Kol Nidre 5781 / 2020 – Strangers Among Us

A sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

No fewer than 36 times in the Hebrew Bible are we exhorted to pay attention to the treatment of the stranger because “you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9) We Jews have always prided ourselves on being on the cutting edge of civil justice reforms. It was a mark of pride that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was drafted at the conference table of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC. We actively point to pictures of Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel, Joachim Prinz, Israel (Sy) Dresner, Arthur Lelyveld, Maurice Eisendrath, Richard Hirsch, Balfour Brickner, Eugene Borowitz, lay-leader Albert Vorspan…. Marching with Rev. Martin Luther King, march towards the Pettus Bridge, being jailed while trying to integrate a lunch counter in the deep south. The list goes on and we proudly associate ourselves with these giants of courage and spirit.

Marc Dollinger, professor at San Francisco State University, in his book “Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s” begins by recalling his own experience of arriving at Berkeley in the 1960’s, joining the Jewish students’ group and then wanting to get the Jewish kids and the Black students to march together. Offering to start a dialogue group with the African Student Union and they laughed him out the door. The student from the African Student Union said, “I’m from Harlem” and while Dollinger knew where Harlem was, he came to realize that he did not have the experience of living there. Jews at that time felt they had an historical connection to the struggle of the Black community (one African-American colleague of Dollinger’s said, “If I ever go to a Seder and the Jews say that they know what it’s like because “they too were once slaves in Egypt”, he’s going to punch them. (N.B. – I am grateful to NPR for interview with Marc Dollinger, posted June 4, 2018)

We tried to compare the social marginalization Black people and Jews experienced, but by the time of the Civil Rights movement, Jews had already attained a higher station in American society. We, in the more liberal Jewish community, continue to state that ours is a faith of Tikkun Olam (repairing the World), based upon Prophetic Judaism, but the more traditional in practice and belief one is within the Jewish community, the farther one appears to adhere to these principles of social justice, and thus from advocating for Civil Rights. It is not too distant in our memory to recall the riot that occurred in Crown Heights Brooklyn in 1991 between the Chasidic community and the Black community after a Jewish driver hit and killed 7-year-old Gavin Cato. Those wounds have yet to really heal.

Even as Moses stood before the arrayed Israelites as they prepared to enter the Promised Land and he reviewed all the rules, regulations and all the trials and tribulations, as recounted in the Book of Deuteronomy, and he reminded the Israelites of their responsibilities to the stranger, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” But he was already speaking to a generation that had no knowledge of the enslavement under Pharaoh. During their wanderings over forty years, the enslaved generation died off. Moses was now preaching to the children and grandchildren of Israelite slaves. And frankly, how keenly aware are each of you of the life experiences of your grandparents – I am not talking about knowing facts. I am asking about the ability to truly know their pain, their visceral experiences. We don’t and we can’t.

And those were the underpinnings of my thoughts as I entered the world that Isabel Wilkerson describes in her remarkable and frightening book “Caste.” Let me say as clearly as possible, this book should be essential reading for anyone with a heart and a mind – put it on your required reading list for the New Year. (And when you buy it, try to buy it from a black owned business or one of the books stores here on Nantucket)

For years, many have acknowledged the pervasive racism that exists in America. Racism has been so much a part of our society that it invaded the very institutions, laws, mores and practices of the United States – this is what we call institutional racism. Wilkerson urges us to move away the notion of racism and explains that what we really have here is a Caste system – analogous in almost every way to the Caste system of India, and chas v’chalila (Heaven Forefend) Nazi Germany.

“These are the historic origins, the pillars upholding a belief system, the piers beneath the surface of a caste hierarchy. As these tenets took root in the firmament, it did not matter so much whether the assumptions were true, as most were not. It mattered little that they were misperceptions or distortions of convenience, as long as people accepted them and gained a sense of order and means of justification for the cruelties to which they had grown accustomed, inequalities that they took to be the laws of nature.” (pg 99 Wilkerson)

She then lifts up the essential elements of the caste system. The first is that the system is of the Divine Will. People turned to the Bible and read the story of Noah and used the curse of Ham, his son who uncovered Noah’s nakedness, as the basis for the low status of Black people and then turned to the Bible again for the justification for slavery. The next element is Heritability – one’s place in society is fixed at birth. Even the freed slaves retained their lowly status. Endogamy and the control of marriage and mating is also essential to the caste system. Until only recently, laws were on the books that prevented marriages, or even relationships, between Black people and White people. Another element rests upon the essential belief in the purity of the dominant caste and the fear of pollution from lower castes. Occupational hierarchy is necessary– summed up best by Sen. Henry James Hammond of South Carolina in 1858: “In all social systems, there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life… a class requiring but a low order on intellect and but little skill.” We are painfully aware of the next element — dehumanization and stigma – as the Nazis reduced our people to numbers. A quick review of the protests today reveals another essential part of this system: terror as enforcement, cruelty as a means of control. Finally, inherent superiority versus inherent inferiority – caste as destiny.

Even within our Jewish community there is a caste system in place. In Israel. and many other places around the world, Jews of Sephardic or Mizrachi lineage are treated as second-class citizens, and we should not forget that African political and economic refugees that fled to Israel are treated even worse. There is a growing population here of Black Jews, though trans-racial adoption, or conversion, or immigrants from African nations. Their plight within both the Black community and the Jewish community – seeking to feel authentic within both communities — is exceedingly fraught with pain and rejection.

At the beginning of this past week, a grand jury in Louisville found the three officers, who acting upon an illegitimate warrant broke into an apartment and shot a sleeping Breonna Taylor six times, not to be culpable of murder or manslaughter. We must ask ourselves if Black lives matter, at all, to many segments of white society.

On this night, when we asked to be released from vows we failed to fulfill, perhaps we should not let ourselves off so easily, so long as this institutionalized caste system remains in place. We should sit in our discomfort for a while, examining what we have done to contribute to the slow response to injustices abounding everywhere around us. As we consider vows we make in the future, let us consider that in Wilkerson’s words: “In a world without caste, instead of a false swagger over our own tribe or family … we would look at all humanity with wonderment…. In a world without caste, being male or female, light or dark, immigrant or native-born, would have no bearing on what anyone was perceived of being capable of…. A world without caste would set everyone free.”

Then maybe the words “Remember the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” will have the resonance and meaning the Torah intended.

We can hope for no less than freedom for all

Kayn Yehi Ratzon – May it be God’s will

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