A Full Canteen and a Red Brick Wall
This weekend I will do what so many of us in the rabbinate will do: celebrate and remember the life and work of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. For me, MLK weekend (celebrated by Reform Jews as “Shabbat Tzedek”) is a chance to link Dr. King’s message to that of Parashat Bo. Over the course of the weekend I will: be a part of a Religious School Mitzvah Day; pray and work with our community-wide teen program’s day of service, together with teens of all faiths; take part in ribbon cuttings and prayers on Monday at a new homeless shelter and an interfaith Habitat for Humanity start; and call my members of Congress to advocate for criminal justice reform. I am looking forward to it all.
Even as I look forward, I am also looking backward to Sunday and Monday, and thinking a great deal about the texts I learned with colleagues in SEACARR at the annual Kallah. It was held in Charleston, South Carolina, with Dr. Mark Washofsky serving as our convention scholar. During nearly five hours of reading and lively conversation, he took us through Judaism’s texts on “Trolleyology.” We considered the infinite value of all life (M. Sandhedrin 4:5), the responsibility to save oneself (BT Baba Metzia 62b), the three mitzvot whose performance demands the ultimate sacrifice (BT Sanhedrin 74a-b), and others.
That these texts were being studied in Charleston led Dr. Washofsky to begin his teaching with a reflection on how we read, and what we read. We were surrounded by “texts” in our historic downtown hotel: a tall statue to John C. Calhoun in Marion Square; Mother Emanuel A.M.E Church around the corner. What we learn from history is in part determined by what we choose to consider a part of our history. Is it better take down the statues, or not? To fly the flag, or not? Which texts are in, and which are out? Which do we honor, and from which do we learn via negativa?
Our Jewish tradition requires the same curation, as Dr. Washofsky reminded us. Is it “whoever saves a life, saves a world?” Or is it “whoever saves a Jewish life?” Honesty about the provenance of those texts is the better course than papering over our textual history.
Here is the text from Baba Metzia:
Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a canteen of water. [There was only enough water so that] if both of them drank they would both die, but if one of them drank [only] he would make it back to an inhabited area [and live]. Ben Petura publicly taught: “Better both should drink and die than that one see his friend’s death,” until Rabbi Akiva came and taught: “‘Your brother should live with you’ (Lev 25:36) – Your life takes precedence over the life of your friend.”
With that Talmudic thought experiment ringing in my ears, I returned to my hotel room on Sunday evening — a room with an interesting architectural feature. Charleston’s Embassy Suites occupies the 1829 structure which served as The Citadel before the Civil War, and in preparing the building for use as a hotel, exposed brick was left in many rooms (including mine). It became for me yet another “text” in a city so rich with them. My comfortable bed made for a stark and discomfiting contrast to the red bricks laid by slaves, and made for a fitful night’s sleep. Privilege and subjugation in such close quarters. A full canteen, no canteen, and the very same desert to cross.
Ben Petura would have me share the canteen and die alongside my fellow; Akiva would have me drink it all, and live. And while we learned from Dr. Washofsky that we tend not to look to our “Trolleyology Texts” to learn halakhah around social justice issues (we have other texts for those questions, more direct and more persuasive), I can’t help but hear them in a homiletical/aggadic key, in light of the struggle for racial justice in America, and wonder about other options. That the “Black Lives Matter” movement faces push back for asking too much, that Affirmative Action is under attack, that Reparations is not even a part of our national discourse…all of this has me wondering as MLK Weekend approaches: “What am I doing with this canteen, and how can I do my part to slake the thirst of people whose lives matter no less than mine, whose blood is every bit as red?”
My hope is that our Conference and our Movement will continue our renewed engagement with the question of racial justice, this weekend and long beyond. May we never shy away from the hard conversations. And may the texts (both paper-based and brick-and-mortar) of our Jewish and American traditions continue to call us out, and call us to justice.
Rabbi Larry Bach serves Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, North Carolina.