Jews Must Experience the Pain of America's Racial Rift - and Its Healing

Originally published on Haaretz, July 12, 2016:

TITLE: Jews Must Experience the Pain of America's Racial Rift - and Its Healing

SUBHEAD:  Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement 50 years ago does not grant us a free pass today. We Jews have to hear about racism and white privilege, even when it hurts to listen.

BY: Rabbi David Stern

Religion is sometimes unfairly derided for offering simple answers to complex questions. There was no room for simplistic religion in Dallas this past week. As Mayor Mike Rawlings eloquently said at an interfaith vigil on Friday, we can only address the horror of this past week if we are able to hold simultaneous truths: that we have seen too many of our nation's police commit acts of violence towards innocent civilians of color; and that the vast majority of our police risk their own lives to protect the lives and freedoms of all our citizens.

Grief is grief. It might be overlaid by dramatic circumstance, by political turmoil, by violence and fear. But grief is grief, and that is why, as last Thursday night turned to Friday morning, none of us knew what to say. Our silence was in part an expression of respect: in the immediate aftermath of the fatal shooting of five Dallas police officers, it was not the time for analysis, nor for building a bully pulpit on blood and tears. Here in Dallas, as throughout America, our voices cracked because our hearts broke.  

People quoted the Psalmist without knowing it: How long, O Lord, how long? How much violence, how much distrust, how many guns, how many innocent lives lost? The fact that someone gunned down policemen who were protecting marchers who were protesting police violence was an irony almost too painful to bear.  

When, in the Book of Leviticus, Aaron's sons perish for offering a strange fire, the Torah is painfully terse in describing his reaction: Vayidom Aharon. "And Aaron fell silent." Without presuming the intimacy or depth of loss of these officers' families, we felt Aaron's silence echo in our own: in bewilderment and frustration, sadness and fear.  

Here are the truths which defy simple answers: that a white teenager and a black teenager see the symbol of a police cruiser through radically different lenses related to dramatically different experiences, and that you dress those same two kids in the same hooded sweatshirt, and they will receive radically different reactions. That slavery is a blight on our nation's history, but does not have to be the defining force in shaping our future. That we know precious little of the lived experience of the people with whom we share our streets and our cities. That precisely at a time when words feel so inadequate, we must be aware of their great power to do both harm and good.  

And maybe the greatest complexity of all: the racial healing we seek will be painful, and the pain will be evidence that we're healing. The involvement of Jews in the civil rights movement fifty years ago does not grant us a free pass today. As Jews, we will need to expand our circle of prophets - because the voices of Jeremiah and Amos are carried forward in our day by writer/activists like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bryan Stevenson.   

Instead, the God who heard the cry of the oppressed requires us to listen - to narratives of racism, to exposures of white privilege and educational inequities and mythic meritocracies. We do not need to agree with everything we hear, but we need to hear it. And when that hearing produces pain, then we need to feel it. And if that pain motivates us to create a more just and safe society instead of silencing the truths that disturb us, we will know that we have broken through the silence towards hope. The books of the Hebrew prophets are fundamental to our identity as Jews, but they do not make good bedtime reading. This healing will sting before it salves.
On Friday, the day after the shooting, I participated in an interfaith vigil. After we prayed, an unknown young man began to sound a shofar.  After an hour's worth of words from preachers and politicians in the scorching sun, there was something redemptive in his impromptu offering, the proud but ragged sound - a reminder that the tekiah of hope can break through when we least expect it.

And we need to keep listening and keep hearing. Three hours later, I received an email from the Imam who spoke at the vigil, an eloquent and courageous man whom I had introduced at the ceremony as "my teacher and friend." His email said this:

"I have no words to express my gratitude for the way you introduced me today. It might seem like a word, but it means the world to me. I am the son of Palestinian refugees and have always struggled to find a way to fight the anti-Semitism in my community that stems from genuine frustrations and aspirations. I have struggled with this my entire life and in all honesty, have struggled to see how anyone could support Israel with all our history. But as I've grown, I've realized that some may feel the same regarding my views and perspectives. We need to grow together and truly love one another and listen to one another... I am deeply grateful."

Silence? Despair? Tekiah.

Rabbi David Stern is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El synagogue in Dallas and President-Elect of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents nearly 2000 Reform Rabbis in North America. He addressed the vigil on July 8, 2016 at Thanksgiving Square as the representative of the Jewish community after the shooting of five policeman in Dallas.


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