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August 2017

Marching with our Words: Standing up against Hate on Yom Kippur

Categories: Social Justice

After the 1965 Civil Rights March in Selma, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel—featured in the front row of marchers in the iconic photo---commented “I felt like my legs were praying.”

Heschel’s legacy has been evoked by the organizers of the March for Racial Equality that will take place this year on September 30th. to mark the date in 1919 of the riot in which white mobs attacked and killed over 200 Black men and women in Arkansas. The march was planned in response to the June 16 verdict rendered in the case against the policeman who shot and killed Philando Castile.

The TV star Mayim Bialik also referred to Heschel—for whom she named a son--in her angry screed condemning the timing of the march. The fury, which is widespread, comes from the regrettable timing of the march. It will take place on Yom Kippur.

It occurred to me that this year, we might turn Heschel’s insight around and suggest to rabbis—the group I was thinking of–that they preach on race this Yom Kippur morning, metaphorically “marching” with their words. There is no shortage of material to share. The connection between racism and anti-Semitism is also a topic Jewish communities might want to explore.

When I posted the idea on Facebook, many readers “liked” it. A few said they were taking the day away from shul and were marching with their feet. But a sizable group took the Mayim Bialik position. They argued that  that the most important point here was to decry the affront to the Jewish community.

When I suggested that this was an opportunity to “make lemonade,” I was told by many Jews that they would rather suck on the bitterness of  the lemons. They claimed that as a rabbi I was failing in my role if I did not continue to “scream” about this insult. They accused me of being blind to the reality of anti-Semitism on the left.

In fact, I am not blind to that reality. But let’s not fall into the fallacy of “many sides.” There is a difference between people marching with Nazi flags and people being tone deaf to our community’s sensibility. Making distinctions is key to clear thinking.

I was surprised by the vehemence of the response. In retrospect, I should not have been. It is not a coincidence that these hurt and angry feelings are emerging in the days immediately following the events in Charlottesville. This past weekend was horrifying, for some more shocking than others. We have a lot of work to do. Those with a very different vision of America would like nothing more than to see us squabbling with one another.

Since I began posting about this issue, the organizers of the march published an apology. They concluded,

This is a long-term struggle and our relationship to each other transcends one day and one march. As we learn from this planning mis-step, we are working with Jewish leaders to make racial justice resources and prayers available for Yom Kippur observances in Jewish communities as well. We hope that on that holy day, Jews in synagogues across our country will pray for racial justice - lifting up black and brown people, Jewish and non-Jewish - in hope for safety and wholeness.

What an excellent learning opportunity! In the spirit of the season of teshuvah, of return, perhaps we can use this moment to reflect upon how we all sometimes go astray and what forgiveness might mean.

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