This past Wednesday, September 23 at 1:30pm, a grand jury in Louiseville, KY exonerated all three officers in the case of the murder of Breonna Tayler, and merely indicted Detective Brett Hankison for wanton endangerment, for the shots fired into neighboring apartments, but not for the murder of Breonna Tayler.
65 years to the day that an all-white jury found Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam not guilty of Emmett Till's kidnapping and murder, which they later confessed to.
We arrive at this Yom Kippur with an intimate awareness that the space between the world as it is and the world that we long for is cavernous.
We arrive bereft and betrayed by a state and a system that have always devalued, and continue to devalue, Black lives.
We arrive here tonight not only to affirm that Black lives matter, but that Black lives are precious.
And we call upon the prophecy of Arundhati Roy and Jewish tradition to guide us.
Arundhati Roy writes:
"Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. [This pandemic] is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next." (2)
Which is why we are here. To imagine our world anew.
In Hebrew the word for world is olam -
As in Adon Olam - Master of the Universe
As in Melech HaOlam - Sovereign of All the World
As in Hayom Harat Olam - the world is pregnant with possibility.
It is a word that spans both time and space.
It describes eternity and existence in one beat.
As in L'olam va'ed - forever more, eternally.
And not only that but, rabbinic literature is replete with references to the idea that האדם הוא עולם קטן.
There is no more profound manifestation of a world, than that of a human being.
We are worlds unto ourselves.
Microcosms of existence. (3)
Which is also why we are here.
Not only to imagine a new world, but to imagine ourselves anew.
These are inseparable processes - because the world needs you whole.
Uvtuvo mechadesh b'chol yom tamid ma'aseh v'reishit.
Every single day, creation is renewed.
We have the chance to create ourselves and our world anew. Every single day.
And especially this day.
Lucky for us Jewish tradition is replete with stories about personal and collective transformation, stories in which what seemed completely impossible becomes reality. Stories in which our ancestors transcended the narrowest of circumstances and created the world anew.
And while sometimes we call this a miracle and credit it to the Holy One, more often than not the Sages, of blessed memory, go out of their way to recognize it as human creativity and agency.
Or perhaps more aptly, the sages understand that the miraculous is ever present in our world and in our actions.
One midrash wonders:
How did Noah manage to survive the flood and live to see his children exit the ark, thus begetting a new generation of humanity?
How did Moses go from fleeing from Pharaoh to plunging him into the sea?
How did Joseph go from being shackled in prison to a governor in Pharaoh's court?
How did Mordechai go from being ready for the gallows to executing his executioners? (4)
In other words, what made it possible for Noah and Moses and Joseph and Mordechai to transform their circumstances, to live into a radically new reality?
Now the midrash doesn't just ask the question.
It actually goes way out of its way to offer an answer.
And in every case, for each of these people, the answer is the same.
אֶלָּא רָאָה עוֹלָם חָדָשׁ
It was because of their ability to see a new world.
An Olam Hadash. A world renewed.
Each of these people was able to imagine new ways of being and living.
And they allowed that vision to hold them steady through profoundly difficult circumstances.
In the days after the murder of George Floyd, may his memory continue to be a source of transformation, Black leadership across the country mobilized people to take their grief and their rage to the streets.
On Sunday, May 31, as the sound of helicopters roared above West Philly and the smell of tear gas wafted towards my windows, there was a request from Black clergy and comrades for white clergy to come to 52nd Street, to provide spiritual support to protestors and accountability to the police.
As I got closer to Malcolm X Park, it was abundantly clear that our clergy garb was useless in the face of SWAT munitions and a literal armored tank pacing back and forth in front of the YMCA.
In the midst of state sanctioned chaos, two young black protestors walked slowly and deliberately towards the line of armored vehicles and armed police in riot gear. With their hands raised above their heads, they held signs that read:
"Who are you protecting?" and "Do you really care?"
From 150 feet away, police fired tear gas canisters at and beyond them, into a crowd of neighbors, protestors, and clergy standing in witness.
With each blast the crowd scrambled to take cover, hiding behind sign posts and adjacent buildings. People shared water and first aid supplies, smothering the gas under overturned trash cans.
That day on 52nd Street, the police protected nothing and kept no one safe — instead, they perpetrated harm against a group of neighbors who gathered to call attention to a legacy of police violence in Black neighborhoods. Those signs said it best, Who are they protecting?
After several hours of confrontation, I headed home. Walking with my friend and comrade Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg, I remember asking her, "What comes next?" While it may have seemed like a practical question, in my heart it was more existential.
What will it take to live in a radically different world?
Without skipping a beat she responded, "We need to defund the police."
While I had read the policy statements of the Movement for Black Lives, it felt as though this was the first time I was really hearing this phrase.
That week the hashtag #defundthepolice went viral. In the days and weeks that followed, several major cities including Los Angeles, New York, Baltimore, and Austin proposed major budget cuts to the police. (5) And the Minneapolis city council unanimously voted to eliminate the city's police department and establish "a department of community safety and violence prevention," marking the first step toward establishing a new "holistic" approach to public safety. (6) And in the months since then it has been on the lips of every presidential candidate up and down the ballot.
What made the radical shift in the national conversation about policing possible?
For these tectonic shifts all praise goes to the indomitable spirit of Black and Indigenous people in this country who have been organizing for centuries to abolish slavery and its mutations, and to the fierce leadership of organizations like Black Visions, Reclaim the Block, and MPD150 in Minneapolis. And right here in Philadelphia, organizations like the Amistad Law Project, Philly We Rise, and the Black Philly Radical Collective.
For their ability to see a new world.
An Olam Hadash. A world renewed.
Tonight I want to explore three important questions:
- What really is abolition and what does it have to do with defunding the police?
- What does Judaism have to say about abolition?
- What is our role as Jews and as a congregation in this movement, in this moment?
Abolition & Defunding the Police
What are we talking about when we say abolition and where did this modern abolitionist movement come from? The idea of defunding the police is not new. It is just new to me, and perhaps some of you. It is born of decades of Black-led organizing in communities of color. And it is one political strategy in a larger vision of abolition.
The contemporary abolitionist movement actually began in the early 1970s and gained steam in the late 1990s, when the activist/scholar Angela Davis co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization that coined the term "prison industrial complex." According to its mission:
Abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.
To paraphrase Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore, "abolition is about presence."
It grows from an understanding that when life is precious, life is precious. More than abolishing the buildings we call prisons, abolition is about abolishing the conditions under which policing and prisons become the solutions to problems.
Since that night on 52nd Street, I have interviewed half a dozen abolitionist leaders, read articles, tracked tweets, and watched interviews. And the most consistent message is that abolition is first and foremost an act of creation. This is not obvious. Given that the tactics call for defunding, dismantling, divesting, and abolishing police and prisons. But what I realized is that it is easy to miss the second clause in just about every abolitionist statement. Every vision of defunding the police includes the equally important call to invest in Black and Brown communities.
To quote the demands of the Movement for Black Lives, "We call for a national defunding of police. We demand investment in our communities and the resources to ensure Black people not only survive, but thrive."
In this way, every conversation about defunding and abolishing the police is inseparable from a conversation about investing in Black communities and the infrastructure of their lives; their wellness, their education, parks, libraries, access to green space; communities that have been systematically impoverished and environmentally degraded. It is for this reason that the section in the policy statement of the Movement for Black Lives is intentionally called Divest/Invest.
Defunding the police is actually about re-allocating resources to address the root causes of violence, including poverty, unemployment, food insecurity, insufficient access to physical, mental and emotional health care, and mass incarceration.
In a recent conversation, Kendra Van Der Water, co-founder of YEAH Philly, explained to me, "We don't need a billion dollar police budget, but we do need to invest in our people and our neighborhood and our schools. We need to invest in the people in our neighborhood and not the people who continue to oppress them."
Abolition is a visionary politic, but not one that is beyond our grasp!
To quote Representative Alexandria Ocaso Cortez, "What does an America with defunded police look like to you? The good news is that it actually doesn't take a ton of imagination...When a white teenager or preteen (the age at which carceral cycles typically begin in Black and Brown communities) does something harmful in a suburb, White communities bend over backwards to find alternatives to incarceration for their loved ones to 'protect their future'...Why doesn't the criminal justice system care about Black teens' futures the way they care for White teens' futures...?"
Where life is precious, life is precious. (7)
We cannot have a conversation about abolishing police and prisons without addressing the very real concern for safety. And we cannot address the concern about safety and the assumption that the function of the police is to keep us safe, without understanding the original purpose of the police.
For me, one of the great awakenings of the last six months has been coming to understand that the institution of policing in America, which as a white person I was taught to trust and venerate, began as a group of white people out to catch runaway slaves.
Over time its practices were institutionalized and professionalized, which has perpetuated the legal lynching of Black people in America. I am holding this truth with devastating clarity.
This past June, in a New York Times op-ed entitled "Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police," Mariame Kaba addresses both of these concerns with even greater clarity. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety.
"There is not a single era in United States history in which the police were not a force of violence against black people. Policing in the South emerged from the slave patrols in the 1700 and 1800s that caught and returned runaway slaves. In the North, the first municipal police departments in the mid-1800s helped quash labor strikes and riots against the rich. Everywhere, they have suppressed marginalized populations to protect the status quo.
"So when you see a police officer pressing his knee into a black man's neck until he dies, that's the logical result of policing in America. When a police officer brutalizes a black person, he is doing what he sees as his job...
"But don't get me wrong. We are not abandoning our communities to violence. We don't want to just close police departments. We want to make them obsolete...
"When people, especially white people, consider a world without the police, they envision a society as violent as our current one, merely without law enforcement — and they shudder. As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm."
"People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food, and education for all? This change in society wouldn't happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice." (8)
Slavery has not gone away, it has just morphed into police and prisons, into The New Jim Crow, to quote Michelle Alexander.
This is the moment to embrace a new vision.
It is time for us, as individuals and as a congregation, to follow the lead of abolitionists like Kendra Van Der Water, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba in their vision of a new world. An Olam Hadash.
A more just and peaceful world where life is precious and Black Lives Matter.
Which leads me to my second question.
What does Judaism have to say about abolition?
Tonight I am going to lift up just a few examples of what I am describing as a Jewish theology of abolition. Our tradition is replete with abolitionist thought. And I hope this is the beginning of our learning together.
From what I can tell, the concepts of prisons and policing are not indigenous to Jewish thought. The only time we really see it in either the Torah or the Talmud is in narrative and case law where foreign empires are oppressing us. The foremost example of this is of course Mitzrayim, the mythical Egypt. First we read about Joseph shackled in prison. (9) And then we read about the 400 years the Israelites were enslaved, where we zoom in on Moses and the slave taskmasters, akin to weaponized police.(10)
Don't get me wrong — we do have concepts of slavery in the Torah. But the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, seven cycles of seven years, ensure that all slaves are freed. (11) And the entire thrust of Deuteronomic law is focused on practices to equalize access to wealth and undermine the idea that human beings are property. The Torah even goes so far as to prohibit the returning of an escaped slave to its master, defying the law of the land throughout the Ancient Near East. (12) (13)
Those who heard me speak on Rosh Hashanah will not be surprised to learn that central to a Jewish theology of abolition is the concept of Teshuvah, the fundamental belief in the inevitably of and our capacity to change.
Judaism places endless value on our capacity as people to heal, forgive, and change.
So much so that it says:
At the heart of a Jewish theology of abolition is the knowing that teshuvah is always possible. In the years when I worked as a prison chaplain, the most common longing of the men I had the privilege to study Torah with was to change, was to be given a chance to do things differently. Which is nearly impossible in prison. What the path of teshuvah makes clear is that real change requires human relationship. Not solitary confinement, not being cut off from your children, your family, your friends. Not being moved around from state to state.
Teshuvah offers a radically different model of justice because of its insistent emphasis on restoring both relationship and property whenever possible. The Path of Teshuvah is fundamentally a path of restorative justice rather than punishment.
Every experience I have ever had with prisons has reinforced the exact opposite idea. Take just one example. According to Jewish law, in the case of someone who has done teshuvah, it is forbidden to remind them of their previous transgressions. In our country, you are obligated to reveal your criminal record every time you apply for a job, a mortgage, a loan, and the list goes on. In this way, prisons and the entire carceral system are antithetical to Jewish concepts of interpersonal and communal repair. (15)
The Jewish vision for how we keep ourselves safe is not with armed police but through the healing and transformative process of teshuvah. Take a moment to imagine and feel into this world in which this notion of teshuvah is central to how we create safety and address harm. This is what abolitionists are imagining.
Which leads me to our third and final question:
What is our role as Jews and as a congregation in this movement, in this moment?
Let's start by acknowledging where we are already living into this work.
When the Movement for Black Lives published its policy statement in August of 2016, we studied it on my first Shabbat. Many Jewish institutions railed against the policy statement with accusations of antisemitism for its direct support of military divestment from the occupation of Palestine — undermining the point that divestment from military and police spending was for the sake of investment in Black communities. I continue to be very proud that, in response, Kol Tzedek organized with the other faith communities in the Calvary Center to hang a banner that declared Black Lives Matter.
In response to the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and rising violence in communities of faith, many synagogues installed metal detectors and undercover cops. We at Kol Tzedek signed a pledge and committed to building a culture of community safety that did not increase police presence. (16)
Last year following Yom Kippur, a congregant emailed me saying:
"We went to a bat-mitzvah in Brooklyn last month, walking past armed law enforcement to enter. An older family friend who lives in the suburbs of Philly was telling me they let go one of the rabbis to hire an armed guard...These moments make me very aware of the different choices available and the different approaches communities have to feeling safe."
The email concludes, "It reminds me that it is risking something to open our hearts, to live vulnerably, and it is worth it."
And this past June, the board wrote this beautiful statement that begins,
"As a community, Kol Tzedek contains multitudes. We affirm our shared humanity, those of us who daily fear for our lives and those of us who have privilege and are working to unlearn reliance on the police and the false security of white supremacy."
Lo bashamayim hi -
This work is not beyond our grasp. It is right here.
We have been practicing abolition big and small ways for years.
And there is more to do!
Philadelphia is the poorest big city in America.
If you look at the portrait of the city budget, in the wake of this pandemic, the city cut funding to college scholarships, homeless services, parks and recreation centers, and the arts. Meanwhile maintaining (and if not for organizing efforts, it would have increased!) the enormous budget of the police. Abolition and defunding the police are fundamentally about appreciating that budgets are moral documents that have life and death consequences.
West Philadelphia, the neighborhood that is home to Kol Tzedek, has been redlined and divested from for generations. Programs like YEAH Phillyunderstand that the best way to interrupt violence isn't with more police, it's with more access to resources to fund public schools, youth centers, libraries, parks, and mental health services.
For those of us who are white, I want to invite you to claim your lineage in a long line of white abolitionists who have divested from white supremacy culture. To become, as Mab Segrest calls it, "a race traitor." The system cannot survive without our complicity and complacency. We have a role to play.
In this moment, we must stop questioning the tactics and strategies of these uprisings. We must understand them as a cry for justice and stop buying into the fascist narrative of law and order. As I have learned from so many, we must not confuse the order of a heavily policed society with freedom. In the words of Kendra Van Der Water, "We must stop asking what they are doing and start asking why!"
And here are three things we all can do!
One: We need to practice abolition by committing to not calling the police in our homes and our places of work. We need to talk to our families, our coworkers, and our neighbors and make a plan for what we will do when we otherwise would have called the police. How will we keep each other safe in times of crisis? If you can't yet imagine a world without police start by going to the website Survived & Punished. (18)
Two: We need to support Black-led organizing to defund, dismantle, and abolish police and policing in our cities. Take time to understand the ecosystem of your city and then get involved. Here in Philly, we can look to the Amistad Law Project and YEAH Philly. As a congregation, we are actively supporting YEAH Philly's campaign to buy a building on 52nd Street. This is the beginning of what we hope will be a movement partnership.
And, three: We need to keep learning! (19) To root down into Jewish tradition to claim and reclaim abolition theology and come to own our sacred texts.
The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the uprising of the last four months have clarified for me that it is not enough to say Black Lives Matter without divesting from the systems that oppress them and investing in their wellbeing.
Anything short of that would be akin to insincere teshuvah. Which the rabbis liken to a person who enters a ritual bath, a mikveh, while holding onto a lizard, an impure object. If we really believe that life is precious, then we must divest from the lizard that is prisons and policing.
It is time that we as a congregation join a long line of righteous faith communities and commit ourselves as an abolitionist congregation. We must do the work to educate ourselves and each other, so that we can, as an agudat achat, as an indivisible spiritual entity, join this liberation movement.
We are living through narrow times, and we are called to remember the merit of our ancestors, Noah, Moses, Mordechai, and Joseph, who transcended their circumstances by envisioning an entirely new world!
The midrash I began with actually offers two answers as to what allowed our ancestors to survive near annihilation.
First: Ela ra'a olam hadash.
That they could envision a new world.
But also that they sustained others.
Noah sustained everyone in the Ark.
Moses sustained the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years.
Joseph distributed grain during the seven years of famine.
And Mordechai, this one I am particularly partial too as a trans person, Mordechai nursed Esther, the midrash tells us.
On the precipice of annihilation, our ancestors had the courage to dream big and take care of each other. And according to our sages, that is what saved them. And that is what will save us.
This pandemic is a portal. And so is Yom Kippur.
We stand in the gateway between one year and the next. Between one world and the next.
We have just lived through a year of chaos and creation. The actions we take in the year ahead will impact generations to come.
Yom Kippur is fundamentally about who will live and who will die this year. And that is what is at stake in the movement for abolition.
May we draw on the courage of our ancestors to see the world not as it is, but as we know it should be, to see olam hadash, the world renewed.
A world where life is precious. May this be the year. Gmar Hatimah Tova.
(1) This sermon was written in hevruta with Hannah Sassaman, Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg, and Rabbi Benay Lappe. With gratitude to the Catalyst Project and the Anne Braden Program.
(3) See also Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5:
שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת...מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא
וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא.
Anyone who destroys a single life, it is considered as if they destroyed an entire world.
And anyone who sustains a single life, it is considered as if they sustained an entire world.
(4) Genesis Rabbah 30:8. Thank you to Rabbi Rabbi Dan Judson for introducing me to this midrash.
(9) See Genesis 39.
(10) See Exodus 2.
(11) See Exodus 21.
(12) Deuteronomy 23:16-17.
(13) Rabbi Shai Held writes, "It is hard to overstate the revolutionary implications of these verses. As a contemporary Bible scholar puts it, for the Torah 'to legislate so contrary to the universally accepted norms for the treatment of slaves indicates an intentional critique of the very nature of the institution itself.'
(14) B.T. Berakhot 34b. Also see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 7:4.
(15) There are so many other examples, including the concept of life sentence without parole, otherwise known as Death by Incarceration, mandatory minimums, the "three strikes and you're out" rule. All of this was written into the 1994 Crime Bill. Watch the Ava DuVernay documentary 13th for a greater understanding.
(16) So much of this was possible due to the vision and conviction of Stefan Lynch, who was president of Kol Tzedek at that time. You can read his words here.
(18) One place to start: https://www.creative-interventions.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/CI-Toolkit-Final-Section-2-Basics-Everyone-Should-Know-Aug-2020.pdf.
(19) Another Yom Kippur Abolition sermon by Brant Rosen: https://rabbibrant.com/2017/10/01/sermon-for-yom-kippur-5778-another-world-is-possible-a-jewish-view-on-policeprison-abolition/.