Standing Up for Racial Justice and Against Racial Violence

by Rabbi Sonya Starr

Forgive me for not responding to the horrific circumstances in the last week sooner. There have been so many Jewish and non-Jewish people and organizations (including the Reconstructionist community) sending out powerful communications about how horrified, saddened, and frightened we are. I did not want to add to the noise. The truth of the matter is I do not understand how we were not horrified before George Floyd was murdered by four police officers. Sadly this is not the first time this has happened to a person of color. In fact, the names of people who have been murdered and the many marches that have gone before are too many to count. There is nothing new about the murdering of people of color by white people in power.

Two nights ago I listened, like many of you, to President Obama speak about the condition of racism in this country. He pleaded as he has before for us to take a really good look in the mirror at who we are and who we hope to become. He expressed his gratitude for the young people who were leading these peaceful demonstrations. He shared his concern about the opportunists who were destroying property. He acknowledged the biracial support for this movement including many officers in blue across the country who have marched, taken a knee, and condemned what happened in Minneapolis.

What struck me the most about what President Obama said was that we are not to get comfortable. In fact if real societal change is to occur, we are to be uncomfortable- angry, and horrified at our criminal justice system that criminalizes people of color just living their lives – driving, walking in the park, or just existing.

Before I talked with Eileen Singleton and Alan Pomerantz who encouraged me to write this message to you, I had written this drosh that I will be giving this Shabbat at services. You get a sneak preview.
“This past week, our country has exploded with anger, fear, sadness, anxiety, and pain. There have been powerful acts of righteous indignation, frightening performances of partisanship, demeaning criminal actions, and incredible acts of loving kindness largely because White America has continually failed to face not only our racist foundation but also all the contemporary manifestations of that foundation.

What does that have to do with today’s Torah portion you might ask? Since I knew we were going to read only 1/3 of a 1/3 this week, I thought about skipping the first 1/3, the second part if this week’s Torah portion is more pleasant to read. But after watching our country explode because we are unwilling to face the unpleasant reality of our prejudice, I knew skipping unpleasantness is neither healing nor healthy. You see today’s Torah portion begins with a story of a jealous husband, jealous that his wife might have had an affair. Whether or not she is guilty she is brought before the priest for a horrific public and distasteful ritual. If she can drink the bitter waters, mixed with the dirt of the ground and her own personal hair without her stomach swelling and her thighs sagging she is innocent. If she shows any physical signs she is guilty. It is clear from the beginning to the end of this ritual, the whole point of the ritual is to keep her husband happy, satisfy his rational or irrational fears. It reflects the very real sexism at the foundation of our tradition.

One does not create an egalitarian Judaism or a nonracist America by hiding the texts or facts we do not like. One does not create a fair and just world by pretending that prejudice has disappeared from our lives. The only way to counter this kind of systematic racism is by each of us looking long and hard at what prejudice looks like, and how it manifests in ourselves and our neighbors daily lives. We forget the hard work done by Jewish progressive feminists in the Jewish community to create egalitarian communities. (I don’t want to say that sexism is dead in the Jewish community but that is a talk for another time.) White America has to do that kind of work here at home and nationally to end the killing of people of color for living their lives. Passing a fake $20 is a crime but not one punishable by death unless you are Black.

We have to read today’s Torah portion just like we have to read the statistics of police bias against people of color. We have to understand the implications of creating a society around the needs of men just like we have to understand the implications of creating a society around the needs of White America. We have to make ourselves and our leaders uncomfortable enough so that just change can take place.

At the very end of this triennial is the Cohen’s blessing, a blessing where the priest asks Gd to give us peace. Tuesday when I demonstrated in Columbia, we shouted no justice, no peace. I once saw a bumper sticker on the road that said Pray for peace work for justice. I wish I knew where they got that sticker. Working for justice requires us to realize that there are healthy, intelligent, capable partners with which to work, that change has occurred in this country and can occur again, that we can face our underbelly and become better for it, that our young Americans have a healthy vision of what America can become and that there are more partners in law enforcement who want to be the change agents than ever before. Maybe today instead of praying for peace we could pray for the courage to face the ugliness of our criminal justice system, the opportunists’ actions of greed and politics, the pain of loss, and the foundational need for systematic change. Then and only then do we have the right to turn to Gd asking for peace.”

At CJC, we “walk the walk” so I’d like to brainstorm with you about ways that our community could be part of the solution. If you’re interested in working with me, please send me an email or give me a call and we’ll find a time to start sharing ideas.

B’vrachat Shalom,

Rabbi Sonya Starr