Break the Bonds of Injustice: A Sermon about Race

This is the sermon that I delivered on Yom Kippur morning 5781/2000. It is about racism, privilege, bias, and justice – and about our responsibility to confront this issue and to ensure a just society. The text is below, or you can watch it here:

Twenty seven centuries ago, a man stood up in a public square, probably somewhere in the hills around Samaria or Shechem, and he delivered an unpopular message. We don’t know who his audience was, or whether they listened attentively. We don’t know when or how he came by his ideas.

But his message has come down to us word for word:
God is not interested in your sacrifices or your rituals, he said. All the fasting you’re doing will do you no good.

What God really wants. What God really demands:
Pateach chartzubot resha – Break the bonds of injustice
Shaleach r’tzuztim chofshim  – Let the oppressed go free
V’chol motah t’nateku – Release all who are enslaved.

You may recognize those words because 2700 years after they were first spoken, we read them this morning as our Haftarah. The speaker, of course, is the prophet Isaiah. And his message is very clear: Judaism is not only about what goes on in your sanctuary and around your Shabbat table. God also cares about the type of society that you create.

In fact ever since the Isaiah uttered those words, social justice has stood at the centre of the way Jews see the world. As Jews we believe in society’s capacity to be better, and we believe in our own responsibility to make it better. We believe that social issues are Jewish issues.

That’s why, when I sat down to start writing for Yom Kippur, I knew that this year I needed to talk about race. It’s a topic that has been in our newspapers day after day, both here in Canada and around the world. And Judaism has something to contribute to that conversation, because our tradition has a great deal to say about the ways that human beings should be treated. 

When Isaiah looked out over his society in the 8th century BCE, he saw a lot of good, and he saw a lot that needed to change. Inequity; subjugation of the poor and the vulnerable; mistreatment of those who are less powerful.

One of the reasons that his message still resonates so deeply is that we still see those same problems around us. Like Isaiah, we live in a society with a lot of good. In fact, we live in maybe the most diverse society in the history of the world. Canada in 2020 is an incredible ethnic and cultural mosaic.

And yet, our country also has deep and complicated history of racial inequity. In Isaiah’s words, we have yet to “break the bonds of injustice.”

In many of our minds, racism is first and foremost an American problem. After all, it’s the streets of Louisville and Seattle and New York that are simmering this week. And yet, this is a Canadian issue as well. In Canada today, people of colour have lower salaries, higher unemployment, and are more likely to be victims of violent hate crimes. In Canada today, 4 out of every 10 indigenous children live in poverty. And a staggering 30% of all prisoners in our country are First Nations people.[1] Canadians of colour and Indigenous Canadians are regularly treated differently in the justice system and by social services and police, sometimes with tragic results.

Yom Kippur is a time of Cheshbon HaNefesh – a time to take a personal accounting. To ask ourselves hard questions about our own actions and our own attitudes. The model of teshuvah – repentance or return – can aid us in addressing questions about racism – because it is a model that calls for recognizing and describing a problem and then taking steps toward addressing it. And since a society is made up of its citizens, societal teshuvah must begin with individual teshuvah. That means that as our country and our world grapple with race, we are also called to grapple with it ourselves. 

You might say, “What’s the grapple with? I’m not a racist!” In fact, I think we all agree that racism is bad. If we were to take an informal poll, not one of us would vote against that statement. But the truth is that we all prejudge people based on what they look like. It’s something that human beings do.

If you really stop and think about it, can’t you think of instances where your thinking or your actions were shaped by racial bias? Have you ever quietly switched sides of the street based on who was walking toward you? Have you ever chosen not to drive through certain neighbourhoods? Have you ever referred to the peach crayon as “skin colour?”  

To a certain extent, these are the ways that human beings think and act. So much so that the Muppets even have a song about it. In the Broadway show Avenue Q, two fuzzy, cutesy puppets sing to each other the following words:

Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes.
Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate crimes.
Look around and you will find,
No one’s really color-blind.
Maybe it’s a fact we all should face.
Everyone makes judgments…
Based on race.

(The Muppets do have a way of boiling things down, don’t they?)

Part of the human experience is that we feel more comfortable around people that we perceive as being more like us. And we judge more harshly people we perceive as being different. In fact, two recent studies performed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE)  at the University of Toronto have shown that this is true even in infants.

One study demonstrated that seven month old babies were likely to associate sad music with the faces of people of a different race and to associate happy music with the faces of people of their own race. And a second study showed, by watching the ways that the babies’ eyes followed people’s faces, that babies are more likely to trust someone who looks like them.[2]

Socialization of racial bias begins very, very early in life for all of us. That means that it’s not useful, and it’s not really true, for any of us to say “I’m not a racist.” It also means that any solution needs to take into account the fact that we all have implicit biases.

The comedian Trevor Noah – who grew up in Apartheid South Africa – puts it this way: “There’s nothing wrong with seeing colour. It’s how you treat colour that’s important.”

The problem isn’t that we see skin colour. The problem is that we’ve decided as a society that skin colour can tell us other things about people – about their moral character or their intelligence or whether they are “one of us.” The problem is that we use skin colour to categorize people. And that’s because we are socialized from an early age to do so.

The researchers who performed those studies believe that the reason the infants were racially biased might be lack of exposure, Typically, babies are surrounded almost entirely by people of their own race – to the tune of an average 90%. So obviously the babies in the study trusted the people who looked familiar to them, and those happened to be the people who looked like them. That suggests that one solution to our implicit bias problem is to surround our children with a variety of people from a very early age – and to ensure that our own social circles are as diverse as possible. It’s also the theory behind diversity training in workplaces or police forces. You can’t overcome implicit bias unless you admit that it exists and start to retrain your brain to think differently about what skin colour means.

The Rabbis of the Talmud teach something similar in tractate Sanhedrin when they declare that the reason God only created one human being at the outset of the world is “so that no person might say to another: my ancestors are better than yours.”[3]

Judaism teaches that we are all part of one human family. Even though our implementation of that idea is not always 100% consistent, it is one of our most deeply held beliefs.

And yet, those words are easier said than acted on. It’s hard to stick your neck out for someone else. And for some within the Jewish community, the Black Lives Matter movement has felt challenging – in part because what it asks of white people is to recognize and combat their own privilege. It’s not enough to not be racist, we keep hearing. You need to be an anti-racist. But as Jews, we still haven’t gotten used to thinking of ourselves as having privilege. After all, it’s only been about 60 or 70 years since Groucho Marx was shut out of all the good clubs and declared that he didn’t care to join any club that would have him as a member.

We are the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. We are the descendants of the greenhorns who escaped the pogroms looking for a better life. We’re a people who has been persecuted throughout our history! How could we be the privileged? How could we be on the perpetrating side of a racial inequity?

Here I want to turn to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great teacher and Jewish philosopher of the 20th century, who wrote a groundbreaking essay on “Religion and Race” in 1963. In it, he condemns what he calls the “public humiliation” of Black people, and he laments his own role – as a white person – in the oppression of others. He writes: “Whether justified or not I, the white man, have become in the eyes of others a symbol of arrogance and pretension…even without intending it.”[4] So 60 years ago Heschel, who himself had been plucked from the heart of Nazi Germany, recognized that in North America his status had changed. That while in Europe he had been the oppressed, in North America he was becoming the privileged.

Not all Jews are white (and I’ll get to that in a few minutes). But for those who are perceived as white people, the privilege that Heschel described has only grown in the last 6 decades. This is a community that’s thriving in North America. That means, in the words of Rabbi Gil Stainlauf, that:

With racism…entrenched year after year, generation after generation, we must ask ourselves: What role do we play in that injustice?[5]

This doesn’t mean, by the way, that we don’t have worry about antisemitism. As Jews we are still vulnerable to hate and to violent actions – we’ve seen that all too clearly in the last couple of years. We have to be vigilant about combating it on all levels. But at the same time, we need to recognize that the Jewish community has benefited from privilege. In fact, what we are is an incredible example of how an outsider group can be accepted and can thrive in North America when society decides to invite them in. That brings with it a responsibility to fight for the rights of those who do not yet share that privilege.

And that’s true even within the Jewish community. It needs to be reiterated that not all Jews are white Ashkenazi Europeans. That’s always been true – since Jews hail from the four corners of the earth. But in the 21st century it’s more true than ever. According to a recent UJA study, between 12-15% of Jews in North America are people of colour. That’s one out of every 7 members of our community! Despite that, a lot of us still default to thinking of what’s called Ashkenormative (you know – European, Yiddish, bagels and lox) as being how Jews are supposed to look and speak and live. That’s our own internal racism problem.

Jews of colour are telling us that they regularly are faced with people questioning their Jewishness, or assuming that they are in the wrong place. Last year at the Reform movement’s own Biennial convention, one attendee who is Black was called over to clean up a spill, on the assumption that she was part of the hotel staff.

All this is to say that racism really is a Jewish issue, on a number of different levels. A Jewish issue calls for a Jewish response. And a Jewish response to social injustice is a prophetic response.

We began this morning with the words the prophet Isaiah. Let us close with the knowledge that not only his words but also his actions are meant to inspire us. As Jews, each of us is called to act as the prophets did. Heschel wrote, “Let there be a grain of prophet in every [person].”[6]

What is a prophet? It’s not someone who predicts things – we often misunderstand the job description. Isaiah and Micah and Jonah – their job wasn’t to tell the future; it was to change the future.  It was to come to the people with a vision of a better world and to try to move people along toward that vision, step by painful step.

The prophet has a special empathy for humanity. This is Heschel one more time: “The prophet is a person who is not tolerant of wrongs done to others, who resents other people’s injuries.”[7]

As Jews, we are called upon not just to act justly, but to go out and actively work to eradicate injustice wherever it may be found – on the streets of our cities, in the halls of our government, in our schools and sanctuaries, and in our own brains.

Break the bonds of injustice, says Isaiah. Do not stop until the vision before your eyes matches the vision in your hearts.

We live in an imperfect world, but we have a vision of the world as it should be. A place where differences are celebrated. A place where equal access is a reality, where the blessings of education and health care and protection under the law are shared by all. A place where all people are treated as expressions of God’s image. It’s a long road from here to there, but as Ruth Bader Ginsberg taught, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

On this Day of Atonement, may we ask ourselves the hard questions, and may we challenge ourselves to reshape our own lives and our own souls according to our vision of justice.

May we commit to be mouthpieces for justice in the world around us, never afraid to speak up for what’s right.

And like a lonely prophet on a hilltop so long ago, may we always believe in our capacity and in our society’s capacity for tikkun – for repair and renewal.

[3] Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.
[4] Heschel, Abraham J. The Insecurity of Freedom. Jewish Publication Society: 1966. p. 88.
[6] Insecurity 98.

[7] Insecurity 92.

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