Dear TEE community,
This Shabbat, Jewish communities around the world will begin our annual reading of the Book of Deuteronomy. Its English name means “second law” and the book is presented as a retelling of the previous four books of the Torah. Knowing that he is soon to die, Moses gathers the people to instruct them once more and summarize their history and God’s teachings.
A careful reading of the opening chapters, however, reveals that this retelling is not exactly accurate. There are differences between the way parts of the story are told here and how they are recounted in earlier books. For example, Exodus 18 tells us that Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, teaches him to delegate authority in order to make his work load reasonable. In the first chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses declares that he himself created this system. Jethro’s role is completely absent.
From a contemporary perspective, it is easy to explain this inconsistency as the result of the fact that Deuteronomy was written later than the previous material. It, therefore, makes sense that the author would present the material differently. In doing so, they made choices about what to include or omit, what to emphasize or even invent.
While we may think ourselves far more advanced than our biblical ancestors, especially in an area such as history, recent events have demonstrated that we also tell stories about our past which suit a particular perspective at the expense of others.
As we are faced with the challenges posed by the Black Lives Matter movement, white American Jews like to emphasize our disproportional participation in Civil Rights activism. We proudly point to images of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We note that two out of the three Freedom Summer murder victims were Jewish. And at Temple Emanu-El many of our older members speak fondly of Freedom Rider Rabbi Allan Levine.
But when we tell these stories we omit others. During the Civil Rights period, a majority of American Jews opposed these activists. Southern Jews, concerned for their own provisional white status in a Jim Crow society, argued vehemently that Jewish organizations should have nothing to do with King or other civil rights leaders. At the time, the now venerated Heschel was perceived as a radical outlier and young Jews heading south found more support in churches than synagogues.
Some of us were civil rights heroes but more of us were not. We now have a chance to change that ratio. I am proud that our Temple Board has voted to publicly support the Black Lives Matter movement, which is not an organization with specific policies, but a coalition of all of us who wish to uphold the American values of “liberty and justice for all.”
The white Jewish community has a special obligation in this moment because the Black Lives Matter movement is also about us. The Jewish community includes an increasing number of Jews of Color who have experienced discrimination within as well as outside Jewish institutions. In addition, opposing white supremacy, an ideology which is as antisemitic as it is racist, is essential to our own wellbeing as well as that of our fellow citizens.
While we may not be able to change the ways racism functions throughout the United States, we can do something about how it is manifested in our own region. As many of us now know, the concentrated poverty, segregated housing, underfunded schools, criminalized addiction, and other problems disproportionately impacting urban Black and Latinx communites were the result of deliberate government policies which, conversely, benefitted white suburbanites, including the majority of area Jews. Engagement in our current civil rights movements asks that we really listen to those harmed by those policies. Rather than stopping at phrases like “Defund the Police” or the word “reparation” we have an obligation to delve deeper into what is meant by them and why they are important to those who propose them.
Imagining the scene at the opening of Deuteronomy, I can also imagine Israelites who were uncomfortable hearing the changes in Moses’ retelling of their story. Within the context of biblical narrative, those changes were necessary tools to build a new society in the Promised Land. As we work together to renew our own society, let us open our minds and our hearts to those stories we are only now beginning to hear.
Rabbi Drorah Setel