This past summer, I got a call from Judy Heumann. If you don't know Judy, you should. Judy is an Adas member, and an internationally renowned disabilities rights activist who has changed the face of disabilities rights in this country and beyond through her work with the World Bank, the State Department, and other organizations. Judy heard some of my teachings on Judaism’s call to lift up the cause of the disabled. She heard me teach about the central Jewish value of empathy and compassion as essential ingredients of justice for all those who have been marginalized in our community. When she called, I expected it to be a call with her thanking me for raising awareness of these issues. But her call wasn’t what I expected. She was appreciative of my efforts, of course. But she had a request of me: she wanted me to sit in a room full of people with disabilities, and just listen to them and their stories. Sure, I said. But I didn’t really grasp why this meeting was important. After all, I understood, from my own life experience, what it means to feel on the outside in a community--invisible and ignored, condescended to and shunned by ignorant people. But sure. I’m happy to meet with people and hear their stories. I figured it would be an interesting opportunity to get to know some people whose lives I can really empathize with, and connect with them on a deeper level.
A few weeks later, I sat around a big table with about 12 people with various disabilities. I thought I would open the meeting with a text fitting for the occasion, and then hear their thoughts about the text. Here’s the text. It’s from the Talmud:
" R. Yosi said: All the days of my life I was troubled by this verse: “And you will grope at midday as the blind gropes in the darkness.” (Deuteronomy 28:29) What difference does it make to a blind man whether it is dark or light? Until the following incident happened to me: I was once walking on a pitch black night, and I saw a blind person walking on the road, and he had a torch in his hand. And I said to him, My son, why are you carrying this torch? He said to me, As long as this torch is in my hand, people see me and save me from the holes and the thorns and briars."(Megillah 24b)
I love this text! What a beautiful message about that blind man, whose nobility of spirit is undaunted by his disability. Rather than “grope in the darkness” he takes responsibility for his destiny. He holds a torch high in the air, proudly calling attention to the wider world to be there for him, with him, supporting him. It’s Judaism at its best, responding to a biblical text that belittles the blind, with a story about how the blind can teach us all about the real meaning of human dignity! I gave the group this text to discuss in Havruta for a few minutes. When we came together again, I listened to their comments…
They hated it! Across the board, they excoriated and eviscerated every aspect of this text! The text absolutely infuriated and alienated them. I was flabbergasted! How could they hate it?! They told me that the text was an all-too-typical condescending text toward a person with a disability. I heard comments that just floored me: “Why did the blind man need that torch? He should have just allowed himself to trip and fall so that he would learn for himself how best to navigate that road!” Wow!
One remarkable participant at this meeting was a woman named Ruti Regan, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Ruti is autistic, and writes and teaches extensively on issues of Judaism and disabilities. She said something I will never forget. She compared and contrasted disabilities inclusion in synagogues to LGBT inclusion in synagogues. She said that with respect to LGBT inclusion, many synagogues nowadays are falling in line and embracing the LGBT community. They are quick to “make T’shuvah”--to admit their wrongs and to make amends--for the ways in which they have marginalized that community. But when it comes to disabilities inclusion, there is no such spirit of T’shuvah. She said the operative approach in most shuls to people with disabilities these days is simply “be nice to them,” “be considerate of them,” “don’t forget to include them.” She said that, when considering the marginalization of the disabled, where is the communal acknowledgement of “Chatanu!”--we have sinned!
“Wow,” I said to the group when it was over. “I really hardly know what to say. I am overwhelmed with what I didn’t understand. I am overwhelmed by my belief that I thought I understood. I have been blind to….” and suddenly my words were interrupted by jeers from around the table. I just used the word “blind” to characterize my own moral deficiency. And as soon as they pointed it out, I smiled and changed my wording. But you know what? Inside, my reaction was “Aw, common! It’s just a figure of speech! Give me a break!” But then, in the next moment, inwardly, I fully realized how much my privilege as a person who is not disabled had closed me off. I had thought that my compassion was enough to link me with this community. But in truth, I knew nothing. Worse, I knew nothing--and I thought I had nothing to learn. I was so wrong….
Today, I want to talk about not just disabilities, but how the privilege that so many of us enjoy represents one of the greatest dangers of our time. I will talk about the insidious nature of our privilege: it seems so very normal to most of us here in this room. So normal that it prevents us from seeing how our society is oppressing so many people who are deemed “other” in some way. As we talk about privilege this morning, I want to acknowledge that most of us are very familiar with the debates at college campuses and across the country about “political correctness” and its relationship to privilege. Some of us may have experienced others literally shutting down honest debates and discourse, invoking the word ‘privilege’ as a way of silencing dissent. And I appreciate the frustration that some of us feel on this. But in this time of a fraught presidential election, in our social climate of racial tensions--we must revisit these concepts of privilege and inclusion with new eyes. As Jews, we have an ethical call to see what we have not seen, because our future depends on it.
I want to share with you a riddle. It’s an old riddle, and most of us have heard it before. But maybe some of us haven’t! So when I present the riddle, if you know it, please resist the urge to shout out the answer! Here goes: A father and son are in a terrible car accident. The father is killed, and the son is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. When the surgeon enters the room and sees the boy, the surgeon says “I cannot operate--that boy is my son!” How could this be? (Don’t call out the answer!) Take a second. Okay. What’s the answer? The surgeon is the boy’s mother! Now, if you didn’t get that answer, don’t feel bad: you’re in the majority of people! A recent study at Boston University found that the majority of people, including many who identify as feminists, get this wrong. And included in that majority were women whose own mothers were doctors! It’s all part of a field that studies what is known as “implicit bias” (and our own Adas member, Hanna Rosin, is co-host of a terrific NPR show called Invisibilia, which explored this very issue). The idea of implicit bias is that we are all shaped unconsciously by social forces that determine how we categorize, label, and judge others. I must admit at this juncture something that occurred to me: why wasn’t it okay to think that the surgeon was the boy’s other father?! I find it infinitely fascinating that a riddle meant to expose implicit bias is, itself, implicitly biased in a heterosexist way! Nevertheless, the point of the study is still the same: we are biased automatically, without realizing a thing until it is pointed out to us.
The Rosh HaShanah Torah reading tells the story of Hagar and her little boy, Yishmael, who were cast out of the house of Abraham with not enough provisions to survive their wandering in the desert. Her little boy is about to die of thirst, and Hagar can’t bear to watch him die. She puts the crying child down and goes off to weep in utter despair. And then God does something remarkable: “Vayifkach et Eyneiha,” God “opened her eyes” and she looked, and right there was a life-saving well of water. And she simply didn’t see that a well was there because she had given into her belief that there was no more hope for the boy. It’s an incredibly powerful story about not seeing what we don’t expect to see. It’s a story about the power of faith to help us never to give up hope.
The ancient rabbis of the midrash, as they so often do, take this powerful story one step further. According to the Torah, God heeded the cry of the boy “ba’asher hu sham” where he was--there, lying in the desert, about to die. At that moment, the midrash adds a conversation between the ministering angels and God. ‘Just let the boy die!’ the angels argued, let him die because of the crimes his descendants will one day commit. God answers them back: “Right now, is the boy righteous or wicked?” The angels answered: “Righteous.” Hasn’t done anything wrong. God said to them “ I judge a person only ‘ba’asher hu sham’ where he is there, at that moment…” then, God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw a well. Rabbi Binyamin said, “All are presumed ignorant until the Holy One, Praised be He, opens their eyes.” (Breshit Rabbah 53:14)
It’s a beautiful midrash about the power of God’s compassion. But scratch beneath the surface of this midrash, and its message is one of the most important messages for our time. First, there is the beautiful message of ba’asher hu sham, of judging people only for who they are in front of you. If we project all our biases, expectations and fears onto a stranger, then we are committing the sin of not responding to the innocent human being before us who needs nothing more than to live, to thrive, to be healthy and free. Second, it wasn’t just Hagar, but the ministering angels who wouldn’t see what was right before them in that moment. Just as God opened Hagar's eyes to see a life-giving well to save the boy; God also opened the ministering Angels eyes--and thereby all of our eyes--to see past fear and ignorance. Those Angels are all of us: they were so full of their certainty about what that boy represents, that they couldn’t see the innocence, and all the potential for goodness /that was present in simply cherishing and preserving a human life.
Those Angels are perfect teachers to us about the dangers that can result from all forms of ignorance--including the ignorance borne of privilege. In our society today, the more closely you resemble a white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied male, the more benefits you enjoy. The less you are forced to face the injustices faced by those who look less like white males. But here’s the thing: those white males who established the social norms in our society centuries ago--they were motivated by ignorance and fear! Today, those of us with more privilege, even if we are wonderful, kind, compassionate people,even if we are hurt at the very suggestion that we are part of the problem--like it or not, we inherently forward a system that was founded by fear and ignorance. The terrifying truth is that all the benefits that we advantaged people have come to count on--our sense of opportunity, our expectation of abundance, our faith in the justice system--the whole system has clay feet, fashioned entirely on fear and ignorance.
We are never going to break the scourge of and bigotry until we can acknowledge that, even if we think we can empathize with a different group from our own experience--in truth, we just don’t know anything about what it’s like for those who don’t enjoy the blessings that we ourselves may have. So long as we think we are “getting it” because we are good people, then we still aren’t getting it. If you think you understand what others are going through because you are smart and thoughtful and kind--then you need to have your eyes opened, because you don’t understand. We are never going to get anywhere as a human race until those of us with privilege can stop ourselves in our tracks and say ‘Chatanu’! We have sinned the sin of shutting our eyes in fear and in ignorance. We have sinned the sin of inheriting the fearful and ignorant ways of our ancestors without questioning them. We have sinned the sin of looking at our human brothers and sisters through the narrative of our own ignorance rather than seeing them ba’asher hem sham--as they are, no matter what they look like or live like.
Today is Rosh HaShanah. We have between now and Yom Kippur to make amends bein Adam leChavero-- with our fellow human beings before we can attain forgiveness from God. We must all be like Hagar and open our eyes, because the well of healing waters is also right here, right within ourselves! We find the wellspring first by noticing who we are, how we react and speak in the presence of someone who is “other” to us: if they correct us, or if they assert their views or wishes, if they stand up for their rights and want their voices heard--what emotional reaction happens deep inside us when we witness this? Pay careful attention! Is there a knee-jerk reaction of dismissing them? Do you react by saying to yourself ‘Aw, come on!’ or ‘Oh please!’? Do you have an uncomfortable feeling of annoyance, or inconvenience? Do they perhaps make you feel icky or unclean? Or unsafe? Or awkward? If ever you feel any of those feelings around someone different, those other people are not the problem. The problem is within YOU! It’s in your own unquestioned biases and preconceptions. The very moment you meet those negative judgments and biases and reactions in yourself--you have just met the place where you are privileged: you have just met the place where your character has been shaped by the implicit bias born of societal ignorance and fear.
I genuinely believed I understood what it is like to be otherfied in the disabilities community. I thought I understood because there are ways in which I am not privileged. And then Judy Heumann brilliantly put me in a room with a whole bunch of people who taught me that I know nothing! Only when I was truly in the presence of people whom I was unconsciously making into ‘others’, only until I listened to their experiences, their stories, their struggles to be understood, to be given the rights that anyone else enjoys in this society--only then can I truly be there to support their efforts in whatever way I can.
Those of us who live in American privilege watch on television as black men are routinely murdered or incarcerated because of racist biases against them. We may be perturbed and upset and ‘compassionate’ to their pain. But this society will move nowhere until we acknowledge to ourselves what Ruti said that we must do: Chatanu! We have all sinned. We have seen, but have not seen. Those of us who live as whites have no idea what it means to be black in this country. No idea! And we won’t have an idea until we are actually sitting down and talking to black people, and listening to them, and doing what we can based on what they say they need from us.
Those of us who are men must also say ‘chatanu’, we have sinned in the face of all the women who have been disempowered by us for centuries. We must say ‘chatanu’ because how many of us have inherited and not questioned all the biases of our forefathers and our society? And all of us together-- we must say Chatanu!, we have all sinned and be willing to listen, just listen to the stories of women, of black and brown people, of gay, bi and trans people, of people with disabilities, of Muslim Americans and immigrants--no matter how angry or uncomfortable their stories make us, until we realize that we are part of the problem, and that we must be part of the solution.
This election cycle is unprecedented because it is not just about politics. This election cycle is a moral struggle for the very soul and character of this nation. In this election year, the underbelly of white male privilege is exposed for the ignorance and fear that it really is, that it always was. We must do everything in our power to ensure that our children will inherit a country that is not about fear, hatred, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and racism. Rather, we must do everything in our power to open our eyes, and the eyes of this nation to see one another ba’asher anachnu sham--as we are: as vulnerable, afraid, but infinitely loving beings with the potential to create a sacred society of justice and love.
I am so proud of our congregation, as we are working to live this practice. In our social justice work, we are partnering with the Washington Interfaith Network, joining with other faiths and peoples of many colors, working together to fight homelessness. We will reach out to other faith communities in interfaith dialogue, including the Muslim community. We are beginning a major new initiative to adopt a Syrian refugee family as a synagogue. We will deepen our commitment to becoming an inclusive congregation to those in the disabilities community. And this time, we will do it with a genuine commitment to make amends for the failures of previous generations to be inclusive. We will continue our loving integration of the LGBT community, the interfaith community, the community of Jews of color. And, may we all do our part this year in ensuring that everyone in our society--especially those who have been disenfranchised--can participate in our democracy so that everyone has a voice.
I want to conclude by coming back to that story in the Talmud about the blind man carrying the torch so that others would save him. After listening to that brilliant collection of people with their critiques, and their showing me how wrong my interpretation was, I have come to understand that text differently. That blind man who carries the torch, I have come to learn, is just fine, thank you very much. He doesn’t need that torch. And he has already learned how to pick himself up if he falls in a pothole. No, he carries that torch not to save himself, but to save the rest of us. That torch represents the light of Torah, of justice, of love. He carries that torch so that the rest of us can walk with him, be with him, and just listen to him. And by truly being with him and listening to him, that’s the only way we can build a society that is truly just for all of us. May we, the Jewish people, learn to walk together with all human beings. And together may we all hold that torch high, and shine the light of that torch of justice on all the ignorance and fear in our own souls and in our society. And together, may we all walk as a nation, as all humanity, to the promised land.