This is a summary of the most recent episode of my podcast, Wrestling and Dreaming, which can be heard at wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com. : After the posting of this podcast, we heard the news of the terrible tragedy in Israel yesterday on Lag B’omer. May those who mourn be comforted and may those who were injured find healing and peace. May their families find comfort in in the prayers and expressions of sympathy from our people and people throughout the world. I will post further thoughts on this tragedy at a later time.
One of the most important principles of Jewish tradition is the inherent value of each human being. We are each created “in the image of God” and there are many Jewish texts which address the idea of the equality of each person.
The most classic expression of this idea is found in the section of Mishna Sanhedrin which discusses the warnings given to individuals who are about to testify in a capital case. Before the witnesses were allowed to give their testimony, the rabbis/judges challenged them with reminders that they could only speak about what they themselves had seen. Circumstantial evidence or assumptions were not to be considered.
Then, the judges would give several midrashic interpretations of a section in the Genesis creation story. Why is it, they would ask, that God created one human being in the beginning? Several answers were given.
First, they stressed that no one should ever be able to say: “My ancestor is greater than your ancestor”. Then, they would say this demonstrated God’s greatness and power in that we are all stamped with the same die, yet all look different. They would teach that each person should be able to say: “The world was created for my sake” which means each is an irreplaceable part of the universe. Finally, they would teach the famous expression: “One who saves a single life is considered as if one saved an entire world.”
It is a fundamental statement of Judaism that all human beings are equal.
If that is the case, can those who say: “I won’t say “Black Lives Matter” but rather will say: “All Lives Matter” ground that opinion in Jewish tradition?
Yes they can. But the answer is not sufficient.
I believe it is essential that we say these words: “Black Lives Matter” even given the principle of equality in Judaism.
Let me illustrate with a story.
Many years ago, a Christian minister made the national news when he said: “God Almighty does not hear the prayers of a Jew.”
Needless to say, this was a shocking, divisive, insulting statement.
Very soon after I read that story, I approached a Evangelical Christian minister at an interfaith meeting and asked him: “Do you think God hears the prayers of a Jew?”
His response was: “God hears all prayers.”
I was satisfied with that response, but only for a few minutes. When I thought about it, I realized that his answer was, in its own way, insulting. Even if, as I believe to be true, he intended to be inclusive and to say that God does hear the prayers of a Jew, he did not honor my question or the reason I asked it. I wanted to hear him say the words that would touch my heart. How much different it would have been if he had used my words and acknowledged them and honored them: “Yes, God hears the prayers of a Jew.”
There is no question that there is systemic racism in this nation- in housing, education, finance and in so many areas. We know there are serious questions about racial bias and discrimination in law enforcement, policing and the legal system. These problems will not be solved by words. Action is needed.
But words do inspire us to action and the words we say matter.
As I see it, Americans are being challenged, and appropriately so, by the black community to state clearly that Black Lives Matter. And even if we intend to be completely inclusive by saying; “All lives matter”, we are not answering the question that is being asked. We are not responding to the challenge with the respect and the dignified answer that is deserved.
So, even though our tradition would say that “all lives matter”, in this place and at this time, with the 400 year history of bigotry and persecution, with the horrendous history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation and all of the pain that people of color have suffered in this nation and do suffer to this day, it is not enough to fall back on the universal. We must be specific and respond to the black community with the words they are appropriately asking us to say, to believe and to act on: “Yes, Black Lives Matter”.
May we work towards the day when in fact everyone in this nation will take equality so much for granted that no one of any community will need to hear their own community singled out but will be able to take comfort in the universal foundational principle of our faith: each of us is equal and of infinite worth.