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The Messy Truth of Legacy

Racist Realities and the Need to Stop Romanticizing

All of us are capable of racism. The first family of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are no exception, and neither are we. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!’” (Numbers 12:1). In a sensitive and thought-provoking Torah commentary, Rabbi Hannah Goldstein acknowledges Miriam’s contributions while still holding her accountable for her ugly behavior in this particular passage:

“Our Biblical heroes are often flawed, and we can learn as much from their missteps as we can from their positive example. This is also true of so many of our historic heroes, as no record is uncomplicated and without stains. I imagine that Miriam’s belittling of her sister-in-law wounded her brother deeply, and it certainly revealed something quite problematic about her character. But Miriam also remained the protective sister who placed Moses in the water and watched over him until his safe rescue from the river. She was the bold musician who confidently led the people in song and dance when they safely crossed into freedom; she was the nourishing force that quenched their thirst in the desert. Few leaders are without fault, but in our reading of the text, we acknowledge the messy truth of legacy. We can both confront the painful shortcomings of our heroes and make room to celebrate their virtues.”

For far too long we have selectively celebrated our contributions to the Civil Rights Movement while conveniently forgetting or ignoring examples of our failures. Yes, there were brave and righteous Jews who marched in Selma, donated generously to the cause, and even gave their lives in the struggle against segregation and Jim Crow. Yet there were also far too many of us who were complicit and complacent with racist regimes. Too many of us were silenced by fear of what would happen if we stood up and spoke out. Too many rabbis were more afraid of losing their jobs than losing their self-respect. We need to allocate more time to reflecting on racist realities and less time to an overly romanticized version of how heroic we were.

Today’s growing chorus of voices proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” compels us to do more than demand an end to police brutality, terrorist attacks on Black Churches, and appalling disparities in income, education, housing, and health care. Like the disturbing sibling story in this week’s Torah portion, our current moment calls on us to consider the unsolicited comments, nasty quips and cruel utterances that we have hurled within our own families and within the greater family of the progressive Jewish world.

Painful testimonials of how congregants, or prospective congregants of color, were spoken to with condescension, suspicion, and ignorance demonstrate that we have tremendous work to do in making Jews of Color feel at home in our congregations. 

Over the past few weeks, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center have made a number of videos and conversations about these experiences available. Improving the way we engage with Jews of Color was already a priority for our Movement but the most recent killings of black citizens at the hands of police and former police have added a greater sense of urgency to this self-scrutiny. 

Just because we Jews have experienced oppression doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of saying or doing racist things. Our history of enduring injustice does not constitute immunity from engaging in it. The fact that Miriam was a slave in Egypt didn’t prevent her from making racist comments. Being a religious minority doesn’t preclude us from enjoying privileges of whiteness, making unwise choices, and saying foolish things. 

God of Grace and Goodness, grant us the humility to admit when we have been wrong, the integrity to confess unflattering chapters of our history, and the tenacity to confront racism and bigotry both within and without the congregations we call home.

 May this be our blessing and let us say: Amen.


Rabbi David Wirtschafter serves Temple Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky.