This sermon was shared on Yom Kippur 5781.
I AM A MAN.
These four words are the most poignant words of the civil rights movement. They were worn on placards by striking African American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, in the days just prior to Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.
A half-century later, in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, a new declaration was made: Black lives matter. This statement, which became a movement, has swelled this summer due to the tragic murders or shootings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and others at the hands of police officers.
Now, I know that mentioning “Black Lives Matter” will arouse the ire of some watching today. I know that the Black Lives Matter network is a member of the Movement for Black Lives, whose platform expresses an antisemitic view of Israel. Indeed, that is a real issue, but it’s for another time. Today, right now, the issue we must discuss is the need to declare, “Black lives matter.” Please, I ask you, stay tuned in and be open to what I have to say.
At this moment, some of us are asking ourselves: What can I do to end systemic racism? And some of us are asking ourselves: Is systemic racism really an issue? Some of us are asking ourselves: Does my life matter? Is my life at risk? Do I have a future in America? And some of us are asking: Do I need to change careers?
You see, some of us are Black. Some are people of color. Some of us have children, grandchildren and in-laws who are Black. Some of us are police officers who put their lives on the line every time they don their uniform and feel a heretofore unknown lack of respect and appreciation. Discussing police brutality and anti-Black racism is difficult. But all of us are Jewish, have Jewish family or share a closeness to the Jewish people. We are family. And within the family, some conversations must take place.
The declaration, “Black lives matter,” like its antecedent “I AM A MAN,” is only necessary because the lived experiences of African Americans raises the question: Do Black lives matter? Or, more troubling, the declaration is a rebuttal to the conclusion that, after 400 years of living in America, Black lives don’t matter.
Why does this matter to me? Why should it matter to us?
I could tell you that we know the feeling of racism’s brother, antisemitism. We know violence against Jews, from Alfred Dreyfus to the bombing of synagogues to the murders at Tree of Life synagogue. We know expulsions, quotas and exclusion from American social, political and economic life. We know the sign that used to stand right here in Swampscott, “No dogs, no n******, no Jews.” So, is it empathy? That it’s devastating to see a group of people treated as less than equal, because we’ve experienced it ourselves? Or that we know that antisemitism is at the root of white nationalism so we’re also victims of the same hatred? These motivations can be problematic because “what seems like empathy often may be another form of presumption, condescension or domination,” or because we’re only acting out of self-interest.
Alternatively, I could cite the long list of unarmed African Americans killed by police officers or statistics demonstrating inequality in the criminal justice system. I could cite inequalities in health care, education and the economy. And these inequalities would be explained, in part, by racism and government regulations and policies that have benefited white people while harming African Americans.
But African Americans don’t want our pity any more than I want someone else’s pity in combatting antisemitism. I want others to recognize that our people are human beings, equal to all others, entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which for us, as an aside, requires sovereignty, Israel.
So, why do I care about dismantling anti-Black racism? It is because of my values, my Jewish values. I love Judaism. I’m proud of its tenets. In our religion I see the foundation for Western ethics, democracy and more.
The most important part of many books is the introduction; it often reveals the essential points of a text. The Torah is Judaism’s first written text, and Genesis Chapter 1 is its introduction. From the beginning, what did our tradition teach us and declare to the world? Highlighting human beings as the pinnacle of creation, the Torah says, “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
The concept that a human being is the image of God is not a Jewish innovation, but its application was. In the ancient Near East, other societies declared that only the ruler was the image of God. For example, take the Egyptian ruler, Tutankhamen. His name means “the living image of (the god) Amun,” distinguishing the ruler from the populace. The Torah says: No! Not just one person or one group is created in the image of God, but all human beings are created in the image of God.
This means that all human beings are of infinite worth and inviolable. It is a clarion call for human equality. Our responsibility to ensure the rights of society’s most marginalized, of those most at-risk of being abused, echoes throughout the Hebrew Bible.
But it doesn’t stop there. In our Rosh Hashanah liturgy, for example, we recite the words of our sages who declared: Just a single person was created, for the sake of peace, so that no one could say to another, “My parent was greater than yours.”
Our sages tell us that we all have the same ancestor. Today, our scientists tell us that all humans are 99.9% identical and that only six one-thousandths of the variation is among individuals from different populations. Despite our different external appearances, we’re essentially identical.
I’m proud to belong to a tradition that emphasizes “the irreducible dignity and worth of a human being.” I’m proud to teach these values to our children. But the heart of Judaism is action. The Torah puts behaviors above beliefs. What will our children learn if we preach the Torah of human dignity but fail to act when its opposite stares us in the face?
Masechet Yevamot (87b) teaches: שתיקה כהודאה דמיא; silence is akin to consent. We must make our voice heard and we must look within at our own privilege. We must listen and bear witness to the reality of systemic racism. And we shall do this together.
Two giants of our community, one the educator of hundreds of North Shore children, the other a past temple president, themselves grandparents of an African American child, have courageously volunteered to lead this effort. Barbara and Alan Sidman will head a Shirat Hayam task force in our effort to play a part in dismantling anti-Black racism and fighting for human dignity.
Over a half century ago, Dr. King told us:
“…when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”
Now, the amusement park does not discriminate today, but the racism Dr. King described remains. It has been more than 200 years since the Declaration of Independence. Isn’t it about time that our country lives up to its founding principle that “all men are created equal,” or, in the language of the Torah, that “God created man in His image”?
Join me. Let Barbara and Alan Sidman know that you’re interested in joining Shirat Hayam’s efforts. And when our children and our children’s children ask, “What was the COVID-19 pandemic like?” we will look them in the eye and tell them just how bad it was. But then we will add, as Rav Kook teaches: “Darkness appears in a certain place so that it will attract light, and out of that dark time, I was inspired to act. And I became part of the greatest justice movement since Moses led us out of Egypt. And I helped unite our country so that no longer would African Americans ask: AM I A MAN? No longer would African Americans need to declare ‘Black lives matter.’ For America finally had realized her foundational ideal that all human beings are created equal.”