AJ Heschel

Race and Restlessness

What we need is restlessness, a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice.
— Rabbi A.J Heschel

It's hard to think of others when our own people are under siege and yet, there is a universe of struggle going on right now about which we cannot be willfully blind. Migrants and refugees wander across Europe seeking temporary homes and facing the bleak reality that a future of uncertainty may be their only certainty right now. And on top of it all, winter is coming, which makes all homelessness colder, harder and harsher.

When we look internally at the troubles in this country, it is easy to get distracted by presidential campaigns and debates and not look beyond to the deep problems of gun control, race and financial and social inequalities that have plagued this country in recent years. 

We have just opened the book of Genesis in the Torah cycle, and the first eleven chapters of the book that we covered this past two weeks signal a message that must be internalized. The story of humankind in its broadest sense dominates our sacred text. We were born into a much larger community than our own. Our universal story precedes our particularistic story. We must be the stewards of the planet, caring and nurturing the expansive garden we were put into in our primordial story. We are partners in a holy covenant but have perhaps forgotten our part of the deal.

Specifically, in the Torah reading of Noah, we encounter this boat-builder's descendants and a curious story that has been interpreted in ways that has been deforming and devastating. In these large stories of world-building and destruction, we find a small and intimate account of Noah falling asleep drunk and naked in his tent. His grandson Canaan finds him in the tent and reports it gleefully to his brothers. His brothers take the high road and cover their father, making sure not to turn in his direction when doing so. "When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, 'Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.' He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be his slave,'" [9:24-27].

The curse of Canaan was read in ancient midrashim as possibly referring to those of African descent. It was taken more literally in some Christian circles as a defense of slavery as a biblical mandate, suggesting that this brutal behavior was encoded into the way human hierarchies must always be. And we have not yet, thousands of years later, fully rid ourselves of this plague.

In 1963, at the opening address at the National Conference on Religion and Race, Rabbi A.J. Heschel told the audience that racism is "an eye disease, a cancer of the soul." Later, this essay was collected in an anthology called The Insecurity of Freedom: the essay is entitled "Religion and Race." Here are his words:

Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God's beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a child: to torture his child? How can we hear the word "race" and feel no self-reproach?

Decades later, we encounter Ta-Nahisi Coates' heartbreaking letter to his 15-year old son about being black in America - Between the World and Me. It's painful reading. Coates tries to update the letter James Baldwin wrote to his 15-year old nephew. Following this "tradition," I have written a letter on being white and Jewish to my 14-year-old daughter on race in America and our Jewish responsibility for all of humanity straight from Genesis. It seems at times if for every step forward on matters of race in America, we take long steps back.

 It's time to restore a very delicate equilibrium that has gone awry. We may never get back to the Garden of Eden, but in a broken world, we still need to aspire to the wholeness we once had. 

Shabbat Shalom