In Talmudic times of trouble, tractate Taanit tells how the Jewish community needs to move forward:
The elder among them says words of admonition, “People! It does not say of the citizens of Nineveh that God say their sackcloth and their fasting, but rather: God saw their deeds, that they turned from their evil ways.”
Our High Holy Days are a time for turning. And we know that it is neither our fasting nor our penitence that matters, but how we change our daily behavior, our deeds. What is true for individuals is true for nations: the entire citizenry of Nineveh needed to turn from the improper path they walked together. We know the ways in which our own nation walks are sometimes stepped in sin; our High Holy Days come to admonish us to find better pathways to the future.
This past August, we marked two sad national commemorations. 2019 marked a century since America plunged into its Red Summer, a season of violence in which white supremacists in over 36 cities (and many rural areas) unleased their fury on black communities, killing hundreds of human beings, injuring countless others, burning many black neighborhoods to the ground. August 18 of this year also marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving on America’s shores. Our summer has forced us to confront the evil ways of racial injustice that have been a part of our country since its inception.
This past August also witnessed fifty Reform Rabbis stepping forward, learning what we could do to help repair this historic and painful breach.
We travelled together to Montgomery, Alabama. The destination was the new Legacy Museum and Memorial, build by the Equal Justice Institute to teach our nation about the direct racist trajectory from slavery through Jim Crow to Mass Incarceration. Bryan Stevenson, the heroic founder of EJI, delivered a powerful keynote at our Cincinnati convention that called us to get proximate to this narrative, to the history, and to the lived experience of others. Of course, Stevenson called us to learn the lessons so we might take action. Over 50 CCAR colleagues answer Stevenson’s call for three powerful days this summer.
What did we learn? To begin with, we saw how deeply structures of injustice are built into our American way. For many of us who had grown up proudly counting important pieces of civil rights legislation passed in the heyday of the Movement, we realized that those laws guaranteeing equal protection and equal opportunity never took their full effect. Inequalities along racial lines are still starkly visible whether looking at the poverty line or at the distribution of prison sentences. We learned that while individuals might consider themselves “colorblind,” our system still not only accounts for the color of one’s skin, but—according to overwhelming data and research—also disproportionally disserves people the darker their pigmentation. We learned that in an America that has always baked racism into the system, it is not enough to say, “Well, I’m not a racist.” In a system as consistently oppressive as ours, we must actively become anti-racist.
Being anti-racist racist means many things. First and foremost, being anti-racist means we cannot be passive. Being anti-racist it means actively learning about the depths of American racism, and then actively working to end our racially unjust system. Being anti-racist means travelling outside our comfort zones to get proximate to difficult truths. Being anti-racist means looking at the benefits we have unjustly won from the American system, and then being willing to sacrifice those most ill-gotten gains. Being anti-racist means we have a whole lot of work to do, not just in our words, but in our deeds.
On the very day that marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving on America’s shores, Rabbi Rachel Mikvah taught us about the difficult of dismantling racism. The Talmud questions the extent to which we need to return objects that were stolen. The example is brought of a stolen log that has been used—for decades—as the structural support for a grand palace. Our Rabbis of blessed memory remind us that that stolen beam needs to be returned, even if it mean taking apart the palace, brick by brick.
We learned this lesson in the cradle of the Confederacy, just hundreds of feet from the Confederate White House. Yet we know that the other White House, the one that stands as symbol to many of America’s greatness, was built by enslaved individuals. The labor that built the White House in Washington, D.C., was stolen. The White House, therefore, symbolizes America in a different way: a structure rooted in injustice whose foundations must be rebuilt, and that which was stolen, returned. That return, in Hebrew so appropriate for this Holy season called teshuvah, goes by many names we should not be afraid to say in English: repayment, restoration, reparations.
It is not enough that we learn about, that we talk about, that we write about these injustices of old that continue through to today. Fasting and lament have their place, but they will move the Divine no more than they will change society. We need a national time not just of truth and reconciliation, but of restoration and reparations. Our High Holy Days call us to turn from our evil ways. It is time for all of us to act. It is time for all of us to help turn our nation from its inarguably racist path towards a future of true liberty and justice for all.
Rabbi Seth M. Limmer serves as Senior Rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation, and also as a Member of the CCAR Board of Trustees. Together with Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, he is editor of Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Justice, available from CCAR Press.