On Tuesday evening, my daughter and I watched as some 5,000 peaceful protesters marched past our Manhattan home, calling for justice and change in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. Recent days have unleashed some acts of terrible violence throughout the country, yet here was America at its finest. Citizens exercising their right to make themselves heard in protesting against injustice.
George Floyd’s murder was, unfortunately, the latest painful reminder of the racism that is still so prevalent in our country. The condemnation and outrage – along with expressions of solidarity with the African-American community – came in fast and furious from all over the religious and political spectrum. In my corner of the Jewish community, it was encouraging to see the statements of the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America. Both invoked the Biblical principle that all are created in the image of God.
To the protesters and all those who condemn this incident, in particular, and racism, in general, I say, “Amen!”
But is it enough?
Are statements of condemnation enough? Are statements of pain and solidarity enough?
They’re a start, but as racism, discrimination, and police bias continue, responding with solidarity each time something bad happens is necessary but inadequate.
Here are some thoughts on what we can do in response to the killing of George Floyd beyond statements.
1) Recognizing the Divine in every human being is the most important thing.
The Midrash (Torat Kohanim Chapter 4, Midrash 12) quotes a dispute as to which verse in the Torah is the most important. The most famous view is that of Rabbi Akiva, who says it is “Love your fellow as yourself.” (Vayikra 19:18) Less well known is the view of Ben Azai, who says the most important verse is, “This is the book of the generations of Adam; on the day that God created man, He made him in God’s image.” (Bereishit 5:1)
What’s wrong with “Love your neighbor?” It would seem far more relevant than the verse that doesn’t demand anything at all and simply introduces a timeline of the generations?
Rabbi Norman Lamm explains that Ben Azai feels “Love thy neighbor” is insufficient because many people don’t adequately love themselves. If one doesn’t love onself, then one will have an excuse to degrade others. “Instead, love of man must be based on the fact that man is created in the Image of God. We must value man not because we see in him our own likeness but because we see in him God’s likeness.”
It is not enough to decry racism and note that it goes against Jewish principles. We need to teach and repeat and repeat again that all humans are created in the Divine image and treat them accordingly. It’s not a teaching; it is a command to action.
2) Listen to what African Americans think we should do.
If we want to be helpful, let’s ask the African American community what they’d like to see the Jewish community do at this time. I don’t know exactly who to ask, but a recent JTA article quoted a few black Jews sharing their thoughts.
Isaiah Rothstein is a multiracial rabbi who serves as the rabbi-in-residence at Hazon. He said:
“If I could say in short what do I think the Jewish community should be doing, I would want every community…to have educational campaigns around racial equity and racial awareness and racial sensitivity…so that we could better create a stronger, healthier bridge for the future.”
How often do we engage in conversations about racism, inequality, civil rights, or police misconduct? I know Judaism is incompatible with racism and that all humans are created in the image of God. Knowing is only half the battle. It’s time to further explore the role Jews have in addressing the issue in America, to invite African American voices to share their feelings about how Jews can help, and to give this issue a more robust profile.
3) Find an action item to do something to try and make a difference.
There are organizations – Jewish and non-Jewish – tackling issues of social justice and civil rights that we can support or join. There are also issues for which we can advocate.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella organization for Jewish Community Relations Councils across the country issued a letter of solidarity. In addition to expressing outrage, the letter includes a call to action:
“We call upon our government and law enforcement agencies at every level to institute sweeping reforms in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. We pledge to join forces with the black community and other Americans to see through these changes to law enforcement, end systemic racism, and work for a more just American society.”
I think this is an appropriate pledge to make. It is clear that something is broken in America, and the very least we can do is participate in the process to fix it.
Many protesters chant “Say his name,” followed by shouting “George Floyd!” The message is that no one can avoid naming the victim of police violence. In addition to horror, outrage, and solidarity, it is time we begin to more vocally and actively address the issues of racism and inequality, listen to our African American brothers and sisters, and find ways to actively involve ourselves in the battle to make America the best country it can be for all its citizens.