Racism- the continuing struggle against ‘othering’: a talk at Stand up to Racism 1.3.16

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish born Rabbi who became one of the leading Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, marched arm in arm with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr at Selma in 1965. Afterwards he wrote to him – “When I marched in Selma, I felt that my feet were praying”

heschel at selma

 

The three Selma to Montgomery marches were a non-violent way of highlighting racial injustice in the South of the USA, and contributed to the Voting Rights Act being passed the same year.

Rabbi Heschel wrote deeply and frequently about religion and race, which he felt were antithetical positions. He wrote that “to act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is the beloved child of God. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity.” Such physical and visceral language about racism was reflected in his actions. Already nearing 60 years of age, he marched proudly, putting his body in the firing line for a principle he believed in deeply.

In a lecture given two years earlier he told his audience of Jews and Christians bluntly (National Conference of Christians and Jews on Religion and Race, 14 January 1963.) that

“Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”

He was speaking from a deep understanding of Jewish texts. And he was speaking from a position of recognising the commonality of all human beings. When we categorise people by race we stop seeing the uniqueness of each human person. And the greatest and most redemptive human quality is to have kinship, to build relationship with others with empathy and with respect. Heschel brought a wonderful insight to the biblical story of creation. He pointed out that the text speaks of the many kinds of plants and of animals created by God, that each one was different from the others, each one was to become the progenitor of its own species. And then he pointed out that in this text the creation of the human being was very different. There were no parallel species of different colours or characteristics, genders or races. There was one human being – the ‘Adam’, made from the ground itself, fashioned in the image of God. And that human being became the progenitor of all the diverse expressions of humankind. The ur-ancestor from whom we all descend – our humanity is bound up with each other, it has to be, and if we choose to divide ourselves and to hate “the other” then truly we are causing the maximum amount of cruelty for the minimum of thinking.

Bible did not notice race per se. In the ancient world right up to the time of the Greeks and the Romans, race was not the issue that society organised around – but all of the ancient world did notice whether someone was ‘in’ or ‘out’. Whether they were citizens or aliens, whether they came from ‘other places’ or they came from ‘here’. There was always a tendency to try to create a hierarchy, where “we” are the best and “they” are inferior. Hence the power of the biblical text which is consciously addressing these attempts to order humanity by inherent superiority, and which is working to refute it. Later (rabbinic) texts take on the debate. Mishnah Sanhedrin (4:5) includes the phrase “[Only a single person was created] for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”. And.. [Only a single person was created] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another. Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.”

While the ancient Roman and Greek worlds were defining people according to geography (from here good/ not from here bad) or status (in the community good/ out of the community bad) the Rabbis of the Midrash were specifically choosing to see all human beings from wherever they came as of equal value. And especially they took on the argument from geography, making explicit that from where someone originated was of no importance in ascribing their value.   Rabbi Meir (2nd century) taught that God made Adam from the dust gathered from the whole world; and Rav (3rd century says): “His head was made of earth from the Eretz Israel; his main body formed from the dust of Babylon; and the various limbs were each fashioned with earth from different lands” .

When we look historically we can see again and again that as the host community sought to belittle and even humiliate people it saw as outsiders or foreigners, be they marked by accent or, skin colour or culture, the force of religion was pitching in the other direction. So the actions of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Warsaw born scion of an orthodox Hasidic family, in the southern states of America in 1965, were a natural progression of Jewish tradition that begins in bible and speaks out against the human habit of ‘othering’ and of creating a hierarchy whereby some are dominant and others are subordinate, where some have more value than others.

This week in synagogues all over the world there is an extra Torah reading – Shabbat Shekalim tells of the census in the wilderness and reminds the present community of the obligation to share the costs of communal resources. The title – the Sabbath of the Shekel – comes about because the census is taken by everyone giving a half-shekel coin, and these, not the people, are what is counted. There are many reasons offered for this way of counting, but one of my favourites is that it shows that while different individuals may have a different nett worth financially, every person is of the same value before God. And why a half shekel coin rather than a full shekel? Because no one person is complete on their own, each of us relies on others to complete us.

When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr both men understood importance of these teachings. Every human being is of infinite and equal value, every human being needs others to help them reach their full potential. Racism causes us to forget both of these lessons, but they remain as true as ever they did, and it is up to us to keep teaching them in the way we live our lives.

 

From a talk given at Stand up to Racism event, Goldsmith College 1/3/16

Parashat Behar Behukotai “And I remember the Land”

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The Hebrew bible is essentially the story of how a group of diverse individuals came to be formed as a People through a covenant relationship with God, the Creator of all things, and how that relationship was supposed to help them to be a righteous People who lived out their ethics on a small land to which they gave their name – Israel.

We are used to reading the texts and narratives, deriving from them a system of laws and of ways to behave in order to create our society and ourselves. We are used to the stories that form a narrative history, albeit one that is often read more as metaphor or myth than as literal record of events.  We are comforted by the story of the relationship with God that, even though interspersed with episodes of extraordinary pain and even a feeling of temporary estrangement, is shown to be constant and caring and ever present.  

The people Israel really came to existence at Sinai, when they agreed to the covenant relationship with God, with all of its rules and obligations. As God said when they were encamped at Sinai before the formal giving of Torah  “ Now, if you will really listen to My voice, and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine” (Exodus 19:5). Though of course much earlier when speaking to Moses in Egypt, God reminds him of the earlier promise of Covenant relationship and Land given to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob,  that “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name YHWH I did not make Myself known to them.  And I established My covenant with them, to give them the Land of Canaan, the Land of their sojourning, where they lived…..So say to the children of Israel: I am the Eternal, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage;…  and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am the Eternal your God, …  And I will bring you in to the Land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the Eternal” (Exodus 6:3-8)

What becomes clear as we read these texts of the formation of a people was that the Land which God gives to them is a critical element of the covenant, it is a partner in the relationship, and it is not simply an object which is given as reward or gift. The Land in the biblical narrative has a personality and a power. It is not a passive backdrop to be lived upon and worked for its produce– it is an active force in the relationship, a player in the narrative and character in the events. Like the people it belongs to God. It is only ever on loan to the Jewish nation, and that loan comes with strings attached.

Here at the end of the book of Leviticus we return to the Sinaitic meeting to emphasise once again the importance of the Land in the Covenant agreement. In Sidra Behar the text presents the laws regarding the sabbatical and the jubilee years. For six years the people are to sow their fields and prune their vineyards, but in the seventh year, the Land must be allowed to lay fallow. In other words, it must be given a rest – a Sabbath for the Land.
Every fiftieth year is a jubilee year which will not only to have all the rules of a sabbatical year but also is the time that all the Israelites who had sold themselves into servitude during the previous forty-nine years would be freed. Property (especially land) is also to be returned to the original owner-families. Thus the clock is reset and the original distribution of land among the tribes of Israel is to be preserved forever.

Then Parashat Bechukotai reminds us that if the people follow God’s laws then they will be protected, but if not then God will punish them – specifically the Land will not produce, the people will live in fear of their enemies who will remove them from the Land, and they will not return to it until they had atoned for their sins, included in which is their refusal to have let the Land have rest:  “Then shall the Land be paid her sabbaths, as long as it lies desolate, and you are in your enemies’ land; even then shall the Land rest, and repay her sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest; even the rest which it had not in your sabbaths, when you dwelt upon it. (Lev. 26:34-35)

So if the covenant is broken and the people forget their responsibilities to each other and to God, then the Land will lie desolate without its people, the people desolate in the land of their enemies, but ultimately, says God  “ I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the Land” (Lev 26.42) and God goes on to say: “I will not reject them, neither abhor them to destroy them utterly and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Eternal their God, and I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations that I might be their God, I am the Eternal (Lev 26:44,45)

The Covenant is ultimately unbreakable, however strained it may become. The Land remains connected to the people and to the Covenant, but it will not be abused. It too has its own relationship with God. It too is cared for and remembered by God, and it will not allow itself to become the setting for unrighteous behaviour.  It is not a prize for its inhabitants to use as they will, rather it is the test bed for the mitzvot that form the detail of the Covenant to be carried out – the commandment of compassion for the stranger, of thoughtful use of resources, of caring for all the poor and needy who are living amongst us, of the awareness that ultimately we do not own the Land but are allowed to lease it, so we should remember and give thanks to God who is giving us the food we need.  The Land is content to be in a mutually respectful and symbiotic relationship with us, a sibling relationship with us,  but we should never take it for granted. To impose ourselves on the Land and those who live on it, to oblige them to bend to our will, to arrogantly arrogate to ourselves the power to dictate to the Land and those who live on it, be they human, animal or plant life – this the Land will not accept, we will forfeit the benefits of the covenant and we will ultimately forfeit the Land if we do not quickly return to the ways of righteous behaviour.

Again and again Torah reminds us that our behaviour has consequences, and the ultimate consequence is displacement from our Land. Again and again the prophets rail against behaviours that place us and the Land in danger. Again and again a harsh experience results, a lesson must be learned, behaviour must change.

And yet the sidra gives us a clear instruction and it gives us hope: “If you walk in My statutes and keep My commandments and do them, then I will give you rains in their season, and the Land shall yield her produce and the trees of the field will yield their fruit. …and you shall eat your bread until you have enough and you shall dwell safely in your Land. And I will give peace in the Land, and you shall lie down and no one shall make you afraid… (Lev 26:3-6)

Peace in the Land comes at a price – the price of how we behave in the Land and to the Land. To treat her well, and to treat all those who live on her well, will bring about the “shalom ba’aretz” we all crave and which comes, ultimately, from God. Not to do so – well the warning is explicit in the sidra with the tochecha listed here. The Land will not provide any place to hide.