As I’m reading Eddie Glaude’s evocative and incisive new book (Begin Again) on the current state of race relations seen through the prism of the works of the eminent intellectual James Baldwin, one realization is abundantly clear: The vital work of racial awareness, reconciliation, and repair must be solely borne by White America. Whites cannot rely on the patient tutelage of the Black community to help them “discover” and process the mix of history, memory, and rationalization that deludes even the most well-intentioned of us. While the Civil Rights movement accomplished significant changes in law, the obstinacy of attitudes—and the lengthy effort to change hearts minds–requires a deeper dive into collective conscience. And from that, a greater willingness to address the legacy of structural racism through a sacrifice of power and privilege to attain genuine equity and justice.
White Jews in particular cannot merely rest on the laurels of our analogous historical suffering, or the disproportionate role we played in the 60’s, to absolve us of the daunting task ahead. As this moment of racial reckoning intersects with the season of our repentance, there is a spiritual serendipity that calls us as much to the challenges of this moment as it inspires our growth over a lifetime. For teshuvah—an authentic turning toward a better self—speaks to us both as individuals and as a people. In this unprecedented moment of trial and possibility, we must, as Jews, as Americans, and as a nation, embrace a singularly American teshuvah if we are to heal the festering wounds of neglect, apathy, and indifference.
There are 3 key elements of Teshuvah—3 steps that apply as fittingly to our yearly exercise as they do our current struggles:
-First, we must engage in heshbon nefesh—an honest accounting of our souls. We must candidly survey our history, concede the inherent racism encoded in our founding, and acknowledge its indelible imprint on our culture up to the present.
-Second, out of that awareness, we must vow to change our path moving forward. What strategies, approaches, and programs can we envision to remedy the harm done to people of color in this country? A good and tangible start would be to embrace significant reform in our criminal justice system, and to consider elements of economic reparations—an insufficient but still meaningful gesture that was significant to our people, and especially to the nascent State of Israel, in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
-Third, when the time arises to choose the right and better path, we must follow through on our promise to ourselves and to others. Will we merely tinker around the edges of confronting police violence against communities of color or enact substantive change? Will we address the political and financial foundations of structural racism by conceding our power and privilege, or merely intone more comforting platitudes to obscure the hard work of real change.
The Talmud teaches that, “The place where those who do teshuva stand, the perfectly righteous are unable to stand.” We are only human, yet our limitations can inspire unprecedented uplift. We as a nation can only stand up and stand tall in the face of America’s Original Sin if we confront our inevitable failings, commit to lasting change, and concert our actions to relegate racism to the trash heap of our troubled history—a past which can serve as brilliant prelude to a brighter future.