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God’s Image in Every Human Being - Rosh Hashanah 5780 Sermon

10/01/2019 04:22:43 PM


by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

L’shanah tovah.

Last month, the world of literature lost Toni Morrison, acclaimed and award-winning author and teacher. She once offered this bit of wisdom to her students: “If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

To me, actualizing this vision is a privilege, and this is the thesis for my remarks this morning.

* * * *

Rabbis and African American pastors were once engaged in a lively discussion about the systemic racism that has characterized American life for more than 400 years, ever since the first slave trader’s ship left what is today Ghana, for its destination on the Virginia colony shore.

The discussion took many turns, but they were avoiding one significant question, which finally came forth from one of the rabbis:

“Jews and African Americans have a long history of working together. It’s been an up and down relationship, to be sure. But what can we do together to improve the situation?”

The response from a 30-something African American pastor, Pastor Richard, was immediate.

“Those who know how to drive, should drive. Those who know how to lead, should lead. African Americans need access to ideas: Share them with us! You need to use your white privilege for this purpose. You also need to use your Jewish privilege.” That same pastor, earlier in the evening, had decried the violence stemming from the police shootings of black youth and from black-on-black crime. He despaired and he even remarked, “Black lives matter when they matter to black people.”

Another black pastor, Pastor Edward, someone who had been in the pulpit for more than 30 years, changed the discourse. He said, “White rabbis can't lead the movement, and need to acknowledge that the African Americans must be in the forefront. White people make too many assumptions about what the African American community needs.”

I wanted to relate this brief exchange because it may provide direction to Jews and Blacks who should be engaged together, at all times, in the struggle against racism.

That conversation took place about six weeks ago in a synagogue auditorium in Montgomery, Alabama, where, along with forty-nine other Reform rabbis, I spent a concentrated period studying the grim and problematical history of the Black experience in our country. From the active years of the international slave trade to the most recent police shootings of young African Americans: For many of us our eyes were opened even further to the realities of inequity and inequality in America.

Being in Montgomery and speaking to African American leaders enabled us not simply to hear about the persecution of the African Americans. Many of us rose to new and different levels of empathy:

We gleaned information from The Legacy Museum, located in the same slave warehouse -- and cell-like rooms -- in which families and individuals were kept while they were being bought and sold.

We learned through the museum’s permanent exhibit, about the sad and distressing history of 400 years of African American life.

We observed the greedy nature of the slave trade through notices in an auctioneer’s catalogue about their ‘merchandise’. Here is a sample listing:

There was an ad about someone named Tilla, which read: “about 16 years old, of a fine family, and very large people. Good in the house or the field, quick to learn, humble, obedient, and valuable servant. Has neither fault nor blemish that the proprietor knows, ought to command a high price”;

We viewed newsreel footage of southern bigots from the 1930’s to the 1980’s defending and expressing pride about their prejudices;

And we spoke to African Americans who were present in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and lived through the era of Jim Crow.

Museums and monuments dedicated to the Holocaust, like the ones our Beth El travelers experienced in Eastern Europe last May, or that many of have seen in Jerusalem, Berlin, Washington, Skokie, and others, teach – on a visceral level – the enormity, the grotesqueness, and the pain of the Holocaust; we know of the impact that those places have on non-Jewish visitors.

And in the same way, for most of the rabbis on our group, our experiences in Montgomery and Selma last month had a similar emotional impact on us. As individuals and as a group, we are now much more dedicated to addressing the problem of race and bringing about justice and reconciliation between the white and black communities in our country.

Such a reconciliation is far off, yet the more we defer our work, the longer it will take. But since we at Temple Beth El have a Brit Olam Action Team dedicated to racial justice and reconciliation, our synagogue now must prepare to take the next steps to make a difference in our local community. I am an ally in this, our common struggle. I hope you will join me as well as the dedicated members of our Brit Olam action team.

* * * *

It is essential that we approach this issue mindful of the texts of our tradition firmly in mind. Throughout its history, our people has developed a sophisticated set of values and commandments about how we treat other people, and we must be familiar and comfortable with them.

This morning we read from the book of Genesis, about the origins of humanity. That creation story revealed more than the substance of creation. Our ancestors brought forth a basic set of instructions on how people should relate to people.

The opening of Chapter Five of Genesis reads:

“When God created humanity, God made humanity in the likeness of God; male and female, God created them; when they were created, God blessed them; and God called them ‘adam’”, (which I am translating as ‘earth creatures’, because of the dust of the earth from which humanity was created.)[1]

So, these are four basic truths about the human being:

that we are created as beings filled with Divine knowledge and impact;

that we include a myriad of genders;

that we as a species are special, unique, and sacred;

and that each human shares a common name and fate: we are all earth dwellers: we are all human.

Merely knowing these truths is a privilege. And the Midrash relates that this distinction – that we are aware of this privilege – confers upon us special responsibility.

This is not “white privilege”, nor is it “Jewish privilege”. This is a notion of “human privilege”. And since our human privilege is a gift, we should not underestimate the value of the privilege, or the magnitude of this responsibility.

Indeed, let us be proud of these four truths about humanity each time we step outside and intervene in the life of the world. We are all one species – people – with much diversity … and many commonalities. And as my midrash states, we each have divinity within; we each are human regardless of our gender identities; we are sacred beings both within ourselves and to others; and we share a common human identity as earth-dwellers, responsible for this planet and making us all family.

There are those who would refute and disparage these values. But the Jewish community inspired and created them; they are Integral. And. Essential. Parts. of who we are.

* * * *

There are other texts to learn, however, texts germane to the African American experience. So, here are some basic history from those texts. They may seem elementary, but we need to start from a common level of knowledge if we want to root out prejudice and reverse the effects of the pervasive inequality in our country.

From the beginning of the slave trade in 1619, 12 million people from Africa were effectively kidnapped and placed on boats to the West. One estimate was that perhaps 40% of them never even arrived at our shores.

In 1808, Congress outlawed citizens’ participation in international trading of slaves. But Congress turned a blind eye to the domestic slave markets. They remained legal.

From 1848-1860, 164 businesses in Montgomery, Alabama, were licensed to buy and sell slaves. The city’s location on the Alabama River – with its eventual opening at the Gulf of Mexico – made this city and port a natural locus for the slave trade.

After end of the Civil War, slavery was abolished in law. But in practice, very little changed regarding social attitudes toward slaves. Southern state legislatures came to enact laws that segregated black and white communities from one another. And the constitutionality of this practice was oddly upheld by seven of nine of the US Supreme Court justices in the 1896 ruling, Plessy v Ferguson. The ruling gave license to segregated facilities if they were equal in quality. That was, of course, rarely the case.

By 1898, 73% of the revenue of the state of Alabama came from ‘Convict Leasing’, a system of prisoner labor provided to private parties, such as plantation owners and corporations. The issue of race emerges because the so-called ‘convicts’ who were leased, were often in prison under false arrests or trumped-up charges.

From 1910 to 1940, six million southern Blacks migrated North, finding homes in cities where the racial strife was less intense. But persecution was not limited to the South. States like Nebraska, Nevada, and even my home state of California approved anti-miscegenation laws and imposed other social disabilities upon African Americans.[2]

It is one matter to learn these and hundreds of other realities through historical resources. It is entirely different to stand in a former slave warehouse in Montgomery and absorb salient facts about the persecution of a people within the boundaries of our “free” nation.

It is unique to stand on the stoop of the Montgomery parsonage of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and to see the dent in the concrete porch made by a 1956 pipe bomb.

It is a solemn experience to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and remember those who died and were injured on Bloody Sunday, 1965.

It is breathtaking to see monuments dedicated to the victims of slave kidnapping and lynching, and visit historic sites preserved to help us recall the terrors of this era.

It is heartbreaking to hear the story of a Jewish merchant in 1965 Selma, who tried to bring his son to see the Brown Chapel, the operational nerve center for the Montgomery marches. This pair of would-be visitors were turned away from the church because the street was filled with police cars, end to end, like barricades restraining the Blacks in their housing projects and keeping visitors out. (The father, by the way, said to his son, “We better get home and hunker down,” not realizing the privilege in that statement, the privilege, that is, of being able to leave and hunker down.)

There is so much we yet don't know. We can learn from various resources and we may develop relationships, but sometimes our Jewish myopia – especially when it comes to the sufferings that we experienced throughout our history – could blind us to the needs of others.

We understand our lives, our family, our friendship networks, our desires, our sins, our accomplishments, our failures. Yet, despite our keen ability to empathize with those who suffer, sometimes we know very little of the needs of others, of their sufferings, their longings, or their difficult pathways through life.

* * * *

My friends,

We have a major task before us if we wish to reverse the systemic racism that has plagued our nation, and to repair the inequities in our land due to race. The report from our national partners at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism is that dialogue between the African American and Jewish American communities is today not broad or deep enough to be transformative. Here in Madison, my impression is that we’re still getting only our toes wet. And nationally, the specter of alleged and real antisemitism constitutes the Damoclean sword that hangs above these two communities.

For many years, American Jews and Blacks have jointly sought ways of working together in the struggle against persecution and bigotry. But the time is more pressing now – as some of our nation’s leaders express prejudices against both Jewish and Black communities – that we become the right kind of allies in the struggle for human equality.

For us, this is the moment of using our human privilege for good.

* * * *

What does it feel like to be Jewish in America today? Proud and out? Assimilative and restrained? Victimized by pervasive antisemitism? Unfettered, and able to wear one’s kippah if one so chooses? We feel a myriad of emotions as American Jews, who, on one day, can be subject to politicians who use us as a political wedge, and who, in the next breath, can cheer for yet another Jewish Nobel laureate or celebrity who says the right truth to the right person in power.

And what does it feel like to be black in America today? That, I don’t know.

Can I, a cisgender male member of the Jewish tribe, dripping with privilege only because of the accident of my birth; who passes for white every time I enter the public sphere; how can I possibly claim to know the indignities of people of color in our nation, a nation that, over time, imported 12 million human slaves – carelessly losing some on the way – and whose countrymen and women offloaded them just as easily as modern cargo ships dock and disgorge their freight?

But we must try to understand more. As much as we know, there are tons of things that we do not yet know.

Very few of us can easily comprehend the humiliation and the degradation of slavery. More of us, perhaps, can empathize with prejudice based on one's connection to their people. But the way to be an ally is to try to know these things.

On this Yom Hadin – this day of judgment, this New Year’s Day – we must discover three realities that Mahatma Gandhi spoke of when naming his movement Satyagraha: there must be clarity in our thinking about these matters; truth in our speaking about them; and authenticity in our actions to change the world for the better.[3]

Let us work diligently in the struggle for equality. Let us tell our African American brothers and sisters that we can be loyal and energetic allies. And let us integrate into our souls those words of Toni Morrison, that “If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

This is my wish and my prayer for us in this new year ahead. May we go from strength to strength. L’shanah Tovah.


[1] Genesis 5:1-2

[2] A smattering of state laws from this very period of exodus of black Americans from the South to the North:

Alabama, 1952: “No cards, dominoes, checkers, pool, or billiards to be played in mixed race groups.”

Nebraska, 1943: “Marriages between a white individual and someone deemed 1/8 black, Chinese, or Japanese, will result in the dissolution of the marriage.”

Nevada, 1929: “No one, including priests and ministers, will perform mixed race marriages; it is a gross misdemeanor.”

And California, my home state, 1949: “No marriage may take place between whites and blacks [A different term was used: negroes], Mongolians, members of the Malay race, or mulattos.”

[3] Reading Gandhi, Surjit Kaur Jolly, Concept Publishing Company, 2006 India, page 91

May 27, 2024 19 Iyar 5784