Jason Rubenstein
Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale

First – listen. Then – entertain heresy

White Americans must learn what Black Americans have always known, that America is not only the promised land, it is also Egypt

In recent weeks Black Jewish thinkers have produced the latest chapter of a powerful body of writing that combines first-person narrative and Jewish thought in mutually revelatory ways. These essays, at turns inspiring and challenging, provide a powerful starting-place for non-Black Jews like myself to assess American race relations in light of Judaism, and Judaism in light of American race relations. In the following, I want to begin with a poignant suggestion made by Shekhiynah Larks in her essay Black Jews Are Grieving, and We Need You to Help Us Mourn: non-Black Jews should take the act of comforting mourners as the framework for responding to and participating in the national reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s murder:

Now more than ever, we should be using the traditional etiquette of shiva to reach out in love to Black people in our personal networks and communities…

It is so hard to be safe and to feel safe as a Black person in the United States. I feel like I’m always on guard. Always mindful of how I speak, how I hold my body, when to give or avoid eye contact, how much public space I’m allowed to occupy because I want you to feel safe around me.

Larks’s profound insight is that the Jewish practice of comforting mourners is a technique for members of a broader community to effectively convey their care, concern, and support to a smaller group more directly affected by a life-shaping loss. Perhaps the most salient implication of Larks’s framing is the application of Rabbi Yohanan’s norm (unevenly followed) that any conversation must be initiated and guided by the bereaved (Moed Katan 28b), “Those who come to offer comfort may not utter a word until the mourner opens her mouth, as it says (Job 3:1) ‘Then Job opened his mouth’ and only afterwards (4:1) ‘And Eliphaz the Yemenite answered.’”

Ceding the authority to define a conversation is not mere etiquette. It is an intentional disruption of default roles, and of authority – it is, in other words, about power. This gracious practice of comforting mourners enshrines a pair of truths: those most immediately affected by a loss are in need of the loving attention of those more distantly affected (that everyone is somehow affected by every death is a bedrock tenet of Jewish belief and practice), and those who are mourning also possess an expertise (which garners them authority) about what to discuss and how. Translated into our moment, shiva is a call for those of us who are not Black to lead with caring attention to, and careful learning from, the Black community, including the Black Jewish community.

Listening is easy – until it isn’t. After all, Job’s “friends” begin well enough, waiting for Job to speak – but then respond in a twenty-chapter torrent of counterargument. The ‘friends’ can handle Job’s sadness but not his anger – which is, after all, a stage of mourning. Job does not shy away from asserting his own innocence or impugning God’s justice – and thereby threatens the pious orthodoxies that his friends rely on for their daily psychic support. In a harrowingly contemporary moment, Job hurls an accusation of unaccountability at God, claiming that an independent and fair judge would find God guilty of abuse of power and enforce a judgment against God, (9:33) “There is no arbiter between us, who may lay his hand upon us both.” But since God is subject to no outside oversight, Job has no hopes of redress – and he is therefore oppressed by God.

These are hard words, and many of Rabbi Yohanan’s colleagues continue the legacy of Job’s friends, charging Job with heresy. Regarding Job’s criticism of God’s never facing account, Rav says (Bava Batra 16a) “Dust should be put in Job’s mouth for saying this! Does a servant rebuke his master?” Rav’s linking of a victim’s inability to prosecute an abuser on the one hand, and roles of master and slave on the other, echoes and even anticipates present-day linkings of meagre police accountability to the legacy of American slavery. Rav is not alone in decrying Job’s heresies: Rava claims that Job has been denied the resurrection of the dead; Rabbah thinks that Job has impiously suggested that God confused him for a different person whom God meant to punish (!). (To be clear, other Rabbinic voices express unqualified praise of Job, though they are more marginal to the tradition.) These rabbis, overwhelmed by the radical conclusions Job draws from his recognition of the undeserved, and therefore unjust, nature of his pain and degradation demand that Job measure his tone, pull his punches, and not disturb their cherished beliefs. But Job’s translation of his pain into philosophy threatens their theologies and their theodicies: the rabbis know that they cannot both faithfully listen to Job’s account and remain unmoved in their loyalty to God – and they choose God, framing Job and his protest as the problem.

What is strangest about the Rabbinic condemnation of Job is that God agrees with Job, not the friends who thought they were defending God’s honor! In a blistering and shocking rebuke, God demands an offering of atonement from the friends because “you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.”(42:7) God’s deus ex machina is on one level a criticism of the friends for engaging in the wrong language-game with Job: they were there not to engage in philosophical disputes, but to comfort a heartbroken man. The friends forgot that, putting their own spiritual and emotional needs front and center and demanding Job measure his words so as not to sadden them – an abdication, even a perverse reversal, of their role.

On a second level, God reveals that the philosophical insights attained through the recognition and rejection of injustice by its victims of injustice have a privileged status. A devastated mourner who hurls insults at God is closer to God, and better understands who God is, than a collected and traditional adherent of time-honored, pious doctrine. 

A story like this one recurred in the American public sphere last week: in her emotional speech at George Floyd’s funeral, Brooke Williams, Mr. Floyd’s niece, said, “Someone said, ‘Make America great again.’ But, when has America ever been great?” Like Job, Ms. Williams translated the tragedy of irreparable, senseless loss at the hands of the very entities who had sworn to protect her family into a sharp and fundamental critique of the justice of that entity. In Job’s case it was God, in Ms. Williams’s case, America. And, like Job, Ms. Williams’s conclusion was criticized as American heresy: when Yamiche Alcindor tweeted Ms. Williams’s words (and the applause with which her fellow mourners received them), the top reply was simply “Disgusting” and many others (though by no means all) echoed that sentiment.

It may be the case that right now, the hardest and most important thing that is asked of the non-Black Jewish community is to recognize, as Shira Telushkin did in a moving piece this week, that compared to Black communities, the non-Black Jewish community “live[s] in a different America, one that offered us a haven. We fled to America and away from the lands of our greatest horrors, while the Black community was forced to overcome their greatest horrors among the people who wrought them…”

It is not merely to acknowledge the suffering of individuals, but to take seriously, and to learn from, their perspective on the world. It is to realize that, paradoxically, the real heresy is decrying their visions of justice and God as heretical. It is to refuse the easy path of Job’s friends, and of some of our rabbis in favor of the insights of innocent victims of oppression and in favor of God.

For families like mine it is impossible to not feel a profound personal, intergenerational gratitude for the prosperity, freedom, and peace America has afforded us as Jews. Honoring that gratitude is an ethical obligation of the first order. For a long time now – and especially today – we face another challenge as well: to learn what Black Americans have always known, that America is not only the promised land, it is also Egypt. This is what it means to answer the calls of our Black Jewish leaders, it is what it means to comfort those around us in mourning and grief, and it is what it means to be open to the possibility of real revelations – new horizons of hope, justice, and solidarity.

About the Author
Jason Rubenstein is the second Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale and the senior rabbi of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. All opinions are his own.
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