Looking at George Floyd, I felt as if I was looking at the murder of my own relatives by the Nazis. It was painful to watch, more than I can express. But I did watch as his life slipped away under the knee of an evil police officer. And I watched again, in horror and disbelief, waiting for someone to step in even though I already knew the outcome. I remain horrified on so many levels. I watched to bear witness, in grief. George Floyd deserved better, and in his memory he still does.
I watch George Floyd’s murder through the only prism that I know, that of a middle-aged Jewish man, born and raised in the US, now living in Israel. I know racism exists, yet I don’t understand it. At all. Because of my faith, I understand that we are all created, equally, in God’s image. Because of my upbringing, I see black and white, but I don’t see a difference between black and white. Because of my tradition, I understand slavery’s corrosive evil. More recently, I have role models of courageous Jewish leaders standing up for civil rights in America.
In struggling through my feelings, I hesitated to write or reach out to my many black friends in America because I truthfully don’t have the words and I don’t wish to be trite. Having done so, I have been encouraged by many that my prayers are important and meaningful, and are gratefully received. I have also been encouraged to speak out, to do something on my part, to wipe out the stain of racism.
I don’t know that there’s anything I can do that’s sufficient, but I recognize that we all need to do something. It seems harder now than when Rabbi Heschel and others marched with Dr. King, and when Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by the Klan 56 years ago this month. Then, they fought against racists for civil rights. Today, civil rights exist but racism still runs deep.
One of my heroes, Elie Wiesel, a famed writer, Nobel Prize laureate, and Holocaust survivor, noted that “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Indifference creates evil. Hatred is evil itself. Indifference is what allows evil to be strong, what gives it power.” So, I choose not to be indifferent and I pray that my words will have an impact.
In Jewish tradition, God calls us not to shy away from indifference and to be personally accountable. When God called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham answered, “Hineni.” Here I am. When God’s angel rushed to stop Abraham from performing this act of devotion, Abraham responded, “Hineni.” Here I am. When Moses stood before the burning bush and was called by name, he responded, “Hineni.” They stepped up, and we need to do the same; to cry out against indecency, against racism, and indifference.
Hineni is also a prayer offered by the worship leader during the Jewish High Holidays. Unlike much of Jewish worship which is in the plural, on behalf of the community, Hineni is in the singular. It requires that the worship leader stand before God and acknowledge his flaws, and that despite these flaws, beseeching Him that his prayers should be received favorably. Hineni literally is a prayer for the ability to pray.
“Here I am, impoverished in deeds and merit. But nevertheless, I come before You, God, to plead on behalf of Your people.”
At the risk of delving into something for which I am wholly unqualified, I pray that this will be received in the spirt of the healing that I intend. Just as Hineni is uttered on the verge of God’s Judgement, America is now at a life and death moment.
I’m nether too young or naïve to believe that racism is unique, and that George Floyd’s murder is an isolated incident. I cannot walk in the shoes of a black person, in the US, in Israel where I live, or anywhere, no more than a non-Jew can walk in my shoes. I “understand” the evil of racism even though I don’t understand how or why people are racist. Curing racism, to the extent that is possible, is a macro issue. Its not limited to America nor to this week. Honestly, through my Jewish prism, I don’t believe anti-Semitism can be eliminated, and I fear that’s the same with racism.
Yet I know there needs to be healing. The healing that’s needed is deep, and it’s a rift that’s widening.
One of my friends shared with me, “The greatest thing that is needed are voices. Voices to speak to the injustice. Voice to challenge the system. Voices to rebuke the rhetoric that seeks to drown out the real issues. A statement in support of the concerns would be great. A statement challenging the political systems that continue to empower the majority community at the expense of the minority community would be amazing.”
Voices are both singular and plural. We need to speak up and take action individually, but also engage one another, together, broadly.
I have been blessed by untold fellowship with black friends, mostly in the context of building bridges between Jews and Christians. I have been welcomed, hosted in, and spoken at black churches. It’s been a privilege which I now feel is more of an obligation.
I want to see solutions. I want to see people joining me in speaking out against racism. Unconditionally. I want to see dialogue and fellowship that I have been privileged to be a part of become the norm. Creating understanding and breaking down barriers are critical. I want to see healing that’s devoid of politics, because its right and because it’s needed, not to get votes. As much as my friend charged me to challenge political systems that don’t uplift black people, I don’t know where that begins. If no politicians have ever thought of it before, let them start in their towns and cities and states all the way up to the federal level, and create meaningful dialogue and understanding.
Again, through my Jewish prism, I confront anti-Semitism even among Christians who I know love me. It’s rooted in deep stereotypes. I believe the same exists for racism. Non-blacks who agree with every word here in all sincerity, also carry racist stereotypes. We need to hold elected leaders accountable. But we also need to act without them if there’s a void. Maybe things can be imposed from above. But my experience is that real change needs to be embraced one on one. We need understanding and caring and that needs to be done through dialogue.
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Hineni.
Please join me praying for the comfort of George Floyd’s family, for justice from his death, and for healing that’s needed wide and deep. Please feel free to share your ideas and most certainly join me in taking action.