Racial Justice

The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated deep racial inequities in the United States. Due to disparities in access to and discriminatory practices in healthcare, over-representation in frontline work, a wealth gap, and countless other manifestations of systemic racism and individual biases, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people have been disproportionately affected by the virus and its economic impact. Asian Americans, in all their diversity, have been scapegoated and subject to rising discrimination and violence. Ongoing, documented violence toward Black bodies by police inspired mass street protests in 2020, despite pandemic lockdowns. Jewish tradition implores us to pursue justice, protect the structurally oppressed, and see all people as made in the divine image. We are — and have always been — a multiracial people. For these reasons and more, we embrace racial justice as a Jewish value.

One cannot find a discussion of racial justice in our classical sources since racism as a structural phenomenon was a development of the late Middle Ages and early modern period. But while the Biblical and rabbinic authors did not have the concept and language to address race and racism, they did recognize the phenomenon of structural inequity, in which broad social systems affect different groups in disparate ways. The sources gathered below bring together classical teachings that address the problem of structural inequity with more recent teachings on racism and racial justice. Teachings from modern rabbis and Jewish leaders reflect the evolving Torah of racial justice.

What does it look like to put a commitment to racial justice into practice at the communal, institutional and individual level?

Classical Sources on Structural Inequities

(יז) לֹ֣א תַטֶּ֔ה מִשְׁפַּ֖ט גֵּ֣ר יָת֑וֹם וְלֹ֣א תַחֲבֹ֔ל בֶּ֖גֶד אַלְמָנָֽה׃ (יח) וְזָכַרְתָּ֗ כִּ֣י עֶ֤בֶד הָיִ֙יתָ֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וַֽיִּפְדְּךָ֛ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ מִשָּׁ֑ם עַל־כֵּ֞ן אָנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת אֶת־הַדָּבָ֖ר הַזֶּֽה׃ (ס)

(17) You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. (18) Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.

1. This passage extends special protection to three kinds of people: the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. What do you think made these groups vulnerable to mistreatment in antiquity? To what degree are these groups vulnerable in today's society? In contemporary life, who occupies positions that are equivalent to Deuteronomy's stranger, fatherless, and widow? In what way?

2. Why do you think this passage links the commandment to protect the stranger, fatherless, and widow with a remembrance of slavery in Egypt? In your experience, how does the story of the Exodus shape Jewish values, actions, and decision-making?

(א) לא תטה משפט גר יתום. וְעַל הֶעָשִׁיר כְּבָר הֻזְהַר (דברים ט"ז) "לֹא תַטֶּה מִשְׁפָּט", וְשָׁנָה בֶעָנִי לַעֲבֹר עָלָיו בִּשְׁנֵי לָאוין, לְפִי שֶׁנָּקֵל לְהַטּוֹת מִשְׁפַּט עָנִי יוֹתֵר מִשֶּׁל עָשִׁיר, לְכָךְ הִזְהִיר וְשָׁנָה עָלָיו (ספרי):

(1) לא תטה משפט גר יתום You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless — and with regard to the well-to-do one has already been forbidden to do so (Deuteronomy 16:19): “Thou shalt not subvert judgment”, (which is a general prohibition including both poor and rich), but it (Scripture) repeats it regarding the poor in order to make one who subverts the judgment of the poor transgress two negative commands. Because it is easier to subvert the judgment of the defenseless poor than that of the rich, therefore Scripture lays down a prohibition regarding him a second time (Sifrei Devarim 281:1).

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) draws on an ancient rabbinic teaching to address why the biblical passage above is included in the Torah.

1. What is the implicit question that Rashi wants to address?

2. How does he answer it?

3. What does this commentary suggest about how one addresses structural inequity?

4. What are some particular decisions that are in your power to make that could help reverse the structural inequities that have been exposed and exacerbated by the current pandemic?

Racial Justice as a Jewish Value: The Lessons of Jewish History

As you study the sources below, consider the ways that Jewish values, experience, and history are being invoked.

  • To what degree do these sources draw on classical Jewish teachings?
  • What Jewish values are invoked, explicitly or implicitly?
  • How do these sources draw lessons from the historical experience of the Jewish people?
  • What surprises you about these sources?
  • In what ways can these sources be read as a record of changing Jewish attitudes about race, racism, and racial justice?

On Abolition

Ernestine Louise Rose (January 13, 1810 – August 4, 1892) was a first-generation Polish Jewish immigrant in New York who became a prominent suffragist and abolitionist. Rose was elected president of the National Women's Rights Convention in 1854. The following text is an excerpt from Rose's speech at a meeting of the New York Anti-Slavery Society in Flushing, Long Island in 1853.

“[…] even if slaveholders treated their slaves with the utmost kindness and charity; if I were told they kept them sitting on a sofa all day, and fed them with the best of the land, it is none the less slavery (applause); for what does slavery mean? To work hard, to fare ill, to suffer hardship, that is not slavery; for many of us white men and women have to work hard, have to fare ill, have to suffer hardship, and yet we are not slaves. Slavery is, not to belong to yourself-lo be robbed of yourself. There is nothing that I so much abhor as that single thing-to be robbed of ones self. We are our own legitimate masters. Nature has not created masters and slaves. ... I go for emancipation of all kinds-white and black, man and woman ... there should be no slaves of any kind among them. There are ties that bind man to man far stronger than the ties of nation-than the political and commercial ties - ay, even stronger than the ties of relationship; and these are the ties of humanity.”

Cited in Samuel Sillen, Women Against Slavery (Masses & Mainstream, 1955), 91-92.

On Segregation

Jacob Mortimer Rothschild (1911-1973) was rabbi at Atlanta’s oldest synagogue, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, also known as “the Temple.” Rabbi Rothschild openly criticized segregation and supported the civil rights work of Martin Luther King, Jr. His outspokenness was challenged violently when the Temple was bombed by white supremacists in 1958. The following quote is from a Yom Kippur Sermon by Rothschild delivered at "the Temple" in 1954.

"In declaring segregation in the public schools a violation of the Constitution; the court struck at the very roots of Southern custom and law. We live in the South, what shall be our course of action? Much as we might prefer, we cannot close our eyes to the problem. We would be less than honest -- and more than a little foolhardy if we refused to consider it. We must bring the noblest ideals of our faith to bear upon the grave shock to our accepted pattern of life. How shall we, as Jews living in the South, meet the issue of desegrated schools? [...] Deep-rooted prejudices are involved, generations of indoctrination must be erased from the mind and heart of man. For us, as Jews, a further complication makes itself felt, we, ourselves, are a tiny minority. We still have our own problems of security and acceptance. Shall we endanger our own safety by becoming involved in this larger struggle? This is a question yet to be answered. But face it we must."

--Rabbi Robert L. Lehman Collection, Leo Baeck Institute Archives.

Reuven Abergel (Hebrew: ראובן אברג'ל‎, Arabic: رَؤوبين أبيرجل‎; born in Rabat, Morocco on December 26, 1943) is an Israeli social and political activist and former leader of the Black Panthers, an Israeli protest movement of second-generation Jewish immigrants from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries. Abergel currently serves on the board of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition, a social justice among Mizrahi Jews in Israel. The following text is from the meeting between the Black Panthers and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on April 13, 1971.

"There are many obstacles for people like me: they don’t have the opportunity to rise [socio-economically]. We are not seeking welfare funds or charity. We are healthy and can work, so all we want is the opportunity to advance ourselves. We are not here to talk about my own employment. If it was just my problem, it would have been wonderful. But there’s the problem of the Sephardim or Mizrahim who form 65% of the country’s population. The situation of that group is poor, and many live under the poverty line, earning less than 400 liras a month. We are talking about families with 10 or more children. What they earn isn’t enough to live off. I wandered in the neighborhoods [where Sephardi Israelis live] and saw it with my own eyes."

Reuven Abergel to Golda Meir, April 13, 1971. Source: https://israeled.org/israeli-black-panthers/

On Genocide

Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016) was a Romanian-born American writer, professor, activist, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor. This quote is from Wiesel’s acceptance speech on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway on December 10, 1986.

"We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe. Of course, since I am a Jew profoundly rooted in my peoples’ memory and tradition, my first response is to Jewish fears, Jewish needs, Jewish crises. For I belong to a traumatized generation, one that experienced the abandonment and solitude of our people. (...) But there are others as important to me. Apartheid is, in my view, as abhorrent as anti-Semitism."

Source: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1986/wiesel/26054-elie-wiesel-acceptance-speech-1986/

Yehuda Bauer (Hebrew: יהודה באואר‎; born April 6, 1926) is an Israeli historian and scholar of the Holocaust. He is a professor of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The following passage is from a speech Bauer delivered to the Bundestag, the German federal parliament in Berlin on Holocaust Remembrance Day in 1998.

"In the book of which I have spoken before, are the Ten Commandments. Maybe we should add three additional ones: 'You, your children and your children's children shall never become perpetrators;' 'You, your children and your children's children shall never never allow yourselves to become victims;' and 'You, your children and your children's children shall never, but never, be passive onlookers to mass murder, genocide, or (let us hope it may never be repeated) to a Holocaust-like tragedy.'"

Yehuda Bauer, Address to the Bundestag, 1998. Available at https://mfa.gov.il/mfa/mfa-archive/1998/pages/address%20to%20the%20bundestag-%20by%20professor%20yehuda%20baue.aspx

On Jewish activism

Emma Goldman (1869 – 1940) was an anarchist political activist and writer. She played a pivotal role in the development of anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Goldman popularized the conception of the Jewish people held together not by a Jewish state but by a shared belief in social and racial justice, as explained in the quote below.

"In one respect the Jews are really a "chosen people." Not chosen by the grace of God, nor by their national peculiarities, which with every people, as well as with the Jews, merely prove national narrowness. They are "chosen" by a necessity, which has relieved them of many prejudices, a necessity which has prevented the development of many of those stupidities which have caused other nations great efforts to overcome. Repeated persecution has put the stamp of sorrow on the Jews; they have grown big in their endurance, in their comprehension of human suffering, and in their sympathy with the struggles and longings of the human soul. Driven from country to country, they avenged themselves by producing great thinkers, able theoreticians, heroic leaders of progress. All governments lament the fact that the Jewish people have contributed the bravest fighters to the armies for every liberating war of mankind. Owing to the lack of a country of their own, they developed, crystallized and idealized their cosmopolitan reasoning faculty. True, they have not their own empire, but many of them are working for the great moment when the earth will become the home for all, without distinction of ancestry or race. That is certainly a greater, nobler and sounder ideal to strive for than a petty nationality."

Emma Goldman, “National Atavism” in Mother Earth, Vol. 1., No. 1., 1906.

T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, often referred to as T'ruah, is a nonprofit organization of rabbis who act on the Jewish imperative to respect and protect the human rights of all people in North America, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories. Approximately 1,800 rabbis are affiliated with T'ruah. T'ruah encourages its supporters to "print this placard and bring it to your next protest, place it in your window, or tack it over your workspace to keep front and center the knowledge that Black lives have infinite value."

Black Lives Matter Placard by T'ruah, available at https://truah.org/resources/black-lives-matter-btzelem-elohim-placard/

On racial justice in the Jewish community

Rabbi Sandra Lawson is a 2018 Reconstructionist Rabbinical College graduate who is the inaugural Director of Racial Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism. In this quote, Lawson raises attention to the Black-Jewish experience and racial justice.

"When European Jews immigrated to this country, they were not seen as white. Today, many Jews benefit from white privilege and, at the same time, are often discriminated against and face anti-Semitism for being Jews. Jews can benefit from white privilege and face discrimination for being Jews. Both can be true at the same time. To my brothers, sisters, and gender non-conforming Jewish family who want to dry off and do better, we must listen to the experiences of black Jews and other Jews of color. We must acknowledge and accept that racism exists in our communities, and we must work hard to dismantle and eliminate racism wherever it appears so that we can truly live up to our Jewish values and remember that we were all present at Sinai."

Sandra Lawson, "I'm a black rabbi. I've never been in a Jewish space where I wasn't questioned," The Forward, January 17, 2021. Available at https://forward.com/opinion/448654/im-a-black-jew-i-have-never-been-in-a-jewish-space-where-my-jewish/

Aurora Levins Morales (born 1954) is a Puerto Rican Jewish writer and poet. She is a member of the Jews of Color Caucus, an autonomous group working in partnership with Jewish Voice for Peace. In her article, Levins Morales argues that declarations that everyone is welcome in a community are insufficient for Jews who do not identify as white, and she invokes the Jewish value of teshuvah.

"The fact that white Jews remain vulnerable to anti-Semitism doesn’t change the necessity of facing race. For there to be space in the heart of Jewish communal life for Jews of Color, Indigenous, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, white Ashkenazim need to place themselves all the way into a U.S. context and recognize that whatever their ancestors fled, here, they live within their whiteness (not conscious, not individual, not chosen, but deadly nonetheless), must recognize its unwitting impact on the rest of us, and consciously step away from the center they occupy to make room in that heart for us. This is the teshuvah of race. Not to forsake the richness of Ashkenazi culture (full as it is of the passion for justice), but to shift its dominant place and end its complicity with what kills the rest of my people."

Aurora Levins Morales, "Radical Inclusion," Evolve. Available at: http://evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org/radical-inclusion