Tikvah Wiener
Head of School of The Idea School, the first project-based learning Jewish high school in America

What I Want to Offer God

New York Times op-ed writer Charles Blow tweeted fairly recently that if it weren’t so awful, you’d have to laugh at racism: the notion that we think less of people based on skin color is ridiculous.

Except that its effects are all too real, and pernicious. Even in 2018. Even after America has had its first black president.

Remember that there were discussions about whether we were living in a post-racial world, because Barack Obama had been elected? Those discussions seem laughable now. I recently had a conversation with a Canadian, who shook his head and told me, “We just don’t understand you Americans and racism. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Last week, Rabbi Daniel Fridman shared the talk he gave for Martin Luther King Jr. Day with the readers of the Jewish Standard (“Bending toward justice,” January 19). His congregation, the Jewish Center of Teaneck, hosted civil rights activist Ms. Theodora Lacey, who was introduced by Teaneck’s mayor, Mohammed Hameeduddin. Rabbi Fridman said that after the tumultuous week we had had, “[T]oday let it be said that I am not only an Orthodox rabbi and a Jew and an American, but on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I am a Haitian and an African as well.” He cited Dr. King, who famously wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states and cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In light of Reverend King’s extraordinary legacy, it might be surprising to remember that the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 wasn’t without its skeptics. Cornell University’s Roper Center for Public Research shows statistics on contemporary public opinion of the act. They show that about one-third of Americans opposed the bill in the months leading up to its passage; a month after it was passed, a little more than 50 percent supported it.

Americans now generally have a favorable view of the act, though progress in race relations has been slow. A poll from the National Opinion Research Center, 1972-1996, also from the Cornell University site, tells that story: As debate over school integration through busing raged in the 1970s to the 1990s, the number of those in favor of integration slowly increased. In 1972, 19 percent of white Americans favored school integration; by 1996, that number had increased to 35 percent. In the early 70s, 86 percent of whites opposed busing; by 1996, two-thirds opposed it. At the same time, the majority of black Americans favored busing in nearly every year, and only 39 percent opposed it in 1996.

The biggest discrepancy between blacks and whites can be seen in the way they view employment opportunities. According to Gallup polls from 1978 to 2011 that asked respondents whether blacks have as good a chance as whites in a community to get any job for which they are qualified, about 25 to 30 percent of whites felt blacks didn’t have the same chances; 50 to 65 percent of blacks felt they did not. These statistics show that bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice hasn’t been easy, and more work still needs to be done.

The literature that black and white authors are writing today tells the same tale. In last week’s Book Review section of the New York Times, author Jonathan Miles reviews Sam Graham-Felsen’s debut novel, “Green.” The book begins with 12-year-old David Alexander Greenfield, nicknamed Green, introducing himself as the “white boy” at Martin Luther King Middle, a Boston public school. He’s one of two white boys there, thanks to Green’s progressive parents, but the other can pass for Puerto Rican. Green is the only blond-haired, blue-eyed student, and the book interrogates race, imperfectly as the reviewer suggests, but nevertheless in a way that leaves the reader with an understanding of how “the force,” as the main character comes to describe it, works.

In one scene, Green and Marlon, his black best friend, decide they will shovel their neighbors’ yards, but Green undertakes knocking on people’s doors alone, since when Marlon accompanies him, they tend to get turned down more. Unequal employment opportunities, indeed.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, The Idea School hosted a program for prospective students. We first examined the text of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, paying particular attention to the allusion from Amos 5:24: “Let justice well up as waters, and righteousness, like a mighty stream.” Rabbi Tavi Koslowe, the Idea School’s Judaic studies principal, pointed out that the book of Amos begins with God’s stating that He is able to tolerate three sins, but not a fourth. As God chastises the different nations who have sinned, He details what those fourth sins are:

  • Damascus crushed the Jewish people of Gilead with metal threshing tools [particularly barbaric physical punishment] (Amos 1:3)
  • Gaza handed over an entire population trying to escape and delivered them back to their country of origin (1:6)
  • Tyre engaged in the same behavior as the Gazans, but also ignored the covenant of brotherhood (1:9)
  • Edom pursued his brother with the sword and repressed all pity (1:11)
  • Ammon ripped open the pregnant women of Gilead in order to expand its own borders (1:13)

We can see that God abhors excessive cruelty and despises when people repress their tendency towards mercy and behave in pitiless and ruthless ways. It seems that God wants us to treat our fellow human beings, well, like human beings.

As if that lesson isn’t clear from these opening verses of Amos, as we get closer to the one that King quotes in his speech, God states, through the prophet:

“I hate and detest your festivals, I will not delight over [the sacrifices] . . . . If you offer up burnt offerings — or your meal offerings — I will not accept them . . . . Spare Me the sound of your hymns from My presence, and let Me not hear the music of your harps. But let Justice well up like water, Righteousness, like an unfailing stream.” (Amos 5:15-24)

Wow. God here eschews — condemns, actually — ritual practice in favor of the natural welling of justice and righteousness. How natural is that welling, though? Rabbi Koslowe shared the interpretation of the 19th-century rabbi and biblical exegete, the Malbim, on the famous verse. The Malbim remarks that humans inherently seek justice; it is part of our nature and an essential ingredient of each society. It therefore can be compared to a well of water, which springs naturally from its internal source to impact its surroundings profoundly.

Righteousness, in contrast, isn’t ingrained in us, but is something we have to nurture and develop through our experiences and encounters with God. The source of righteousness is external, and that’s why it’s compared to a stream, which gathers in mountains and other natural areas.

The Malbim adds that the waters of a stream don’t provide a source for other bodies of water but are focused internally, showing that the stream, as a metaphor linked with righteousness, is about developing your own personal relationship with God and embarking on a personal journey with the Divine. In this interpretation, the Malbim says, the desired and true purpose of a festival pilgrimage is not the offerings, the sacrifices, but the development of justice and righteousness.

It’s not hard to see, even without the Malbim’s interpretation, the reason that Amos spoke to Reverend King, and it’s easy to extrapolate as well the book’s implications for today’s world. In fact, we asked the students during our MLK program to continue Dr. King’s work, and we had them do so, first by providing different sources for them to research about racism in America today. Though we had about six sources the students could examine, most gravitated to a JTA article written about a Jew of color, Ben Faulding, who goes by the Twitter and Instagram name @TheHipsterRebbe.

Faulding was wearing noise-canceling headphones in a convenience store as he shopped for conditioner and didn’t hear a cashier address him. Next thing he knew, two policemen were pointing their guns at him. He stayed calm, knowing that one wrong move might get him killed, and he shouted for the officers to remove his headphones. Though this incident obviously was the most potentially deadly form of racism Faulding encountered, according to the article, he also blogged in 2014 about living in Crown Heights:

“Being a Jew with a black father, living in Crown Heights is a strange experience,” he wrote. “There is always a strong undercurrent of racism. You’ll be moving along just fine and then the ‘S-bomb’ will come along and just ruin your day, or at the very least your hour and minute. It’s never nice when it’s said. No one ever says ‘I had a man do my taxes. He’s shvartze.’ Nor do they say ‘my son is playing with the boys next door, they’re shvartze.’ It’s always ‘a shvartze stole my bike;’ or ‘if the shvartzes [take] welfare why shouldn’t we.’”

A visual reflection we created from The Idea School’s 2018 MLK, Jr. Day Program

When Rabbi Koslowe, Ms. Nancy Edelman, The Idea School’s head of humanities, and I reflected with the students at the end of the program, we asked them what had resonated so deeply with them about Faulding’s story that they had all used it in their projects. They told us that the act of buying conditioner was such a simple one, something they did all the time. They couldn’t get over the fact that it had turned so dangerous for someone simply because he was black.

Rabbi Koslowe remarked that the image of justice welling up like water and righteousness like a stream was a powerful one, making him wonder what it would be like to live in a world where we’re literally stepping in kindness, awash in it, unable to move without giving it and receiving it.

I wonder, too. It’s time to end the nonsense that is racism, to link hands with Dr. King and continue his work, to continue to honor civil rights activists such as Ms. Theodora Lacey, and to understand that it’s not just the job of political and communal leaders such as Mayor Hameeduddin and Rabbi Fridman to speak and act out against racism. It’s the duty of each and every one of us toward our fellow human beings — and it is our offering to God.

About the Author
Tikvah Wiener is Head of School of The Idea School, a project-based learning Orthodox high school located at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ. www.theideaschool.org. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband and children.
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