The Jewish community should be engaged and enraged over what’s happening in Ferguson, Mo., and the long-standing racial discrimination in America that Ferguson has thrust into the spotlight. But the current news cycle will inevitably end, and we will either be an allied force for systemic change or we will fall back into our normative patterns of silent acquiescence.
While Jews must not be painted with a single-colored brush — our own racial diversity strengthens us — on the whole, many of us enjoy the privileges of a society that favors white skin, overtly and inadvertently. It is an undeniable reality that race permeates all aspects of American life, especially the justice system and its collateral consequences.
Nationally, we Jews live two realities at the same time: minority and majority. As a minority, we are vulnerable to religious bigotry and hate crimes, especially now as anti-Semitism is resurgent throughout the world. We know the experience of persecution. Simultaneously, many of us belong to the majority in a society where race plays a disproportionate role in educational and economic opportunity. We often greatly benefit from what is essentially an accident of birth.
Our challenge is to openly acknowledge the complexities and discomfort of this dual reality.
When confronted with struggle or difficulty, we turn to our tradition, and more specifically to the foundational narrative of our people, the Exodus.
Our story is intimately familiar to us: We were brutally persecuted, enslaved, then redeemed. It’s part of our religious DNA, the emotional and psychological reverberations eternally implanted in our souls. And it rightly animates many of the core values informing our fight for justice throughout the world.
But right now our history of enslavement may not be the primary biblical impetus for American Jews to actively engage in the fight against discrimination. There’s another aspect of the Exodus story we’re less eager or likely to confront. Our story contains an evil Pharaoh, and he’s more than just the brutal oppressor. He is a paradigm for a darkness within all humanity.
Time after time, Pharaoh is presented with the opportunity to release his slaves, to hearken to the anguish of his own heart after each plague sent by God. And in each instance, precisely when the pain is most palpable, Pharaoh briefly shifts in his decision-making. He considers letting the Israelites go free. But as the open wounds close, so does his willingness to side with dignity and freedom. So does his chance to live in and with the vulnerability of not knowing what will come after the current normal ends.
So Pharaoh is not only the perpetrator of injustice, but is also, paradoxically, the potential that can enable redemption.
This defining pharaonic trait allows our heart’s defensive walls to become too high, too thick.
As rays of light get in, they are swiftly swallowed up in the darkness of apathy, control and neglect. Although God may have planned and set the wheels in motion for the narrative to play out as it did, Pharaoh’s behavior contributed to and exacerbated the damage as well. His blindness to the emotions within his heart also allowed for a heinous status quo to persist, all under a delusional misconception of law and order. We are all susceptible to the weaknesses of Pharaoh, to allowing our protective layers to obstruct our ability to connect even with our own hearts.
It is for this reason that God, despite creating us with the capacity for a stiff, hard heart, commands us to de-layer it: “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16).
It is for this reason that God promises: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).
Objectively, our hearts are born no different from the heart of Pharaoh’s and the silent Egyptians who allowed for the culture of slavery to exist. They are at once tender and primed for compassion, and ready for walls that permit cruelty. We all experience both. We try to commit to the former because we know to bend toward the elevation of life and dignity. But it takes hard work to live up to that sacred goal.
The Torah includes the inner workings of Pharaoh’s heart so that we will take them seriously. Let us use this textual mirror to identify the walls we’ve permitted to accumulate around our hearts. And then it is time to tear them down. Because all too often, when the in-your-face images fade away, we quickly fall back into our normal patterns, and the cracks in our hearts are plugged with apathy.
If 20 children murdered at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., wasn’t enough to move our Congress to make sweeping changes in favor of public safety for all of our children — to open an actual national dialogue about our gun violence epidemic — then we shouldn’t be surprised when Ferguson drifts away without the establishment addressing the root causes of systemic racism. We can’t let this fade away again in hopes that it will eventually work itself out.
As our brothers and sisters cry out for justice, we must be more open than ever to their pain, which is ours, too. When our heart aches, as it should, from yet another story of a young black or brown man or woman killed or wrongfully incarcerated, we can assess the magnitude and complexity of the issue at hand, turn off the news and hope someone fixes these problems soon, or we can remain awake, enter the pain empathically, and be a source for healing that goes beyond the surface.
Start now. Read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and discuss it with two or three friends. If moved, connect with others who are trying to understand what to contribute to this centuries-long struggle and how to create systems, encourage behaviors and develop communities that treat all of God’s children with the dignity, benefit of the doubt and compassion they deserve, and which we all hope to receive from others.
The Jewish community is uniquely positioned to be a critical force in this country for moving beyond the idea of a melting pot toward the creation of a sacred tapestry of race, ethnicity and faith that doesn’t melt away our differences, but rather weaves together our distinct gifts with the gifts of all our neighbors.
America deserves more. Our children deserve more. Our Jewish voices must reflect our post-redemption experiences, our commitment to diminishing the apathetic tendencies in each of us, and our recognition that equality of opportunity is an essential, divine value.
Rabbi Aaron Alexander is associate dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University. Rabbi Ronit Tsadok is assistant rabbi at IKAR.