SPECIAL ESSAY: A LETTER TO MY DAUGHTER ABOUT RACE
This is written in the form of a letter to my daughter, as was its intent. The reason for this unusual structure will become evident shortly
October 8, 2015
25 Tishrei, 5776
Here we are once again at Parshat Beresheet (Genesis 1), reading the Jewish story of the world’s creation, a story that has become foundational in all the major Western faiths. From it, we extract many truths about our purpose, about the nature of free will, our capacity to disobey, our responsibility to accept the consequences of our actions – all areas that a teenager like you should find fascinating. The tree of life, the tree of knowledge, the snake, the fig leaf – these are symbols of what has been placed in our world to test and to grow us, to help us make good choices and use good judgment. We were placed in God’s garden – “la’avda, ule’shamra” – to work and to watch the garden. We were trusted a long time ago to be stewards and partners with God in nurturing creation and continuing it. It’s a lot bigger job than cleaning your room.
I want to take a moment with you to break up Sefer Beresheet (the Book of Genesis) into three broad sections because I think as we create categories, we also create greater understanding. The first 11 and a half chapters we could call the creation of the world and the first human beings. The second half of 11 until the end of chapter 25 is about the stories of Avraham and his family, and then from 26-50 are the stories of Yaakov and his family. We do not begin Berasheet (Genesis) with the story of the Jews but with all of humanity. It is an important lesson. We were born into a world far greater than ourselves. We were born – all of us – with a universal mission to care for each other, to find companionship among animals, to use the plants in the garden wisely and to create sacred communities. Only later do we narrow the focus to speak of the Jews.
But there were problems with creation. Ayelet, you have always been artistic so I know you will appreciate that God, like an artist, created the world and then evaluated what He had made. This pattern of intention – saying what you are going to make – making it and then evaluating it – helps us understand what it means to be created in God’s image. God does not say that every creation is good, only that some are. And in chapter two God says that there was something He created that was not good. “Lo tov hayot ha-adam levado”– it is not good for man to be alone. It’s as if God said to Himself, “Better tweak that moving forward.” Later, God regretted the world that He made as it descended into immorality, and it could barely be redeemed. Things don’t always come out perfectly the first time, even for God. That’s an important lesson in life, and it’s good to know when we come down a little hard on ourselves that even Perfect Beings don’t always create perfect things. And that, too, is part of the universal purpose of human beings: to be creators of integrity, to experiment and to be honest about what we create.
When we look at all the patterns in the first chapter of Beresheet (Genesis)- the creation of time, creation through the word, creation through separation, creation and evaluation, that the created world could regenerate itself, that God blessed human beings and provided a world that could nourish us - we understand something very profound. Some people think that the greatest contribution of the Jews to the world is the belief in one God. I think that’s not enough. It’s also the kind of singular God that we believe in that also matters, and it matters greatly. Our one God is orderly and thoughtful. He cares about human beings, provides for them and blesses them.
Ayelet, soon you will study mythology. You’ll memorize the Roman and Greek names of gods and – if you’re like me – you’ll always confuse them. You’ll meet Zeus and Apollo, Diana, and Pan, Mercury and Cupid and Artemis and a host of others. You’ll learn Roman and Greek creation myths, and you will realize what a blessing it is to have inherited our tradition. You see, the Romans, Greeks and ancient Near Eastern gods fought with humans and competed with them. The creation of the world happened by accident, and human beings were born into chaos. The Bible scholar, Nahum Sarna, the father of our good friend Jonathan – whom you know – wrote a very important book about Genesis. He talks how in aworld dominated by many gods – a god for practically everything – there is a lot of fighting because gods want different things. They compete, and they compete with humans in these complex stories. In our tradition, our world was born in order – everything is inherently connected if creation happens through separation. We have a God who cares profoundly about us but also gave us the freedom to disobey. We have a God who asks us to be personally responsible, who does not struggle with us but encourages us to work together and work with Him to keep this majestic planet going. Professor Sarna, of blessed memory, observesthat “there is no direct reference to the notion of creation in terms of struggle.” We are not here to fight. Our purpose is not to compete but to create.
That does not mean that people have not used this book of the Bible to create some of the great fights of history. Some people read this Sefer (book) to create a hierarchy where men come first, then women, then animals. Many years ago, I used to teach an open public class in Boston at lunchtime. A black man in my class, a friend, came up to me to share an interpretation of the story of Noah and his sons. In Genesis 9:25, Noah woke up naked in his tent and was angry at Ham for uncovering his nakedness and then cursed Ham’s father, Canaan: “Cursed be Canaan. The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.” This line, he told me, was the way that many religious Christians had justified slavery. Black men and women were regarded as the descendants of Ham (we have a midrash that also identifies them as Africans but it was never leveraged in any practical terms to promote slavery). We were morally obligated, this thinking goes, to keep them in their place as the lowest of slaves. I looked in this man’s eyes when he shared this interpretation – common knowledge but not to me – and I wanted to cry. How can you use the book of Genesis to mistreat another human being when the entire message is that we were created btzelem: in God’s image?
Ayelet, I write to you now because we are at the beginning of our Torah once again and have to remind ourselves of what the first chapter of Beresheet tells us. People often wonder why we have to read the Torah again and again. We do that because we are human. We forget. We live in a society that is forgetting the message of Berasheet. I also write this to you – the youngest of our four children – because you are 14. You are the same age that Celie was in the 1930s in rural Georgia in Alice Walker’s book The Color Purple. She, too, wrote letters. Had you been born to different circumstances, you too could have been born to illiteracy, been pregnant twice by your age from an abusive father, and had very little to look forward to as a teenager with no happy childhood. I could have waited a year and written to you at 15 when the black writer James Baldwin wrote a letter to his fifteen year old nephew to teach him how to be black in America. “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry.” Later Baldwin writes how his own anxieties shaped him: “all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and controlled my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me…”
It is no surprise that when the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, he called it Between the World and Me, using Baldwin’s words. He wrote this letter, which is now published as a book you saw me read, following Baldwin’s tradition, to his son at this age because, in his words: “You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.” Ayelet, what I am about to say is not comfortable but as you grow into consciousness – as you look behind at your bat mitzvah and ahead at the world of global responsibility that will one day lie on your slim shoulders, you must engage in the difficult conversations, in the uncomfortable conversations because this is your purpose in life. You must watch and work our beautiful garden because the garden is suffering right now, and the Jewish story is not the only or first story in our Torah.
Like Celie who writes letters to God because she has no one else and like Baldwin who writes to his nephew and Coates to his son, I, too, must write to you about being white in America, about being an Orthodox Jew and about the pervasive racism in this country that your generation must fight with its every fiber. You, like these other young teenagers are growing into a world that you will take responsibility for, and it not too early to start. Maybe it is even a little late. You see, we raised you in a Jewish day school not to protect you from the world but to prepare you for the world. And it is time to formalize that preparation, to help you understand that just as you cannot be Jewish alone, you cannot be Jewish without caring about the world. You cannot sing the song of your own humanity alone, as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Cohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine once wrote. It is remarkable to me that there are people in our community – and I use this term in the broadest sense – whose acts of hesed are immense to those in their own communities but not to strangers. Imagine my surprise to see that James Baldwin wrote the very same thing about his black community, “that salvation stopped at the church door.” He said, “When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all.”
These past years, we saw an increase in police brutality and then rioting all over America - towards unarmed black men: Dontre Hamilton, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Akai Gurley, Rumain Brisbon, Freddie Grey. The list goes on. We Jews are good at mentioning the names of the dead to honor them. Have we honored these men by fighting against injustice? Before we got our homeland we were told to appoint judges and police officers to ensure justice. That is a holy job. So what can we say to the parents of Tamir Rice, a 12-year old black boy from Cleveland who was shot by the police because he held a toy gun? The police were exonerated in this case and many others, and we must do our best to make it safe to enter public service and honor our men and women in blue, but it is hard to deny the facts: we have a disproportionate rate of black men in prison and a judicial system that targets and charges young black men for drug crimes and violence at a higher rate than young white men for the same crimes. Each person is a story. True. Each story has another side. True. Many of these stories are riddled with controversy. True. But too many stories kick up a pattern, and Berasheet aleph (Genesis 1) tells us to pay careful attention to patterns.
In his letter to his son, Coates talks about messages he got in school about raising himself above the projects in Baltimore where he grew up. “All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’ These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.” He talks about teachers who warned black kids about “personal responsibility” in a country, he writes, “authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility.”
Ayelet, your grandmother is, as you know, a child survivor of the Holocaust. Your beloved great-grandparents – Bubbie and Zeide - were both Auschwitz survivors. I loved them more than I could ever explain to you, but even so, I remember the arguments I had with them when I was your age. They would make racist remarks, a joke, an assumption, maybe they’d walk to the other side of the street when a black person approached, and it would make me crazy. And there was one word we fought over dozens of times: shvartza. “It just means black in Yiddish. Why get so hysterical?”
How could victims of such persecution so easily persecute others with words and names? I never got a good answer. You know why? Because there is no good answer. Because it defies logic. Ayelet, I hear Jews make disparaging comments about blacks – not often – but often enough. I hear jokes. It is beneath you to ever make any such jokes. Make jokes about us. Laugh but not at someone else’s expense.
The most painful thing about Coates’ letter to his son, Ayelet, is the way that he talks about how hatred hurts the black body. “…race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” Later he uses the passive tense, perhaps because people fail, Americans fail, to take responsibility for racism: “Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.” He refers to the dream – the American dream – throughout his long letter, as if to suggest that black bodies fueled the American dream. “The destroyers,” he writes, “will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”
Coates moved to Paris. He has, it seems, given up on being black in America but claims he loves Paris for the food. Don’t you give up on America, Ayelet. Coates told his son, “I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” Ayelet, you will also inherit a terrible and beautiful world. You can make it more beautiful and bring us back to Gan Eden. Abba and I love you with an intensity beyond words. We expect you to pay that love forward. Paying it forward does not mean to your children alone but to all of God’s children.
There is a movement underfoot that says black lives matter. You don’t need that slogan. You have read Sefer Berasheet (the book of Genesis) every year of your life. You know that all lives matter, that God created each and every one of us. The divine rests within us and within the Other. You will find God everywhere and in every one if you look. And soon we will read Sefer Shemot (the book of Exodus) again so that we remember to raise our voices in protest when injustice happens because we, too, were strangers – a refrain mentioned dozens of times.
We have to be on the frontlines of race issues in America, as we were once during the fight for Civil Rights, when Rabbi A.J. Heschel described protesting as praying with one’s feet. We have to make race a subject in our day schools and an important topic from the pulpit. We have to care more about financial and social inequities. Black/Jewish relations have weakened of late, and we cannot ignore black violence or anti-Semitism of in Crown Heights and elsewhere. We cannot be naïve. Alice Walker would not have her book translated into Hebrew because she called the occupation of the West Bank another Apartheid. Yet, even so, we also have to meditate long and hard on the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.” And long before him, the words of today’s haftarah (reading from the Prophets) also sing of our job to bring light into the world: “I, the Lord, have called you to justice, and I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and make you into a covenant for people and a light to the nations: to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42: 5-7).
Ayelet, there is too much hate in this world right now, too much hate and too much darkness. This is not easy. God will hold your hand, says Yishayahu (Isaiah), and call you to justice because it is time to be the light.
I love you,