We are in the grips of a culture war in this country, with questions of race and racism at the very heart of the battle.
Open any American news source, and America’s “culture wars” dominate the headlines. With conservatives on one side and liberals on the other, we vilify each other as if in preparation for a civil war. However, not only does Judaism offer us guidance in addressing the culture wars of our day, but Judaism also demands that we engage each other especially when we disagree with each other.
Race and Racism
If we are to accept the verbal grenades tossed by politicians and pundits, it is perhaps the battle over race and racism that most threatens to unweave the very fabric of this country.
The good news is that on this topic the majority of Americans, the reasonable left and the reasonable right, agree: Racism is wrong; racism is on the decline — and yet racism still exists.
Nevertheless, the murder last year of George Floyd released a torrent of longtime pain and an avalanche of built-up fear. People of color continue to experience racial disparities in wealth, education, employment, housing, policing, incarceration, political disenfranchisement and health — especially as we saw during this past year of COVID-19. Additionally, the violence within communities of color is rampant and the despair significant.
Roots of Inequality
Certainly, no single cause exists for the inequality from which people of color suffer. Some blame a certain lack of commitment to education, the challenges of single-parenthood or misplaced priorities as it comes to spending discretionary income.
Others point to the existence of systemic racism: When conscious or unconscious racist attitudes intersect with institutional practices, it results in vastly different treatments, systems of care and outcomes for different racial groups.
Systemic racism also helps us to understand the cumulative effects of racism over time. For example, the post-World War II G.I. Bill helped many Americans to build home equity and access high-paying jobs, allowing wealth to build over the generations.
However, most Black service members received no such benefit. Today, the average white family has approximately 10 times the net worth of a Black family.
What Can We Do?
As compassionate human beings and as Jews who are obligated to care for our own people (which includes Jews of color), we must try to remedy the causes of these fears. The Talmud instructs us that whenever there is a crisis, we should examine our own deeds first. Thanks to the generosity of a grant from the Hermelin-Davidson Center for Congregational Excellence, we at Congregation Shaarey Zedek of Southfield are engaging in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training with the goals of learning, reflecting and, where necessary, doing teshuvah (repentance) for our own shortcomings.
We are actively seeking to overcome our individual and collective yetzer hara (animal instincts toward prejudice). After all, the reasonable left and the reasonable right agree conceptually that diversity and inclusion strengthen a community, a college or university, a business or a governmental body. We agree that diversity and inclusion are worthwhile goals as it pertains to broadening the scope of participation and opportunity for any gender, sexual identity and race.
Drawing the Line
While as it pertains to race and racism in America there is so much on which most of us agree, there appears to be a border that we Jews choose not to cross in terms of ending racial inequality. While Jews have long supported affirmative action in theory, the Jewish community opposed affirmative action when it came to quotas. Jews oppose a zero-sum approach to combating racism because, when it comes to quotas, Jews often lose. For example, one might support more people of color attending the University of Michigan. However, one might object if allowing more people of color to attend the University means that his or her own child will not be accepted. As the parent of a high school student, I empathize with this fear.
Perhaps, then, we should view the battle against racism as we view tzedakah. With regard to our charitable giving, we are obligated to give not less than 10%, but we are forbidden from giving more than 20%. Perhaps in our desire to end racism, we are obligated to make sacrifices, but only to a point.
A similar conversation might occur regarding slave reparations. On one hand, we know that the biblical Egyptians gave the Israelites gold and other objects when our ancestors left slavery and that in our own day the German government gave reparations to Holocaust survivors. On the other hand, today’s African American community is generations removed from slavery and, for many Jews, our ancestors were not even in America during slavery.
Additionally, my immigrant ancestors worked night and day to provide for their families with gratitude for the promise of America on their lips, and they directed their children to focus on hard work and education as the keys to success. At the same time, my family certainly benefited from the American economic system built on the backs of people of color. To which Jewish values and to which Jewish laws do we turn as we argue with the question of what more we can do beyond individual teshuvah and personal tzedakah to address the racial inequality in this country?
I know that I am obligated to pursue justice, but I am also obligated to offer compassion. I know that my fellow Americans and that my fellow Jews are suffering and therefore I am obligated to help, but I am afraid to give up too much. I wonder how we might get out of the zero-sum approach to combating racism so that ending racism is a win-win for all.
Judaism as Antidote
We are in the grips of a culture war in this country, with questions of race and racism at the very heart of the battle. Among Judaism’s gifts to the world, though, is the teaching that the antidote to political polarization is the ability, modeled by Jews, to participate in meaningful and even heated dialogue rooted in respect, in radical listening and in giving our opponent the benefit of the doubt. Let us follow the meta-lesson of our Talmud and, rather than retreat to our own echo chambers, engage in discussion, listening, learning and growth.
Rabbi Aaron Starr is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.