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Erev Rosh HaShanah: The Work of Justice Shall be Peace Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Lisa Levenberg

Erev Rosh Hashanah—Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a landmark of the civil rights movement. The original march was named “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” an acknowledgment that achieving racial equality involves both civic and economic change. As you may know, the American Jewish community, and the Reform movement in particular, was among those at the forefront of this battle. Reform rabbis and community members helped lead some of the most important civil rights organizations of the era, including the NAACP; the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.i In the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were drafted; their passage in 1964 and 1965, respectively, were considered the major successes of the March.

This year, the march was called “the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.” It may be a subtle difference, but it’s a significant one. The emphasis on “justice” as we look back over 50 years reminds us of the maxim, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” This famous proverb is actually is connected to our own tradition, from a short book of ethical teachings called Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of the Ancestors. In Pirkei Avot, we read, “The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed, justice corrupted, and because of those who misinterpret Torah.”

The theme of justice as being an essential element of community harmony runs deep in Jewish tradition. It has also underscored some of the rhetoric around civil rights in America, sometimes in ways that make us uncomfortable. At political protests, from the late 70’s until today, it is common to hear chants of “No Justice, No Peace!”

While “No Justice, No Peace” is stated in the negative, our tradition holds out the promise of the dream fulfilled. In a beautiful description of the days to come, the prophet Isaiah says, “Then justice shall abide in the wilderness, and righteousness on the farm land. For the work of justice shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness will be calm and security forever.”

So in order to realize peace, we must pursue justice. And how to we begin to pursue justice? According to Pirkei Avot, “The world endures on three things: Justice, Truth, and Peace, as the verse states, Speak truth, each to his fellow, and render truth and judgments of peace in your gates.” Truth, then is the third leg of the stool on which the world endures. Truth, justice, and peace.

Let’s begin with the pillar of truth. “Speak the truth to each other,” the prophet Zechariah exhorts. In order to achieve peace, we must work for justice. But in order to seek justice, we must first acknowledge the truth. We must speak our truths to each other, and when our friends speak their truths to us, we must hear it.

It can be awkward and unsettling to hear other people’s truths, especially when they do not mirror our own experiences, or when they even contradict them. We are sometimes tempted to draw back into the familiarity of our own truths.

So, during these holiest days, I want to share my truth with you, and I hope that the connection we share can allow you to hear me, and for me to hear you. And the truth is: this was a difficult summer for civil rights in America, and that those difficulties touched me on a very personal level, as the mother of two children who are biracial, African- American and Caucasian. The truth is: many of the gains in racial equality that the civil rights movement earned have proven fragile. The truth is: many of the dreams of the 60’s and 70’s have gone from dreams deferred to dreams denied. The truth is: there is much work to be done.

On June 26 and 27, my Facebook news feed was exploding with well-wishers congratulating us on the Supreme Court’s decisions on DOMA and Prop 8. Straight allies proudly sported rainbows and equality signs on their profiles. As pleased as I was by this moment in history, and as moved by my friends’ support, I was reeling from the news from the day before. On June 25, that same court had disemboweled the Voting Rights Act and opened the door to massive, systematic disenfranchisement of people of color in the South and across America. And this threat is neither theoretical nor hyperbolic: Just two hours after the Supreme Court’s decision, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott declared that a voter-ID law and a dramatic redistricting map, previously blocked because they discriminated against blacks and Latinos, would go into effect immediately.ii

On Thursday, people were posting things like “A great week for justice!” “Truth wins out!” “Equal rights for all!” And of course I’m glad that one of my five marriage documents is now legally recognized and that I can go and file back taxes. But no, it was not a great week for justice, truth didn’t win out, and equal rights for all remains a dream.

Less than three weeks later, George Zimmerman was acquitted of all counts in the racially-charged shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. Twitter exploded with the hashtag #justicefortrayvon. Protestors gathered in “Million Hoodie Marches.” Young black men held signs with the haunting question, “Am I Next?”

In August, federal judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the New York Police Department’s “stop, question, and frisk” policies were unconstitutional. In the past decade, more than 5 million pedestrians, the vast majority—83%-- of whom are African-American and Hispanic men, have been searched under these policies. According to the NYPD’s own data, about 1% of these frisks yielded a weapon and .14% turned up a gun. During the trial, David Ourlicht, a young black man described the demeaning and dehumanizing experience of lying face-down on the street while police, guns drawn, searched him because “someone heard a gun.” No gun being discovered, the officers wrote down his name and said, “Have a nice day.” The worst part of his testimony, though, was that this was not an isolated incident. “This happens all the time.”iii Even more unsettling was the testimony from police officers who were disturbed by the NYPD’s approach and supported the lawsuit: officer Pedro Serrano recounted being told explicitly by his superior officer that they were to target “the right kind of people: meaning black males, 14 to 20.”iv

Some of you may have seen, or at least heard of, the wildly popular new Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black.” The premise of an upper-class white woman who spends 15 months in a minimum-security prison is also a vehicle for richly written, deeply painful depictions of how systemic racism has resulted in a completely failed criminal justice system. And going from the sublime to the ridiculous, even Miley Cyrus’s widely commented-upon performance at the Video Music Awards two weeks ago was based on stereotypes exploiting the bodies of African- American women.v Through politics, current events, and even through entertainment, conversations about race in America are returning to public discourse.

Many of us were raised to feel that it is impolite to show awareness of racial difference, and that in a perfect world, no one would notice race. “My kids are color-blind,” my friends brag to me. Another popular one is, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, or green. We’re all just people.” These people have every good intention, and, at the same time, it conveys a less positive message. Saying that we are “color-blind” means a refusal to acknowledge that we do live in a society that treats people of different races differently, and that each of us does experience the world based on how others see us, and how we see others. More fundamentally, the problem with the “color-blind” approach is that it suggests that we can only connect on the level at which we are the same; that our differences are an obstacle to true connection or relationship; that if I acknowledge an awareness that we are different, we can’t truly love each other. As a part of a multi-racial family, I feel that it’s imperative that we speak honestly: that we are not color-blind, that we do live in a racially aware society, that we do have different experiences with race, and that we are deeply and lovingly connected.

In conversations about living in a racially aware society, the phrase “white privilege” comes up again and again. What is white privilege, exactly? It means being able to make assumptions that one will be treated fairly and courteously in most situations, and that we can expect to be treated as individuals and judged on our own behavior, rather than being seen as an “example” representing our entire race. Professor Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay that is widely seen as laying the groundwork for understanding “white privilege.” Just a few examples from her “checklist”:

  • 4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • 5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race.
  • 9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
  • 10. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability.
  • 12. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
  • 14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.vi

For many years, I resisted the “white” label. It turns out I’m not alone in this tendency.

In his book Uprooting Racism, Jewish activist Paul Kivel relates the following anecdote:

A colleague and I were doing a workshop on racism and we wanted to divide the group into a caucus of people of color and a caucus of white people, so that each group could have more in-depth discussion. Immediately some of the white people said, "But I’m not white." I was somewhat taken aback because although these people looked white they were clearly distressed about being labeled white. A white, Christian woman stood up and said, "I’m not really white because I’m not part of the white male power structure that perpetuates racism." Next a white gay man stood up and said, "You have to be straight to have the privileges of being white." A white, straight, working class man from a poor family then said, “I’ve got it just as hard as any person of color." Finally a straight, white middle class man said, "I’m not white, I’m Italian." My African-American co- worker turned to me and asked, "Where are all the white people who were here just a minute ago?" Of course I replied, "Don’t ask me, I’m not white, I’m Jewish!"vii

“I’m not white, I’m Jewish,” is an expression I myself have used many times, and encouraged in my students as well. As a Jew, outsider identification is a cornerstone of my self-understanding. Being a Jew, I felt, was an ethnic and cultural identity as well as a religious one. Indeed, as Karen Brodkin writes in her book How Jews Became White Folks,viii it is only in the post-World War II era that American-born Jews, unlike their immigrant, labor-class parents, became widely considered “white” in the American racial system.

Kivel goes on to note that, in conversations about racial awareness, we resist the “white” label, both because of guilt or defensiveness, and also because we, like everyone else, feel boxed in by arbitrary racial categories and stereotypes.

But denying my whiteness doesn’t change the fact that, for the most part, I am perceived as white, and that I benefit every day, in ways both small and large, from the structures that privilege whiteness. Whether I like it or not, I navigate the world from the place of a white person. My “white privilege” is not something I can opt out of.

Does that mean that I need to be paralyzed by white liberal guilt? No! Liberal guilt on the one hand, or defensiveness and “white pride” on the other, will never move us forward. Acknowledging my privilege gives me the opportunity, no, even the responsibility, to be an ally. And this is where I can say, “I’m white, and I’m Jewish.” As Jews, we have a particular obligation to ally ourselves on the side of justice.

What does an ally do? First, an ally believes you. When someone describes the many microaggressions they experience as a result of their race, an ally does not attempt to minimize or explain away those experiences. Second, an ally educates himself. The articles we choose to read in the paper, the conversations we choose to either pursue or turn away from, are part of educating ourselves. And third and most important, an ally advocates. My white privilege means that I can speak up to a security guard who is hassling my son without fear that the police will be involved. You might have seen the video going around in which a biracial woman describes being hassled in a grocery store line about writing a check. Her sister-in-law, who is also biracial but presents as white, used her white privilege to speak up about how the other woman was being treated. Instead of it being a case of “angry black woman,” or an us vs. them scenario, using our white privilege to be an ally provides a compelling example to both those in authority and other bystanders who will then become motivated to raise their voices to seek justice as well.

In Judaism and Human Rights, activist Rabbi Milton Konvitz wrote, “The ideal of Judaism is not peace alone. It is peace and truth and justice. Without peace, there is little hope or room for truth or justice to be effective. Without truth and justice, peace can only mean oppression and suppression. This is why, in the Jewish classics, truth, justice, and peace are often mentioned together—because they are inseparable.”ix

“Peace” is not the absence of war, or papering over conflict. Peace is about personal integrity, truly seeing ourselves and seeking to see the other. Peace is both acknowledging the reality of our flawed and fragile world and passionately committing to our responsibility tikkun olam, to repairing that world. When we speak our truth and hear the truth of others; when we pursue a deep and community-based justice; then, the result of our work will be peace.

SHANA TOVA.


i Nasielski, Katharine. “Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.” Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Aug 22, 2013. http://blogs.rj.org/rac/2013/08/22/commemorate-the-50th-anniversary-of-the- march-on-washington/ 

ii Robertson, Campbell. “Texas to Move Quickly on Voter Laws and Maps.” New York Times. June 25, 2013. 

iii Whitaker, Morgan. “Stop-and-frisk victim: I Could Feel The Guns Being Pointed At Me.” MSNBC. Aug 7, 2013. 

iv Carver, Marina. “NYPD Officers Say They Had Stop-and-Frisk Quotas,” CNN Justice, March 26, 2013. 

v Cottom, Tressie McMillan. “Brown Body, White Wonderland.” Slate. Aug 29, 2013.

vi McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” 1988. 

vii Kivel, Paul. Uprooting Racism. New Society Publishers, 2002, p. 10. 

viii Brodkin, Karen. How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. New Brunswick, N.J and London: Rutgers University Press, 1998. 

ix Konvitz, Milton R., ed. Judaism and Human Rights, 2nd edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001. P. 277. 

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