By Rabbi Matt Soffer
I just finished reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, an extraordinary work on the travesty of mass incarceration today in the US, particularly of African Americans. I haven’t yet recovered from what Alexander achieved in this work, essentially a telling of the facts, the reality, the truth about a state of injustice that I simply can’t wrap my head around completely.
Incomprehensible – to think that at this moment the US has a greater percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any other country in the world…. That incarceration of the African American community is greater now in this democracy of ours than in South Africa at the worst moment of the Apartheid….
This week I began another book – Deuteronomy. The Greeks called it Deuteronomy (deuteros nomos, “second” and “law”) because essentially it was a re-telling, a revision, in fact, of a collection of stories from Exodus through Numbers that explained who we were and what we needed to do about it. The imperative to retell, to revise the popular narrative, is an imbedded aspect of our tradition. It’s in our DNA. Most scholars believe the author, or more likely, authors, of most of Deuteronomy knew the other 4 books. If that’s the case, then these anonymous writers and storytellers had a point to make– they saw that the dominant narrative, the myths of origin, and their subsequent obligations needed a new reality check. So little is known about the ancient mysterious authors- our ancestors- who began this age-old process of creating what we now call Scripture, sacred literature, which we believe (or, if you will, we hang onto hope) that it can lead us into relationship with the Divine.
I don’t believe that only ancient texts lead us into relationship with God. Just as the Prophets isn’t the only canon of literature that can wake up a people to their obligations to humanity. There indeed seems to be, at least in my conscience, a stitching between the end of The New Jim Crow and the beginning of Deuteronomy. Race relations today need a “deuteronomy” of sorts because slavery is not over, it’s just hidden. No, worse, we are hiding it.
Mass incarceration is the new slavery. And as a Jew, an heir to a myth of origin that says, “because you were slaves in Egypt,” no less than 36 times in the Torah, my social conscience is aching. I hear in my heart the voices of the Prophets crying out from generations past.
Following the reading of Deuteronomy tomorrow morning, in our haftarah the Prophet Isaiah will have the last word (excerpted):
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Eternal has spoken: Children I have reared, and brought up, and they have rebelled against Me….O what a sinful nation…. Learn to do well; pursue justice, relieve the oppressed….