September 14, 2015 5776
It was our pleasure, this past May, to celebrate the graduation of our youngest child Elana from Washington University in St Louis, where she received her Master’s Degree in Social Work. We were curious about who would be the commencement speaker. It was our second time attending a Wash U graduation; we had been there the year before when she received her BA. Then the speaker was Tony LaRussa, former manager of the St Louis Cardinals, who led them to three National League pennants and two World Series. Clearly he was a tremendous baseball manager, but as a graduation speaker- not so great. We were curious about how Wash U would handle it this year when St Louis, and nearby Ferguson, had become ground zero for one of the most difficult issues facing this country- that of racism.
When we learned that the speaker would be Ken Burns, Cindy and I assumed that it had to be an improvement. Ken Burns is a distinguished American filmmaker, known for his use of archive’s footage and photos in documentary films featured on PBS. Among his best known are his series on The Civil War (1990), Baseball (1994), and most recently The Roosevelts (2014). He seemed a promising choice, especially given that this year our country marked the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.
Delivering a successful commencement speech is a difficult task. I think it even tops the difficulty of delivering a good High Holiday sermon. What we really did not expect was how moving, how impressive Burns’ speech would be. Listening to him, I knew immediately that I would want to reflect further on it for these High Holidays for he powerfully addressed the issue hanging over all of us-the issue of racism in this country.
Burns based his speech on one delivered just up the road in Springfield, Illinois in January, 1838. It had been delivered by a 29 year old, tall and lanky lawyer, who would one day become President of the United States- Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was speaking about national security. He said: “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? …Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Earth and crush us at a blow?” Lincoln answered his own question: “Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa … could not by force take a drink from the Ohio [River] or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years … If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Burns asserted that racism was at the front of Lincoln’s mind in that speech and throughout his life. Could Lincoln have imagined that all these years later issues of race would still plague this country? Pointing to Ferguson, Burns said that, “the shame Lincoln thought would lead to national suicide, our inability to see beyond the color of someone’s skin. It has been with us since our founding.”
Burns recalled the immortal words of a founding father, Thomas Jefferson, who drew upon the Hebrew Bible to draft the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence that begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” How deep the irony, Burns pointed out, that Jefferson “owned more than a hundred human beings. He never saw the contradiction, never saw the hypocrisy, and more important never saw fit in his lifetime to free any one of those human beings, ensuring as we went forward that the young United States — born with such glorious promise — would be bedeviled by race, that it would take a bloody, bloody Civil War to even begin to redress the imbalance.
Burns was not only charging the graduates. That day I felt the charge knowing that it was my responsibility to urge our congregants to reflect on the events of this past year that have played out in such bloody fashion in NY, Baltimore, and Charleston. These flashpoints made evident that racism is still very much an issue in this country. Not even the hard fought civil rights movement of the 1960s put an end to American racism. Stephen Colbert captured it well in the first night of his new show, pointing to personal memorabilia decorating his set. Among the items he has on display is a pennant that his mother received in 1963, while attending Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Colbert quipped, “Sadly, Civil rights only won the pennant that year. Racism won the World Series.”
As we gather as a congregation on these High Holidays, these days of awe, charged with the sacred task of doing cheshbon hanefesh - serious soul searching, I hope that we can look into our hearts and answer the question raised by Ken Burns’ talk in St Louis that day: what is our responsibility? Though it may make us uncomfortable to ponder the question, how do we otherwise make sure that racism finally ends in this country? Or to use Colbert’s image, how do we make sure that racism does not continue to win the World Series?
As Jews we come to this topic with a great legacy. We are the direct inheritors of the Biblical Genesis story Jefferson drew upon in writing the Declaration of Independence, the same words Lincoln drew upon to begin his short and brilliant Gettysburg address that, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
This concept of human equality, embedded in the Torah’s creation story, teaches that all human beings are descended from a common ancestor created Btzelem Elohim- in the image of God. This concept is a gift that the People of Israel gave to the world and we can take some pride in that. But as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Prof. of our movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and a leader in the civil rights movement in the 1960s asked profoundly, “How should a being created in the likeness of God act, think, feel? How should we live in a way which is compatible with our being a likeness of God?” It is quite clear in reading the questions Heschel posed that he thought we were not adequately fulfilling our responsibility. I dare say that not enough has changed since he framed those questions.
Yes as Jews we can claim some bright spots- We can take pride in the fact that Rabbi Heschel marched with his dear friend the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Selma, AL, the anniversary of which was also observed this year. Two years earlier, Heschel played a prominent role in Chicago at a National Conference of Religion and Race (Jan 1963), a gathering that inspired the participation of clergy in the great march on Washington that year. Drawing on the principle of B’tzelem Elohim, that we are created in the image of God and that all human beings are descended from the first Adam, Heschel said that, “To think of man in terms of white, black, or yellow is more than an error, it an eye disease, a cancer of the soul.” "One hundred years ago," he reminded the delegates, "the emancipation was proclaimed. It is time for the white man to strive for self-emancipation, to set himself free of bigotry." The greatest sin, he declared, is that of indifference: "Equality is a good thing ... what is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality."
There were many Jews who followed Heschel’s example in taking up that cause such as Rabbis Jerome Lipnick of Adath Jeshurun and Moshe Sacks of Bnai Emet, whose courage as active participants in the Civil rights movement I spoke about three years ago on Yom Kippur. We look back on these stories with justified pride. We tend to forget how much grief many of the rabbis who marched in that cause took from their congregants for doing it. Even today I would venture to guess that American Jews feel that the issues of slavery and racism are not really our responsibility. After all, we can fairly claim that most of our relatives came to this country well after Lincoln had emancipated the slaves. Though there were a small number of Jews who profited from the African slave trade, most of our ancestors were being subject to fierce anti-Semitism and being chased out of Europe when these things were happening.
However, if we look into our hearts during this High Holiday period, can we truly say that we have no responsibility for the sin of racism? How honest are we being with ourselves? To what extent do we as a community, now largely seen as white people, though we know we are more diverse than that, to what extent do we benefit from laws and practices that disadvantage people of color? In creating our High Holiday Machzor the rabbis were wise in framing most of the prayers in the plural because they had a deep understanding that when there is misconduct in a society, all of us have to some extent contributed to it. Thus in the Vidui prayer of confession we will recite on Yom Kippur we ask forgiveness, “For the sins we have committed.”
As we closely examine the sin of racism that remains so prevalent in this country, we need to understand that racism is not only about individual bias or prejudice. The numbers tell the story of how deeply racism is imbedded in our society such that Black Americans in this country experience significantly higher rates of early death, incarceration and are at a distinct disadvantage according to so many measures of social wellbeing. There are vast gaps in median wealth between whites and blacks. "Systemic and unwarranted racial disparities remain disturbingly common.'' in the American criminal justice system asserted, former US Attorney General Eric Holder. As one example, he cites a U.S. Sentencing Commission study (2013) demonstrating that black men received prison terms that were 20% longer than those imposed on white men involved in similar crimes. The disparities in this country go on and on.
And what about MN, which we like to think of as a relatively progressive place? The Itasca Project, which brought together 50 of Minnesota’s civic, corporate and political leaders issued a study which documented that the average black Twin Cities resident earns 48% less than whites and is 73% less likely to own a home.
Myron Orfield, who directs the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty, observes that racial segregation is increasing in all of the 25 largest U.S. metros, but it is happening at a much faster clip in the Twin Cities where, “Neighborhoods and schools have remained more stubbornly segregated here” and “those once integrated have re-segregated at alarming rates.”
We would like to believe in this country that anyone who works hard can reap the rewards of their work. The reality of racial disparities and inequalities show that in many ways the deck is stacked against people of color. White people in this country, and Jews are included in this category, start from the position of significant privilege that we take for granted. To use a baseball analogy, it is like those who are “born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”
If we are to live up to our legacy as a Jewish people and our loftiest values as Jews, than we have our work cut out for us. We need to start by really listening to what people are saying when they say that “Black Lives Matter.” Our gut reaction, given the value concept of Btzelem Elohim, Being Created in the Image of God, is to want to assert that all lives matter, and they do. But we may not assert that to deny that racism continues to be a powerful, powerful force in this country. If you want to get a feeling for the depth of discrimination that black people endure in this country, I recommend a new book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. I first learned of it in an article by the NY Times columnist David Brooks who acknowledged that “The last year has been an education for white people. There has been a depth, power and richness to the African-American conversation about Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings that has been humbling and instructive.” Brooks call Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, a great and searing contribution to this public education. It is a mind-altering account of the black male experience.” Though not uncritical, Brooks states that, “Every conscientious American should read it.”
Coates writes his book as a letter to his 15 year old son capturing “The Talk,” the talk that Black parents in this country feel that they must have with their children to try to keep them safe from the risks they invariably face because of their color. On Coates’ Atlantic magazine webpage you can read the stories, stories that African Americans have posted in reaction, writing about the profound discrimination they continue to experience.
There is very strong evidence to support the claim that there is ongoing, systemic racism in our country, but there are also moments that rise up to punch us in the gut, such as the horrific shootings that took place on June 17th at the historic Emanuel AME - African Methodist Episcopal Church – in Charleston when eight people gathered in their church for Bible study were murdered in cold blood. Reading the manifesto of the perpetrator, seeing him posing by the Confederate flag, brings home powerfully that even extreme racism still thrives in this country. It is shocking to me that a person can harbor such a deep hatred that it obliterates the image of God in another human being, allowing him to sit in study and fellowship with people and then shoot them down ruthlessly. Racism really is, as Heschel said, a cancer of the soul.
One week after that atrocity I attended a service of comfort and solidarity at St. Peter’s AME Church in South Minneapolis. It was a deeply moving event. The presence of members of the Jewish community and others from across the Twin Cities was greatly appreciated. Sometimes showing up is what is needed. The MN Council of Churches has asked congregations around the state to take turns hosting a service on early Weds evenings to coincide with and commemorate that brutal attack. I invite you to show up for evening minyan on Weds Dec 23 when we will be the hosts and demonstrate our commitment to eradicating racism. At the end of that moving service at St. Peters AME, I extended an invitation to their Minister, the Rev. Nazim Fakir, to speak here at Adath and he has agreed to do that on the Shabbat morning of Thanksgiving weekend.
Sometimes just showing up and reaching out in concern is enough to show we care, but surely we can do more. For the last ten years our synagogue has sponsored a terrific adult education series organized by our Adult Learning Director Nina Samuels and sponsored by our members Mark and Lucy Fisher and Peter and Gloria Cooper. This series has never shied away from difficult topics. When our planning group gathered this past August to brainstorm for this spring, we quickly arrived at the conclusion that we needed to focus our study on the issue of racism. But we will not only study it. Partnering with Jewish Community Action, which celebrates its 20th Anniversary of engaging our community in working for justice in this state, we will seek paths of action that our congregants and our congregation can take to eradicate racism, which Rabbi Abraham Heschel called “[Racism is] man's gravest threat to man - the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” I hope you will show up.
Before concluding I want to return to the speech that Ken Burns delivered so powerfully that day at Wash U, which is as privileged a place as one could imagine. It was clear that not everybody was comfortable with what Burns had to say. It seemed to me that there were sections of the crowd at the commencement whose reactions were muted. It was clear that the Social Work faculty and students were delighted to see the issue being pressed before the entire university. Burns made it point powerfully. As Abraham Lincoln long ago asserted, this country will not be destroyed by outside threats, but as we have seen this summer, we are liable to self-destruct if we do not address the critical issue of racism and the social inequality that accompanies it.
The High Holidays are a time of cheshbon hanefesh – personal and communal introspection. It is a time to consider the choices we have to make about who we will be, and about what God expects of each of us and of our society.
Let’s make sure that each of us is making the right choices. Let us make it our business to take a close look around ourselves, wherever we have a sphere of influence and make sure we are each doing the right thing. Let us work together to finally put an end to this illness of racism that plagues our country so that we can honestly assert that we are truly living up to the principle, grounded in our Torah and affirmed by our rabbis, of Btzelem Elohim that all people are created in the image of God. And let us say Amen.
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Adath Jeshurun Congregation