The Teshuvah We Need Now
By Rabbi Ira Stone
At this season of Teshuvah, I‘m thinking about the destruction of millions of Africans stolen from their homelands, forced into chattel slavery for close to 250 years and kept in a state of semi-slavery, excluded by Jim Crow from participation in the so-called American dream, threatened with lynching, bombing, incarceration, even now victims of mass incarceration that remains a vital part of the engine of the American economy. The forced free labor of black men and women not only built much of this country’s infrastructure, but it continues to do so. Almost every aspect of American comfort can be traced back either to the slave state or the semi-slave state. And every time the black community pleads for justice for itself, the white majority finds a new technique for thwarting them. With slavery abolished, Jim Crow flourished. With Jim Crow contained, police violence and mass incarceration flourished. With the naked exposure of police violence in the last year or so, the stigmatization of critical race theory flourishes, along with the ever-present voter suppression that has marked our democracy for shame.
The murder of George Floyd over a year ago has occasioned the publication of more and more books on race in America. Television and movies have provided a deep source of documentary and fictional narratives that together reveal the inextricable connection between the development of the United States and the ongoing genocide of African Americans, Indigenous tribes, and immigrants of color. America was founded as a White Supremacist nation long before Nazism was a gleam in Hitler’s eye. While Jews, along with other immigrant groups, also experienced the bite of this disease, immigrants who were White, as the vast majority of Jews were, eventually joined the majority, becoming part of the White Supremacist nation – and happy, thankful for it.
Don’t think we didn’t know. The legacy of slavery turned into Jim Crow was everywhere, North and South. Segregated schools, housing, employment, and cultural institutions were part of everyday life. I remember how the New Yorkers of my growing up years prided themselves on being somehow different. They weren’t. Nearly everyone I knew in my overwhelmingly Jewish neighborhood decried the presence of “Shvartzes” looking for a house or an apartment.
What do we make of Jews who, North and South, profited from slavery and its post-slavery racism, who countenanced Jim Crow and who are now indifferent to mass incarceration and police violence? When I was growing up, many people I knew would not buy products made in Germany. Can we gaze into the face of ordinary Germans with such superior judgment, or is it time to look in the mirror instead? The German nation has admitted its national guilt and instituted systematic programs aimed at doing teshuvah. Would it not be appropriate for American Jews to lend our considerable resources to helping White America do the same? Why is the Confederate flag not outlawed as the swastika is in Germany? Why is the removal of monuments to racist heroes still controversial? Why are the banks, insurance companies, transportation and textile companies not being asked to contribute to providing reparations equal to the massive profits made on the backs of slaves and semi-slaves? Is there any excuse for the inability to pass legislation creating a level playing field of voter rights in this country?
It is a moral outrage for the Jewish community to spend any more money on itself before it commits its resources to spearheading a national awakening aimed at first admitting the reality of this genocide, articulating the deserved guilt of every white person who to this day benefits from the continuation of systematic racism in America, and then organizing to effectively remove that stain from every institution of our society. Such a communal stance will not endear Jews to many Americans. There would be risks involved, in addition to the threat to the comforts we enjoy because of this system.
My goal in writing to you is to begin a conversation: To urge you to look at yourselves. To raise this conversation among your friends and families and in the various community organizations in which you are active. Most importantly, I want us to understand well that a communal transformation requires a personal transformation. Mussar is our tool for such a personal transformation, but we must always remember that personal transformation is only a step toward a transformed community. Rav Salanter called such a communal transformation, the final step in the Mussar process, Zikkui haRabbim. Let us pray that the period of intense personal transformation that our tradition calls for at this time of year will lead us to know better how to participate in such a communal transformation.
Shanah Tovah Umetukah,
Rabbi Ira Stone
Stay tuned for a multi-session program this fall that will allow us to respond to Rabbi Stone’s challenge.