At this hard moment in America’s passage – an unarmed man killed in a police chokehold in Minneapolis, another killed by police in Atlanta, protesters in the streets, enduring issues about race and justice in the air – we might pose a simple question for ourselves:
Truly, what would Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian, philosopher and civil rights activist, do?
Rabbi Heschel, unforgettably captured in photographs marching beside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965, died almost a half century ago. But his commitment to justice and his application of the values of the Jewish people to the struggle for black equality remain a beacon – an eternal light, you might say – in the darkness of American race relations. Unable to have a conversation with the rabbi himself, I dialed up his daughter, Susannah Heschel.
“My father would be horrified not only by the murder of George Floyd but also by the murder of so many other black people,” she told me. “It would bring him back to his own life in Nazi Germany and what happened to his family. When I was growing up, he would always tell me that poverty meant there was a system in place to keep you without money, and he would talk about it in personal terms because we lived at the edge of Harlem, and that powered his struggle against racism.”
Rabbi Heschel crossed that bridge with King and the other activists of the civil rights era. Now all of us, in the weeks after the death of George Floyd, are crossing another bridge, into a new era and a new phase of the civil rights struggle.
Let’s listen again to Rabbi Heschel’s daughter, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College and keeper of that eternal flame of her father’s faith and fortitude:
“And he would be very glad to see such a broad coalition marching right now, all over the country, happy to see so many Americans – so many Jews – supporting their black neighbors. But he would be outraged that blacks were dying of COVID-19 at rates far greater than whites. He would be asking us to confront what white supremacy was, and he would say that we were called upon not only to protest but also to heal and to hope. That is something that my father would offer.”
Indeed, this is a moment to heal and to hope.
The healing will take a while. The hope is beginning to sprout, with particular determination among Jews, who have discovered with recent events that while they may be liberated from servitude in ancient times and more recently in Soviet Russia, they are not free from fear in modern America – fear fortified in my Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
“There’s so much work that needs to be done to eliminate hate from our words and our deeds,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who watched 11 of his Tree of Life congregants be killed only three blocks from my Pittsburgh home in 2018, told me the other day. “It is imperative to listen. To me this period speaks for the need for unity and common purpose.”
This June moment prompts an approach reminiscent of – if you will permit an incongruous image in a Jewish newspaper – the profile of Janus, the ancient Roman god of beginnings who is famous in mythology for having simultaneously looked in two directions. For Jews at this juncture, one of those directions is outward and one is inward.
First, the inward.
Former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat who shattered the stained-glass window when he was the party’s 2000 vice-presidential nominee, believes it is time for great introspection among Jews.
“Everybody should be thinking deeply about this,’’ he said in a conversation this week. “But to me, fundamental to being Jewish is the whole narrative of the Bible, which says we are not here by accident – that there is a creator – and that we are all created in God’s image. But there is more. God re-enters history through Moses and liberates the children of Israel from slavery, which to me says that freedom is our birthright. All that is on the line here.’’
It is not productive to engage in the current, pointless controversy over how many Jews of color there are in the United States. Whether the percentage is in single digits or double digits, the important thing is that Jews are diverse in many ways, including skin color, and inclusion – a notion sometimes in the past honored only in the breach among Jews – increasingly is regarded as a signature value in our community.
“It is inexcusable for any person of color to feel excluded in the Jewish community,” said Edmund C. Case, founder and president of the Newtonville-based Center for Radically Inclusive Judaism. “The basic problem in the world is hate. We should do whatever we can to eliminate hate in the world, and this is the moment to do that.”
This is the moment for Jews literally to practice in the pews what Jews preach from the pulpits.
“The Jewish world is not immune to the racism with which American society continues to struggle,” said April Baskin, the former Union for Reform Judaism vice president for “audacious hospitality” who now is the racial-justice director for the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. “A good first step is for more Jewish institutions to release timely public statements explicitly expressing their commitment to combating anti-black racism. Now is a time for Jews and Jewish communal leaders to dream big about how much more racially inclusive and informed our community can be.”
Now, the outward.
Six years before he became president, Abraham Lincoln looked at the growth of the political movement known as the Know Nothings, an anti-black, anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish group so named because when its adherents were questioned about it, they were instructed to say they knew nothing. In a letter to a friend in 1855, the Springfield lawyer answered his correspondent this way:
“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ ”
The great alliance between two great peoples historically regarded as outsiders – blacks and Jews – flourished during the civil rights movement, only to encounter stormy days in the last quarter of the 20th century. Jews cherish their legacy from the days of Rev. King, of feeling a sense of shared mission and fellowship with African Americans because of what Alfred Kazin, speaking of the Jewish experience in his classic “A Walker in the City,” described as “the many eras of pain, of dispersion, of cringing before the powers of this world!”
Former Sen. Lieberman, who in 1963 went to Mississippi to help register blacks to vote and who attended that year’s March on Washington, called the episode in Minneapolis “a horrific, galvanizing moment in American history,” one that he said reminded him of the many eras of pain that Kazin described. “My reaction is as a human being but as a post-Holocaust Jew, and what that cop did to George Floyd reminded me of what the Nazis did to millions of Jews,’’ he said. “We especially have an obligation to fight for equality, but there also are perplexing, enormous gaps between whites and blacks in income and disproportionate likelihood of being abused by law enforcement.”
Irving Howe once wrote that the Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem “believed in Jews as they embodied the virtues of powerlessness and the healing resources of poverty, as they stood firm against the outrage of history.” Today American Jews generally no longer are powerless, nor do they experience the healing resources of poverty, but we still can stand firm against the outrage of history.
This is the moment to stand firm, to stand up – and to remember one of the often-forgotten lessons of the life of Moses, whose father-in-law, Jethro, may in the view of some scholars have been dark-skinned. Jethro was a great mentor to the Jewish leader, who in turn said to him, “And if you go with us, then the good which the Lord shall do to us we shall do to you …”
One of the Torah portions in this difficult month of testing portrays the Israelites in a moment of discontent, challenging Moses because of their complaints about the lack of meat in their encampment. My daughter, Rabbi Natalie Louise Shribman, spoke of the disheartened Moses’ initial reluctance to lead in her sermon for her congregation, Temple Beth El in Dubuque, Iowa: “Moses’s desire to do anything but lead is not one that we should aspire for in our time of distress. We have to carry the burden of leadership and raise our voices, fighting for justice and equality in our ever-broken world. We have to be responsible and act responsibly. We cannot be silent and avoid the problems of our world.”
Her view is an extension of the charge that Rabbi Joachim Prinz, an outspoken critic of Hitler and a civil-rights activist, presented in his speech just before the “I have a dream” speech Rev. King delivered at the March on Washington in 1963:
“Our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”
That collective history is a challenge to all of us – a special challenge for a people who have retained their hope through a difficult history – to strive to assure that, as the Irish poet Seamus Heaney put it 30 years ago, “hope and history rhyme.” Now, to extend the rhyme, is the time.
David M. Shribman received the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his writing on American political culture. A North Shore native, he was executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 16 years and led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life massacre that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.