconscious racism of implicit bias. That’s what leads white women to clutch our purses tighter when we see black men on the street; leads police officers to be 2.7 times more likely to shoot and kill black people than white people; leads to the belief that Black people are naturally good at sports or that Jews are naturally good with money. Implicit bias is a lot subtler than Klansmen with Nazi flags and flaming torches. But we need to tackle it, too.

Hip-hop DJ Jay Smooth talks about overcoming unconscious racism with the metaphor of dental hygiene. It requires persistent, repetitive inner work. Changing our unconscious thought patterns is like flossing: we have to keep doing it.

Changing how we think is the first step toward changing how we act. When we change our internal assumptions about people who aren’t white, when we allow ourselves to see the structural ways in which non-white people are persistently and systematically discriminated against, we’ll be moved to take action to create change. At least, I hope we will. Because if we don’t, then we’re doing exactly what Elie Wiesel counseled against. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the oppressed. Judaism calls us to fight oppression in all of its forms.

Changing our internal thought processes in order to change our behavior in the world is exactly what Judaism calls us to be doing right now. That’s the work of teshuvah. We have to keep putting one foot in front of the other: re-aligning ourselves with holiness, adjusting our course so we’re headed in the right direction.

We have to keep building what we can, repairing what we can, rejoicing in what we can.The rejoicing is important. In this, we can learn from African American communities that have faced violence and emerged with their faith and hope strengthened. They have a lot to teach, if we’re willing to listen.

We can learn from our own ancestry, too: even in the Warsaw Ghetto, our forebears learned and lived and loved and prayed and found reasons to rejoice. If they could do those things then, we can do those things now. And we must.

Realizing how far we’ve fallen is precisely what will spur us to rise. Realizing how broken America has become, maybe how broken America has always been, is the first step toward working to make our nation more whole. And in order to do this work on a public level, a community level, a national level, we have to do our own work on a personal level. That’s what these days are for.

As our sages remind us, it’s not incumbent on us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it. Healing our nation of bigotry is not work that any of us can “complete,” just as perfecting ourselves is not work that any of us can complete. But we’re still called to do what we can to make ourselves more whole, and to make our nation more whole, and to build a world of justice and shalom.

 

[Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.]

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