“Teshuvah and Reparations”

A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5782

Yom Kippur brings to a close Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance.  Hopefully, we have spent these days addressing areas in our own lives in need of attention.  We move through our liturgy today with a sense of urgency; these are the final moments as we head towards the closing gates of Neilah

And yet, our tradition says, the gates of repentance are never completely locked.  Despite the urgency to do this now, the sages recognized that repentance, when taken seriously, is not a quick or easy process.  It involves a number of steps:

1.  Recognizing what you did wrong and expressing regret

2.  Stopping the harmful action

3. Confessing and asking for forgiveness

4.  Making the commitment not to repeat past mistakes

5.  Repaying what was taken and receiving forgiveness.

Teshuvah is challenging, to be sure.  And this is just one individual towards another.

This year I’ve been wrestling with teshuvah on a grander scale.

As you may recall, last year I invited people to join me in a learning process about racism.  I’m so pleased that more than a dozen of us gathered about once a month for our “Racism Reading Group”.  We’ve read five books thus far.  It was a wonderful and challenging year of engaging in frank and open discussion.  With a special session on implicit bias, it really became a consciousness raising experience, as we developed a greater awareness of our own subconscious – and sometimes conscious – prejudices as well as ways in which we can become better allies.

Through all of this reading as well as watching compelling programs addressing the experience of Blacks in America, I kept asking myself: How can we possibly do teshuvah?  How can we make it up to Blacks in this country for all that has been taken away from them, opportunities that have been closed off by decades of subjugation?  And yet, how can we not? 

In her powerful book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson, discusses the challenges of taking a first step, the same first step that we talk about in teshuvah: taking ownership of our wrongdoing.

 “Americans are loathe to talk about enslavement,” she writes, “in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world.  Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history.  It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces. 

But in the same way that individuals cannot move forward, become whole and healthy, unless they examine the domestic violence they witnessed as children or the alcoholism that runs in their family, the country cannot become whole until it confronts what was not a chapter in its history, but the basis of its economic and social order.”[i] 

Should we feel guilty for something that happened hundreds of years ago?  Are we to be held responsible?  Dr. Aaron Lazare, Chancellor and Dean at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, addresses these questions in his book On Apology  “…. people are not guilty for actions in which they did not participate.  But just as people take pride in things for which they had no responsibility (such as famous ancestors, national championships of their sports teams or great accomplishments of their nation), so, too, must these people accept the shame (but not guilt) of their family, their athletic teams, and their nations.  Accepting national pride must include willingness to accept national shame when one’s country has not measured up to reasonable standards….  Second, people have benefited from these actions…  the use of slave labor by a nation … may continue to benefit future generations of citizens.  Such beneficiaries, while not guilty, may feel a moral responsibility to those who suffered as a result of the offense.[ii]

Wilkerson makes many comparisons between the German response to its past and the lack of doing so here in the United States.  She relates the experience of a group of German students on a tour of the history of the Third Reich.  When asked if they feel guilt for what the Germans did, they said, “Yes, we are Germans and Germans perpetrated this.  … it is the older Germans who were here who should feel guilt.  We were not here.  We ourselves did not do this. But we do feel that, as the younger generation, we should acknowledge and accept the responsibility.  And for the generations that come after us, we should be the guardians of the truth.”[iii]

Being guardians of the truth about slavery, about Jim Crow, about the struggle for civil rights and the on-going inequities – teaching the truth – doesn’t mean that we are a racist nation today.  It means that we are coming to terms with horrific parts of our past.  Owning that past is difficult and disturbing.  The more I learn, the more I am so deeply ashamed of my country – of its past and of the ways in which racism has embedded itself in all aspects of our society and continues today.

Any guilt we should bear will be dependent upon how we act today – if we enable racism to continue.   Doing teshuvah demands that we commit to not repeating sins of the past and to finding ways to make whole those who have been so wronged and who continue to suffer from our nation’s sins.

Last week, a statue of Robert E. Lee, the first of six Confederate monuments to be erected on what become known as Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, once the capital of the Confederacy, was the last to be removed, following a year of legal struggles.  Though these statues were once at the heart of Richmond’s identity, events of recent years, including the riots in Charlottesville and the murder of George Floyd, along with the growing diversity of Richmond itself, have brought about changes such that the statues were removed without a huge public backlash, as might have been anticipated.   One longtime resident, Irv Cantor, who is white, expressed his own evolution on the issue, “I was naively thinking that we could keep these statues and just add new ones to show the true history, and everything would be fine…Now I understand the resentment that folks have toward these monuments.  I don’t think they can exist anymore.”[iv]

The successful removal of these monuments also reflects decades of work on racial reconciliation in the city.   It has not been, nor will it be, a straight path moving forward.   Certainly, everyone does not agree with Mr. Cantor.  

At Third Church, a mostly white, largely conservative congregation, Pastor Corey Widmer has been working hard to help his congregants accept the directions in which the country is moving about race.  “There’s so much fear and so much political polarization,” he said.   “…Every pastor in Richmond who is trying to help white Christians see Black Americans’ perspective and “reckon with our own responsibility has really been grieved by the conflict and pain that it has caused.”

 “And yet this is how we change. Face it head on. Work through it. Love each other. Try to stay at the table. And just keep working. I don’t know what else to do.”[v]

Of course, these statues are symbolic of deeper core issues, struggles about who gets to define America’s history and how we understand the nature of racism in our country.

Though removal of these symbols is only the beginning, it is an important step in addressing the pain of Black Americans and demonstrating that, as a nation, we are taking responsibility for our past.  We know well the impact of symbols, the pain we experience when vandals either acting out of hate or just seeking attention, scratch swastikas outside synagogues or other Jewish institutions.  Rightfully we demand a swift response from authorities. 

In Germany, displaying a swastika is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.  And Germany has no monuments that celebrate the Nazi armed forces.  Rather, they have built monuments and memorials to the victims of the Nazi atrocities and museums to preserve and educate about this dark chapter in their history.  They even paved over Hitler’s bunker.

Gary Flowers, a Black radio show host in Richmond, planned to celebrate the removal of Lee’s statue “by telling pictures of his dead relatives that ‘the humiliation and agony and pain [they] suffered has been partly lifted.’”[vi]

Removing these offensive symbols is one of the steps of reparations that America needs to do to make teshuvah for its treatment of Blacks.

Yes, I said reparations.  Reparations is an essential step in our process of teshuvah.  We are required to make up to the person wronged for what we have done.  According to Maimonides, we are to repay what was taken, with interest.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln called for reparations: “let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds.. to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

That call has yet to be followed up.  In fact, after the war, Lincoln supported reparations to former slave owners for the loss of their human property.  Andrew Johnson vetoed a bill for reparations for the formerly enslaved.

How does one make restitution to a people degraded and dehumanized by 250 years of slavery, by 90 years of Jim Crow and on-going systematic racism that discriminates and subjugates people based on the color of their skin?

Racial inequity is present in virtually every aspect of American life. 

According to a 2016 study of the wealth gap between blacks and whites, if disparities in wealth continue at current rates, it would take Black families 228 years to amass the wealth that white families have now. (Caste, 381)

Black women experience maternal deaths at three to four times that of white women.

Black infants are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthday compared to white babies.

Blacks are incarcerated at a rate 5.1 times higher than that of whites.[vii]

And the list goes on.

The questions surrounding reparations are numerous to be sure:  to whom are reparations owed?  How does one measure suffering and damages?  What would be adequate payment?  What forms should reparations take?  And, fundamentally, how would reparations change the social conditions that perpetuate the offense?[viii]

We do know of reparations in modern history:  Germany paid reparations to the government of Israel for Holocaust survivors; our government made reparations to Japanese Americans interned in WWII.  These payments were but one part of the process of teshuvah; they represented taking ownership of the wrong and they did provide some help to the victims.

There have been numerous attempts over the years to put forward federal legislation to explore reparations.  HR 40, a bill to establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans was first introduced in 1989 and reintroduced every year in Congress since.  At its Biennial convention in 2019 our Reform movement voted in favor of establishing such a commission.   Finally, this past April, the proposal was moved from the judiciary committee to the House floor for a vote.  President Biden has agreed to sign it once it gains approval in Congress.

Even as federal legislation is still in doubt, changes are taking place slowly on the local level.  Universities such as Brown and Georgetown have established scholarships for descendants of slaves whose owners were affiliated with that school. 

The Minneapolis Council of Churches has established a 10-year project that will include Truth and Reconciliation commissions; Diversity, Equity and Inclusion trainings in congregations; and reparations to Black and Indigenous people of color for the harm done by white supremacy in Minnesota.

Reparations is not only financial; it also involves institutional change.

Our teshuvah means ensuring that everyone has access to one of most important elements of our democratic society – the right to vote.  At Vassar Temple our Civic Engagement committee continues to work through our movement’s “Every Voice, Every Vote Campaign” to fight voter suppression.  We continue to have non-partisan postcard writing projects to people who may be in danger of being dropped from the roles, encouraging them to register.  At the same time, we need legislation that will ensure that this essential right is available and accessible to all eligible voters.  An agreement may be at hand in Congress to pass a voting rights bill. 

Some white Jews may say that with the rise of antisemitism, that should be our priority, not racism.  It is true, antisemitism is on the rise and is of great concern.  But we have learned and seen time again, hate is not limited to one group.    Where there is antisemitism, racism is there as well, and vice versa.  Besides, 12-15% of the Jewish community are people of color.  Fighting racism is an act of solidarity with fellow Jews. White supremacy is our collective enemy, and we must commit to dismantling it.[ix]

We will have an opportunity in a few weeks to participate in a such an expression of solidarity.  I hope that you will join me on Sunday, October 3rd at 2 pm. for a United March Against Hate downtown, co-sponsored thus far by Jewish Federation, the Dutchess County Commission on Human Rights, the Dutchess County African American Clergy Association and the “All-For-One” organization.

As our nation takes initial steps to make teshuvah, each of us is called upon to examine our own responsibility for enabling racism.  Wilkerson reminds of us that we have the power to change the status quo: 

“A caste system persists in part because we, each and every one of us, allow it to exist- in large and small ways, in our everyday actions, in how we elevate or demean embrace or exclude, on the basis of the meaning attached to people’s physical traits.  … we have a choice.  We can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate.  We can be born to a subordinate caste but resist the box others force upon us.  And all of us can sharpen our powers of discernment to see past the external and to value the character of a person rather than demean those who are already marginalized or worship those born to false pedastals.”[x]

During these days of Repentance, we are held accountable for our actions.  Now we prepare again to confess our sins and plea to God for forgiveness through the Al Chet prayer.  Though written in the plural voice, the Al Chet includes sins that we as individuals surely did not commit.  And yet, we stand in solidarity with the larger community.  We recognize that we are complicit in the sins of society and that we obligated to work with others to strive to eradicate them.

Before we turn to that prayer, I want to conclude with excerpts of an Al Chet prayer written by Yavila McCoy, a pioneer of the Jewish diversity and equity movement.  I hope that you will carry into your prayers and actions the sentiments incorporated in her words:

I am saying Al Chet

For the sins we have committed through conscious and unconscious racial bias.

For the sins we have committed through hardening our hearts to the need for change.

For the sins of colluding with racism both openly and secretly.

For the sins we have committed through uttering racist words.

For the sins we have committed through acts of racial micro-aggression.

I am saying Al Chet

For the sins we have committed through the denial of the tzelem elokim (the divine spark) within Black bodies.

For the sins we have committed through segregating Black bodies from participation and leadership within our institutions.

For the sins we have committed in deceiving others by not teaching our children the worth, value and contributions of Black people.

For all these sins, we seek pardon, forgiveness and atonement.

For the sins of racism we have committed through passing judgement.

For the sins of racism that we have committed through baseless hatred.

For the sins of racism that we have committed through turning a blind-eye to pain and suffering around us.

For the sins of racism that we have committed by not seeing racism as an evil among us.

For the sins of racism that we have committed by not committing to end it.

For all these, we seek pardon, forgiveness and atonement.[xi]

[i] Isabel Wilkerson, Caste:  The Origins of Our Discontents, p. 43

[ii] Aaron Lazare, On Apology, p. 41-42

[iii] Wilkerson, p. 349

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/08/us/robert-e-lee-statue-virginia.html?referrer=masthead

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] https://urj.org/what-we-believe/resolutions/resolution-study-and-development-reparations-slavery-and-systemic

[viii] Lazare, p. 132

[ix] https://reformjudaism.org/blog/addressing-antisemitism-while-keeping-our-eyes-collective-freedom-and-racial-justice

[x] Wilkerson, p. 380

[xi] https://www.truah.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Al_Chet_for_Racism_Yavilah_McCoy.pdf

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