Please Note: This article was originally given as a Pre-Rosh Hashanah talk, live on Facebook and zoom.
Shanah Tovah. This article is about some of the issues relating to racism that have always existed in America but have recently come to a head. As I begin, the memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin and so many others are on my mind. I also think about the police shooting of Jacob Blake that left him paralyzed.
Before I deal with this topic through the lens of Rosh Hashanah and Teshuva (Repentance), I would like to make four introductory points.
1.In sharing these words, I cannot appreciate my enormous level of white privilege. Much of what I have written, I have learned by listening and reading the words of African Americans on this topic.
2. We of course should support peaceful protests in the tradition of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We must delineate between those engaged in non-violent protests and individuals perpetuating theft, vandalism and bloodshed. Most of these people are clearly not interested in social justice. The vast majority of protesters are peaceful. Demonstrators who are using physical force to achieve their goals is completely unacceptable.
There have been law enforcement officers who have treated protesters justly, but there have been others who have engaged in police brutality. Such behavior must be condemned. Furthermore, those counter protestors, who have inflamed the situation must be dealt with, and worse yet, gun-toting “militia” members, including 17 year old Kyle Rittenhouse, should be brought to justice.
During the Kenosha protests on the 25 of August, Rittenhouse, armed with an AR-15-style rifle, a semi-automatic weapon confronted protesters. Kyle Rittenhouse murdered Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, of Kenosha, and Anthony Huber, 26, of Silver Lake. He wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 26, of West Allis. The episode was video recorded on a cellphone. After the incidents, Rittenhouse, still with rifle in hand, passed by police officers who did not detain him. Witnesses were shouting that Rittenhouse was the shooter. He was eventually arrested.
When President Trump decided to visit Kenosha, both Governor Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul urged him not to come. They were concerned he would make matters worse. President Trump did indeed exacerbate the situation. He even defended Kyle Rittenhouse, claiming Rittenhouse engaged in self-defense. Mr. Trump referred to the video of the incident, telling reporters that Rittenhouse was, “trying to get away from them, I guess, it looks like” he further stated that, protesters “violently attacked him.”
- We are of course are rightfully pained by any acts or words of antisemitism associated with these protests. This is not representative of the majority of the individual protesters. Jews and African American need to be aligned, both for moral and practical reasons. We are both challenged, by the alt right, and white nationalism. Furthermore, not only must we address the issue of racism and antisemitism, but xenophobia, prejudice, bigotry, in general. We must confront, misogyny, Islamophobia, phobia of the LGBTQ community, a hatred of immigrants, mistreatment of people with special needs and violence towards all people.
- We must ask questions about the great issues of the day. This has nothing to do with politics or party affiliation. Every individual must make that decision for themselves. That is none of my business as a Rabbi. It has no place in a religious institution.
In fact, I have often heard from people that they have decided to leave a Synagogue that they have attended for many years, because they have found, that the Congregation, and the Rabbi and the Sermons that the Rabbi delivers recently to be too political. Interestingly I have met people who have had this critique of Rabbis and Synagogues that were either too left wing or right wing politically.
However, the great moral issues of our day are not politics. They confront the basic DNA of our ethics. When this occurs, we all must question. Merely because they have a political dimension, does not diminish their importance in terms of righteousness, no matter where we stand politically.
The Navi, the Prophet Yesheyahu, Isaiah says 1:17דִּרְשׁ֥וּ מִשְׁפָּ֖ט “Seek Justice”. Judaism is not limited to the experience of the Synagogue it speaks to the fiber of who we are. As the Navi Yirmeyahu/Jeremiah says in 31:32 נָתַ֚תִּי אֶת־תּֽוֹרָתִי֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔ם וְעַל־לִבָּ֖ם“I (God) will place my Torah within their midst, and I will inscribe it upon their hearts”. How can we engage in spirituality without addressing the immorality that exists? Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heshel writes in his book “The Prophets” on Page 212, “Acts of ritual are an abomination when associated with injustice”.
I believe we need to make up our minds once-and-for-all, what kind of Jews we are? Are we the once-a-week kind of Jews or do we hold the words of Torah deep in our hearts? When we hear the Haftorah every Shabbatand on Holidays. Is it simply music and text? Or is it a Prophetic Clarion Call for Justice?
With this introduction. Let’s learn.
One of the central ideas of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is being bent. We see this concept throughout the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. It is a thought that not only defines the High Holidays, but can shed light on the tumultuous times we are living through.
According to the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 26b, the Shofar that we use on Rosh Hashanah must be bent. Why? The Talmud points out that the Shofar should reflect the way we should be in this time. We should bend.
We should bend in our goal to do Teshuva, and we should bend in granting Mechilah, forgiveness, to those who wronged us and sincerely tried to transform themselves through Teshuva. We must also bend in our Teshuva to God. Both figuratively and literally.
We see this, during what is one of the most powerful moments of prayer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Where we bend our knee and fall low to the ground. Completely subjugating ourselves to God.
While we bend our knee and bow when we pray every day three times a day throughout the year, four times a day on Shabbat and Chagim, It is only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that we bend our knee to the floor, bow, and go down with our bodies.
We do this once on each day of Rosh Hashanah in the repetition of the Amidah, during the Alaynu prayer. We repeat this procedure on Yom Kippur and additionally we do it three more times, during the Avodah service, when we reenact the moment of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, entered the Kadosh Kadoshim, the Holy of Holies.
There seems to have been a similar experience of bending of the knee out there this past year in the world. Protesters, in the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd, took a knee, sometimes joined arm in arm, with Police Officers, State Troopers, United States National Guard Members and even Secret Service Officers. Athletes have also done this in solidarity.
There are similarities and differences in what is going on in this protest movement and our religious practice. Obviously we bend both knees and then we lower our body to where we stand. Beyond physical distinctions, our goal is a spiritual one.
While I am certain many of the protesters have been religiously motivated, from many different faiths, clearly others are working from a purely ethical, humanistic, political approach. However, whatever their perspective, we share something else.
When we bend our knee, we are also attempting to do Teshuva. Bending the knee in this protest movement is also about repentance, not by and large by the protesters themselves, but on the part of America. It is acknowledging the sin of hate, of prejudice, of racism, and the violence that all too often ensues because of these evils.
As much as we bend our knee and fall to the ground in prayer in subjugation to God and do Teshuva as individuals, we also do this as a collective of individuals. Therefore, it would seem our bending of the knee on some level can be seen as a moment of communal Teshuvah. This is not the only moment of shared Teshuvahon the Yamim Noraim.
On Yom Kippur we recite the Viduy. The Viduy is the confessional, the section in the service where we enumerate all of the sins that we committed over the course of the year. As we state each sin, we stand, bent over, again bending. We take our right fist. As we list every sin, we lightly strike the left side of our chest, with our clenched hand. We are making the statement, that our heart is broken, due to the sins that distanced ourselves from our fellow human beings and God.
There is something strange about the Viduy. It is a very large group of sins. Many of us read through these sins each year, and say to ourselves, “I might not be a Tzadik, a completely righteous holy person, but I did not do half these transgressions. In fact, I have not even heard of some of these offences. So why should I confess to sins I have not committed?”
The answer is, maybe you did not commit the given sin. However, perhaps the person sitting next to you at services, or in front of you, or in back of you, or sitting somewhere else in the Congregation did. Maybe someone in another Synagogue, or in another City or State or Country did the sin.
On Yom Kippur, we are team Teshuvah. We are saying to God, “I do not want to be written into the book of life, unless everyone is written into the book of life.” “We are all going together.” As Bruce Springsteen says, “Nobody wins, unless everybody wins”. That is why in the Viduy it is written “we”. We say in the Viduy, “we have betrayed”, “we have robbed”, “we have spoken slander”, “we have caused perversion”. It is always “we,” never “I”.
However, I think there is something more to our common Teshuvah experience than just the fact that we need each other to achieve our goal. That we cannot do it alone. What else can there be to our cooperative Teshuvah practice?
Perhaps part of the reason we confess to sins in this mutual manner, including sins that we might not have actually committed, is because in doing this we are acknowledging that merely because we did not perpetrate a given sin, we are making the statement that we are responsible for what goes on in our society.
I am sure that many of us, as we contemplate the events of this past year, with regard to race, say to ourselves; “I am not a racist”. Do we not still have responsibility, for what goes on in our country, and in this world? If an act of racism occurs, do we not have a duty? When there is inherent racism in our educational institutions, the work force, policing, the legal system, government, health care, dealing with COVID-19 and society in general?
It is not enough that we simply oppose racism. We need to take tangible steps to deal with this plague that infests our land. Of course we must protest, critique those who engage in racism and attempt to educate them. We should read and write op-Eds, avail ourselves of books and films on the topic, and of in depth coverage in the media. We have to support political candidates who care about this issue, lobby for legislation and donate to organizations who can be change agents.
However, I feel we need to start closer to home. While it is important to fight against racism everywhere, as Jews, we must focus on the racism that exists in our community. I know for some of us that is painful to hear. We need to acknowledge it.
Therefore, if we are serious about our opposition to racism, when we hear a fellow Jew make a racist comment, statement, slur or joke in public, they must be called out on it in public, especially if this person is an official in our community, Rabbi, Cantor, Educator or some other type of professional or lay leader. We also have to have an awareness, that there are Jews of color in our community.
We must make these people welcome, no differently from any other member of our community. Comments when you meet a Jew of color, like, “Ok what’s the story?” “You are obviously a convert.” “Are you Ethiopian?” are painful, ignorant, not inclusive and most importantly, racist.
I think there is something else we need in this fight against racism. Let me return to our theme of bending. Part of what we are doing when we bend our knee is to show our ability to compromise, not in our values, practice, ethics or faith. Simply stated, our politics, or a movement we are associated with can be compromised for a greater good. The prioritizing should be the cause. Simultaneously we should always realize in any social movement the danger posed to people. It is in this situation, that we should sometimes bend.
In this context I will revisit Law Enforcement Officers bending the knee. On June 2nd Kim Tavares, an African American woman Boston Police Officer, bent her knee at a protest, and said to a reporter at WCVB TV News. “Black lives do matter”. On June 1st Chief of the New York Police Department, Terence Monahan kneeled in solidarity with protesters.
On June 1st, four police officers kneeled in solidarity with protesters in front of Police headquarters in Los Angeles. One of the officers, Commander Gerald Woodyard who is African American (who has served for over 25 years) spoke with such compassion. He said, “This is our city, when I say our city, I’m talking everybody in here. We are appalled about what happened in Minneapolis, period. But we got to do better. This is our city, so we got to make sure that we take care of our city, because if we destroy our city, what do we have left.” Later that day he tweeted the following: “Part of the healing process for our city is to lend support for those who show up to voice their grievances and do so in a peaceful way. In solidarity with our community members, we want you to know that LAPD will ALWAYS support peaceful and lawful protest.”
On May 30th, Sheriff Christopher R. Swanson, the Sheriff of Genesee County in Michigan stood before a crowd of demonstrators, removed his helmet and spoke with protesters. Police officers put down their batonsand people applauded as Swanson marched with the crowd. He then spoke to those assembled about what he and his department could do to help improve policing.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors described the practice of police taking the knee as “disingenuous”. Yonat Shimron writes in a June 4th 2020 article for the Religious News Network that some might view “the gesture skeptically, as a strategy intended to de-escalate or defuse a protest that may be turning violent.”
This is a reasonable observation; however, is this not a step in the right direction? When the police join with protesters, even if to only keep the peace, are they not, in some way, coming closer together? Let us not let our politics prevent real people from engaging in compassionate acts. Who knows where such kindness can lead?
In fact, on May 28 in Kentucky the inverse happened. A group of Black protesters, Christopher Gales, Darrin Lee and Chris Williams formed a protective chain around Officer Galen Hinshaw who had been separated from his unit. These demonstrators saved this police officer’s life. Gales said, “…I stood up for that officer because I saw a man at the end of the day behind all that gear, … I don’t care if you’re white, black, Asian, Puerto Rican, Latino, anything else – we’re all human beings at the end of the day.”
Now, to return to police officers bending a knee with protesters. Do not forget that the murder of George Floyd, by then Officer Derek Chauvin occurred under Chauvin’s bent knee. Let Police Officers bend the knee in solidarity, let police officers bend the knee, in the name of peace, just for the love of God, please, please, please, let no more police officers bend the knee in the name of hate and murder.
Now I understand, as a seasoned activist, that on a certain level, protesters in some ways want violent responses from the police. It creates a better, bigger, more emotional news story that hopefully will create change in society. Clearly, regardless of how the police conduct themselves during the demonstrations, police have to do radically more to improve the way they work with people of color, the issue of systemic racism in policing, and police brutality.
Bending the knee being associated with both protest and the prevention of potential violence at a demonstration has a history. On July 17 2020, we lost one of our great leaders. Congressman John Lewis. Many years before he was in congress, John Lewis was a leader in the Civil Rights movement. He served as the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966. He taught us all to “get in good trouble”
On March 7, 1965, John Lewis led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Before they proceeded, they bent their knee in prayer. This day became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Lewis led more than 600 protesters over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When they came to the end of the bridge, Alabama State Troopers ordered the marchers to disperse. They non-violently refused to comply, and the Police used tear gas on them. Troopers on horseback charged the protesters, beating them with nightsticks, and fracturing John Lewis’s skull. Many others were severely injured.
A second protest was planned for Tuesday, March 9, led by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The idea was for Americans from across the United States, in particular clergy of different faiths, to attend the march. In order that violence would not occur, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) pursued a court order to prevent the police from being involved. United States District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson chose instead to issue a restraining order. The order prohibited the march from occurring until a hearing could take place.
A debate ensued amongst activists whether to abide by the restraining order or go on with the march. Dr. King made the decision to lead the protesters from Selma to Montgomery. The Assistant Attorney General, John Doar, and the former governor of Florida, Leroy Collins, acting as representatives of President Johnson, met with Dr. King in Selma. Their position to Dr. King was to postpone the march. Dr. King felt that the march had to go on for moral reasons. He was also worried, that many in the Civil Rights movement, would proceed with the march regardless. Dr. King was particularly concerned with SNCC.
Mr. Collins suggested to Dr. King that he make a stand on the bridge symbolically, and then lead all of the protesters back to Selma. Dr. King agreed to try to make this idea work on the condition that the police would not attack. Mr. Collins spoke to Sheriff Jim Clark, a true racist who agreed that his department would not take any action provided that Dr. King would follow an exact route determined by Sheriff Clark, which Dr. King agreed to. All of the negotiations were done in secret. Dr. King compromised his politics, not his ideals, in the name of peace and the goal of working his way through the legal system, for the greater goal of the eventual march on Montgomery and the passing of the Voting Rights Act, which President Johnson signed into law on August 6, 1965.
I recently had the honor to speak to Rabbi Israel Dresner who marched with Dr. King on that faithful day. Rabbi Dresner is over 90 years old, may he live to 120. He really helped me to understand what took place on the bridge.
The day of the march, Dr. King led approximately 2,500 marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Before they fully crossed the bridge, the police stood aside, it seemed to those who did not know the secret deal, to let them pass. Dr. King and many others assembled bent their knee in prayer.
No one knows what Dr. King prayed for. Maybe he was in a quandary over the deal he made. Perhaps, he felt troubled by not continuing the march past the bridge, even if he knew it was the right course and for the greater good, both to save lives that day and to win the legal battle that would lead to the March to Montgomery.
After a lot of legal and political maneuvering on Sunday, March 21, the march from Selma to Montgomery took place. Among those who marched with Dr. King was Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. He said of the march, “I felt my legs were praying”. The march culminated in a rally attended by 25,000 people at the State Capitol, where Dr. King delivered the “How Long, Not Long” speech.
Sometimes, “to pray with our legs” and to be able to proudly proclaim “How Long, Not Long,” we have to bend the Knee. We have to compromise our politics, but never our morality.
In these difficult days, we need to truly ask ourselves, what kind of country do we wish to live in? We need to question the direction we are going in. We can move towards greater polarization, increasing conflict between people of different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and political views.
Or we can choose a better course. We can strive to replace the bitterness that exists with empathy and wisdom. We must search for what President Abraham Lincoln called, “the better angels of our nature”.
We do not need divisiveness. Instead we must come together through a respect for life. There is far too much hate. I think we can all hear the cry for all the love that humanity has to give.
This is a time where we need leadership in America, not an uninvited photo op in front of a house of worship. Furthermore, the Bible is not a prop. It is a holy text that should be read to transform our lives. One of its most powerful statements is Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18 “you shall love your neighbor as you (love) yourself”. Rather than someone holding a Bible, let us all strive to practice this important commandment.
The United States must work to put an end to violence and to make the quest for peace not something to simply hope for, but a true strategic goal. We are experiencing difficult times now. We have had problems in our history. We still have challenging times ahead. However, people want to live in a land where all individuals are valued and treated with dignity. Bereishit/Genesis 1:26-27 states that all human beings are created B’tselem Elokim, in the image of God, which according to Rabbi Irving Greenberg, means that all human beings are worth infinite value, and therefore must be treated with infinite dignity.
Do we have the guts to do what we know is right? Principles only mean something, if you stick by them when they are inconvenient, not just when you have something to lose, but when you have everything to lose.
I understand the process and time that change takes. However, I believe, we cannot accomplish anything until we heal ourselves of the plague of racism and end this scourge on our nation. Now, we need to see what is before us now, right now, in the present. Seeing and hearing what is going on right now is the hardest thing to do.
I just have one more question for everyone. Those who stand by the cause of hate and prejudice, who truly wish to not be inclusive, who have already peripheralized so many in our society, absolutely and uncompromisingly stand by their cause. Will we stand by our cause less resolutely than they stand by theirs? So as the late great Representative Elijah Cummings said, “When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked, . . .what did we do …?”
Therefore, let it be known that the forces of hate can come forward with whatever weapons they have at their disposal, but there is no force as powerful as an idea: the idea that all human beings are truly created equal. It is an old idea, but the time has come that we must make it a reality. If there is one God creating all human beings, are we not all created equal? Is this not the most basic religious principle? So, let me make this crystal clear. I believe we should not be deterred by racism. We should not be deterred by prejudice. We should not be deterred by hate. Let us heal this land, and let us go forward into this new age with the power of being true to the ideals of everything our country stands for.
Remember the words of Dr. King, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” God bless you all, God Bless the United States of America, Shanah Tovah and Thank you.
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