Barry Lerer
Senior Rabbi, Central Synagogue London

The Jewish Response To Racism

This past week we have all witnessed the outrage around the world in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, USA. Let’s be clear, this killing was brutal, totally unlawful, shocking and despicable. The fact that it was perpetrated by law enforcement officers only makes it more reprehensible.

As Jews, we believe in Vayivra Elokim et Adam Betzalmo – that we are all created in the image of God. Every human life is precious. Racism of any kind has no place in society.

We stand in solidarity, with the black communities in America in the UK and around the world.

We stand in solidarity, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel did with Martin Luther King in the Selma Marches in 1965.

We stand in solidarity, as Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris did with Nelson Mandela, in Apartheid South Africa.

We stand in solidarity, as Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein and his students at Yeshiva University did, outside the UN early one freezing Sunday morning in 1968 to demonstrate the genocide in Biafra. Only 60 people turned up to that demonstration – of which 48 were Talmud students and their Rabbi!

Today we say Imcha Anochi Betzara – we are with you in your distress. We feel your pain. We don’t condone the behaviour of those who have hijacked the peaceful demonstrations and marches and turned them into rioting and looting. But we feel the outrage and injustice of the taking of a life in such a vicious manner.

Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, who would confer Rabbinic Ordination in Yeshiva University would say, that the job of the Rabbi is to speak up when immorality and injustice permeate society. Today is one of those times. Being anti-racist means being Active- not passive.

We currently find ourselves in the book of Bamidbar. The Numerical value of Bamidbar is 248. This is the number of action. There are 248 positive commandments. It was in the Midbar where we made that proclamation at Mt Sinai– Naaseh Venishma …We will DO and we will listen. There are 248 limbs in our body which we use to perform those Mitzvot. And the Holy Prayer of the Shema, which we say twice daily, has 248 words – taking belief and putting it into action.

Now is not a time to stand by silently. It is a time to stand up and speak out against racism in all forms.

There is a professor of law at Yale University called Stephen Carter. He has written extensively on the area of civic duties and responsibilities. Stephen Carter is black, and he describes moving to a new, until then all-white neighbourhood in Washington DC in one of his books, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (1998) .

My two brothers and two sisters and I sat on the front steps, missing our playmates, as the movers carried in our furniture. Cars passed what was now our house, slowing for a look, as did people on foot. We waited for somebody to say hello, to welcome us. Nobody did.

I watched the strange new people passing us and wordlessly watching back, and I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here. I knew…

And all at once, a white woman arriving home from work at the house across the street from ours turned and smiled with obvious delight and waved and called out, “Welcome!” in a booming, confident voice I would come to love. She bustled into her house, only to emerge, minutes later, with a huge tray of cream cheese and jam sandwiches, which she carried to our porch and offered around with her ready smile, simultaneously feeding and greeting the children of a family she had never met—and a black family at that—with nothing to gain for herself……… We were strangers, black strangers, and she went out of her way to make us feel welcome. This woman’s name was Sara Kestenbaum.

The Midrash tells us that when Iyov/Job heard that the sons of Aaron had died, he trembled. Why would the death of Aaron’s sons cause Iyov to tremble?
According to the Midrash, Iyov, along with Yitro and Bilaam were the three principal advisors to Pharaoh, during the enslavement of the Bnei Yisrael in Egypt.

According to the Talmud in Sotah 11a, it was Bilaam who advised Pharaoh to throw all the Hebrew baby boys in the river. When Pharaoh sought the advice of the other two on this plan, Yitro could not be a party to it and he ran away to Midian. Iyov on the other hand neither approved nor disapproved, rather he remained silent.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 52a suggests that Aarons’s son’s Nadav and Avihu were killed because one day, while they were walking behind Moshe and Aaron, Nadav said to Avihu “When will our father and uncle die already and you and I will lead the Israelites.” Upon hearing this conversation God said, “We will see who buries whom”.

An obvious question has to be asked. Nadav was the one who spoke disrespectfully. What did Avihu do wrong? Why was he punished as well?

We learn from here the extraordinary lesson that if someone hears something bad and does not comment, he is culpable for punishment.

Now we see why Iyov trembled on hearing of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. He understood the overwhelming lesson from the death of Avihu. He realised that keeping silent upon hearing something terrible is punishable, and he was rightfully worried that he too was due for punishment because of his silence with Pharaoh.

We have a concept in Talmudic law called “Shtika Kehoda’a Damya”—silence is tantamount to an admission. As Martin Luther King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

As Jews we have an obligation, when someone says something wholly wrong, or evil is being perpetrated around us, we must speak up. We must not sit back and stay quiet. Otherwise, it is a tacit admission. Let us all be active, not passive. Let us take a lesson from Sara Kestenbaum. Let us find our voices and challenge racism, as Chief Rabbi Mirvis says, “Wherever we come across it- on social media, in the streets, in our communities, and in our hearts.”  And in doing so we and the world should be blessed with the final blessing of The Priestly blessing – God should grant us, and indeed the whole world a sense of inner peace and tranquillity. Veyasem Lecha Shalom

About the Author
A community Rabbi for over 18 years, Rabbi Lerer is Senior Rabbi at Central Synagogue London. He also teaches in the Beis 6th Form Programme at Hasmonean High School.
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