My boys are getting psyched for the upcoming release of the blockbuster Exodus: Gods And Kings. Exodus promises to be this generation’s The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt, a theatrical rendition of the biblical exodus from Egypt that will resonate for years, if not decades. And, like any depiction of biblical material, it is already sparking controversy: both for its failure to include non-Caucasians in leading roles and for its depiction of God as a moody and demanding child. For eight and 11- year-old boys who attend Jewish day school, though, Exodus is a dream come true: matching the biblical narrative of yetziat Mitzrayim (redemption from slavery in Egypt) they have studied at length with a Hollywood director’s imagination and 3D special effects. Though both the plot and the acting are reported to be somewhat shaky, the digital cinematography will surely be breathtaking.
I plan to return to a discussion of the substance of this movie in my next blog, after I have had a chance to see and analyze it. But there is an aspect of the movie, and its relationship to the biblical narrative, that I want to discuss today because I think it addresses many of the most pressing social and racial issues of our times. Simply put, I hope the movie Exodus spends a good deal of time depicting the horrors of slavery that the Israelites endured before it moves on to the heroic tale of Moses and Aaron standing up to Pharaoh and the climactic battle at the Red Sea. One of the central tenants of Passover, in which Jews commemorate the exodus story, is that we are supposed to feel as if we, personally, were slaves in Egypt. The Torah, too, returns again and again (Exodus 12, Exodus 13, Deuteronomy 5, Deuteronomy 15, and Deuteronomy 24) to the injunction that we remember the experience of slavery in Egypt. Why? Why such a fixation on the bad part of the story of redemption, rather than just the celebration of God’s deliverance? I believe the answer is that we are compelled to feel empathy. We, as Jews, are not allowed to forget what it feels like to suffer, to feel powerless, to be subject to the whims of others.
As a society, we are suffering from a paucity of empathy. The story of Ferguson, I believe, is largely about this inability to experience empathy with what it feels like to be a young African-American in an urban environment. Lost in the cacophony over whether Officer Darren Wilson was justified in killing Michael Brown is this larger narrative of the persistent, systemic racism that results in young black males being seen as threats to law enforcement and thereby justifies their disproportionate incarceration and killing by police. As my colleague Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz recently put it, any effort to move forward after Ferguson requires us “to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others.” The exodus story compels us to listen to the pain, the humiliation, and the anger of those of us who are enslaved to this system of injustice.
The same is true when it comes to the issue of President Obama’s recent executive action on undocumented immigrants. Most of the debate in the media and on Capitol Hill revolves around whether or not President Obama overstepped his constitutional authority in deciding not to deport approximately five million undocumented immigrants. But where is the discussion about what it feels like to live under the constant stress and duress of being forcibly removed from one’s family? To put down roots in a community, day after day, year after year, while knowing that these roots can be torn apart at a moment’s notice? About having to decide between reporting an abusive spouse and risking arousing the attention of law enforcement versus keeping silent to remain under the radar? The exodus story compels us to listen to the fear, the frustration, and the suffering of those enslaved to an intransigent, unjust, and nonsensical immigration system.
Today is #Giving Tuesday, a day dedicated to giving back to our communities following the gluttonous consumption of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Donating one’s resources to charities is, of course, a wonderful mitzvah. But, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently wrote, writing checks of offering other financial support is not enough. “The real impact on our world and on our life’s purpose comes through generous acts of doing.” Doing generates empathy. You can’t click your way to experiencing what it is like to go hungry by dropping off a can of soup to your synagogue’s food pantry collection, but you can if you participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, spending a week (or even just today) trying to live on the $29.40 per week that those receiving food stamps (SNAP benefits) have to spend on food. Or you can spend time working at a food pantry, talking to those who are recipients, hearing their stories.
Judaism commands us to remember, to experience anew, so that we can empathize with those who are still struggling. May we be leaders in urging our society to experience what it feels like for those of us who are marginalized; for those who suffer through the systemic injustices of our current society. And in doing so to defeat the Pharaohs of our own day and to help us transform our own society into something a little bit more holy. Now that’s a message I want to teach my boys.
George Zimmerman has been found “not guilty” in the murder of Trayvon Martin. The trial was high-profile and symbolic, and thus the verdict was quite upsetting to anti-racist activists. Jewish activists, moved by this upset, are in a good position to reach out to African-American communities, if we are willing to take the time.
Do I wish Martin had not been murdered? Yes. Torah says, “Do not murder.” (Ex. 20:13). Torah teaches that a human being is created in the Divine image (Gen. 1:27). Murder is not just a crime against a person; it’s a crime against creator, against a bottom line for any society (Gen 9:6). Talmud teaches that taking a life is like taking away an entire world: a person’s future, his descendents, and all their futures (Sanhedrin 37a). Trayvon Martin, by many accounts, was a typical teen, poised to mature into a young man. One can observe the terrible bereavement of his family; one can never know for sure the potential good lost to the world.
Do I wish Zimmerman and other Americans were less poisoned by racism? Yes. Torah says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Lev. 19:17). “If a foreigner lives among you, do not oppress him. An immigrant shall be to you like a citizen; love him as you love yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33). George Zimmerman, by many accounts, was not a sophisticated thinker, took his job as a security volunteer beyond its limits, and spoke of African Americans in offensive ways. Negative emotions overtook him; he could not sit still, and thus he pursued when told not to, with tragic results.
Do I wish Zimmerman had been found guilty? No. Torah says, “Do not pervert justice or show partiality” (Deut. 16:19). The jurors took the judge’s instructions seriously. They were asked to determine whether the prosecution proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. They were not asked to determine whether Martin deserved to live or whether Zimmerman was a racist.
Do I hope the family will bring a wrongful death suit in civil court? Yes – if they are not too exhausted to do so. Torah says, “an eye for an eye…one who strikes an animal will pay damages; one who strikes a person will be executed” (Lev 24:2-21). After respectful debate about the Biblical context of this teaching, Talmudic scholars decided that, in their world, financial compensation for injury would replace revenge. True, they did not have murder in mind, but contemporary opponents of the death penalty take seriously some of their arguments regarding injury. A second ruined life does not console or compensate for a lost life. But financial compensation for suffering, health care, lost wages, and legal fees can make a concrete difference.
Do I wish that Jews would be more proactive about realizing these teachings: all human beings are created in the image of God, do not hate your brother in your heart, and do not pervert justice? Of course. As individuals living in a multicultural society, I think most of us do realize them. Many white Jews who live in racially diverse areas work, dine, volunteer and socialize with African-Americans. If we are at all reflective, we reflect on the dynamics of these relationships as we do with any other.
Do we use our professional and personal contacts to re-open dialogue between two communities who, a few decades ago, worked as allies in the civil rights movement? Not often enough. My mind is drawn back to the 1995 book by Michael Lerner and Cornel West, Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion and Culture in America. Lerner and West ask each other difficult questions. For example: When Congress seems more sympathetic to Jewish concerns about Israel than to Black concerns about economic inequality, and Jews fail to criticize this, do Jews understand the ill-will it causes? When Black Christians affirm the Exodus narrative but don’t reflect critically on anti-semitic elements of the Christian narrative, do they understand the racist perspectives they internalize? These are difficult questions to discuss without simply becoming defensive.
Both the American Jewish and Black communities are self-protective, and with good reasons. But there is strength in numbers, in coalitions, and in asking serious questions. Even if justice, in its strict procedural definition, was served in court this weekend, we know that social justice was not. Perhaps we, as leaders or members of small segments of the Jewish community, can use our personal contacts to initiate deeper dialogue between groups. Torah says, “Justice, Justice pursue!” (Deut 16:20)