Disrupting our Lives

by rabbilimmer

Yom Kippur 5776: Chicago Sinai Congregation

On Yom Kippur, we are forced to face our shortcomings, we need to come clean about our defects.  And so I begin this morning with a confession: three years ago, I basically ruined a good friend’s holiday party.  It started during an innocent conversation with my host about the election results.  Suddenly, someone, simply having heard the president’s name, butted in abruptly: “Obama is ruining the country!”  Shocked, I asked this acquaintance—let’s say he’s Steve—what he meant. “It’s harder and harder to make money these days with Obamacare, with government giving my hard-earned money to poor people.”  I should mention Steve worked for the bailed-out Bank of America, earned a hefty salary, owned two million-dollar houses.  Regardless, he appeared nonplussed when I suggested most people in America weren’t doing as well as him, needed help with fundamentals like healthcare.  “If they want healthcare, they should get jobs and pay for it,” another guest—let’s call him Greg—swiftly submitted.  Irritated, I was past risking offense: I reminded Greg not everybody lived in luxury, not everyone could get a job including healthcare. Steve dove back in vengefully, taking out on me the pain he predicted the President would inflict on him, “I came from a small town: I worked hard, earned every dime of the money I made. I’m proof anybody who wants to work hard can be successful.”  Steve had a point; he grew up in modest means. Still, I was upset, exasperated.  Here two rich guys—driving costly cars, vacationing all over the world—couldn’t find any understanding for folks who had a harder time then they did.  I hit my limit: time to ruin the party.  So I said, “Steve, I know how hard you’ve worked, from where you came. Did you ever stop and ask yourself how much of your good fortune you owe to the simple fact you were born white?”

I’m happy to report that when I visited Armonk this past summer, and attended a lovely pool party at the same house of that same good friend, Steve and Greg avoided me as if I had the plague. While I am certain they remember that unpleasant cocktail conversation, it’s also safe to say they probably find me unpleasant, too. After all, I had the arrogance to try and shatter the precious veneer they painted over a life they want to believe is perfect, in a world they likewise imagine is perfect.  Since that holiday party, I have passed the breaking point of people pretending the world works in a way I know it does not. It is a matter of fact: our world is not perfect; our world isn’t even fair.  Three years ago, I had the temerity to try and force my friends to wake up to this unfortunate fact; that unfairness, the bitter brutality of our world, is a reality from which none of us can escape today.

Our country woke up last year and was brutally reminded of how unfair life is.  It started last summer with pictures of Mike Brown face down in Ferguson.  Then news of Eric Garner’s strangulation on Staten Island, stories of twelve year-old Tamir Rice shot dead in Cleveland, images of Sandra Bland arrested by a Texas State Tropper, buzz about burning in Baltimore, a Charleston church group executed in hatred.  All this horror compounded by pictures of police militarized in ways America hasn’t seen since Selma’s teargas and Bull Connor’s tank terrorizing Birmingham. We are waking up to the fact that there are two different Americas, living side by side: while a simplification, one America is White America, prosperous, doing pretty well since the Dow rallied a few years back; the other America is Black America, still segregated—now more subtly—still struggling, still being squashed by those who want to create a second class.  We have to wake up and face the fact that racism is still a problem in America.

Racism is the problem in America.  It is not crime, it is not gangs, it is not guns.  Racism is the problem.  Not segregation; we know there is overlap between individuals and communities that are black and white.  Not a “race” problem, because it’s a fallacy to subdivide our human family into separate species.  Racism is the problem: bigotry based on the color of one’s skin, pernicious prejudice that in too many cases deprives Black bodies of their very life.  Perhaps you look at today’s difficulties as the privileged and the disenfranchised; perhaps you think that the struggles in America have less to do with the color of your skin than the class to which you belong.  I have severe doubts that is the case.[1]  And it’s not just because of what I learn from Black teachers like Ta-Nehesi Coates, who felt forced to tell his son he “must be responsible for his body in a way others cannot know.”[2]  Witness a painful story shared with me by a colleague in Dallas about a white member of his luxurious suburban synagogue:

She decided, over the course of this past year, to adopt a two year-old black child. Since doing so, she sought the advice of black men about what to tell her son about race. She asked a trusted mentor, a vice-president of her company, who shared with her same advice he gave his son: dress conservatively, especially on the day he gets his driver’s license; that is the picture the police see when they pull him over.  This mentor suggested this new mother teach her son to smile because people are afraid of angry black men. But he warned her to teach her son not to smile too big, because people are scared of black men who smile too much.  Scared of black men who don’t smile, scared of black men who smile too much: in America, her black mentor—father of a black son himself—suggested she should teach her son to smile, but not very much of a smile at all.[3]

This story breaks my heart. I have the privilege of never thinking about advising my daughters about these issues.  A colleague of mine heard this story and saw how different her white world is.  She gets her toddler to take off his T-shirt by pointing her finger at him, popping her thumb, and saying, “Hands up!”  Her playful joke with her son about changing his clothes is a figure of fear in black America. The world we live in is far from perfect.

In our Jewish tradition, an ideal world existed for but a brief moment: in Eden. Since Adam and Eve ate the Apple, we imperfect people have been trying to perfect ourselves—and our world—that we might again attain Eden.  Part of the promise of this Day of Atonement is that each of us, created in the Divine Image, can make our world Divine again.  Some suggest the very reason we fast on Yom Kippur is to attune ourselves to our potential for perfection.  I used to wonder, “How does neither eating nor drinking help us become better people?”  Wouldn’t it be easier to study our behavior if we didn’t hear the grumbling of our stomachs, feel the parching of our palates?  How does today’s abstinence help anyone atone?  The answer, in our Jewish imagination, is that disrupting our lives is the only way to get back to Eden.

The connection between Eden and not eating goes back to Torah.  Five times Torah teaches on Yom Kippur תענו את נפשותיכם, You must oppress your soul.[4]  Leviticus 16 commands: in the seventh month on the tenth day of the month you must oppress your souls; two verses later we are reminded, you must each oppress your soul.  The 23rd Chapter of Leviticus repeats the double injunction, and the Book of Numbers goes so far as warning us that the Jew who does not oppress his soul on Yom Kippur is spiritually and physically cut off from the Jewish people. Five times we are commanded, You must oppress your souls.  But not once in the Torah are we told just how or even why we are to commit such acts of self–oppression.

The Rabbis in the Mishnah conjecture what it means to oppress our souls.[5]  These Sages created five prohibitions in parallel to Torah’s five, Oppress your souls: to fast; not to wear leather shoes; neither to bathe nor wash; not to put on perfumes; and, finally, to abstain from sexual activity.  No food or drink, no bathing, no perfume, no leather shoes, no sex: our Rabbis wrote the list of how to oppress our souls. They do not teach how these five prohibitions aid atonement.  A few years ago, I read an interesting take on the five types of self-oppression, this Jewish method of disrupting our lives.[6]  On this theory, God created Yom Kippur in the Garden of Eden to allow Adam and Eve to atone for eating the Apple. The five prohibitions were meant to bring back a perfect world.  Why no washing?  Outside Eden, Adam and Eve worked by the sweat of their brow.[7]  Why no food or drink? Outside Eden, Eve and Adam labored to produce the food that in the garden grew freely.  Originally, Adam and Eve were unaware—unashamed—of their nudity; all the trappings of desire—from anointing perfumes to the sexual act—only occur outside of Eden. Two more prohibitions understood. Why no leather shoes? Here, we can only guess: perhaps so, outside of Eden, a snake doesn’t again bite at our heels.[8]

This creative understanding of why we fast—how we oppress our souls—focuses us on restoring our world to a pristine state. Whether or not it is the greatest reading of Genesis, we see an appreciation of what our liturgy and ritual of Yom Kippur force us to confront.  Today we want to restore ourselves—and our world—to a pristine state. The Jewish way is not to pretend that today is like any other day when—sated and satisfied—we perhaps set aside private moments to examine our existence. Yom Kippur comes to disrupt our lives in the most profound way possible: we do not eat, we do not drink, we put all thoughts of companionship from our mind, we even allow ourselves to smell slightly on a day we encounter hundreds of friends. Why all this oppression of the self?  Yom Kippur teaches we must disrupt our lives if we had any hope of making our lives the slightest bit better, making our world even a little bit more perfect.

Disrupting our lives is the prescription for our Day of Atonement.  Yom Kippur causes us to confront deep problems that, usually, we have the luxury to ignore.  Given the unfolding events since I spoiled a party in Armonk, given the endless episodes of blatant or concealed racism America has witnessed since Trayvon Martin was shot dead on a Florida street, a disruption of American life is the only meaningful way to address the ills eroding our society. We have no modern Mishnah to teach us five simple steps to respond to racism; we must find new teachers to instruct us how to end patterns of prejudice.  I can share with you three lessons I learned this year of soul-searching.  First, academic activists like Michelle Alexander and David Kennedy taught me to make myself uncomfortable.[9]  Second, personal memoirs of Bryan Stephenson and Debby Irving illuminated the importance of examining the evils of racism from up close.[10]   Third, the civil rights crusaders of our past—and my participation walking the steaming Selma pavement with the NAACP—reminded me of the power of finding faithful partners to walk towards the Promised Land we envision.[11]  From the teachers of our own time, I have discovered three ways we should oppress our souls this Yom Kippur; three steps we can take to the continuing plague of prejudice.  The first step is making ourselves uncomfortable, the second asks us to get close to racism, and the third calls for joining hands and marching together.

I’ll start with discomfort. I saw the images of Ferguson on TV, was as indignant as you would expect of the Rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation to be. I went and wrote what I hoped would be a thoughtful—even inspiring—sermon race in America.  As I stepped into the sanctuary that Friday, proud of the thinking I had done, I remembered: at Sinai, we have members who are black.  It hit me: who am I to talk about race? What if this white guy is wrong?  Worse still: what if the words I say, hoping to be helpful, cause greater pain to people already suffering?  Had I been quick on my feet, I would have scrapped my sermon, said something else.  But I was too distracted by my own discomfort to think of anything else.  After Silent Prayer, with no other option, I stood up and spoke about race as I felt it in my heart.  When services were concluded, it was nice to have congregants compliment me.  But when a Shabbat regular, a black woman, told me she appreciated what I said, that was the moment of true gratification.

Talking about race is uncomfortable.  So far this morning, I have not used the expression “African-American”.  I’m forcing myself to use “black”—no matter how uncomfortable it makes me—because I no longer want to avoid the obvious issue: we are dealing with racism based on black and white, not any nation of origin.  I am not necessarily comfortable speaking this way, but it is time to push myself to this uncomfortable place. It is the smallest oppression of my soul.  And we all need to make ourselves uncomfortable if we want to address racism, if we want to get anywhere of value.  No matter how people knocked Starbucks for trying to initiate racial conversations, they were on the right track.  Problems persist when untreated; no problem can be solved if we fail to acknowledge we have a problem. Since my sermon about Ferguson, I have made myself uncomfortable about race time and time again.  I have asked black pastors how their lives are different due to the color of their skin; I discussed with a clerk at Columbia Sportswear her history of protest marches; on my own march in Selma, I asked the President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—that’s not too comfortable to say out loud—about whether my attempts to talk “race” were helpful to him, to his cause, to his family.[12]  The conversations were not always easy. But what I’ve learned from them—and my continuing commitment to have them—is that only by making myself uncomfortable can we truly appreciate the complexities and profundities of the problem of racism.

If we want to perfect the world, it is not enough for us to make ourselves uncomfortable. We need to understand what we do not see: we need to go and experience and ask and question and listen.  Civil Rights activist, attorney Bryan Stephenson, calls this Getting Proximate. He reminds us what his grandmother taught him, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance… you have to get close.”[13]  I have taken Stephenson’s instruction to learn about racism up-close as a mandate; this has been my year of getting proximate.  I have studied the massive tangle of American laws that enforce structural inequalities of access and justice.  I have travelled to neighborhoods in Chicago many natives never visit.  I even watched a painful YouTube video sent to me of Samuel DuBose assassinated by a Cincinatti officer:  I sat at my desk and watched the image of a black man shot by uniformed authority, on my screen saw him die in his car.  From reading the daily papers to following the alternative avenues of social media, I learned black lives are being violated with pernicious persistence.  Getting close to the tragic deaths of the past year caused me to realize that while I obviously care about every single human life, now is the time I need to affirm #BlackLivesMatter.[14]

In addition to “getting proximate” with the wider world, we also need to take a good look at ourselves.  It is a kind of oppression of our souls to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations; we also need to disrupt our lives, to go beyond studying the racism in our world to look in our own hearts to see if there might be racism hiding in there.  The wonderful book Waking Up White can help us in that search.[15]  Its author, Debbie Irving, talks about her sudden realization that it wasn’t everyone else around her who had a race; she did, too.  In Waking Up White, Irving tells her often painful—the book jacket claims “cringe-worthy”—story with such openness we are drawn into a similar process of introspection: Irving gets close to her own racism.  Waking Up White ends each chapter with questions, so readers can explore their situations regarding race and racism.  Irving’s questions, like this day of Yom Kippur, stir our souls. Here are just two:

  • Consider each of these tangible aspects of your life: work, social connections, education, healthy food, legal protection, housing, transportation, medical care, how easy or hard has it been for you to attain each?
  • Create a column that contains these labels: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Jews, Latinos, Muslims, Whites. Next to each quickly write at least five stereotypes that come to mind for each. Do not pause, censor, or correct. Now look at what you’ve written. Does it surprise you? If you are white do you have any stereotypes for whites? Why do you think this is?[16]

Why do you think this is? It’s a good question, one that must guide how we get close to the issues of racism.  First we have to look at ourselves, and then—armed with self-understanding—we must go out into the world for further exploration.  This is hard—if not impossible—to do all by ourselves.  Thus this fall, Chicago Sinai Congregation will offer a new way to explore racism.  Partnering with six Chicago houses of worship, we will launch a campaign to create honest dialogue: our “Come to the Table” initiative.  Throughout the fall and winter, our sacred communities will be convening for intentional conversations about race, about racism.  Members of each of our houses of worship who want to participate can sign up to go a dinner party with the intentional purpose of breaking bread around an honest conversation about race.  Facilitating each one of those dinners will be leaders from each of our congregations who have been trained to lead such difficult and emotional conversations. We know as an interfaith community that we are called to action to work against the ills of racism. We also know that before we can work together, we must understand ourselves and understand each other.

I have read lots of books, engaged in countless conversations.  There is no doubt the most meaningful experience I had regarding race, and the place where I learned the deepest lessons, was the time I spent marching with the NAACP in America’s Journey for Justice.  I learned in August in Selma—was reminded last week in Washington—that joining hands and marching together towards a common solution is the most powerful way to fight racism.  Working together is the fun part, where we find camaraderie, build friendships, discover sympathetic souls with whom we can share our sorrows about the current state of affairs and look forward to celebrating changes we commit to making real.  Working together we find the true unity of community.

For all the friendship forged in solidarity and the joy of marching with kindred spirits, I share one caveat about what means for us to work for real solutions to racial injustice. If we approach this work with a full sincerity of our hearts, we must first acknowledge that any solution we discover will most likely require sacrifice on our part.  Although hardly to a person, in the main we here at Chicago Sinai Congregation benefit from the way society is structured.  Knowing American racism is enforced by systematic injustices—how housing laws are written, which drivers are pulled over by the police, the fact that drug raids are about a hundred times more likely to happen in black neighborhoods than on white college campuses—we know America’s laws favor the majority of us praying here today. To correct structural injustices of society, we will need to sacrifice the privileges we so deeply enjoy, the “invisible package of unearned assets” you are handed if born white.[17]  On Yom Kippur we oppress our souls and engage in symbolic sacrifices, giving up food and drink—perhaps perfumes and shoes and sex—for the purpose of making ourselves better people. But I cannot imagine that there will be a way for us to move America past its racist ways without many of the people in this room taking on real sacrifices. Quite literally, we will be asked to pay a price to make our world a better place.  Religiously speaking, that will be our sacrifice.

Now you know your Rabbi is not only good at ruining cocktail parties, but also at getting people to walk out in anger on the holiest Sabbath of the year.[18]  I am aware that what I am saying might be difficult to hear; it might seem patronizing to those of you who racially are not considered Caucasian; it might seem outrageous to those who think a Rabbi’s role is to stick with religious instruction and refrain from politics, period.   My words might be taken as destructive; I did design them to be disruptive. It has taken me a year since the events unfolding in Ferguson to understand the role I need to play in restoring justice to our nation. It has taken me over forty years of living to come to terms with the fact that neither Martin Luther King nor Barack Obama signals through his leadership the end of pervasive prejudice in our society. I might hold up a black reverend as my spiritual mentor, or vote with joyful tears in my eyes for a black president of the United States.  I am not colorblind; neither is America.[19]  I am waking up to that fact.

This is my personal journey of growth, the spiritual march I have made from last Yom Kippur to today’s most Sacred Sabbath.  The journey we are all on together—as a sacred community and as a Jewish people—is symbolized by the rite and ritual of this great Day of Atonement.  The promise of Yom Kippur is that we can each rise to the potential of our best selves; the expectation of Yom Kippur is that we will elevate our world again to that Divine perfection of Eden. Yom Kippur teaches us the path to perfection is paved by shattering the rhythms of the regular; this disruptive work should make us uncomfortable. This disruptive, spiritual work involves understanding ourselves and others, and will require real sacrifice to join hands and march towards that Promised Land we imagine. Such is the expectation and the promise of our Yom Kippur. And, in the mind of this disruptive Rabbi, such is the prescription for the work in which we must engage as a Jewish community, as partners in the beloved community, in the coming days and months and years.

May we so disrupt our lives, that by shattering the broken patterns of our existence, we might piece together a world finally repaired.

May it be our will.

[1] To get a sense of how race is at the root of so many American injustices even since the victories of the Civil Rights movement, see Tim Wise, ColorblindThe Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, especially pp. 51ff.

[2] Ta-Nehesi Coates, Between the World and Me, p. 71.

[3] Thanks to Rabbi Asher Knight of Temple Emanuel of Dallas for sharing this story with our colleagues engaged in the Rabbis Organizing Rabbis project of the CCAR, RAC and Just Congregations.

[4] Leviticus 16:29, 16:31, 23:27, 23:32, and Numbers 29:7.

[5] Mishnah Yoma chapter 8.

[6] The teacher’s name is vi Rabinowitz.  I read his lecture previously posted by NYU, yet it has since taken off the web.  I apologize for not being able to cite his work any more fully.

[7] See Genesis 3:16-17. for a listing of the “curses” of Adam and Eve, and these five major changes in human life outside the Garden of Eden.

[8] This is where Rabinowitz’s case seems to fall apart, as the best he can conjecture is the following: (a) God made leather garments for Adam and Eve, (b) the curses in Genesis mention the snake will always be at the human heel, thus (c) we wear shoes to protect us from snakes and (d) on Yom Kippur, we don’t wear the protective garments (c) on our heel (b) in the material God created in the Garden (a).  It’s a long way to go, for sure.

[9] Probably the two most helpful books for me in my continuing quest to understand these issues and my place in fighting them are Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and David M. Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America.

[10] I was fortunate to hear Bryan Stephenson speak this past spring at the Consultation on Conscience of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. I immediately bought his book, Just Mercy, and was glad I did.  I’m also glad you can currently buy it at Starbucks.  Debby Irving’s Waking Up White was also helpful, and perhaps the highest-recommended book to me by my colleagues.

[11] For background on the march, please go to www.naacp.org .  For my reasons for joining, please see http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-torah-marches-from-selma-met-20150731-story.html.  For great pictures and news stories, please follow the hashtags #JusticeSummer and #TzedekSummer on Twitter and FaceBook.

[12] The answer, from Cornell William Brooks (and many others) was a resounding: Yes.

[13] Bryan Stephenson, Just Mercy, p. 14.

[14] I came to the realization I needed to say something publicly on January 6, 2015.  See my blog post, https://rabbilimmer.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/why-black-lives-matter-to-one-rabbi/.

[15] I was delighted to learn that, thanks to our Director of Religious Education, Heidi Kon, we at Chicago Sinai Congregation do this exercise annually with our Confirmation class.  That exercise is based on thePeggy McIntosh’s article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.”  This powerful essay is easily available on-line, at sites such as: http://www.cirtl.net/files/PartI_CreatingAwareness_WhitePrivilegeUnpackingtheInvisibleKnapsack.pdf, which explains the essay as follows:

Peggy McIntosh is associate director of the Wellesley Collage Center for Research on Women. This essay is excerpted from Working Paper 189. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies” (1988), by Peggy McIntosh; available for $4.00 from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley MA 02181 The working paper contains a longer list of privileges. This excerpted essay is reprinted from the Winter 1990 issue of Independent School.

[16] Debby Irving, Waking up White, pp. 60 and 91, respectively.  At the last minute, I removed this question [p. 81] from the draft: “Have you ever had anyone doubt, dismiss or minimalize an experience that was formative for you? How did it feel? How did if affect your feelings about that person?”

[17] This powerful phrase is from Peggy MicIntosh, “White Privilege”.  She explains the insidious nature of American systems that enforce racism with the following revelation, “I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.”

[18] My wife suggested this line read “riling people up and creating discontent”.  Yom Kippur will tell which of us was right.

[19] Here I share the important insight of Heidi Kon on the difficulty with being “color blind””

It is a privilege to be able to be colorblind.  People of color cannot be color blind because so much of their world is bound-up in race.  While people don’t have to think about race unless they want to.