Being a Jewish Person in a Global World, part II
Rabbi Julie Greenberg
These holy days, I have been talking about what it means to be a Jewish person in a global world, a world of huge diversity and difference. Our mission is to find the values within Judaism for tolerance and respect and justice for all, values that will allow us to share and sustain a world with others.
Being Jewish in a global world means opening ourselves to share and listen with others who are very different from us. I had an experience this past January at a week-long training for organizers in Atlanta. It was a multi-faith training conference offered by PICO, People Improving Communities through Organizing which was started about thirty years ago by a Jesuit priest. At this gathering there were about 130 people and they truly came from all walks of life. There were Native Americans from reservations, there were Dreamer kids who had been brought to this country as undocumented young immigrants and now do not have citizen's rights, there were people returning to society from prison who call themselves Returning Citizens. What we had in common was that we were people of faith and we were involved as activist citizens making the world better.
Each morning leaders from different faiths gave an hour-long presentation about their faith. There was a Muslim, a Seventh Day Adventist, a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, a Quaker Friend. There was one other Rabbi there, a young twenty-something, newly minted from the Reform seminary, very cute and very new. He had graduated less than a year before. He was eager to do the presentation and I said fine.
So he got up in front of the group and gave a very textbook presentation about Judaism. I'm sure after years in the rabbinate he will have more and different things to say but he did well. Afterwards people in the audience asked questions.
One person said, "Do you believe in Jesus?"
"No," said the Rabbi.
The next person asked, "Do you believe Jesus is the
"No," said the Rabbi.
Another person asked, "What do you believe about Jesus?"
"Nothing." said the new Rabbi.
At that point, there was an audible gasp in the room as this information sunk in, "They don't believe in Jesus!" rippled around the room. This was profoundly new and different information for most people there and it took a while for these friendly people of good will to "get it." I could tell it was taking a while because the next question for the rabbi was "Do you celebrate Christmas?"
I'm sharing this story to illustrate how we really don't know about each other's experience and reality unless we listen. Those fellow travellers now have a totally new understanding of diversity in this world. Not everyone believes Jesus is God!
Here in Philly, I am in a city-wide interfaith clergy caucus that has monthly meetings. In this caucus I really get to know colleagues from very different backgrounds. My colleagues come from every geographic area of the city, from every faith and class background and they are of different races. We work together on projects that affect the well being of the city and I think the bonds we build help hold the city well.
A couple months ago in the clergy caucus, we were having lunch together and the Black and Latino ministers started sharing stories about being racially profiled. These guys are the most upstanding citizens, highly educated, moral leaders in their communities. I'm continually impressed with their eloquence and insight. And yet when they walk down the street, they are just another brown skin body.
Colleague after colleague shared stories of being stopped on the street to be frisked or of being followed by security when entering a store. One minister had just come back from traffic court because he had been ticketed "for driving in the wrong lane." "What's the wrong lane?" we asked. "That's what I wanted to know." He said. Another one told of lending his Mercedes to his teenage son and the son being stopped by police under suspicion that he had stolen the car. My heart was weeping to hear stories like this right here in my city. Just as the folks in Atlanta had their eyes opened about Judaism, I had to register the reality of my friends who do not have white skin privilege.
For a similar entry into another's experience, I recommend the film Fruitvale Station, a must-see movie for all Americans --- this film tells the powerful, true story of a young Black man who was not well educated by the public schools, could not find and keep employment, had no place in society, and then was accidentally shot to death by police at the Fruitvale train station in a New Year's eve incident. He was barely 20.
Most of us good people here do not consciously harbor personal feelings of racism. Our intent is not to create a society that targets some of God's children for racial abuse. And yet we participate in institutional racism: we tolerate a society in which brown children are much much more likely than white children to be in underperforming, poor schools; in which people of color are way more likely to be unemployed, or to be the working poor, people who work 40 hours a week and still can't pay basic bills. We don't personally discriminate against people with different colored skin but we agree to a society that systematically deprives some people of the education and opportunity they need to have a decent life. We are part of a system that took 1.3 billion dollars out of public education in Pennsylvania while allocating millions to the construction of prisons. Does that make sense? To dis-invest in education and instead to invest in prisons? So even though our intent is not to cause harm, the impact of the system we live with does cause harm.
I learned more about systemic, institutional racism from reading the mind-blowing book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. There are now Reconstructionist congregations around the country doing study groups on this book and I encourage people to read it if you haven't already. The author is a Civil Rights lawyer who says that there have been three iterations of racism in our society.
The first was slavery.
The second was the system called Jim Crow of enforced segregation between the races.
The third manifestation of racism is the war on drugs and the incarceration industry that targets poor Black and Latino neighborhoods and systematically imprisons people. Anyone with a felony record is then unable to re-enter society: they can't get jobs, can't be on a jury, forevermore are part of that prison industrial complex.
Why am I talking about this in a Jewish context on Yom Kippur? Because we are called today to live our values. The Torah teaches that human beings were made b'tzelem elohim, in the image of God. A midrash explains that God is different from the maker of coins. Someone making coins designs a mold and presses out multiple copies of identical coins. But God in creating human beings makes each one incredibly unique and yet we are all equally children of God.
In Deuteronomy we learn that it is our mandate to "tzedek, tzedek tirdof," Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue. Tzedek is the word for right, for justice. It's connected to tzedakah, justice giving, and to tzadik, being a wise, fair person. Whenever there is a repetition of words in the bible such as tzedek, tzedek, the rabbis have a ball with interpretation.
Why does the Bible say tzedek twice? Maybe because we have to work on making things right both within ourselves and out in the world. Or maybe it says tzedek tzedek because even when there are obstacles and it's hard work, we keep persisting. Or maybe it says tzedek tzedek, the rabbis taught, because there is justice here on earth and there is justice in the world to come.
The Torah is a mythic teacher of values, not a technical blueprint for life. It teaches us to ask deep questions about the purpose of life. If we are truly each made in God's image, what is our responsibility to others? If we are truly here to pursue justice, what does that mean? What is our responsibility to create a world that actually respects and provides opportunity to every single person? An early bible character, Cain, asks the piercing question "Am I my brother's keeper?" It has been said that the entire Torah and Jewish tradition is an answer to that question. The answer is Yes, that's exactly it, we are our brother's and sister's keepers. We are here to be part of a whole, w-h-o-l-e, a holy whole, that works for all. That is God's vision. That is the Jewish vision.
But, you may say, I want to live by Torah values of justice and respect, but I am swamped in my own life with daily demands and I can't become an expert on all the pressing issues of the day. I can't get involved with immigration reform and ending racism and making sure every child gets a decent education.
You're right. You can't possibly take it all on. And here's where I want to bring another Jewish concept to the table. The most intimate unit for worship in Judaism is the minyan, a group of ten people who come together to pray. But each person does not actually have to say all the prayers. A leader often says the prayers on behalf of the minyan. The leader is called the shaliach or schlichat tzibur and it can be any Jewish person over the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The leader does not have to be a trained Jewish professional. The shlichat or shaliach tzibur, the leader, is a public messenger, who offers up prayers as a representative for the rest of the minyan. We say that the other people in the minyan are "yotzay," they have fullfilled their obligation to say those prayers because they supported the leader to say them.
The beauty of a congregation is that different people play different roles and collectively we are all yotzay, our obligation is fulfilled, because we are all part of the whole. In this congregation, we have a powerful social justice component. We are very involved in the Philly public schools on both a hands-on level and on a policy level and we also participate in living wage work. Working on Education and Jobs are ways that we address issues of systemic racism.
Not every one of our members can do this work and yet each person knows that through their membership in Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir~Heart of the City, they are being represented in this work. My main role as Rabbi is pastoral, caring for the people in this congregation and helping build community here. Another role I have is to lead us in Repair of the World, Tikkun Olam. In both my roles, I know that I don't have to do it alone. We are in this together. I know that when I can't show up for an event another one of us will because we have strength in numbers. We yotzay each other. When you become part of a community you become bigger than yourself, more effective than just you can be, you multiply the good works, as each one strengthens and inspires and stands for the next one.
This is what it means to be a Jew in a global world. It means that we join together as Jews in collective service to the people and the possibilities of the world. Like our prophet Isaiah said, ritual practice is all well and good but that's not the essence of what is called for from you. Being here on Yom Kippur is great but it is not enough. The essence of what is called for from you is the mitzvot, the good deeds, that are the privilege of every single Jewish person older than the age of 13, to make this world a good place. Because our sages knew that no one can do this alone, our religion is a communal religion. Each person says, Hineni, Here I am, for the part that you can do, and you rest assured that your peers are also doing their part so that the sum is greater than the individual parts. That's what it means to be a Jew in a global world.
May this be a year of showing up, joining in and making a difference together. May we be infused with the wisdom of the sages, the melodies of the angels, and the truth of Torah. May we each participate in the commandment tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice you shall pursue, by giving tzedakah, by being a tzadik and most of all by participating in Jewish community again and again in the year 5774. Shana Tovah.