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Saturday, October 31, 2020

When Torah and Politics Align

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Rabbi Robin Podolsky
Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches Jewish Thought at California State University at Long Beach and serves as affiliated clergy at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock. She strives to live and teach a Judaism that is rich with answers and productive questions for people who seek meaning, justice, and kindness in a complex world. She Rabbi Podolsky has published articles in the Journal of Jewish Ethics, the Pluralist, Response, and European Judaism.

Anyone who can protest against the transgressions of one’s household and does not, is liable for the actions of the members of the household; anyone who can protest against the transgressions of one’s townspeople and does not, is liable for the transgressions of the townspeople; anyone who can protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not is liable for the transgressions of the entire world. (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 54b-55a)

The human was created from a single person so that no one can say to another, “My father is greater than your father.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

On June 3, thousands of Angelenos — mostly but not all young, and in every shade of human skin — came together to demonstrate angrily and nonviolently that we will not stand for the killing of black people, whether by police or by racist vigilantes. We met at the Hall of Justice and marched toward City Hall to accommodate the thousands who arrived. People were careful and kind with one another. Volunteers brought bottles of water — and flowers — to give away. We walked through downtown without molesting a single business, calling out the names of the dead.

We expressed respect for the incalculable value of each irreplaceable human life. A Torah value, certainly. The best way to manifest that value is to insist, in the face of systemic racism, that Black Lives Matter.

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others were not isolated incidents and were the result of social structure. There has not been a time in American history when the hierarchy of rights and privileges was not racialized (“race” being a socially construed idea, not a fact, because there is only one human race). The conquest of this continent was justified with the notion that European colonizers were better fit to be in power than indigenous people.

When it became clear enslaved Africans and white indentured servants, especially in Southern states, might band together to improve their lot (see Bacon’s Rebellion), legal differences between white and black people became law, custom and ideology. Blackness and slavery became equivalent conditions.

Our Torah aligns with our urgent political interests.

After the Civil War, Jim Crow laws institutionalized racial discrimination in employment, housing, marriage and every other facet of life. These were not overturned until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed after years of activism.  But racist institutions and beliefs were and are not confined to the South — nor are they in the past. The effects remain. Caucasian average wealth now is 6.7% greater than black average wealth. Black bodies are policed differently and more lethally than are white bodies — as they have been since our country’s founding.

Which brings us back to our stake in all this. Our Torah is clear. Every person is an instantiation of the image of God, created to be equal in God’s eyes. Any violation of that principle ought to spur us to action.

And in this case, our Torah aligns with our urgent political interests.

Those of us who are white or pass as white — and not all Jews are white — have privilege to leverage in support of those who are persecuted. 

Our enemies were in the streets, too, in recent weeks. Multiple sources have documented the movement of Proud Boys, the boogaloo crowd and other white supremacist groups toward the protests. They seek to disrupt and discredit. They also hate us.

Eric K. Ward of JCPA’s Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice team analyzed the indispensable role anti-Semitism plays in the ideology of white supremacy. Those who believe in the intellectual inferiority of people of color need a scapegoat to blame for the emergence of people of color into national leadership and the fight for their own rights. They need the figure of the supernaturally clever Jew who must be conspiring to replace white people with people of color, whom the racists deem malleable to Jewish ends. Adherents of this movement already have come to our synagogues and killed.

All Jews need to unite with people of color to defeat this common enemy. Our Torah and our survival demand it.


Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches at Cal State Long Beach and blogs.

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