(ה) הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אֵין בּוּר יְרֵא חֵטְא, וְלֹא עַם הָאָרֶץ חָסִיד, וְלֹא הַבַּיְשָׁן לָמֵד, וְלֹא הַקַּפְּדָן מְלַמֵּד, וְלֹא כָל הַמַּרְבֶּה בִסְחוֹרָה מַחְכִּים. וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ:
(5) He used to say: A brute is not sin-fearing, nor is an ignorant person pious; nor can a timid person learn, nor can an impatient person teach; nor will someone who engages too much in business become wise. In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.
Answer these questions honestly: If I walk into your shul for Friday night service would you sit next to me or would you allow one person to occupy an entire pew? If I walked into your shul right about the time you were picking up your child would you presume I was a nanny? If you sat across from me on the subway and noticed the Magen David around my neck, would you smile at me? Or wonder why I was wearing it? If I were shopping for challah in your shop on Friday afternoon, would you wish me a good Shabbos? I pose these questions not just because they are my experiences, but to encourage us to take a look inward and remember our history as Jews. I’m sure many of us have heard an anti-Semitic remark that shook us to the core, but for the most part secular Jews can walk around not attracting much attention. But not long ago to be a Jew was a bad thing, something to be loathed, something to try to hide. Through the promise of America, many Jews were able to start anew simply by changing their last name. In the US Jews became “white,” and with that whiteness came privilege. But as Jews don’t we also have the responsibility to remember what life was like before this era of unprecedented privilege? We’re taught to never forget about our experience as outsiders, and yet, we have.
“Talking Honestly About Jews and Racism,” Erika Davis is an educator and writer; her blog, “Black, Gay and Jewish: A Gay Black Woman's Discovery of Her Jewish Self,” shares the story of her conversion to Judaism. Erika is a board member of the Jewish Multiracial Network.
§ The mishna teaches: One does not protest against poor gentiles who come to take gleanings, forgotten sheaves, and the produce in the corner of the field, which is given to the poor [pe’a], although they are meant exclusively for the Jewish poor, on account of the ways of peace. Similarly, the Sages taught in a baraita (Tosefta 5:4): One sustains poor gentiles along with poor Jews, and one visits sick gentiles along with sick Jews, and one buries dead gentiles along with dead Jews. All this is done on account of the ways of peace, to foster peaceful relations between Jews and gentiles.
(ה) כֵּיצַד מְאַיְּמִין אֶת הָעֵדִים עַל עֵדֵי נְפָשׁוֹת, הָיוּ מַכְנִיסִין אוֹתָן וּמְאַיְּמִין עֲלֵיהֶן. שֶׁמָּא תֹאמְרוּ מֵאֹמֶד, וּמִשְּׁמוּעָה, עֵד מִפִּי עֵד וּמִפִּי אָדָם נֶאֱמָן שָׁמַעְנוּ, אוֹ שֶׁמָּא אִי אַתֶּם יוֹדְעִין שֶׁסּוֹפֵנוּ לִבְדֹּק אֶתְכֶם בִּדְרִישָׁה וּבַחֲקִירָה. הֱווּ יוֹדְעִין שֶׁלֹּא כְדִינֵי מָמוֹנוֹת דִּינֵי נְפָשׁוֹת. דִּינֵי מָמוֹנוֹת, אָדָם נוֹתֵן מָמוֹן וּמִתְכַּפֵּר לוֹ. דִּינֵי נְפָשׁוֹת, דָּמוֹ וְדַם זַרְעִיּוֹתָיו תְּלוּיִין בּוֹ עַד סוֹף הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁכֵּן מָצִינוּ בְקַיִן שֶׁהָרַג אֶת אָחִיו, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית ד) דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ צֹעֲקִים, אֵינוֹ אוֹמֵר דַּם אָחִיךָ אֶלָּא דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ, דָּמוֹ וְדַם זַרְעִיּוֹתָיו. דָּבָר אַחֵר, דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ, שֶׁהָיָה דָמוֹ מֻשְׁלָךְ עַל הָעֵצִים וְעַל הָאֲבָנִים. לְפִיכָךְ נִבְרָא אָדָם יְחִידִי, לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וּמִפְּנֵי שְׁלוֹם הַבְּרִיּוֹת, שֶׁלֹּא יֹאמַר אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ אַבָּא גָדוֹל מֵאָבִיךָ. וְשֶׁלֹּא יְהוּ מִינִין אוֹמְרִים, הַרְבֵּה רָשֻׁיּוֹת בַּשָּׁמָיִם. וּלְהַגִּיד גְּדֻלָּתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁאָדָם טוֹבֵעַ כַּמָּה מַטְבְּעוֹת בְּחוֹתָם אֶחָד וְכֻלָּן דּוֹמִין זֶה לָזֶה, וּמֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא טָבַע כָּל אָדָם בְּחוֹתָמוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן וְאֵין אֶחָד מֵהֶן דּוֹמֶה לַחֲבֵרוֹ. לְפִיכָךְ כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד חַיָּב לוֹמַר, בִּשְׁבִילִי נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם. וְשֶׁמָּא תֹאמְרוּ מַה לָּנוּ וְלַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת, וַהֲלֹא כְבָר נֶאֱמַר (ויקרא ה) וְהוּא עֵד אוֹ רָאָה אוֹ יָדָע אִם לוֹא יַגִּיד וְגוֹ'. וְשֶׁמָּא תֹאמְרוּ מַה לָּנוּ לָחוּב בְּדָמוֹ שֶׁל זֶה, וַהֲלֹא כְבָר נֶאֱמַר (משלי יא) וּבַאֲבֹד רְשָׁעִים רִנָּה:
(5) How did they admonish witnesses in capital cases? They brought them in and admonished them, [saying], “Perhaps you will say something that is only a supposition or hearsay or secondhand, or even from a trustworthy man. Or perhaps you do not know that we shall check you with examination and inquiry? Know, moreover, that capital cases are not like non-capital cases: in non-capital cases a man may pay money and so make atonement, but in capital cases the witness is answerable for the blood of him [that is wrongfully condemned] and the blood of his descendants [that should have been born to him] to the end of the world.” For so have we found it with Cain that murdered his brother, for it says, “The bloods of your brother cry out” (Gen. 4:10). It doesn’t say, “The blood of your brother”, but rather “The bloods of your brother” meaning his blood and the blood of his descendants. Another saying is, “The bloods of your brother” that his blood was cast over trees and stones. Therefore but a single person was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single life to perish from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and anyone who saves a single soul from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world. Again [but a single person was created] for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”. Again, [but a single person was created] against the heretics so they should not say, “There are many ruling powers in heaven”. Again [but a single person was created] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another. Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.” And if perhaps you [witnesses] would say, “Why should we be involved with this trouble”, was it not said, “He, being a witness, whether he has seen or known, [if he does not speak it, then he shall bear his iniquity] (Lev. 5:1). And if perhaps you [witnesses] would say, “Why should we be guilty of the blood of this man?, was it not said, “When the wicked perish there is rejoicing” (Proverbs 11:10).]
But maybe you’re one of those Jews who believes one has to first look out for their own. You might not care about racial profiling. It’s the only way to stop “those people,” you say. You might not care about stop-and-frisk. It’s for their own good, you say. If you’re not guilty, then you should have nothing to hide, you nod. You think racial profiling and stop-and-frisk doesn’t happen to Jews, so it’s not a Jewish problem to think about. It only happens to “those people.” You are wrong. Because here’s the thing: Some of your people are “those people.” Some of “those people” are your people. There are Jews, here, in these United States, this bastion of freedom for Jews escaping pogroms and Inquisitions and Holocausts, who cannot walk down the street without a fear for their lives from the very authorities who are supposed to protect them. There are Jews who will always be approached by police as a suspect, never as a citizen. Who will always be viewed as just another criminal savage who hasn’t been put away yet. A perp who doesn’t have a mugshot yet. And there aren’t enough streimels or black hats or tallitot in the world to protect them.
“ERIC GARNER, C’EST TOI,” -MaNishtana
MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, a Brooklyn-based AfricanAmerican Orthodox Jewish author, blogger, graphic artist, and public speaker
Jews of color cannot choose to ignore the experiences of people of color everywhere, anymore than we would ignore our Jewishness. We must fully inhabit both communities and we need all Jews to stand with us, forcefully and actively opposing racism and police violence. But in order to do so, we must pare our past trauma from our present truth: our history of oppression leaves many of us hyper-vigilant and overly preoccupied with safety. As Jews we share a history that is overburdened with tales of violent oppression. Though different Jewish communities have varying experiences, none of us have escaped painful legacies of persecution, including genocide. This past is real, and part of why we gather today is to remember it. But the past is past. However seductive harsh policing, surveillance and incarceration may be in the short term, it will never serve us in the end. Not when those tactics brutalize other communities, humiliating and incarcerating our neighbors and perpetuate a status quo that leaves low-income communities of color on the other side of a sea of fear — still trapped; still stranded. The only real way out of the Mitzrayim of our fears is solidarity. Only by forging deep connections and sharing struggle with other communities will we creating the lasting allies who will walk with us into the promised land of our collective liberation. That is true Jewish freedom — true and lasting safety.
“Mixed Multitudes: Nobody’s Free ‘til Everybody’s Free: A Racial Justice Haggadah for Pesach,” -Leo Ferguson
Leo Ferguson is a Jew of color and the Leadership Development and Communications Organizer at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ)