Why Black Lives Matter to One Rabbi

by rabbilimmer

Judaism teaches that every human being is created B’tselem Elohim, in the image of God.  My tradition challenges me to see, in the face of every human being I encounter, the presence of the Divine.  While I cannot prove this to be true, I believe it to my core.  It is not that every human being is created equal; every person possesses immeasurable dignity.  Judaism teaches me that all lives matter, because every single human being bears the imprint of the Divine.

To understand today, I turn to yesterday.  It is well known that an early stage of the Nazi system of dehumanizing the Jewish people was forcing them to sew a yellow star onto all articles of clothing.  It is also well known that two-thirds of the Jews of Europe were exterminated by the Nazis during World War II.  What is not so well known is that, of all the countries conquered by the Nazis, one was able to save 99% of its Jewish population.  That nation was Denmark.

I learned in Hebrew school why this happened.  One night, the Nazis ordered all Jews sew Yellow Stars onto their clothing.  The next morning, King Chrisitian of Denmark exited the royal residence with a yellow star saying Jude on his regal robe.  The nation was so moved by his act of leadership and solidarity that, by the time the sun set, every Dane—Jewish or Christian—proudly wore a star of gold.  The Nazis’ plan was undone.

All lives matter.  But in 1943 in Denmark, it wasn’t King Christian’s obligation to remind his country that all lives mattered: he needed to make a very specific point that Jewish lives mattered.  That is why, today, I need to say—loudly and clearly and publicly—that Black lives matter.  While I understand the importance of every human soul, I also understand the gross distance between what I call Justice and what has occurred in Ferguson, Staten Island and beyond.  This moment doesn’t call for me to wear a yellow star of the emblem of united humanity.  Today I need to don the hashtag Black Lives Matter.  This is the lesson I learn from the painful past of my people, and one important instance of resistance in Denmark.

I do need to speak out and say #BlackLivesMatter.  However, I also need to admit that—despite its power—the legend of King Christian is just a myth.  Yet what actually happened—what in truth saved the Jews of Denmark—is more powerful.  When the Nazi’s decreed the Jews should wear a star, the King didn’t put on one.  However, the Danish political parties and state church immediately denounced the decree and pledged solidarity with the Jews.  The Bishops wrote a letter to that effect, and had it read in every church in the nation the following Sunday.  The people of Denmark knew Jewish lives mattered because the church said it loudly and publicly and proudly.

If that doesn’t speak enough to our responsibility today to show solidarity and to raise our voice, one other fact should.  In October of 1943, when 7220 of Denmark’s 7800 Jews were ferried to safety in Sweden, 686 other people went with them.  Who were they?  The non-Jewish family members of Denmark’s Jews.  It is not just that the Danish people knew they needed to speak up for their Jewish citizens; Denmark considered its Jews to be part of the family.  While in Germany Jews had friends and neighbors, most of those stood silently by the atrocities of the Holocaust.  In Denmark, they  didn’t.  Why?  Because the Jews were not just citizens of that nation, they were family.

I do not believe the world started with just Eve and Adam, but I do believe we are all human family.  I know that every human life matters.  I also know now is the time for me—for all of us—to say Black Lives Matter.