Kol Nidrei 5781 ~ September 2020
In her book So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo recalls a conversation she had on Twitter with a white Canadian after she shared an article on racism in the US. “You should move to Canada,” he tweeted, “we aren’t racist here.”
Of course, we know that that’s not true. “A 2006 University of Toronto study found that black people in Ontario were 16 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white people, while a 2019 report commissioned by the Montreal police force found Indigenous and black people in the city are more than four times more likely to be racially profiled by police than white people.” (The Globe and Mail, July 25, 2020).
We know that Canada has only recently started to grapple with the “legacy of its residential schools—where many Indigenous students were sent against their will and experienced verbal, physical and sexual assault.” (Ibid) Tanya Talaga vividly details this horrific legacy in her book Seven Fallen Feathers as she investigates the deaths of seven Indigenous teenagers in Thunder Bay.
Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi—The words of our Vidui, of our confession, strike at my heart this year. “We are cruel, we hate, we insult, we oppress, we transgress.”
Oluo’s chapter “I just got called a racist, what do I do now?” made me uncomfortable as she pointed out how even I, who strives to live and teach values that on their face reject racism, may have “absorbed cultural influences regarding race. I realized this when I was preparing for our Hot Topic conversation last Wednesday with Marra Gad author of the book The Color of Love: the Story of a Mixed Race Jewish Girl. We were speaking about her experiences when I mentioned the Ethiopians in Israel. Yes, I gave the caveat that it’s not perfect, but one sees Ethiopian woman marrying white Ashkenazi men, serving in the IDF, in the Knesset and even a recent Miss Israel representative. I wondered if the challenge of being black and Jewish was greater in the US than in Israel.
I regretted that comment immediately. Marra gently corrected me, explaining that I didn’t see what Ethiopian Israelis and she sees in Israel, because I’m not othered. She asked me to check my privilege in a way I have not experienced before. It was a transformational moment for me. Marra helped me to pause, to see how the “advantages I’ve had in my life contribute to my opinions and actions, to appreciate how my lack of disadvantages in certain areas has kept me from fully understanding the struggles others face.” (Oluo, page 63)
Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu doffi.
In my lifetime, yes I’ve experienced anti-Semitism. I’ve been called names. I’ve been spit at. I’ve seen swastikas painted on schools and shuls, but I was born not only after the Shoah, but also in June 1967. I know our history, but my lived experience has been pretty good. Yes anti-Semitism is on the rise and is worrisome. I spoke about that last year, but at the end of the day my lived experience when compared to our black, brown and Indigenous neighbours is quite privileged.
On this Kol Nidre I am bothered by how I responded to Marra and am in need of my own vidui. Olouo writes that when one confronts this realization one cannot simply “dismiss it outright—even if the accusation of privilege is in direct opposition to all that you try to be. Yet if you are truly committed to racial justice, now is an opportunity,” she continues, “to learn more about yourself, to see yourself and your actions more clearly, so you can move toward the person you truly want to be.” (Olouo, page 220)
Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu doffi. This evening the liturgy of Yom Kippur speaks to me directly.
Our tradition is filled with teachings that promote concepts of justice, for all people. Rosh Hashanah, as we discussed last week, is Hayom Harat Olam—the day in which we celebrate both the creation of the world and the formation of humanity. In discussing the formation of humanity, the rabbis ask why nivra adam y’khidi, why did God create humanity from a singular, unique being?
“L’lamedkha mipnai shalom habriyoot,” to teach us, “the importance of maintaining peace among people, so that one person will not say to another: My ancestor is better than your ancestor, my parent is better than your parent....” The Talmud continues, “And this serves to tell of the greatness of the Holy One, as when a person stamps several coins with one seal, they are all similar to each other. But God stamped all people with the same seal of Adam, the first person, and not one of them is similar to another.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4) Each individual is unique in God’s eyes.
Note that the rabbis did not know from race, at least as we have understood it since the 17th century. Yes, they understood differences of colour, of shared physical or social qualities and more, but they did not assign to those differences an “inherent physical or biological meaning.” (Wikipedia) The rabbis ascribed inherent divinity to all people; all were b’tzelem Elokim—all are fashioned in the image of God.
There is a famous incident in the Torah in which God directly intervenes when human beings ascribe meaning to our differences. Aaron and Miriam specifically challenge Moses’ leadership “Ki ishat kusheet lakakh—because “he married a Cushite woman.” (Numbers 12:1)
What’s the problem, you ask, with marrying a Cushite? Rashi clarifies that it means she “is as black as an Ethiopian.” Meaning, Miriam and Aaron challenged Moses’ leadership on the grounds that he married a black woman!
God is not happy with Miriam and Aaron. God hears their words and calls all three of them—Miriam, Aaron and Moses—to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.
Pay attention to what happens next.
God comes down in a pillar of cloud and lets Miriam and Aaron have it. And when finished, Vayihar af Hashem bam vakyelekh—still incensed with them—God leaves. (Numbers 12:9) At the precise moment of God’s departure, Miriam is stricken with snow-white-scales, metzorah. For the rabbis, Metzora is an acronym for motzay shem ra—evil speech. In other words, Miriam is punished directly and symbolically by God for her racist comments against Moses’ black wife.
These are powerful ideas. Which is why, as Elizabeth Bruenig writes, “Racism Makes a Liar of God. Racism says not everyone is made in God’s image.” (NYTimes, August 9, 2020). Racism seeks to justify unholy acts against other human beings who carry the divine image. Racism is sinful. “We are being called to love our neighbour,” she continues, “and my God, my God, we are failing.”
Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu doffi.
That’s why when we recite the vidui, the confessional, we name our transgressions one be one, which we need to do if we are to face them honestly, with integrity and seriousness. We say yes, we have sinned. Yes, we have remained silent when we should have spoken. Yes, we have ignored the systemic scourge of racism in our society for too long.
And we beat our chests so we will be inspired to move beyond words. Our tradition understands that talk is cheap and that actions matter more than platitudes. A Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says it this way, “V’lo ha midrash hu ha-ikar, eleh hama’aseh—it is not the study that is the main thing, but the action.” (Pirkei Avot 1:17) Confession without teshuvah, a change in behaviour, misses the point and the work of repair.
Yet, change is really, really hard. If it weren’t we would not need Yom Kippur and we certainly wouldn’t need to recite the same confessions over and over again, year after year! In their book Immunity to Change, Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey “show how our individual beliefs—along with the collective mindsets in our organizations [and cultures]—combine to create a natural but powerful immunity to change.” (Cover flap) “The problem,” they argue, “is the inability to close the gap between what we genuinely, even passionately want, and what we are actually able to do.” (Page 2) The book outlines mechanisms and case studies that “steadily build a new set of ways to bridge the gap between intentions and behaviour.” (Page 254)
I think Kegan and Lahey’s method resonated so naturally with me because the process of overcoming one’s immunity to change is similar to Maimonides’ process of teshuvah. It begins with Vidui, confession, identify and articulate the change you want to make, and feel remorse. Then it moves to investigate the deeper cause, or in Kegan and Lehay’s language, the competing assumption or belief that prevents one from making change. Then one has to set honest and realistic goals; goals you are able to identify, measure, and achieve. Teshuvah also sets goals. And it requires the creation of a structure to help you achieve them and remain accountable. Since we are human beings, such a structure must also allow you to forgive yourself when you fall short. And finally, overcoming one’s immunity to change to do the full work of teshuvah requires one to stay committed to improvement; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The goal of the liturgy on Yom Kippur is not that we will come to shul, even virtually, fast, pray for 25-hours and then miraculously have grown. No, we are here to be inspired to do the hard work of repentance tomorrow, next week, next month and throughout the year.
So if we are talking about race in our personal and communal viddui what would real teshuvah look like? Colleen Sheppard, Tamara Thermitus and Derek Jones wrote in The Globe and Mail “Addressing systemic racism will take a collective effort.” (July 25, 2020) It will require “work to identify and remedy [its] individual, institutional and macro dimensions.” (Ibid)
The NBA provides inspiration. On July 31st MLSE announced the hire of John Wiggins as VP of Culture and Inclusion, a new innovative position, to formalize the work of that organization towards racial justice. “This position has the opportunity to directly impact change. That’s what excited me so much about the role—the chance to impact change directly in my organization, my community and my country,” Wiggins said in a statement. “As an organization, we’re uniquely placed to do that. For me, change is actionable,” he added. “I don’t want to just say things. They must be doable. I have a position of power, and I want to do powerful things.” (The Globe and Mail)
The NBA post isolation season showed us how high a priority racial justice is. The Raptors rode in Black Lives Matters buses, practiced in BLM shirts and Black Lives Matters is literally written in bold black letters across the hardcourt. And each player chose a social justice message to replace their name on their jerseys. Kyle Lowry chose “Education Reform.” Other’s chose “Speak up,” or “Justice” or “See us” or “Say their names.” Serge Ibaka said, “If we can win the fight here, we’re going to change a lot of things around the world.” (Ibid)
How might we at Beth Tzedec do the same?
We begin with listening and learning. This summer, I had a "Conversation over Coffee" with André Ivory, our former Youth Director. André spoke about his experiences as a Jew of Colour. He talked about the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; that if each person is created B'tzelem Elohim—in the image of God—then each person must be considered as an individual deserving of care, compassion and understanding. To subdivide into “others”, Heschel said, would thereby defile God’s creation, and, as Elizabeth Bruening wrote--effectively make a liar of God.
One of the important lessons I learned later from Marra, was that even the use of “Jew of Colour” defeats the goal of inclusion and transgresses Heschel’s point. Why can’t we just see Marra? There is a paradox here: how do we acknowledge the experience of Jews of colour without identifying them as a group with a shared set of experiences, while working to avoid automatically ‘otherizing’ the group by qualifying the kind of Jews they are?
To be an ally begins with shema; listening; understanding, without reaction. It requires asking questions and letting a person answer and share their lived experience. And it requires us to listen and to validate what we hear. We do not get to tell another how to feel. Just like others don’t get to tell us how to feel about anti-Semitism. Shema, we listen.
But listening is not enough. Remember the Mishnah from Pirkei Avot? Ha-ikar hama’aseh—action is the essence of Torah. That’s why tonight, our most sacred night, Kol Nidrei night, I am calling upon us as a Beth Tzedec community to do more. I’m calling on us as a community to form a Task Force whose mission will be to increase our individual awareness, education and experience. This task force will ensure our Congregation creates and adheres to comprehensive policies of inclusion and awareness, programs and training that pro-actively recruit, welcome and engage the broad diversity of our Jewish community; while encouraging our members to engage in work of recognizing and fighting systemic racism and bias; cultivating insight and commitment to action in the greater civic community here in Canada and around the world.
Im lo akhshav aimatay—if not now when? I, for one, can no longer witness the events of our world, read the texts that express the values of our tradition, and not do everything in my power to bring them to reality. If you feel compelled to act, reach out to Debbie Rothstein, our president, to Bernie Gropper, the Chair of our Board, or to me after Neilah and join us in this sacred work.
This will not be easy. This will not be fun. This will, at times, seem never-ending. L’lamedeynu mipnai shalom habriyoot—it will teach us, and give us the opportunity, to teach others, “the importance of maintaining shalom among all people.