Erev Yom Kippur 2015 Privilege

Erev Yom Kippur – Privilege

Judaism is at its core an ethical religion.  It deals from the very beginning in the book of Genesis, with the first crime committed – the murdering of Abel by his brother Cain.  God asks Cain after the crime, “Where is your brother?” Cain answers, mockingly, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”


It was not that God did not know where Abel was, nor was God was unaware of what happened.  God was holding up a mirror to Cain reflecting back to him what his actions were.  God wanted Cain to understand a deep truth – we are each other’s keeper.  We are responsible for one another.

In today’s society it is a lesson we struggle with.

When I say terms ageism, sexism, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, classism or able-bodied-ism I am sure we can all think of an image of someone who is discriminated against in some form or fashion.  Perhaps we think about white supremacists waving a confederate flag, while burning a cross on the lawn of someone who they disagree with. We often think of it as an isolated incidents.  But what I want to talk about today is not that type of oppression.

As a Jewish young adult, I remember going to Girl Scout camp and my bunkmates learning that I was Jewish.  One asked me where my horns were.  She looked at my head closely that evening as I brushed my hair and I told her, “I had no horns!” I came home and asked my mom what she meant by that question, my mother said it was a silly thing that ignorant people thought that Jews had horns.

Most of us rarely encounter anti-Semitism, yet it is something that we are all aware of.  Last year at this time a drunken man left a message on my voicemail on erev Rosh Hashanah describing destruction that we would face.  He was hallucinating and meant it as a warning coming from love.  Yet as a result of that call, the FBI was called as was the police who investigated to determine who it was and if it was a credible threat.  Though we were given the all clear just a few minutes before services were to start, several people did not attend services that night because of fear for their safety.  We also heard about the shooting at a synagogue in Nashville TN last spring and are aware that while we might not experience it, anti-Semitism is there.  It is a virus lingering just below the surface.

Yet for most of us, we live lives of quiet contentment.  We do not think about the appearance of a violent act as anything but a singular event.  Words like racism, homophobia and classism conjure images in our minds of loss of freedom, verbal and physical violence even death.  They appear to be someone else’s problem.  The problem of blacks, gays and poor people.

But I believe that it is something even more sinister than that.  It is effective because it is linked with a powerful arm – privilege.  We say the word and this brings to mind people who are blessed to be able to afford luxury.  Or, for some of us, it brings to mind reverse discrimination and we feel defensive.

Why anti-Semitism works is that it brings to mind the assumption that the world is and must be like the dominant culture.  Here in the South, our dominate culture is Christian, specifically evangelical.  That dominate-culture leads toward blindness for the “other.”  When there is a public dedication at Veterans Day or Memorial Day we often hear a person speaking says: “In Jesus’s name we pray.” When they say this, they have excluded not only Jews, but Muslim, Hindus, Native American’s and so forth.  I am sure that it was not the speakers intention to exclude, often times they were not even aware that other people might be in the audience.

Racism works similarly because it says the norm and display of power is that of white, while black, Asian, Arab, Native American or Pacific Islander is other.  There is a systemic display of the institution of white, middle or upper class, male, young, heterosexual and able-bodied as “the Norm.”  It is an invisible system around us which we may not even be aware of.

Let me offer you an example of the system and institution.  Peggy McIntosh in her groundbreaking essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege” first published in 1988 came up with a list of 46 ways in which “the Norm” is institutionalized.  I will only share with you a brief smattering.  I want to share this because we have a difficult time thinking about the institutions which are around us, which we help support and support us exclude someone else.

  1. I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time. Just look at who your friends are on Facebook
  1. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.  Even if you meet people, who do you really invite over to your house?
  1. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.  Look at your neighborhood, where do most of you live?
  1. I can go shopping alone most of the time, fairly well assured that I will not be followed or harassed by store detectives.  Have any of you ever been accused of shop lifting?
  1. I can turn on the TV or open the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely and positively represented.  Please just look at a copy of any magazine and see who is in there
  1. When I am told about our national heritage, I am told that people of my color helped make it.
  2. The curriculum my children will be given will testify to the existence of their race and won’t be relegated to a subsection.

Again this is an example. But the same thing could be said about ageism.  We value young, able-bodied people who can carry items.  As a society we look at people who are older as “dated” and unaware of gifts which they have.  That is why movies like the Expendables 1, 2 or 3 is so popular.  It shows old men as still able and that they still know some tricks – it breaks one of the norms our society has.

As a result, it is easy to make the assumption that anyone who is different than the “norm” either does “not exist or must be trying, not very successfully, to be like people of my own race.”

Therefore the term privilege that we think of and deny exists because it makes us uncomfortable is that we think of privilege as a favored state – whether earned or conferred by luck or birth.  A better term is dominance.  There is dominance in our society; it is that of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant culture. Just think of the term “Protestant Work Ethic” coined by economist Max Webber to describe a connection in the relationship between the spiritual life and its subtleties in connection with the material life.  That the evolution from the middle ages to our modern economy took place in Protestant areas of the world were somehow seen to dominate other areas of the globe and that the acquisition of wealth was almost a religious duty – that wasting time and money is a sin.

We live in a bubble denying that other people struggle.  Often we are oblivious to the plight of people other than ourselves.  We tell ourselves: “I am simply trying to live my life.  I am trying to earn money to afford a home.  I worked hard for what I have.”

I would love for us to open that bubble up and be more inclusive of others.  Yet that is hard to do, it takes work and effort.  It can be scary.  It is especially hard when we are fearful of our safety or jealous of what someone else has.  When that happens the true head of Racism, anti-Semitism and Hatred appear.  Recently a Muslim student built a clock and it was thought to have been a bomb by his teacher.  In this case we see a fear that we have about Muslims and a connection with violence.   This fear has been present within us since September 11th.

But fear blinds us, the bubble numbs us and think only of our own struggle clouds our minds to the institutions around us.

We fail to remember a beautiful picture from the book of Genesis – the story is the tower of Babel where everyone was able to come together to build a tower that reached the angels in heaven.  When God saw what the people were capable of, he gave everyone different languages and scattered them.  No longer could we work easily together.  But instead we were going to have to work hard to do something that was once so easy.  We were going to have to struggle to communicate even the most basic ideas.  It became easier to be with people who looked like us, thought like us and talked like us.

It is a hard thing to talk to someone so different than you.  You must be wholly secure with your own identity and open enough to see the other person.   Just ask any married couple how easy communication is.  Now imagine you want to communicate about an idea with someone who is from a different culture than you and how when you say the color red you might think of crimson while someone else will think of maroon.   Even within a community, communication can be challenging.  

When we think about Moses, we think about someone who was strong, he was after all a leader, a prophet, someone who set the pace and the tone for the entire community.  Yet, if you remember well he had a lisp and Aaron, his brother, had to speak for him.  When he was first leading the people, he was exhausted and never slept because he had to deal with various issues – all the time.  His father-in-law, Jethro, a Medianite priest, taught him how to approach leadership differently.  He directed him to delegate so that Moses only had to make decisions for the most challenging cases.

Moses, while dominate, was not totally able bodied nor was he totally knowledgeable in all things.  We are all like Moses in some way.  I am white, and some doors open for me that would not for someone else easily.  Yet, I am Jewish, from the North and am dyslexic.  So other doors will always be a challenge for me.  There is no hierarchy in oppression, in some ways if we were to think about it, all of us have things about us which is different from the “Norm” all of us have some doors which open more easily for us and other doors which will always be a challenge.

There is a strange and magical legend found among many stories about the creation of the world.  The legend tells the story that this world was not the first world that God created, he created others, was discontented with them and destroyed them.  This view of the world describes God as the great Experimenter.  Therefore when God finally created the world he was able to say with justification, “Behold, it is good!”

This summer the Central Conference of American Rabbis embarked on an effort – to find 40 rabbis willing to walk for one day from Selma Al to Washington DC with the NAACP carrying a Torah weighing 18 pounds in an attempt to bring to light issues of racism in this country.  They were hoping for 40 rabbis that each rabbi would carry the Torah for one day and that this would take place in the month of August and into early September (just before the High Holidays) when most rabbis would be away on vacation or busy preparing for this important time of year. Surprisingly they had nearly 200 volunteer.  On Facebook, I saw pictures of my friends and colleagues wearing their yellow shirts, walking on the side of the highway protected by the police who sixty years ago would have harassed them.  Many shared their experiences on a blog and described the feeling of walking as a part of history.

Of his experience, my friend Rabbi David Levy wrote: “America’s journey is not a look back to where we have been, but a journey forward into a better future for our country.  Each step taken is a cry for criminal justice reform, each mile walked is a call for education reform, every sore limb aches for an end to the plague of economic inequality and every day closer to Washington is a day dedicated to restoring voter rights that continue to be denied to many.”

That is what the journey represents – a vision of hope for a better tomorrow.  But before we can achieve a better tomorrow, I am struck by a warning from the head of the modern Mussar movement spoken over a hundred years ago:

“When I was young, I wanted to change the world.  I tried, but the world did not change.  Then I tried to change my town, but the town did not change.  Then I tried to change my family but my family did not change.  Then I knew: I must change myself.” Rabbi Israel Salanter

The idea that we can change the invisible system around us is overwhelming. Simply to become aware of it is the first step.  The question is now armed with a different understanding of dominance, what will we do?

The answer is found in our sacred text.

To rebuild our world…we must rebuild ourselves.  When Moses said that we had a decision to make between life and death, and that literally the commandments were in our hands should we decide to engage with them.  But failing to engage with them and with the world around us prevents us from being a co-creator with God in completing the work of creation.

The amazing thing about significant leaders of our people such as Noah, Abraham and King Hezekiah was that they were described in simple human terms as “walking with God.” Imagine yourself walking please.  When you walk, you walk so naturally, you don’t even think about it.  You go step by step forward, trusting that you won’t fall.  When we say in the Viahvta: “Set these words, which I command you this day, upon your heart.  Teach them faithfully to you children.  Speak of them in your home and on your way,” what we are saying is that we need to walk in the way of God.  If we repent today, the Day of Atonement, but fail to engage the remainder of the time, than we have failed to truly return to God.

Our prophet Micah teaches simply:  “It has been told to you, O mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you – Only this: to do justly, and love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)

It sounds simple.  But it is a hard thing to do.

There is no explanation in the midrash given as to why God chose this world as the one which will endure.  Just when we feel as if there is so much pain in the world; so much heartbreak we must remember that at one moment it satisfied God.  Every day of creation is a blessing which God said was good.  God placed us here to be a co-creator not necessarily because the world is good, but because we have the privilege and the opportunity to make it a better place.  Sometimes when we face the chaos of the world, the pain it can feel overwhelming.  Yet the feeling of futility and frustration can be used to guide us on our way toward a process of acknowledgement and confession.

“The way we rebuild the word is to rebuild ourselves.  We will live by the words of Moses: Not in heaven, not overseas, but in our hearts and on our lips, shall live and grow the creative word of the Living God.” (Rabbi Freehof)

The lesson of Yom Kippur this year for me is that I am my brother’s keeper.  I am imperfect and so is he, but I will love him as I love myself and we will walk on the path of God together as a co-creator working to perfect the world with each step we take.

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