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.”
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