This weekend, Jews and Muslims each have major holidays. This conjunction of the Islamic and Jewish calendars happens every 33 years. Muslims celebrate a major feast holiday, Eid Al-Adha. Instead of feasting this weekend, we Jews fast.
In discussing Tikkun Olam, the Repair of the World, in connection with the fast day of Yom Kippur, as I will be doing today, the actions of Mohandas Ghandi came to mind. Ghandi used fasting as a way to bring awareness to important issues and promote what he believed to be right. Once, he pressured the British and Indian leadership to reconsider a Constitution that would have enforced the Indian caste system and maintained the oppression of the “untouchables.” Another time, in fact, the last fast that Ghandi undertook, was an effort to encourage Hindus and Muslims in New Delhi to work toward peace. Peaceful relations between peoples was a primary goal of Ghandi’s life’s work.
While they may not have fasted, we remember the actions of other individuals as well. Twenty-five years ago, there were protests in China’s Tiananmen Square. Many thousands of people were involved in the protests, but it is the image of a solitary figure standing in front of a row of tanks that came to symbolize that pro-democracy protest movement. In this country, in Montgomery, Alabama, a half century ago, Rosa Parks, a black woman, tired after a long day at work, was sitting in the “colored” section on a bus on her way home from work, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, and became a symbol for the Civil Rights movement. As I noted on Rosh Hashanah, individuals can make a real difference by inspiring others.
Yet, while there is more freedom today in China than there was in 1989, restrictions on freedom are still a prominent part of life there. In India, violence between Hindus and Muslims occurs regularly. In America, the Jim Crow Laws mandating segregation of public accommodations eventually were overturned and there has been progress, but discrimination still adversely affects minorities in America. The reality is that while individuals can make a big difference, they need a great deal of help from the rest of us to succeed. We have to do our part of the work.
Prejudice, oppression, and hatred remain a part of our world. And so, on this day when we contemplate how we live our lives and especially about how we act toward others, I am going to speak about discrimination in America, the concept of the Shandeh, bringing shame on one’s people, and the challenges we face in trying to overcome the prejudices we all have as we try to repair our world.
I’ll begin with a story from our own tradition. Take a moment and imagine. Close your eyes.
Think of yourself standing at the border of your nation, the only land you’ve ever known, looking out into an inhospitable land before you. You’re holding the hands of loved ones and friends. You’re tired. Exhausted to be more accurate. You don’t have much food to eat or water to drink. You’ve been traveling speedily because you have no choice but to do so. If you fell behind, they would have caught you and that would have meant oppression, persecution, and maybe even death. You yearn to move forward, to cross the boundary before you and to journey toward a place of freedom.
We have been in this place many times before as a people. My own grandparents and great-grandparents lived out this story in Eastern Europe.
Now, imagine yourself standing at the shore of a broad sea. You have no boat, but the pursuers still come after you. Some pray with teary eyes, minds filled with fear. Children look to the adults for answers. The adults look to their leaders. Their leaders plea for divine intervention. Yet, the waters do not part. It looks like there will be no escape.
Finally, you look on as one brave soul, perhaps believing with a degree of insanity that he could make it happen, begins walking out into the water. He has no idea how to swim. Carrying and wearing as much as he is, he’s not going to float well anyway. He walks out into the water until the water covers his head.
Suddenly, the waters part and there you and others, Nachshon and Miriam, Aaron and Moses find yourselves standing on dry land as you continue your walk to freedom.
Now, feel free to open your eyes so you don’t fall asleep!
That is the Midrash, the rabbinical tale of Nachshon, whose faith helped part the waters. The rabbis say that it wasn’t only Moses lifting his staff that made the waters part. It was instead that Nachshon believed that they would part and risked his life to demonstrate that. He had faith in God and because of Nachshon’s faith, the waters parted.
I recently discovered a version of this Midrash with a little modification at the end added by Rabbi Susan Talve, a friend, who is the spiritual leader of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, Missouri.
She shared a version of the story of Nachshon with her own ending at a community service in St. Louis following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Here’s my version of the story with Rabbi Talve’s modification.
You look on as one brave soul, perhaps believing with a degree of insanity that he could make it happen, begins walking out into the water even though he has no idea how to swim. Carrying and wearing as much as he is, he’s not going to float well anyway. He walks until the water covers his head. You panic. He’s going to drown! You know it. So you rush to the water and dive in. You’re not alone in doing that. Many people accompany you, all diving in to save this one young man.
Suddenly, the waters part and there you find yourselves standing amid the waters on dry land as you continue your walk to freedom.
Rabbi Talve explained her version of the story in the following way: Nachshon, like so many of us who want to change the world and might respond in a desperate situation, wearied of waiting for a miracle to happen and acted rashly. What really parted the waters was that so many people rushed in to try to save him; not just his parents and those who knew him, but all of the others as well, risking their own lives to save the life of one child.
This ending and its explanation by Rabbi Talve make sense to me. One person can make a great difference. One person can be the catalyst for a movement, its Rosa Parks, but others need to jump in and help if the grand task is going to be accomplished.
Changing the world is not easy. A parting of the waters, as difficult as it may have been to accomplish, often merely allows for the first step on a long journey to be taken. Our tradition has the Israelites wandering through the wilderness for two generations, forty years, before we even entered the Promised Land after the waters parted.
Neither will the “promised land” of equality in Civil Rights and an end to discrimination and prejudice be reached easily. That destination will be reached only after a long and difficult journey as well. What has been accomplished thus far for minority rights has required blood, sweat, and tears and there is still much work to be done.
Rabbi Talve, in a recent article she wrote about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, argues that we continue to live in an America divided by gender, race, and class. As Rabbi Talve notes, in many municipalities across the country:
Driving while black, shopping while black, just walking in the street while black, are crimes. Talk to any parent of a black male and they will tell you about the "talk" everyone has with their child. "Keep your head down, be polite, don't run from the police and…lose the attitude."
A Grand Jury is now deliberating the case in Missouri and will decide whether or not Officer Wilson should be charged with a crime based upon the evidence. That said, the context of the shooting of Michael Brown is that of a broader national narrative: a history of conflict, prejudice, and discrimination. In that context, we encounter the rhetorical question that circulated at the time of Trayvon Martin’s killing by George Zimmerman and circulated again with the death of Michael Brown and events in Ferguson. It comes from The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. I think it says what needs to be said about the way much of our society sees African American men. The question is:
At what age is a black boy when he learns he's SCARY?
It is, of course, a pointed rhetorical question, one that mocks the discrimination that forms its context. In relation to that, the questions I might ask are:
At what age, did you first experience discrimination and prejudice? When do you notice that people are treating you differently, not because you’re simply growing up and, perhaps, are bigger and stronger than those around you, but because you look differently than they do? Dress differently? Or act differently than they do?
Those are questions with which Jews are familiar. While we Reform Jews may not be readily identifiable as Jews because of the way we dress, our more traditional brethren certainly are and at times they face discrimination because of it.
That said, in Jackson, Mississippi, only recently, a Reform Rabbi colleague of mine, Ted Riter, went to a restaurant as was asked whether he wanted his salad “Large or Jew sized” with the accompanying explanation being that the smaller salad was “cheap, like Jews.” The owner didn’t even know he was speaking to a Jew when he said what he did.
Many of us have overheard conversations about Jews being cheap or untrustworthy. Those words are not usually said to our faces. There is even a term still too commonly used that refers to someone trying to get the best deal from you. The verb used is “To Jew” and means to “act like a Jew” in bargaining. It is a term based in many centuries of Antisemitism, during which Jews were almost exclusively in businesses that required bargaining. Jews were money lenders, tax collectors, peddlers and middlemen in all sorts of business transactions.
While, for the most part, we have not been seen as being a physically scary people, religious based hatred of Jews, conspiracy theories, and simple lack of knowledge about Jews has produced fear of the Jews as a collective. Even in the modern world, there are people who fear that Jews lurk in the background of politics and economics, pulling the strings of leaders.
Fortunately, in America today, we’re unlikely to be pulled over or harassed because we’re Jewish, even if we wear a kippah. But that is not and was not always the case and it wasn’t all that long ago that many clubs excluded both Jews and people of color. Signs could be found on no few establishments in America only half a century ago that read, “No Jews, No Blacks, No Dogs.” The term for blacks was more often the “N” word.
It has taken no little effort by individuals, religious groups, and others around the nation to overcome the stereotypes often at the base of these aversions. There is much more to be done. We also know how easily dislikes are renewed and reinforced.
The concept of a shandeh, Yiddish for shame, has long been a part of Jewish life. A shandeh fur die goyim is something done by a Jew or Jews that is seen as resulting in embarrassment or taint on all Jews in the eyes of those who are not Jewish. No few people would cite the actions of Bernie Madoff, whose financial crimes reinforced the stereotype of Jews and money, as an example.
This problem of a Shandeh isn’t unique to Jews and Judaism, however, though the Yiddish term certainly is. American Muslims regularly face this problem as well and an African American minister friend of mine wrote along these lines the other day about Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and other NFL players accused of domestic violence as resulting in a negative reflection of black men as prone to violence.
We live in a nation in which only slightly more than 150 years ago, those professional athletes could have been considered property. We live in a nation where 50 years ago there were places where black and white athletes wouldn’t have been allowed to play together in no few places because of segregation. Today, laws may have changed, but our minds are still segregated to an extent. We apply different rules to different people, though we may try our best not to do so: sometimes because of their ethnicity or religion, sometimes because of how they dress or, yes, because of the color of their skin.
Our eyes can perceive differences in shade and color, but they do not force us to see those differences in shade and color as determinate of character and worth. Our minds do that. Our feelings do that.
When we ignore how our minds process difference, we can easily fail to realize our own prejudices. We can even allow our laws to enforce them—and as a nation, we have. It did not escape the notice of those protesting the events in a suburb of St. Louis, that in 1857, Dred Scott, a slave, after attempting to sue for his freedom at the Federal Courthouse in that very city, had the Supreme Court of the United States declare in a 7-2 decision that he had no legal standing in the court and even that he was an “inferior being.”
We, Reform Jews, with our belief that all people are created B’tselem Elohim, in the image of the divine, find such a thought unfathomable, not to mention horrifying, repugnant, and despicable. We also have experience with what happens when people come to be considered “inferior beings.” It happened to us only seven decades ago, after numerous times before that.
However, with the rapidity of technological change today, we tend to act as if society and human interaction change equally rapidly. While our society little resembles that of pre-Civil War America, 157 years are barely a blip on evolutionary chart. Much of our prejudice is connected to survival instincts, associating with those similar to us and avoiding those, even fearing those, who are not.
Reform Jews have been and remain at the forefront of combatting this challenging aspect of our humanity and our society, the ease by which we can discriminate and the difficulty we often have in overcoming it. When we add in socio-economic disparity, especially when historically connected to blessing and curse in many religious traditions including our own, the challenge we face is compounded.
Tonight, when we read the Kol Nidrei prayer, we spoke in the voice of the one forced to say “Yes,” when he or she meant “No.” We spoke with the voice of the persecuted minority, with the voice of someone fearful to stand up as Jew and say, “No!” We understand fear as a people. We understand being afraid of threats. Perhaps not so much today, but in past generations, we’ve had “The Talk” or something similar with our own children, warning them not to make waves, not to be noticed, not to trigger Antisemitism.
During the 1960s, as Jews came from the north to the south to aid in the Civil Rights struggle and were at the forefront of demonstrations, no few Jews in southern communities feared that they would face the backlash. However, throughout the Jewish year, we are reminded that we were once strangers. Our history is full of discrimination and persecution and threats against us, too often brutally carried out. We know how it feels and what it means to be considered “inferior beings.” We know the consequences that hatred can have and we should feel obligated to stand against it.
So, on this Yom Kippur, Atem Nitzavim! Here we stand, all of us arrayed before God. Again and again facing challenges. Perhaps, we will be Nachshon, jumping into the waters before us, hoping that we can individually make a difference. Perhaps, we will be like Susan Talve’s rescuers of Nachshon, jumping in to save a life and parting the waters. Regardless, let us not be onlookers, complacent and silent, in the face of injustice.
Tomorrow evening, I will stand before the ark and read what I believe are among the most powerful words in any of our services over the course of the year:
Called to a life of righteousness, we rebel: arrogance possesses us. The passions that rage within us drown the voice of conscience: good and evil, virtue and vice, love and hate contend for the mastery of our lives. Again and again we complain of the struggle, forgetting that the power to choose is the glory and greatness of our being.
We can make the right choices. We can elevate the voice of conscience not only for ourselves, but for our communities. We can choose to overcome that struggle. Let us choose to stand up, even to march, for righteousness. Let us jump into the waters and change our world for the better.
May our fast indeed be the one of the Prophet Isaiah of which we will read tomorrow:
Is this not the fast, I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free and to break every cruel chain?
And may we do as Isaiah suggests: Let us remove the chains of oppression, the menacing hand, the malicious word. Then shall our light blaze forth like the dawn.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah, May we all be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.