Kol Nidre 5780 “Intentional About the Unintentional”
- MORAL MYOPIC RECKLESSNESS
As the summer of 1787 faded to fall, the free people of the United States, finding the Constitution folded into their newspapers and almanacs, were asked to decide whether or not to ratify it, even as they went about baling hay, milling corn, tanning leather, singing hymns. The historian, Jill Lepore presents this image in her book, These Truths: A History of the United States.[i] [ii] She goes on to describe how they read this strange, intricate document, and debated its plan. Some feared that the new system granted too much power to the federal government …[while others]…wanted the Constitution to include a bill of rights.
And then she offers a stark contradiction:
The proposed Constitution ran in the October 30, 1787 issue of the newspaper, New-York Packet, where articles and ads appeared side by side. And there right beside the Constitution was also a notice: “two people, for a price: TO BE SOLD. A LIKELY young NEGRO WENCH, 20 years of age, she is healthy and had the small pox, she has a young male child. The mother was said to be “remarkably handy at housework”; her baby was “about six months old,” still nursing.”
It takes your breath away.
Just three years later, President George Washington was welcomed to the Newport Rhode Island synagogue in a letter cooperatively offered by leaders of five congregations. They wanted to ensure this newly established country would recognize the Jewish community and wrote of their pride in the new government. “which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance – but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship…”
President Washington replied:
“Gentlemen, It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should [humble] themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants-while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
[Signed] G. Washington
How can we read these words today and not feel the deep hypocrisy of allowing a whole group of human beings to be ignored and deprived of their dignity?
When these sentiments from the Jewish Community, echoed by President Washington spoke of “giving bigotry no sanction and persecution no assistance” could they not see that they had enshrined two tiers of humanity in the Constitution itself, unequivocally sanctioning and assisting bigotry and persecution?
Today it’s easy to see the blatant and intentional ignorance of the forebears of our country. Self interest and moral indifference prevented them from seeing, feeling, and recognizing the humanity of those they had enslaved. Instead, they explicitly bought, sold, and disregarded human beings.
Years before 1619 when the first people from Africa were brought in shackles to the shores of Virginia, Europeans who had landed in the new world had already ignored or destroyed indigenous nations living here by stealing their lands, causing the death of many and imperiling their way of life itself.
These very Europeans initiated a culture, economy, and worldview that accepted and promoted slavery. Owning and exploiting other humans from Africa, subjugating them across generations and isolating them by force of law and a lie and blasphemy about God-given racial inferiority was fundamental to the business model of the very enterprise of coming to the new world. The New York Times’ 1619 Project detailed the impact of that year and its effects ever after, still real in our own time.
On Yom Kippur, we say Al Cheyt…..,
for wrongdoings perpetuated, I offer this additional Al Cheyt today:
For the explicit racism and indignities wrought upon the black community from the time of slavery to this day,
For a legacy of buying, selling, and bequeathing human beings,
For Jim Crow laws,
For use of legal trickery to take property from Black landowners,
The school to prison pipeline,
For pseudo psychological and bogus scientific promotion of a hierarchy based on race.
For our leaders who speak in language of bigotry and intolerance,
and excusing themselves from responsibility,
For the explicit expression of hatred, discrimination, and animosity perpetuated upon human beings, all created in the image of the Divine.
Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
For laws that furthered prejudice like the Naturalization Act of 1790 that “restricted citizenship only to any [immigrant] being a free white person” (and male).
And many others laws that extended discrimination like The Chinese Exclusion Act that remained on the books until 1943.
For all the “soaked up centuries”[iii] of discrimination, exclusion, bias, and fear.
Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
Jewish tradition is clear. For transgressions against God, Yom Kippur atones, but for transgressions against another person, we must earn and ask for forgiveness.
For explicit acts, we will need explicit transformation.[iv] There is much work to be done to alter the landscape with regard to the egregious and outrageous system employed upon people of color in this country.
We know that it is not enough just to ask for forgiveness for the acts of hatred and the system of conscious degradation of some people and cultures; it takes so much more. It takes overcoming a moral myopic recklessness that may not even be conscious, but has flowed in and co-opted the streams of American history and experience.
- EXPLICIT TO IMPLICIT
What happens when we see that which has been here, that which has penetrated deeply into the ways we understand and organize our minds?
On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke of the scourge of antisemitism, baseless, irrational, relentless hatred toward the Jews. It is intolerable and cannot be ignored. When we cite antisemitism, as Deborah Lipstadt has pointed out, [v] we must also draw our attention to all forms of hate that exist and there is a long list. For even more, antisemitism is the ill-fated canary in the coalmine. When hatred and “othering” has happened to the Jews, many more communities and groups are not far behind.
It is seductive to think that we are not responsible for the societal persistence on bigotry. America’s discrimination was set in motion so long ago. On this day of telling the truth to become aware of our best selves, are we not strong enough to see, to listen, and to focus on the ways we have transgressed? In the worlds we travel in, as opposed to that of the white supremacists, none of us want to be thought of as racist, sexist, antisemitic, Islamaphobic, homophobic, xenophobic or prejudiced in any way. To be labeled with these claims is a terrible insult. So let me be clear, I am not making this accusation.
Some of us, no…
Many of us, no…
ALL of us engage in unconscious, unintentional bias as we move through the days of our lives, but it doesn’t make us any of the above insults. Bias is woven so deeply into the fabric of the culture and worlds in which we live, we may not even notice it or be cognizant of it. We think we know what we see, but very often-perhaps even routinely– our assumptions are deeply compromised and inaccurate, often at great peril to those we encounter as we navigate through even the most ordinary of our routines.
Abraham Joshua Heschel recognized the power of individuals to become conscious of their surroundings, to awaken in every way our individual ability to perceive what is actually in the world around us, personally and communally. He said that the principle to be kept in mind is to know what we see NOT to see what we know.[vi]
To see what we know becomes a cognitive shortcut[vii] that can turn into a preconceived notion. It is often unconscious and results in what is called implicit bias. Therefore, to know what we see takes great work.
The spiritual act of lifting one’s eyes and beholding what is in front of us or inside of us opens up a whole new perspective. And it is hard work.
One way to start the process is from a personal and deeper place, which summons each of us to begin by truly and honestly knowing what we see.
Here is a riddle: a father and his son go for a bike ride. They accidentally ride off the road and flip over their bikes. Each is unconscious, wounded and taken immediately to separate hospitals. The son urgently needed to go into surgery. Everything was set. The surgeon was quickly ushered in and took one look at the boy on the table and declared, “I can’t operate, this child is my son!” (Don’t worry, they found another surgeon.) How could it be that the surgeon could not operate?
When I challenged my kids with this riddle already a decade ago, they knew right away what the issue was. The boy had two dads, one of whom was the surgeon. Pleased as I was with their awareness of such a reality, it wasn’t actually the answer I had anticipated. My expectation was that they would say that the surgeon was the boy’s mother! When I first heard it, it stumped many people–including me–because the perception was clear about the male gender of a surgeon.
Recently the Journal of the American Medical Association published an extensive study[viii] on biases toward female surgeons. They asked this question: Do surgeons and health care professionals hold implicit or explicit biases regarding gender and career roles? Their definition of implicit bias is helpful.
“Implicit biases, or mental associations outside of conscious awareness or control that influence one’s interactions with others, may hinder the advancement of… [you fill in the blank.] Sometimes, implicit biases lead people to act in ways that are not in line with their explicit beliefs or values.”
They concluded: Awareness of the existence of implicit biases is an important first step toward minimizing their potential effect.
Years ago, when 17 year old Trayvon Martin was shot dead by a racist self appointed neighborhood watchman, President Obama spoke about what had happened, saying: “…in families, in churches, and in workplaces [as opposed to the political arena], there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?”
Each of us can look within ourselves rather than pointing any figures outward.
Self-awareness has the potential to begin to minimize the potential effect of implicit bias because it starts by asking President Obama’s question. Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?
If we name it, we can own it. If we own it we can change it.
In the past few years, a number of our members have shared their personal experiences. One woman of color told me that as she was retrieving her own coat from the coatroom after a Temple meeting, another person walked in and handed her their coat with the assumption that our member was there as a coat checker. Others have been greeted as if they could not possibly belong to Temple Israel.
We know for some that having a police presence in front of our building is the opposite of feeling secure because of the anxiety it triggers even while it has a calming effect on others.
And then there are what are supposed to be passing comments but whose impact touches bigotry or prejudice based on assumption about one’s skin color, gender, sexuality, height, weight or some other identifying feature.
There is another realization that is part of this as well. Jews are diverse. We come from all over the world. We are Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Mizrachi. We come from Yemen, Africa, Brazil and everywhere else. Jews of color make up 12-15% of the American Jewish population.[ix] We need to recognize and lift up the full diversity that makes up our community.
So, are we being overly corrective, too sensitive, forced to walk on eggshells with regard to what we might say or do?
I don’t think so. We need to be sensitive. We can take care with our words and actions because our tradition teaches that every person is created in the image of God. The Talmud teaches that because of this no one can say that one is better than the other. All of us are linked to the Divine and deserve to be treated with respect.
The more we know how to challenge our first impressions and complicate our thinking by learning more, and seeking out engagement with the experience of others who live outside of the echo chambers of our lives, the more we work for impartiality and inclusion and the more our vision will create openings for connection and relationship in new ways.
III. FROM IMPLICIT BIAS TO LOVE
Therefore, if we know implicit and unconscious bias, we can own it. If we own it we can change it.
Rebbe Nachman said: if we believe we can break it, let us also believe we can fix it. We are here because the world is broken and we are, too. Our redemption is to be part of the solution.
When we just stood before the open ark after the Torah scrolls moved through the sanctuary as witness to our good intention to right the wrongs, to overcome our transgressions and to beseech God and humanity for forgiveness, we invoked sacred words from the Torah.
God says: I have forgiven you as you asked.
Therefore, we have already been forgiven for our trespasses. But we can’t go home yet.
So, what do we do? How can we be better?
The heart of Yom Kippur is about a willingness to love another as we can learn to love ourselves. To face our own unconscious bias of others is to recognize that our intention is for good. It is to begin to employ Heschel’s challenge to know what we see not to see what we know.
Just as antisemitism is not a Jewish problem to be solved by the Jewish community alone, bigotry and prejudice belong to us all, even when we unintentionally misstep. We have the capability to improve ourselves and in doing so to set in motion a process that will contribute far beyond our own experience.
Here in our own home of Temple Israel, we have recently moved to a new level of intentionality, by beginning to examine the unconscious biases experienced at and through our congregation. This summer, our entire staff spent time exploring implicit bias and identifying opportunities to create a different kind of environment right here. Our Board of Trustees is set to focus on this topic during an upcoming retreat and our leaders and more of the community will do the same in the coming months. Our goal is a sustained transformation among us.
If we expect the Government of the United States to truly give bigotry no sanction, and persecution no assistance then the best place to start is with us in the safety and security of our own congregation and in our own lives. And then we can take these tools with us out into the world. We may not get it right all the time-we won’t get it right all the time–but examining what we know reveals that we have lots of learn and reminds us that the stakes are high. We have to be willing to try.
This isn’t a program or an initiative. Our goal is a culture shift, an awareness that summons behavior change. Let us envision the kind of community we can be. To alter the landscape of implicit bias is a practice just as compassion, matter-ness, justice, learning, and nurturing the spirit are. They are all tied together as part of what it means to be connected to and responsible for one another within the Temple Israel orbit and beyond. It is embedded in our mission and values and intrinsic to Judaism.
It is 2019, 5780 in our Jewish calendar and 232 years since the Constitution of the United States was adopted. Al cheyt…for all the ways we have unconsciously engaged in bias, bigotry and prejudice. We ask forgiveness. But we also say: Al Hatikkun, for the repair we can make. With that we pledge to try hard first to know what we see not to see what we know. And we commit to making choices that ensure liberty, compassion, and righteous dignity as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion for all souls of this beautiful country we call home.
I conclude with President Washington’s original blessing altered for our own day.
May the children of the stock of Abraham and Sarah, and all in the Jewish orbit, who dwell in this land continue to earn the merit and ensure good will and intention toward all inhabitants-while every one shall sit in safety under his, her and their own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make them afraid.
We are all in this together.
So may it be.