This summer, I had a conversation with a young woman about her Jewish identity. She told me how she grew up in a family that was very involved in her synagogue. She went to Jewish day school. She had been to Israel multiple times. Despite all this, she felt very far away from her Jewishness. Now out on her own, she didn't observe Shabbat. She simply couldn't find the relevance of Judaism as she was making her way out on her own in the world. I asked her to tell me what she did feel passionate about. She told me how she has been reading and thinking a lot about racial justice in our society. What moved her was the Blacklivesmatter movement--how, in light of Ferguson, Charleston, and seemingly endless incidents of injustice against black people in our society, she felt a pressing need to grapple with the racism that is so pervasive in this country and how it affects her identity. I asked her to explain to me more about her passion for this issue. She explained: "As a white woman, as the product of so much white privilege, it makes me all the more angry to see how other white people so blindly and carelessly feed into the racial climate of our society." "So the fact that you are white makes this issue all the more painful, all the more personal for you," I asked. "Yes," she said.
In that moment, I certainly identified with her angst over this issue. Indeed, I find the reality of American racism, the legacy of slavery, the institutional discrimination that is so pervasive, the scourge of mass incarceration of black Americans--with its collateral damage on families; the on-going blight of housing segregation in America, and the role of law-enforcement in furthering racist systems and hierarchies--this and so much more, I, too, find unbearable. And so, I took a deep breath and asked, "Are you so sure you're white?" "Of course I'm white," she said. "I'm clearly not black, and I have had full access to all the privileges and benefits of white society."
I pointed out that she doesn't look stereotypically white: she has dark eyes and hair, and an olive complexion. She agreed that people will sometimes speak Spanish to her, assuming she was a Latina, while others have asked if she was from a Middle Eastern background, even though her family is Ashkenazi Jewish, from Eastern Europe. "But in this society," she hastened to add, "I still qualify as white." "Of course," I agreed. "But if you are regularly mistaken for a more "brown" person," I continued, "perhaps there are some, more stereotypically white, people who don't consider you as white as you may feel that you are." She paused to consider this idea. "I suppose that's possible," she said. "Well," I continued, " in not being quite as white as you may have thought, you have found the beginning of your genuine Jewish identity."
Today, I would like to explain more of what I meant with this young woman. You see nowadays, this woman is not alone. In our very flawed and racist society, our Jewish people are prospering, reaching the top echelons of privilege and power. With racism and injustice so pervasive and entrenched year after year, generation after generation, we Jewish people must now ask ourselves: what role do we play in that injustice now that most of us live as white people in America? This young woman is so right in questioning why her "whiteness" leads her to participate in the oppression of others. And the fact that it never occurred to her how Jewish her thirst for racial justice is--this means that we must, all of us, consider the role of race in our 21st century Jewish identities. Today, I will show why we all must cease to consider ourselves to be part of the social construct of being white--despite all the white privilege that America affords us--and how we must teach our children that we are, in fact, not white.
In the book of Genesis, there is a very famous story about a great tower that the early generations of human beings built after the time of Noah and the flood. The story goes that all human beings spoke one language, and in an act of extraordinary unity, they built this tower so they could reach heaven. God saw their endeavor, and realized that with only one language and one purpose, they would think that nothing, not even God and heaven, is beyond their reach. So God thwarted their plan. God confounded their speech so that one person couldn't understand the other. With their unity obliterated, they scattered to all ends of the earth, creating many peoples and many languages. And, because their speech sounded like babelling one to the other, the tower came to be known as the Tower of Babel.
It's a strange story, particularly to our American ears. After all, our American motto is E Pluribus Unum--out of many we are one! The great blessing and promise of America to our ancestors when we came here was that it was a land of opportunity, where we are all recognized as equal, where nothing, not even the heavens, is beyond our reach! We all know that the story of the Jewish people in America is a stunning success story. Our success here is built on the efforts of the first generations of American Jews who struggled mightily to assimilate into mainstream America--to slough off the ways of the old country, to out-American the Americans. In many ways, in 2015, it's difficult for us to appreciate how remarkable this success is.
A century and a half ago, racism in America was in some ways more complex than it is today. There weren't just white people, brown people, yellow people, and black people. In those days, the white people were considered to be mostly descendants of the British and northern Europeans. Irish people were not considered to be white. Neither were Italians. And of course, neither were the Jews. Well into the 20th century, we Jews were barred from the whitest country clubs. We couldn't buy houses in the whitest neighborhoods. Some of us here today have been called anti semitic names, have had pennies thrown at us, or have been beaten up because we are Jewish. What some of us may not realize is that the particularly American brand of anti semitism has deep roots and connections to American racism.
That young woman, and all her young adult Jewish peers today can hardly fathom being singled out, being treated as "other", because of their Jewishness. And the main reason why anti Semitism is no longer mainstream in our society is because sometime in the last half century, we have finally convinced America that we, too, are white.
All those years of singular focus on making it in America have paid off! Our achievements in business, in medicine, in the arts, in government, in all circles of American life have resulted in something rarely known to our wandering ancestors--we are one with the power elites of our society. Look at this very synagogue--Adas Israel Congregation. I once read some papers written by the early founders of our synagogue over a century ago. They dreamed of one day building what they referred to as a "great Cathedral synagogue" standing tall and proud in our nation's capital, as powerful as the great American monuments of this city. In 1950 that great dream came true with the construction of this grand and impressive edifice. We came here to practice a Judaism that projected our American dream--complete with decorous services and royal purple-clad clergy who emulated the pomp and circumstance of the Episcopal church.
By the end of the 20th century, Jewish names were all over the New York Times wedding section along with the rest of lilly-white society weddings. The country clubs, the exclusive neighborhoods are now as Jewish as they are waspy. Indeed, we Jewish people have been building a great, shining American tower, and we have just about reached the highest heavens.
The ancient Midrash is a collection of rabbinic legends and stories. The Midrash often fills out and expands upon stories in the Torah, giving us greater insight into their meaning. One Midrash, in Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezar (24:7) expands upon and clarifies the story of the Tower of Babel. Why indeed did God thwart the seemingly noble plan of the people to unite with one purpose and build a tower heavenward? The rabbis explain that the tower eventually reached such a breathtaking height that it too a whole year to climb to its top. Each brick was baked on the ground and had to be transported up. The higher the tower went, the more precious each brick was. Finally, the Midrash says the following: "If a person fell and died they paid no attention, but if a brick fell they sat and wept, saying, 'Woe upon us! Where will we get another to replace it?'"
It's an incredible Midrash. In a few short sentences, it conveys one of the greatest dangers of our human condition: for all our well-intended yearnings to unite, to work together to achieve collective dreams--we risk creating societies that forget our essential humanity. We risk creating societies that place ideals above human life. We risk creating totalitarian societies, fascist societies, racist societies, societies that are intolerant of difference, societies that create the conditions for discrimination, for oppression, for racial or ethnic cleansing, for genocide itself.
In our century, we are waking up to the fact that our great tower, our astounding success in America, is a pyrrhic victory. Our own children and grandchildren, raised as white American children of privilege, have completely forgotten who built the tower before them, or why their well-meaning ancestors so passionately endeavored to build it. Many no longer value their essential Jewishness in their worldviews or life plans. For most, the tower of success built by American Jews is indistinguishable from the general American tower of white privileged success. That young woman was right in noticing that most white Americans, Jewish or WASP or otherwise, can't abstract from their experience to fully notice how people of color, and all others who don't fit the white privileged mold, are falling off that tower. They can't even identify how the social construct that is racism enfuses all aspects of their lives, their choices, and their expectations of themselves and others, despite their good intentions.
At this point, you might think that I'm not being entirely fair. Yes, most of us and our children are a part of white America now. But we know plenty of young Jewish Americans who are very proudly Jewish. Many are devoted to Israel, devoted to good causes, and fight racism and other injustices. But if we are going to take our Americanness seriously, we must take a better look at, and better own all the ways that we have, and continue, to benefit from the worst elements of American racist culture. Whether we are comfortable with it or not, we American Jews are powerful! We ARE the power elite of this country. Some of the most powerful people in the world are seated here today!
I speak about racism and Jewish identity today NOT because we are not good people. I speak of this today because in owning race as central in American Jewish identity, we not only more effectively work with our success in this country, but we can return truly to the essence of what being Jewish in the world really means.
Our people have been known by many names over the centuries. Once, we were called Hebrews. In Hebrew, the word is "Ivri," which translates "the other" or "from somewhere else." We were also called Bnai Yisrael, the Children of Israel. Israel, Yisra'el, literally means "struggling with God." In other words, we are to be the ones who struggle with ultimate issues of life, of values, of justice. Through the centuries, our moments of power in the world have been all too fleeting. Mostly, our greatest hope has been to be tolerated by the elites and powers that be. From our place of not living at the center of power, but at the periphery, we have responded always with the ability to critique injustice, to adopt the cause of the oppressed, and to envision a better and more just world. Even in times of acceptance by the non-Jewish authorities, at times when we participated fully in their societies, we always knew that we stand with one foot in the mainstream, and one foot outside that mainstream.
America is unique in Jewish history because the social construct of power and oppression in this society came to be based more on skin color than on religion or ethnic identity. Because of that, along with the best of American values and our own hard work, we now find ourselves among the authorities, among the power elite. Despite our only good intentions, we are--all of us--full participants and beneficiaries of the American evil known as racism.
For all these reasons, I call upon us all this year to reject our own self-labelling as white. I call upon all of us, the Jewish people--those of us who have skin that passes for white--to begin teaching our children that we are, nevertheless not white people. We are, and have always been--simply--Jewish people. Being Jewish is not about identifying as a race, or with any system that oppresses. The brilliance of being Jewish in all of human history is that we stubbornly refuse to fit into any social construct of power or oppression. We are simply Ivri'im, people from "somewhere else," people who struggle with God and justice, and who demand that the rest of the world does too, and see every human life as sacred because we are all in the image of God. And the truth is, we have never belonged to one race alone. The Torah tells us that we left Egypt with the Erev Rav, with a mixed multitude of peoples. Around the world there are Jews of color, Asian Jews, Jews of all kinds. The idea that Jews are white is not only ridiculous, it’s offensive to who we really are! Yes, societies like America come along sometimes and give us privileges and even give the majority of us power labels like "white." In the American racist social construct, Jews are very much white people, but we must never again think of ourselves that way! It's time for us to opt out of the racist paradigm because we are Jews.
Imagine with me what we and our children could be like if we associate our Jewishness with an essential statement against all racism and discrimination in our society. Even as our children benefit from the best schools and jobs and housing that whiteness affords, we can be the ones to challenge the American racist system from within. We can be the ones who can change the business practices, the housing codes, the policing practices, the correctional facilities, the policies,the schools--motivated entirely by our values and our Jewish historical experience. Indeed, so many progressive leaders in this country have been Jews, including Jewish founders of the NAACP, motivated exactly by this vision. But so many more of us need to own our real power, which is not our whiteness, but our Jewishness. Our real power is our Torah and our tradition that motivates us to remember the stranger for we were strangers in Egypt; that calls on us to lift up the cause of the stranger, the orphan, the widow, of all those who are oppressed. The greatest advancement of 21st century American society may be how the Jewish people consciously and unconsciously complete the sentence, "I am..." If we learn always to replace the word "white" with Jewish, a great future awaits us and all peoples in this country and around the world.
I reassured that young woman not to feel bad that her years of Jewish education left her feeling uninspired. I told her that, in fact, she had a profoundly Jewish soul in her ability to question the white society that shaped her. I reminded her of Hillel's famous teaching: What is hateful to you, do not do to others. All the rest is commentary. If she lives her life creating a world where Hillel's wisdom guides the way, then all the rest of Judaism will open to her on her path, and she, and all her peers can go live proudly as Jews, as a light to the nations. May we all be that light in this world that so badly needs us. Amen.