THREE IMAGES, MANY QUESTIONS

A Minneapolis cop kneels on the neck of a black man, George Floyd. Peaceful protestors kneel on pavement. An unidentified young African-American woman carries an armload of bras out of Victoria’s Secret. How do we make sense of these images?

Last Saturday, my friend Ira asked: Doesn’t Judaism have anything to offer about the racism endemic in America? Yes, it does. Start with Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But this “simple” verse raises complex questions.

Love: A general good feeling about others or a commandment to take action when others face difficulties or injustice? (Cain kills Abel then asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”—Genesis 4:9).

Neighbor: Family and friends only? A religious congregation? Co-religionists only? Those who live near our home? And whom can we reject because of their race, religion, politics?

Yourself: How many of us truly love ourselves, are happy with the kind of person we are? If we consider it obvious that each of us engages in self-love, why does our society endure so much alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide? Can you love and mistreat yourself at the same time?

That said, do we define Leviticus 19:18 to our own liking and use it as a pretext for creating out-groups whom we have no obligation to love? What if we believe that the Bible instructs us to subjugate all who are “different”? What if cherry-picked verses, bent to our own purposes encourage us to forcibly convert others to our own religious and political practices or remain perpetual second-class citizens? Or take their citizenship away?

Slavery is a blot on America’s collective conscience, but some Americans still believe that slavery treated black Americans better than freedom ever has or could. Before and after the Civil War, any number of Christian ministers extracted from the Bible verses they attributed to God advancing the cause of separation of the races. Isn’t that a euphemism for oppression?

Black Americans—all Americans—have both a right and a duty to protest racism directed against anyone and seek meaningful changes in our society. Most protestors have peacefully exercised that right during what has also been an incredibly violent week while COVID-19 deaths continue. That said, I’m still overwhelmed with questions:

Will the violent minority hijack the cause of the peaceful majority? In November, will voters on the fence turn to Donald Trump as their Richard-Nixon-law-and-order candidate? Will others pass on voting for Joe Biden because another Democratic candidate isn’t the nominee? Or will they engage in a pragmatic electoral protest against an intolerable racial situation and a president whose Attorney General had tear gas and rubber bullets used to clear space in front of Washington’s St. John’s Episcopal Church for his boss’s photo op holding—but not reading from—a Bible?

Will a new president make a difference? Can changing laws also change hearts?

Walking/running/driving/birding/breathing while black can never be considered criminal or even undesirable. Can we as a nation find the strength and will to keep our eyes on the prize and work to end the racism that pollutes our society? Are we willing to fall short of a perfect solution?

Here, the Mishnah (Pirke Avot 2:16) offers guidance: “You are not required to complete the work, but you are not free to abandon it.”

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

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12 Comments


  1. Susan E Shapiro
    Jun 05, 2020

    Thanks, David, for this very thoughtful piece. I, too, have been thinking about all this these are some of my thoughts. First, until we as a nation acknowledge that our wealth and power derive in large part from the twin horrors of slavery and genocide, we will never be able to move forward in a meaningful way. We can’t change our past, but we need to name it, understand how these horrors have shaped the very fabric of our society, and appreciate how whites – including me (especially me) and including Jews – have benefitted, we’re never going to effect meaningful change. Second, I am looking inward and trying to figure out what I can do with my remaining years to be part of a solution. Haven’t landed on what that is yet, but once I come out of quarantine, I’ll be looking at opportunities here in my Atlanta community.


    • David
      Jun 05, 2020

      Thanks, Susan. Acknowledging slavery and the genocide of native peoples is, indeed, a major first step. Dealing with the aftermath constitutes more complex next steps. We’ve taken some. Not enough. To move forward we’ll have to look forward, find solutions one at a time. Not everyone will play a hero’s role, but everyone can be part of the solution rather than the problem.


  2. Jerry Robinson
    Jun 05, 2020

    Good questions, nicely said. Many thanks.


    • David
      Jun 05, 2020

      Thanks, Jerry. We need to change laws. Minds will be more of a challenge.


  3. jean wright
    Jun 05, 2020

    I live one block from “ground zero” in Portland. Tear gas has literally filled my bedroom twice in the last week. I have spoken out against racism and have been castigated by white people for doing so. Institutionalized and institutionally condoned racism kills. War kills. The difference? (It is very complicated.)


    • David
      Jun 05, 2020

      Stay with it, Jean. As Jews, we know where racism leads.


  4. Ellen Newman
    Jun 05, 2020

    The most important question you asked is: “Are we willing to fall short of a perfect solution?” And then I would ask, “Who is ‘we’?’ And in the answer to that question, we find the emergent problem. There are many “we”s, many people, communities and sub-communities with different answers, different levels of tolerance for imperfect solutions.

    We have been down this road before, certainly starting before we were born, then accelerating in the 1960s when intense levels of protest led to change, real change, but definitely not enough change. My hope is that this round of protest leads to a new administration and real change. But for some, whatever that change turns out to be, it will not be enough. And someday, perhaps a year or a decade from now, we’ll start over again, seeking a new round of change.


    • David
      Jun 05, 2020

      Great point about “we”, Ellen. Easier for me, not being black, to say, “Well, it’s not perfect, but—” My point is that efforts to move forward will have to be made endlessly. Desiring perfection is one thing. Expecting to see it in the lifetime of people at or near our age—or even today’s young people—is another. I don’t say this to pontificate, “Be grateful for what you have.” Far from it. Rather, looking the problem square in the eye, I’m saying racism will be part of our society for a long time to come. We have to keep chipping away at it, and we can’t throw up our hands in despair if more work constantly confronts us.

      That said, anything short of every human being be treated with respect is flat-out wrong.


      • Ellen Newman
        Jun 05, 2020

        Totally agree!

        The point that no one makes is that these issues, racism, inequality and “othering,” have been around forever. They are not unique to the U.S., although we have a unique blend of those things and a creed that condemns them. But that’s another conversation for another day.


        • David
          Jun 06, 2020

          Agreed.


  5. Zoe
    Jun 06, 2020

    Thanks, David. Well said! Love, Z


    • David
      Jun 06, 2020

      You are—unfortunately, Zoe—most welcome.

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