Kol Nidre - Can We Ever Become Antiracist?

Kol Nidre - 2020 - 5781

Can We Ever Become Antiracist?

A few weeks ago I watched with rapt attention as Kamala Harris was formerly nominated and then introduced as the vice presidential candidate of the Democratic party. No matter our political leanings, we cannot deny that Wednesday August 19, 2020 was a historic day. Never before in American history was a woman of color nominated for vice president by a major American political party. That alone made it worthwhile to watch and see what she had to say. Though her words of course were important, what made the most impact on me and surprisingly moved me to tears was how her step-daughter Ella talked about her. She said that she and her brother call her Momala! Imagine that - a Black Indian woman, married to a Jewsh man and called by her step children by a Yiddish term of endearment! Only in America.

It was a remarkable moment and I was moved by that video introduction because it clearly showed how two people could marry each other because they loved one another. They - Kamala and Douglas Emhoff - saw beyond the color of their skin and experienced the love within. Mr. Emhoff’s children call Kamala, momalah, not because she looks like a typical balabusta wearing an apron, making gefilte fish and talking with an Old World Yiddish accent, but because she’s their step-Mom (and no doubt because momalah rhymes with Kamala!). Kamala’s family is a conglomeration of the immigration experience, the Black experience and the Jewish experience in America and highlights the dreams and aspirations of all these groups as they strived to become integrated into American society - namely - a dream to be fully accepted as an American.

Though that dream has been motivational and really a driving force for minority groups in our country for hundreds of years, most people have woken up to the harsh reality of American life. It is clear that if we scratch just a little bit below the surface of American society that we will find a deep well of racism, antisemitism, bias and hatred. The tragic reality is that our country still has a long way to go to achieve full racial equality. In a survey published last year by the Pew Research Center of over 6,600 American adults, 40% of the Whites surveyed think we haven’t made enough progress toward racial equality, and 50% of the Blacks surveyed think that full racial equality will never be achieved.

If those statistics aren’t depressing enough, a book published recently highlights how difficult it is to pursue the dream of racial equality. Ibram Kendi, in his bestselling book How to Be an Antiracist, describes what racism is and provides a detailed explanation of how to be an antiracist. In two paragraphs in the first chapter of his book (p. 20) he defines racism this way: “[Racism] is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. Racist ideas argue that the inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society. As Thomas Jefferson suspected a decade after declaring White American independence: ‘The blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.’

“[Antiracism] is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their differences - that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group. Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.” Throughout the rest of his book Kendi explains the nuances and different aspects of antiracism and how difficult it is to achieve.

Perhaps one reason why it is so difficult to overcome racism is that it is embedded in our Jewish tradition. It is sad to say, but it is undeniable, that our own Torah conveys racist views. Throughout the Five Books of Moses, God not only promised the land of Canaan to our ancestors the Israelites, God also told us that we needed to expel the Canaanites from the land. The land of Israel is holy, God and the Torah repeatedly teach, and the holy land cannot abide unholiness and idolatry. The people of Israel are holy and they can’t be tempted by the pagan and unholy Canaanite inhabitants. Inherent in the Torah then is this racist attitude that Israelites - Jews - are better or holier than others. Our superiority is highlighted while the inferiority of the pagans is admonished.

We can explain this away by understanding the historical context in which the Torah was written. For a text that is traditionally thought to be 3,000 years old it is progressive. But for a text that is held to be eternal in its religious and spiritual values, a text that is supposed to be relevant and holy today, it is provocative and challenging.

The rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud - the foundational legal texts of our tradition - recognized this racism or elitism 1,500 to 2,000 years ago and they tried to instill more progressive, racially equal ideas into our heritage. For example, in the tractate Sanhedrin in the Mishna (chapter 4, mishna 5) they teach: “This serves to tell of the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, as when a person stamps several coins with one seal, they are all similar to each other. But the supreme King of kings, the Blessed Holy One, stamped all people with the seal of Adam the first man, as all of them are his offspring, and not one of them is similar to another.” By looking around us and seeing the racial diversity of humanity we are supposed to see evidence of God. Only God could make people look so different.

But can this religious ideal be actualized? Can we, each of us individually, achieve such a beautiful, idealistic view of humanity? Are people stuck in the literal words of the Torah, stuck in reading the text and learning hate, or can people rise above and understand that we always have to interpret and reinterpret? Can people understand that just as our tradition evolves and improves so too we as individuals need to evolve and improve?

Last month the United Arab Emirates announced that it was beginning the process of normalizing relations with Israel. That remarkable event prompted the Chief Rabbi of the UAE, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, to write an article about how he became the Chief Rabbi and what he has seen regarding Muslim Jewish relations. The article tells a fascinating story of a modern Orthodox American rabbi and how he ended up in the UAE. Among the anecdotes he shares is one in which he describes how 2019 was a momentous year for Muslim Jewish realtions in the UAE. It was declared a year of tolerance, during which Pope Francis was to pay an official visit and the UAE government was to establish an Abrahamic Family House with Christian, Jewish and Muslim houses of worships. As part of the official observances, Rabbi Sarna was invited to speak at a luncheon at the UN hosted by the UAE’s UN ambassador in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It was May 2, 2019 and it happened to be Yom HaShoah. “The topic of the event (Sarna writes) was how to fight hate speech, protect holy sites, and build on efforts made to promote tolerance among Muslim populations.” Rabbi Sarna said, “Could I talk about the Holocaust to over 50 ambassadors from Muslim majority countries? Then again, could I not? I decided to go for it. I shared the story of Mohammed Helmy, an Egyptian doctor in Berlin who defied the Nazis to save a Jewish patient, Anna Boros. He recruited a friend to forge conversion documents for Anna, and then held a mock wedding for her and an Egyptian friend in the hopes of procuring her an Egyptian passport and one-way ticket out of Germany. Dr. Helmy was recognized posthumously as the first Arab “Righteous Among the Gentiles'' by Yad Vashem. My message to the ambassadors was simple (Sarna continues): we all need to stand up for each other against hate and we can do it because we have done it before.`` As a result of this story and others that Rabbi Sarna shares, he has hope for increased tolerance and acceptance.

Back in June after the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police officer, there was talk of having a vigil here in Olney. Sharp Street United Methodist Church - a historically Black church dating back to 1822 in Sandy Spring - advertised that they were hosting a virtual prayer service in Floyd’s memory and all were welcome to attend. I reached out to the pastor - Diane Dixon-Proctor - and asked if Shaare Tefila could attend. She responded immediately to say that not only would we be welcome but she wanted me to share a prayer! Over 50 Shaare Tefila members joined that beautiful and inspirational vigil! Then two weeks later Pastor Diane invited us to join with them for their Juneteenth service and again invited me to share a prayer. Again many Shaare Tefila members attended. These two events created a lot of energy in our shul and especially in our social action committee. I have spoken to Pastor Diane - who is serving the congregation in a voluntary capacity - about more programming our congregations can do together and I hope to share news of upcoming events soon.

There have been many protests in DC and southern states to force city and state governments to remove statues and other symbols of the confederacy. As people across the country continue to reckon with the civil war and question the impact that the statues and the flag of the confederacy have in continuing to promote racism, governments are slowly responding. Statues have been removed, schools have been renamed and even a state flag will be changed. The June 30 edition of the Washington Post reported that “Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) signed a bill...abandoning the state’s flag and stripping the Confederate battle flag symbol from it, capping a remarkable turnaround on a banner that had flown over the state for more than a century. With Reeves’s move, Mississippi will take down one of the country’s most prominent Confederate tributes, withdrawing the only state flag that still bears such an emblem. The new flag’s design will be determined later, but lawmakers have barred it from including the most recognizable icon of the Confederacy, which many people associate with racism, slavery and oppression.

“This is not a political moment to me but a solemn occasion to lead our Mississippi family to come together and move on,” Reeves said at a ceremony at which he signed the measure.... “A flag is a symbol of our past, our present and our future. For those reasons, we need a new symbol.”

All of these examples, The UAE’s year of tolerance, our synagogue’s participation with the Sharp Street Church, and the State of Missippi’s new flag, highlight how people are trying to overcome long held, deep seated racist biases and beliefs. They clearly show a commitment to look inward, recognize the fault, and begin the process of change. But are these steps enough? Do they go deep enough and will they lead to positive outcomes and change? Will they lead to true antiracism?

I must admit that as I read Kendi’s book, though I agreed with his argument, I found it difficult to follow through on. He makes a distinction between not being a racist and being an antiracist. He argues that not being a racist is only a first step in transforming oneself into an antiracist.

It is a lot easier to say that racism is wrong. It’s safe to say that we all agree with the founding documents of our country that all people are created equal. Even though Jefferson may not have included Black people in that statement, we do. It is obvious to me, and the Torah taught it centuries ago, that all human beings are created in God’s image.

But it is so much harder to actually behave in a color blind way. The racist history of our country and the attitudes toward minorities with which we grew up, still prevent us from being truly color blind. It takes extreme effort to think about our actions, admit that we may still harbor some racist bias, and then correct that. We may be able to objectively state we are not racist, but it’s harder to really become antiracist.

In his July 2 article in the Wall Street Journal, Micah Maidenberg highlights that dilemma in the business world. He points out the generous profit sharing that Netflix and Walmart and other corporations have committed to aid the Black and other minority communities in America. He also points out some steps that corporations like Adidas have made to increase the percentage of minority hirings.

But this example that Maidenberg highlights which I want to share with you, is telling. Cascade Engineering Inc., a plastic-mold injection manufacturer in Grand Rapids, Mich., has since roughly 2006 described itself as an “antiracism organization.” The company, with facilities in Michigan, Texas, Ohio and North Carolina, has almost 900 employees in the U.S., 62% of whom self-report as white, with 22% describing themselves as Hispanic and 13% saying they are Black. Managers at Cascade headquarters must complete a two-day workshop on combating racism while other new hires are assigned materials on U.S. history that touch on racial disparities, according to a spokeswoman. The company hires ex-offenders and has long had a program to employ people who received public assistance. In the past, Cascade has showcased Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in its corporate office and had employees view the exhibit, said Kenyatta Brame, an executive vice president at Cascade. Cascade also brings in professional actors to Grand Rapids several times a year to re-enact instances of racial bias that occurred inside its facilities, Mr. Brame said. Employees talk about the sketches, including one depicting workers who used a racist slur against Black people, he said.

So far so good. It sounds like Cascade Engineering is a model company. It sounds like they have their antiracist act together and they are doing all the right things to not only combat racism, but to also create a culture of antiracism in their company.

“Yet, Maidenberg continues, Cascade’s office staff is more white than its manufacturing workforce, executives said. “We’ve got work to do,” said Fred Keller, the company’s founder.” No matter how hard they try, Cascade recognizes that they haven’t fully integrated the antiracism teaching into the hiring process. They talk the talk, as the saying goes, but they don’t walk the walk.

Ibram Kendi ends his book with the realization that the process of making America antiracist is challenging and may never be fully realized. The last paragraph of his book (p. 238) says,”[R]acism is one of the fastest-spreading and most fatal cancers humanity has ever known. It is hard to find a place where its cancer cells are not dividing and multiplying. There is nothing I see in our world today, in our history, giving me hope that one day antiracists will win the fight, that one day the flag of antiracism will fly over a world of equity. What gives me hope is a simple truism. Once we lose hope, we are guaranteed to lose. But if we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance one day to survive, a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free.”

Back in July, an icon of the Civil Rights movement passed away. John Lewis was only 23 when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with the Rev. Martin Luther King in 1963. He served his district in Georgia in Congress for decades and he was a paragon of humility, strength and determination in the struggle for racial equality. On the day of his funeral the New York Times published an essay he had written which he wanted to appear posthumously. It is a remarkable piece filled with love and hope. It begins, “While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.” He writes about the continued need to be involved in the struggle, to get into good trouble (protest, etc.) and be a voice for change. He knows the struggle has been long and may be unending and he ends with this thought, “When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

The struggle for racial equality has been long and tortuous. It is a moral and a religious battle. How have we been affected by the struggle? How have we been involved? What are we going to do to be advocates for equality? How are we going to respond to the divine imperative to see God’s image in every human being? How deeply will we look inward to recognize our limitations and make the effort to make real change? What kind of force for education and change will we be in our community?

May this Yom Kippur and the serious reflection we do lead us to be the best people we can be. And may we see John Lewis’ prayer - that the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be our guide - be fulfilled. Amen.