Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
D'var Torah Beha'alotcha
May 29, 2021
This past Tuesday evening Cindy and I felt an obligation to drive over to 38th and Chicago, that has been dubbed George Floyd Square to participate in some aspect of this week’s activities to honor the memory of the man whose brutal murder, under the knee of now convicted former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, shook this city and shook the world. We arrived at the square in time to hear the end of a concert and accompanying speeches and prayers to a gathering of people I later learned that people came from all over the country feeling the need to be here to mark the first anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. Cindy and I
participated in a ritual at the end of the program, as the sun set by lighting a candle [see photos below]. Like any memorial ritual - it provided us a chance to reflect on what got us here and our hopes going forward.
So much has occurred this year- the impact of COVID-19 and our thoughts about how it feels to re-enter; the recent ugly flare up of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. On this Shabbat Beha'alotcha, whose story about Moses' siblings criticism of their brother for marrying a black skinned woman, a Cushite, with which I introduced I asked you to focus this morning, I want us to consider issues of racism that it inevitably raises for a modern reader. I ask you today to consider:
How has your understanding of issues related to racism changed in the past year since all of the events related to George Floyd’s murder that impacted the world and the nation, literally making Minneapolis and 38th and Chicago a focal point of the nation as it grappled with issues of racism?
Has your understanding of racism and the history of racism in the United States and in Minnesota changed as a result of the events related to George Floyd’s murder?
What have you read, or seen, that influenced your thinking?
What steps, if any, have you taken to address racism? It could have been related to organizations you supported to address these concerns; it could be advocacy you have done; it may have involved conversation you had with others.
One thing that has changed here at Adath was the establishment of Adath Jeshurun’s Antiracism Committee. We are so grateful for the outstanding work they have done as we have learned together, built trust and struggled together to think about our responsibilities at Adath related to antiracism – not simply addressing prejudice, but dealing with the systemic issues that racism poses.
I appreciate that Adath’s Board of Trustees has expressed its support for those efforts in a note to the congregation sent out in our weekly Chadashot email Monday on the eve of the George Floyd Anniversary:
Adath’s Board of Trustees appreciates the work of Adath’s Antiracism Committee which was formed after the George Floyd Murder. As we head into the anniversary of the murder, we encourage you to visit the Committee’s Webpage (adathjeshurun.org/antiracism) where you will find activities to promote the visibility of BIPOC members of Adath and advance racial equity in our larger world. Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages),“It is not on you to complete the work, neither are you free to desist from it." Words written over 1,500 years ago continue to inspire our action today.
These efforts are not without their challenges.
An early thing we learned was about the feelings of Jews of Color in our congregation. We had to hear them express the ways they sometimes feel marginalized, or not completely welcome. In that they may well relate to our parsha in which Moshe’s wife is called out as an outsider, even if God ultimately takes her side. The event that took place in Minneapolis at the end of last May left Jewish people of color in our community shaken and looking for the support of our community.
In dealing with issues of race we need to look at the complexity of Jewish attitudes about race and in relation to people of color. Many Jews in our country, do not particularly identify as white and therefore do not relate to white supremacy, other than to think that we too are at risk from the hated of white supremacists.
What we seem to have some difficulty understanding is that while it is true that Jews are hated and put at risk by white supremacists, we have also benefited from the fact that most Jews in North America, whose families came here from Eastern Europe are white and have long benefited from being able to pass as white. Those benefits are many, as I shared in my Yom Kippur sermon that focused on the issue of racism. The evidence of racial disparities and inequality in this country are quite real and well documented:
For example, during this pandemic Black people account for 25 percent of those who have tested positive and 39 percent of the COVID-related deaths, while making up just 15 percent of the general population (source).
Black civilians are arrested at over two times the rate of white civilians (source).
Yale University reports that studies over the course of the last five years show consistently, for example, that “Among unarmed victims, Black people were killed
at three times the rate (218 total killed), and Hispanics at 1.45 times the rate of white people (146 total killed) (source).
There are clearly documented racial disparities in this country in health care, employment, housing and policing. These are disparities and inequalities to which the majority of Jews, who appear white, are largely oblivious and not impacted by.
As we were launching Adath’s Antiracism Committee, we heard from Jews of Color associated with Adath of the discomfort they felt as they approached our building as we have ramped up an armed security presence in response to potential threats that overwhelmingly come from white supremacists. As we contemplate reentry into our building we will need to get back to the issue of security and how it lands on people of color, both visitors and those who are members of our congregation. I expect and hope that Jews of color will be a growing part of Adath as demographers agree it is a growing part of our North American Jewish community.
I want to reflect for a bit on a valuable book we have studied this past year in our Downtown Study Group that we will soon complete by Emory University historian Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity (2006). We are grateful to our member Riv Ellen Prell, Professor Emerita of American Studies at the U of MN. She stepped in, with her deep knowledge of this area, to lead the class from Dec to March, when I was on sabbatical and has thankfully remained a participant as we finish up the book.
Prof Goldstein, in his valuable look at the history of the Jews in America from the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century demonstrates the deep ambivalence of Jews about race. Given that most Jews after the Holocaust would be leery about describing ourselves as race, it was quite surprising to learn that prior to WW II, Jews were commonly understood to be a racial group by themselves and others. While on one hand many Jews expressed real discomfort at the brutal treatment of blacks in this country, they often were glad to assert that Jews were part of the white race, or if a separate race, we had much to contribute to the country as good Americans. While there are many examples throughout the historical period covered of Jews standing up against the oppression of black people in this country, there are also many shameful examples of Jews participating in the exploitation of black people as they sought to create a good life for their families. Defining Jews as a race had the advantage of preserving Jewish identity, even if a Jew had given up on Jewish observance and belief. The only pattern that we could discern as Jews related to race was a consistent ambivalence about how to understand ourselves in relation to it. I highly recommend Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity to understand how Jews grappled and still grapple with our identity, our relation to whiteness and our place in this country.
Coming back to the gathering Cindy and I attended at the George Floyd memorial there is one other aspect that I want to comment on. As we discuss the issue of Jews and whiteness and how to respond to the work of antiracism, I want us to consider one other challenging issue of how we deal with the growing strength of antiracism activists who link the ongoing conflict between Jews and Arabs related to the cause of the Palestinians.
Thank you Rabbi Weininger for your thoughtful sermon last Shabbat responding to the identification of some leaders of the Black Lives Matters with the Palestinian cause. Having made clear my support for BLM through Adath and in our Rabbinical Assembly, which along with the USCJ asserted support for the Black Lives Matter Movement in the past year, I need to express my uneasiness at seeing a Palestinian flag waved in the crowd at one point and another that was planted in a section of the memorial and posters in the vicinity calling for the linking of Gaza with Ferguson, MO the killing of a black man near St Louis several years ago. We cannot close our eyes to the impact of ongoing occupation on the West Bank and the continuing inequality and discrimination exprienced by Israeli Arabs.
However, we need to continue to challenge those who would draw an inappropriate analogy between racism in the United States and the complexities of the conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East that ignore the historic ties, and continual presence of Jews in the land of Israel. Nonetheless, defending Israel’s right to exist and to defend its citizen against violent attacks should not deter us from standing up against racism in North America.
In doing so let us turn to God’s role in this week’s parsha which lands on the side of the person who is being marginalized. It is up to us to know when to speak up in support of what is right and to find compassion when people, regardless of their color or background are being treated unfairly.
I invite you to join us at the kiddush later to reflect together on the questions I asked earlier:
How has your understanding of racism and the history of racism in the United States and in Minnesota changed as a result of the events related to George Floyd’s murder? And what steps have you taken, or would you be willing to take?
We conclude the service with this reflection on the prayer Aleinu that I shared this past Yom Kippur. It was written in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker of Saint Paul’s Mount Zion Temple and her sisters Hollis Schachner and Sara Stock Mayo.
Aleinu. It is on us.
To bow in praise before God
as a sign of reverence
and perhaps submission
It is on us to bend our knees
only in reverence for life
and only for submission to that which is good
Aleinu. It is on us.
Our sages teach that the angels have no knees
Their legs do not bend
They do not need knees
because their entire purpose
is to stand tall before God in service
But we are not these kinds of angels
We bend under the weight on our shoulders,
We let this twisted world twist us,
into knowing that our service to God comes,
not only in the form of thoughts and prayers,
but in the form of action
Aleinu. It is on us.
Va’anachu kor’im. We bend at the knee
Umishtachavim. We bow at the waist
Lifnei Melech Malchei HaMalchim. We stand straight before God
HaKadosh Baruch Hu. We who are made in God’s image
must be holy because God is holy
So we rise
To repair this very broken world
We stand straight because we can
We stand up because we must
Aleinu. It is on us.
We bend our knees before the God of love
In devotion and in disruption
In protest and in praise
From shame to shleimut – wholeness
We rise before the God of truth
to march and to move
to bend this broken arc towards justice
Aleinu. It is on us.
Bent knees are for showing reverence
to prostrate in peaceful protest
to prepare us for moving
to prepare us for marching
Bent knees are not for killing
God did not make knees, or any other part of us, for that
Aleinu. It is on us.
— Hollis Schachner, Sara Stock Mayo, and Rachel Stock Spilker
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