Is There a Jewish Answer to Racism

Is There a Jewish Answer to Racism?

September 18, 2015

[callout]This is the sermon I delivered on Rosh Hashanah morning, the first day of the Jewish New Year. To hear the full audio of this sermon, click here[/callout]

The story we read this morning—the binding of Isaac—is about many things. It is about the meaning of faith. It is about blind obedience. It is about the replacement of child sacrifice with animal sacrifice.

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It is also about the relationship between father and son. It is a difficult relationship. How could it not be, when Abraham was prepared to slaughter Isaac because God told him to do so?

Yet, it is also a loving one. Abraham and Isaac speak tenderly to one another as they climb the mountain. We hear repeatedly of Abraham’s deep love for Isaac. And Isaac does return to bury his father at his death.

Perhaps the most accurate adjective for their relationship is complicated. And it never is really resolved. The end of the story leaves us with more questions than answers.

Two Stories

I read two other stories this summer about fathers and children. Both were also complicated, difficult, tender, and challenging. Both also left me with more questions than answers. The first was by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the writer and contributing editor at the Atlantic. His book, structured as a letter to his 15-year-old son about living as an Black man in America, is entitled Between the World and Me.

The second was Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Entitled Go Set a Watchman—which, incidentally, is a quote from the biblical book of Isaiah—it describes in part the relationship between a daughter and father struggling in the Jim Crow South. Both deal with race. Both deal with complicated questions. Neither is easy to digest.

Consider this passage from Coates, “Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains. You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity.”

“You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine.”

A Painful Year

These words pricked me, pained me, challenged me. See, unlike other topics where we can identify the problem and propose a solution, race does not lend itself to a clear or convenient solution. We can have a black man become the most powerful leader in the world, yet still have persistent racial bias in America.  Over the course of this year, we saw nine church members slaughtered in Charleston during a bible study class. We saw black men pulled over and shot. We saw a man choked to death, and his dying words were “I can’t breathe.” We saw riots in Baltimore, followed by more murders. We have seen an seemingly unending uptick to murders in our own city of Chicago.

And yet, part of the problem is that we don’t really see it. We are largely immune. You know, when I moved from Houston to Milwaukee at age 11, I noticed a few differences. One was weather. But the other was people. In Houston we had several African-American neighbors. I went to a Jewish day school, but I had several black friends and many belonged to the local JCC.

In Milwaukee, by contrast, our neighborhood was probably 99% white. The city and its suburbs were highly segregated, much like metropolitan Chicago. We know dozens are murdered in Chicagoland every week, yet we do not feel the pain. We want to do more, but we can relate only so much. Our empathy is limited by our circumstances.

Yet as heirs of a people enslaved for 400 years; as members of a congregation dedicated to civil rights and social justice, we know must do something. We must do our part, as the Talmud says: “We do not have solve the problem, but neither are we free to desist from it.” In this quest we are guided by a seminal verse in the Torah: “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

We were strangers in the land of Egypt: What does this verse mean? The interpretation most of us know is that because we were strangers, we need to reach out to strangers. This is true. We care stranger in our midst.

Strangers to Ourselves

But I want to suggest a different interpretation, one that might help us understand, on a deeper level, why racism persists and what we might do about it. It relies on an obscure midrash that says when our ancestors were in Egypt, they became acclimated to slavery. Not that they enjoyed it. But they began to hate one another in the same way the Egyptians hated them. In effect, they became strangers to themselves. It’s not hard to do.

Perhaps you are familiar with the Stanford Prison experiment. It took place 40 years ago. A professor whom I had the chance to study with—Philip Zimbardo—divided a random group of students into prisoners and guards. He wanted to see how circumstances affected their behavior.

After just two days, the guards became increasingly cruel and harsh. They began beating the prisoners, forcing them to sleep on concrete, and take off their clothes. And the prisoners became increasingly complacent. Both groups engaged in behavior they could never have imagined themselves doing. In other words, they became strangers to themselves.

What Zimbardo discovered is not limited to prisoners and guards. We all have a capacity for cruelty, anger, irrational hatred. We may not always understand or even rationally recognize such possibilities are there. But they are. That’s part of the insight conveyed by the story of Abraham and Isaac. We rightfully shudder in horror when we see Abraham prepare to murder his son. But perhaps the Torah is suggesting something not just about Abraham, but about each of us. We are much more complex than we ever imagined. We are not inherently bad or good. We have the capacity and inclinations for both.

Reading the story of the binding of Isaac every year reminds of this truth. And it also provides insight into race in america. Police officers are not especially bad. Rioters in Ferguson or Baltimore are not especially bad. We all have the capability to inflict evil and undermine our better selves. That’s part of the power as well in Go set a Watchman. Atticus Finch—a hero for a generation of americans seeking racial justice—turns out to have racial bias. Is that horrible? Is this something that should cause us despair? No, It’s real.

And our tradition has always acknowledged this. In Judaism, instead of original sin, we have an original split. We have the capacity and inclination for good and evil. And sometimes that split can lead us to become strangers to ourselves.

Despair is Not Jewish

But that’s not the end. If all we did was simply acknowledge this complexity in ourselves, we would live in endless struggle. That’s the problem I had with Ta-Nehisi Coates. His eloquent heart-wrenching book concludes that we are in an unending struggle. And struggle itself, he suggests, is redemptive. It’s the best we can do. That’s not Jewish. Remember Pirke Avot, “We may not complete the task but not free to desist from it.”

In other words, we can leave Egypt. We may begin there but we can leave there. Accepting our culpability—our capacity for hatred and evil—is the first step. But hope is the second. Hope is not optimism. Hope is not the sense of “Oh, we elected a black president therefore racism is over in America.” No, hope is active. Hope is faith rooted in realism. The source of our hope—the prod that creates the energy behind it—is also contained in a variation of the verse we cited earlier: “You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

This verse calls for radical empathy. Empathy is the capacity to vicariously share another’s experiences. We all have empathized with others or felt others empathize with us. Empathy is not easy, even for those who seem to be gifted with the capacity. It takes effort and imagination. And it is especially difficult when it comes to race. But each of us has a tremendous capacity for it, more than we may even imagine. Empathy is like a muscle. The more we use it, the more it grows and the more naturally it comes. Put differently, empathy is a choice, and when we choose to empathize, our hearts grow larger.

We Are Privileged

There is one persistent difficulty, however: Studies have shown that more privileged people have a harder time with empathy. It is difficult to know the heart of the stranger when you have never been a stranger. We here in this congregation are a generally privileged bunch. We live in a spectacular neighborhood with wonderful schools and relative comfort. Can we really empathize with those who live in vastly different circumstances? Can we empathize with those of another race?

Absolutely. I think that is why we are here today. A recent study on empathy says that a change in motivation can make us much more empathic. In other words, if you see yourself primarily as a business executive or powerful attorney, you have little motivation to empathize with someone in a less prominent position. The guard in the Stanford prison experiment has no reason or incentive to empathize with the prisoner. It does not earn him anything.

But if we see ourselves as Jews—or if we are not Jewish, as people who share Jewish values—then we are obligated, we are commanded, to know the heart of the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Our identity, our values, become our motivation, our incentive. Our faith, our identity, give us a greater capacity to empathize. And by coming here this morning, you are identifying with the Jewish people and the values we hold dear. And you, me, all of us—are called upon to embody a radical empathy.

Learning to Feel Unwanted

How do we do it? The best answer I have found to this question comes from an insight of Psychiatrist and Harvard Professor Robert Coles. Coles has written several books about children, rich and poor, black and white. One of his books was about people like me and most of our kids and grandkids—those who grow up with the feeling they could do anything and be anything they wanted.

He calls this feeling a “sense of entitlement.” We often take it for granted. But 25 year old Freddy Gray—who grew up in a cycle of poverty and then was murdered on the way to the police station did not. Michael Brown did.  Society doesn’t want the Freddy Grays and the Michael Browns. Certain neighborhoods don’t want them. Certain companies do not want to hire them.

To empathize, then, Dr. Coles says each of us needs to rediscover how it feels to be unwanted. And all of us—at some point in our lives—have felt unwanted. Perhaps we have walked into a room and it just felt wrong. Everyone seemed at home but we felt out of place. Or perhaps we were rejected by someone whose support or approval we really wanted and valued.

Perhaps we were the last kid picked for a sports team, or we got one of the tiniest parts in a school musical where we aimed for the starring role. Recall that feeling. It is not easy. We usually try not to think of ourselves in this way. But it can open us a part of hearts we prefer to leave closed. It can put us in closer touch with how people like Michael Brown in Ferguson and Freddie Gray in Baltimore feel every day.

Responsibility to Others

We should be under no illusion that empathy will solve all our racial biases. It will not directly decrease the murders in Chicago, the violence in Baltimore or riots in Ferguson. But Abraham Joshua Heschel—a rabbi who fled Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940 and made his way to the United States, then marched in Selma with Reverend Martin Luther King—said not all our guilty, but all are responsible. We are responsible. And in Judaism responsibility has a precise meaning.

The Hebrew word for responsibility is achre-ut. The root of that word is acher. Acher means other. To be responsible is to make the concerns of the other are own. It is to begin to see our own tears shining in the eyes of the other. It is to be both Isaac and Abraham. We know the fears, the pain of Isaac. And, like Abraham, we listen to the voice of God, the God that says “It is not your job to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” To get the full audio of this sermon, click here

About the author

Rabbi Evan

I show the way Jewish wisdom make our lives richer and happier. In particular, I help Jews appreciate their heritage and Christians uncover the Jewish roots of their faith. Get my FREE Jewish holidays cheat sheet by signing up here!

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