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The Shofar Call of Our Age: Naming Our Privilege

Rabbi Jodie Gordon

Yom Kippur Morning- 5776

The question, posed to a group of parents:

What rules, warnings, survival tactics are you giving your children as you raise them?

The answers:

“Get stopped for a traffic violation? Use your Sunday school manners. Keep your hands where they can be seen, and above all else, do not argue. My daddy passed on that lesson to me, and sadly, if I have grandchildren, it seems they too will have to get this same, dirty lesson”. “”Don’t be aggressive… Nine times out of ten, people will believe the police over believing you. If a cop hits you, don’t fight back: hope that someone will notice and say something. Never wear matching outfits. More than three men dressed in the same color equals a gang”

The question, posed to a group of young men:

What have you learned about how to carry yourself in the world?

The answers:

“Since I was very young, I have been very aware of the fact that my blackness and my maleness/manhood—two features that are essential to my identity—make me both a target and a threat. My parents, especially my father, made sure to impress upon me the seriousness of this predicament. Not because my being a black man is something I should be ashamed of, but because they fear for my well-being.” “It was the last day of school, and I was walking with my dad, preparing to leave. Suddenly, he paused, looked at me intently and said, “Son, you’re a black male, and that’s two strikes against you.” To the general public, anything that I did would be perceived as malicious and deserving of severe punishment and I had to govern myself accordingly. I was seven years old.”[1]

These parents and young adults were asked these questions by a journalist, named Jazmine Hughes, who went in search of support from her community, following the killing of Michael Brown. She writes:

Such is the burden of black parenting. Being a black parent, especially of a black boy, comes with the added onus of having to protect your child from a country that is out to get him—a country that kills someone that looks like him every 28 hours, a country that will likely imprison him by his mid-thirties if he doesn’t get his high school diploma, a country that is more than twice as likely to suspend him from school than a white classmate.

As a parent, these words sadden me- deeply.

On this Yom Kippur morning, with the voice of the prophet Isaiah ringing in our ears— imploring us to “lift up our voices like a shofar”, I lift up these voices of black men and women in the United States of America.

I lift them up, knowing that for many of you, these words are unsurprising. Perhaps, they are repetitive, reminding you of words you thought would become a thing of the past, following the Civil Rights movement more than 50 years ago.

The prophet Isaiah in this morning’s haftarah reading inhabits the role of prophet as speaker-of-uncomfortable-truths. Berating the people Israel for their meaningless fast, he implores them to loosen the yoke of oppression— to “not hide from their own flesh”. [2]

This year, I am struck by the poignancy of that image: what does it mean to hide from our own flesh? In what ways can we look back on the past year, and in remembering the many painful occasions of violence perpetuated by racism, see that we hid from our own flesh?

More than ever, I believe we need to ask how might we finally, radically reshape our notions of race.

How might we change the political, educational and social systems in our country that rely on an imagined, essential difference between black and white?

It is the voices of those parents and their children, and the still unheard voices of the millions of people of color in the United States who remind me that this is a holy task, and a task that we have a unique responsibility to work toward.

There have been moments in history when the world was in dire need of more prophets.Moments, when discrimination and suffering were hidden, waiting to be called out and amplified by a prophetic voice.

If the role of a prophet is, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes to “hear the silent sigh”[3], we know that the collective sighs of our country are more audible than ever.

In the past year, that silent sigh has been more audible than ever– it is the cry of black mothers and fathers in Ferguson and Baltimore. It is the cry of black sons and daughters in Charleston, and Staten Island.

The role of the prophet is to alert us- to awaken us.

Our task, ordinary as it might sound, is perhaps that much more difficult.

It’s not about recognizing the problem— it’s about making it our own.

To that end, there was something missing on my spiritual bucket list on Erev Rosh Hashanah. One spiritual practice, that I offer to you all this morning, knowing that the topic can be painful and complicated:

Courageous Honesty.

Courageous honesty requires us to admit to our own privilege.

I grew up in a comfortable suburb. The kids in my elementary school were predominantly white. The black kids who lived in housing projects on the other side of town went to another elementary schools. By the time we wound up in middle school and high school together, perhaps it was too late, or but I believe there were systems in place that unconsciously guaranteed we would never really cross paths. I graduated high school without a single friend who was a person of color. I went to Brandeis University and made my first friend who was black. But largely speaking, my world is white, and Jewish. In fact, if we are being honest: many of my friends are rabbis and Jewish professionals. Lovely people, but not known for our racial diversity.

Courageous Honesty requires me to admit that these life experiences prevent me from understanding what it is currently like to be a person of color in America. Courageous honesty pushes me to own up to the internalized racism that seeps in when I drive through certain Brooklyn neighborhoods at night and lock my car door.

Courageous honesty is recognizing that the Jewish community needs to do more to celebrate the diversity of our own people, and the families in our own community, who do not all identity as white, Ashkenazi Jews.

Courageous honesty tells me it’s time we all start talking about the invisible knapsack filled with privilege that if you are white, you automatically carry with you.

Courageous Honesty knows that the only hope for lasting change, requires us to change, too. It requires us to be willing to give up some of our privilege, and un-do the systems that perpetuate it.

In her powerful essay on White Privilege, sociologist Peggy McIntosh points to several signs that one has privilege.  McIntosh confronts her own privilege in a sort of secular al chet.  Just as we recite the al chet prayer, our communal sins in a long list –McIntosh lists the many ways she recognized her own privilege over the years.

As an exercise now, I invite you to consider your own answers to these statements:

  1. I can go shopping, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

  2. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

  3. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

  4. If a traffic cop pulls me over, or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

  5. I can easily buy posters, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, and toys featuring people of my race.

  6. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.

For Peggy McIntosh, the realization of privilege came as a surprise. Like her, I was in college when I first realized that I had been taught that racism was something which puts others at a disadvantage. But I had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage. In her landmark work on race and privilege, McIntosh reflects on that realization:

In my class and place, I did not recognize myself as a racist because I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.”[4]

As the saying goes, admitting you have a problem is the first step.

And I believe we have a problem.

But where I see hope, is that much like we read in this morning’s Torah portion, the solution is not too baffling for us, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that we should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that we should say, ‘Who among us can cross the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart…” (Deut. 30:11-14).

This is the shofar call of our age. We can start by changing ourselves. “If we tell ourselves that the only problem is hate, we avoid facing the reality that it is mostly nice, non-hating people who perpetuate racial inequality.”[5]

This is the shofar call of our age: admitting our own privilege, and dedicating ourselves to undoing the systems that perpetuate it. These are systems that date back long before many of our own ancestors came to this country, but they are systems I pray will be stripped down before our children’s children come to inhabit them.

Naming our privilege is not meant to be purely an act of self-flagellation. With power and privilege come responsibility— and we can choose to leverage that privilege in productive and healing ways. Each of us has a part to play in this act of tikkun— this desperately needed act of repair.

Our tradition tells us that teshuvah, change- is possible. It is at the heart of why we sit here today. We imagine a more perfect world, and know that it is our responsibility to begin to help with that tikkun—those acts of repair, no matter how big or small.

Sounding the shofar, by naming our privilege, is only the first step.

As Rabbi Hirsch mentioned last night, this past summer’s NAACP “Journey for Justice” played two distinct roles.First, as an exercise in coalition building and consciousness raising. Second, it was a targeted campaign to mobilize concerned Americans around many of the issues I mentioned earlier- issues like voting rights, economic inequality and criminal justice. Out of that march, and the rallies, teach-ins and advocacy days that came out of it, the road forward has emerged with concrete tasks; specific ways that each of us can help.

The Voting Rights Act was drafted, in part, in the Religious Action Center and passed in 1965.[6] Once literacy tests and poll taxes ceased and federal officials enforced the ability of blacks to register, minority registration across the country surged.

The Voting Rights Act focused on areas with a history of voting rights violations, mainly in the South.

  1. Section 4(b) of the act determined a formula whereby certain states with a history of violations would have to obtain ‘preclearance’ from the federal government before changing their voting laws.

  2. In June of 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby vs. Holder that section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional.

  3. States previously covered under Section 4(b) quickly changed their laws making it harder to register to vote.

  4. These states, which are largely in the South, have already moved to archaic systems which make it incredibly difficult for many people of color to vote.

In June of this year, the Voting Rights Advancement Act was introduced in both houses of Congress. The act would amend the Voting Rights Act by modernizing the formula by which states need ‘preclearance.’

Together with the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism is and Reform Jews across the country, I invite you to join me and Rabbi Hirsch in showing support for the Voting Rights Reauthorization Act. There are postcards are on the table in our lobby today, and I hope that during the break between services this morning, you will take the time to fill one out, and leave it here so that we can send them to Congress together as one community. It is not upon us to complete this awesome task, but we cannot afford not to begin the work. This work will include learning, reflection, and dialogue. Here at Hevreh, we are thinking deeply about how to engage with our own local community on these issues, and hope that you’ll join us this fall for the “Just Mercy” book group that Rabbi Hirsch referenced last night, or for any of the #Blacklivesmatter Berkshire Human Rights Speaker series sponsored by the Interfaith Coalition of South Berkshire County.

Today is a day for lifting up our voices like a shofar— for admitting to the ways we have missed the mark, and dedicating ourselves to the awesome task of change.

For these sins, our God, we ask forgiveness: Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha by turning a deaf ear when our neighbors cry for help. Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha by being silent when our voices are needed for solidarity. Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha by allowing our cities to burn and our citizens to be assaulted.

Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha by ghettoizing ourselves and others. Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha by breathing when others cannot. Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha by profiting from systems of oppression. Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha by wearing clothes that others cannot. Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha by judging, profiling and walking away. Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha by not honoring the identity of every person. Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha by holding prejudices of our own. Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha by allowing the dream to be deferred. Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha by not understanding the plight of our brothers and sisters. Al chet shechatnu l’fanecha by not caring for all children as we care for our own children.

Adonai our God, we know that in a free society some are guilty but all are responsible. We are responsible. I am responsible.

For all these failings in our society, God of Action, do not forgive us, do not pardon us and do not let us atone until all of your children can walk home at night without fear of violence or judgment from any source. [7]

May the time come speedily, and in our days, when these words are true.

[1] Jazmine Hughes. http://gawker.com/what-black-parents-tell-their-sons-about-

the-police-1624412625

[2] Isaiah 58:7

[3] paraphrased. The Prophets. Abraham Joshua Heschel.

[4] Peggy McIntosh, 1988

[5] Ellis Cose, 1997

[6] (http://www.rac.org/sites/default/files/articles/files/AJFJ%20Voting%20Rights%20One-Pager.pdf).

[7] http://media.rac.org/docs/tisha-bav-document.pdf

#racism #prophet #isaiah #votingrights #whiteprivilege #YomKippur #race #blacklivesmatter #shofar #privilege #action

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