It seems that even during a pandemic, when many of us are still stuck at home, unsure of what the next day brings, I am still seeing injustice all around me. In the past few months, we have heard about the gruesome murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. Sadly, their deaths are just the tip of the iceberg. I recently learned of a young black woman here in Vero Beach, Alteria Woods, who was also shot by police three years ago. She was studying to be a pharmacist technician. Our country is plagued by generations of racism, and the issues run deeper than I can possibly imagine. I do not have the answers as to what to do. As a light-skinned Ashkenazi Jew, I have never been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, and I look toward those who have the lived experience for guidance in this situation.
What I do know is that our sacred Jewish texts can act as guideposts for us as we work to dismantle racism. Midrash Sifra Kedoshim 4:12 states, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself’: R. Akiva says: This is an all-embracing principle in the Torah. Ben Azzai says: (Bereshit 5:1) ‘This is the numeration of the generations of Adam’ — This is an even greater principle.” According to Rabbi Akiva, the guiding principle of Torah is that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. However, according to Ben Azzai, this principle is not inclusive enough. Often, our neighbors look like us. I grew up in a neighborhood filled with mostly other Ashkenazi Jews. I currently live in a neighborhood where many have the same skin color as I have. Ben Azzai points out that no matter our heritage or where we live or what color our skin is, we are all descended from Adam and Eve, and we should treat each other as such. This text encourages us to expand our horizons beyond our inner circles and treat every other human as we would want to be treated.
Judaism also has several texts that compel us to speak out against injustice. The simplest of these texts comes from the Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 11a: “At a time when the community is suffering, no one should say, ‘I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.” This text is straightforward. When we witness suffering, rather than enjoying our own lives, we should speak out against that suffering. Midrash Tanhuma Mishpatim 2 has a similar message but goes even further: “A person of learning participates in public affairs, and thereby causes the earth to endure . . . but if a person secludes themselves in the corner of their home, declaring, “What concern are the problems of the community to me? What does their judgement mean to me? Why should I listen to them? Let my soul dwell in peace! They help to destroy the world.” When we engage in community affairs, when we speak out against injustice, we are literally saving the world. When we ignore injustice, when we ignore pain and suffering, the world cannot endure. The final texts comes from the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b-55a and takes this idea a step further: “Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of one’s household and does not, is punished for the actions of the members of the household; anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of one’s townspeople and does not, is punished for the transgressions of the townspeople; anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.” If we see injustice and do not speak out against it, it is as if we ourselves have sinned.
I do not have concrete answers as to how to solve systemic racism and injustice, and I will leave it to those with lived experience to do. In fact, many with lived experiences of racism do have concrete answers, and I will turn to them for their expertise. However, as a Jew, it is my duty to treat all people, regardless of background or skin color, as if they are created in the image of G-d, and it is my duty to speak out against injustice when I see it.
Cantor Sara Kheel