Allyship is Not in Heaven

(Katie Rodriguez on Unsplash)
(Katie Rodriguez on Unsplash)

At this epic moment in our lives, many people are understanding for the first time the need to be active in the holy resistance against racism.  For those of us who are privileged to live without the fear of racial violence, we want to be involved and fight for change, but often worry about how to best ally with communities of color.

 Some are  concerned about getting it “wrong” even as we know that there is no one right way to be an ally. Delivering that pure intentionality to the world of action is a sensitive balance. What may be validating and affirming for one person, or in one situation, might be traumatic and offensive with another. 

Allyship can feel awkward. It is hard work – sometimes uncomfortable and painful – not just because it is predicated on people being dehumanized but also because we recognize our own complicity in it. Being an ally requires an exceptional precision to take up the appropriate amount of space. That exactness can be as aspirational as it may be elusive, even for seasoned allies.

But allyship, like Torah, is not “beyond reach.” It is accessible to us all. The Torah tells us about itself: “[Torah] is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:12-15). And accessing allyship, like Torah, is incremental, a long-term commitment, and requires a lot of work. 

Rabbis observe that it is odd for the Torah to offer this navigational assistance. How is it that a person could think the Torah is so far away – in Heaven or across the sea – when it is actually so near at hand that it is literally in our mouths and hearts?

The Medresh (Vayikrah Rabbah) explains by giving us an example of two people who enter the study hall. The foolish one says “There is too much to learn! It is a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. There is no capitalization and no punctuation. I’m never going to be able to finish it!” And so they leave and refuse to learn anything. The wise one says: “There is a lot to learn. However, I can learn two teachings today. Another two tomorrow. And over time, I will learn the entire Torah.” 

The world is broken. Tradition tells us that the best way to cope with the brokenness and fear is to engage and try to fix it. There is no shortage of injustices to protest, letters to write, lessons to learn, and voices to hear. That can feel overwhelming and, like the fool, one could give up without even trying. Or, like the wise one, we can envision how over time our collective efforts, as imperfect or insignificant as they may feel today, can bring about a perfected future.

As our Rabbis teach, “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” We each have something unique to offer. The more we learn about allyship, the more informed our personal response can be. What is one chapter of allyship we can learn today?

This post was co-authored with Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, CBST’s Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies.

About the Author
Seth M. Marnin is an attorney, civil rights advocate, pursuer of justice & Chair of Keshet’s board of directors.
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