As drashot go, it’s pretty fantastic.
In 1700, Massachusetts Judge Samuel Sewell wrote an abolitionist pamphlet entitled, “The Selling of Joseph”: “Joseph was rightfully no more a slave to his brethren, than they were to him: and they had no more authority to sell him, than they had to slay him,” Sewell wrote.
Perhaps Sewell’s moral opposition to slavery was informed by remorse. The judge was one of nine justices appointed to preside over the Salem witch trials, though the only one to publicly apologize for his role in the tragedy. Sewell’s regret would ultimately inspire him to write a proclamation for a day of fast, penance and reparation by the government for the sins of the witchcraft trials.
Regardless of his motivation, Sewell’s “The Selling of Joseph” was the first abolitionist publication widely distributed in England’s American colonies. While it marked the beginning of a proud abolitionist tradition in Massachusetts, opposition to slavery was far from popular. Back in 1641, through the passage of the “Body of Liberties” law, Massachusetts earned the shameful distinction of being the first New England colony to legally sanction slavery.
The Massachusetts economy would become so dependent on enslaved African labor that, by 1834, an anti-slavery speaker in Lowell would draw a stone-throwing mob. Abolition represented a threat to the burgeoning wealth Massachusetts had built on cotton, picked by enslaved Africans—a threat, in the words of Sen. Charles Sumner, to the “unholy union…between the cotton planters and fleshmongers of Louisiana and Mississippi, and the cotton spinners and traffickers of New England—between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.”
In those years, my family still lived in the Pale of Settlement, in Eastern Europe, suffering under a different brand of violence. You may trace a similar lineage, your family tormented by Cossacks rather than slavers.
Which may leave you wondering why I’m writing this column and— more pointedly—why American Jews are asked to account for American racism.
A watch cry of the Jewish social justice movement, Deuteronomy famously demands of us: Tzedek tzedek tirdof. The doubled direct object is usually read as rhetorical emphasis, as in the most common translation, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” But the most common way the Torah emphasizes a point is by doubling the verb, not the object of the verb. What’s with the doubled noun?
Perhaps, in this historical moment, it’s an instruction for those of us living in a land of racial injustice that we didn’t engineer. On the one hand, we’re commanded to pursue justice for what we’ve broken. But the second tzedek is its own imperative—pursue justice for what others have broken, the torment created by the architects of this land, built with the sweat and blood of enslaved Black people, a land that millions of white Jews now call home.
Acknowledging the centuries-old legacy of racism allows the American Jewish community to tell ourselves a painful truth: Even though Europe’s Jews didn’t steal the labor of enslaved Africans, white Jews have reaped specific and quantifiable benefits from living in a land of ill-accrued wealth.
“In a free society,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us a half-century ago, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.” European Jews have been beneficiaries of the best American educational, employment and financial opportunities, and have had access to almost all of this nation’s most exclusive ZIP codes—all by dint of our white skin. To this day, full access to each of those blessings of this goldene medine is still denied to Black people.
If we want to avoid the fate of Samuel Sewell, forever condemned to a life of regret and remorse, we as American white Jews must tell ourselves the truth. In Massachusetts, many Jews live in towns built with stolen labor, developed according to rules designed to keep Black people relegated to ghettos with hospitals, schools and housing we would find unacceptable for ourselves and our children.
Yes, antisemitism is alive throughout this country, and, yes, modern American leaders look the other way even as Jews are targeted by ugly spasms of Jew-hatred, sometimes violent and even murderous. But that does not alter the reality that white Jews remain beneficiaries of a system that keeps Black people poorer and sicker, over-incarcerated and under-educated.
The medieval rabbinic commentator Rashi teaches that the word tirdof, “pursue,” is an instruction to seek out a “beautiful court.” His teaching implies that if the court where you find yourself is less than beautiful, keep looking.
Tzedek tzedek tirdof is a timeless insistence for Jews to refuse to abandon that search. May we soon look upon a United States reborn, reformed into a court of beautiful justice. And may Jews be blessed to be part of that redemptive pursuit.
This post has been contributed by a third party. The opinions, facts and any media content are presented solely by the author, and JewishBoston assumes no responsibility for them. Want to add your voice to the conversation? Publish your own post here.