Access to the Blessing: George Floyd, Our Privilege, and White Supremacy: Rabbi Jill Maderer

Rabbi Maderer delivered this sermon on June 5, 2020. 

Our congregation mourns the brutal killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others whose stories we see in the news and whose stories we do not see in the news, such as Tony McDade.

Tony McDade was a Black transgender man killed in Tallahassee, Florida, on May 27. His death is believed to be the at least 12th violent death of a transgender or gender non-conforming person this year in the U.S.  A toxic mix of transphobia, racism and misogyny put black people, LGBTQ people, and especially LGBTQ people of color at greater risk for violence every day. 

The original Gay Pride—the uprising at the Stonewall Inn police raid, June 28, 1969 in Greenwich Village that launched the gay rights movement—the original Gay Pride, was not a parade. Stonewall was a riot.  And Tony McDade’s story reminds us: Stonewall was led by trans women of color. The most vulnerable; the most powerless. As the Human Rights Campaign stated this week in response to racial injustice, “We understand what it means to… push back against a culture that tells us that our lives don’t matter.”

This Shabbat, as we launch Pride month, and this season as we are shaken out of our of pandemic hibernation perspective to see more clearly the systemic racism that was always present, let us recommit to dismantle white supremacy and all of its parts: homophobia, racism, transphobia, antisemitism and sexism.

Rabbi Freedman and I have been in conversation with colleagues of color, listening, learning, both physically and metaphorically standing with them and taking a knee with them, seeking to more deeply understand how to transform ourselves and our world. 

The destruction and looting in our city bring yet another layer of loss and fear to an already challenging time of pandemic in our lives. I am thinking of all of you in our Rodeph Shalom family, with love, and prayers for safety.  And I want to be careful, that the focus on looting, does not eclipse the focus on the injustices of white supremacy.

To begin with our Rodeph Shalom family, this week, I spoke with one of our congregants who is African American, who gave me permission to share. She expressed her sadness at the destruction, especially for a neighborhood grocery and small businesses — including black-owned businesses– targeted by looters. She shared her pain in witnessing how differently disobedience is treated, depending on race.  When white men armed with guns in Michigan, or white men armed with baseball bats in Fishtown protest, there’s no tear gas. And then she added, Jews have been there too, facing discrimination. And Jews are always there with others, advocating for civil rights.  Stay with us, she said. She believes in her Jewish community’s commitment to stand with her.  And so do I.

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, is the origin of the beloved words of Birkat ha-cohanim/the three-fold priestly benediction:

Yivarechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha/ May God bless you and keep you.

Ya-er Adonai panav elecha vichuneka/ May God’s light shine upon you and be good to you.

Yisa Adonai panav elecha, y’yasem l’cha shalom / May God’s presence be with you, and bring you peace.

Consider with me: what is the meaning of those words?

Line 1: Yivarechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha/ May God bless you and keep you.

What does it mean for God to bless us?  Traditional commentary teaches the word “bless” indicates basic material needs. Each of us should have what we need. Simply put, it is not fair if I have what I need and you do not, for I am no more deserving than you.

In this moment, it is critical that we hear: we do not all have what we need.  In our nation’s history, we never have.  

Most of us identify with groups that are targeted by white supremacy—when my grandfather built his business, he had to physically stay there all night to protect his property from local anti-semitic vandals; some of us identify with groups that benefit from white supremacy—that same grandfather returned from World War II to the GI Bill—a mortgage black men could not access; my grandfather built his business, and his wealth, and I had a college fund, before I learned how to spell my name. Some of us identify with groups that are targeted by white supremacy; some of us identify with groups that on the surface, benefit from white supremacy. Many of us identify with both at the same time. 

But are financial or other gains that rely on white supremacy, really a benefit? If I am entitled to a college fund, in a society originally built on the enslavement of human beings, does that really benefit me? If, as was my experience 19 years ago, I can get job interviews knowing my colleague was rejected because she was queer, does that really benefit me?  Is that the world I wish to inhabit? What does that do to my soul? To our soul? How can we be whole, in our privilege, how can we be whole knowing others are not?

To put King’s words “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” into religious, Parashat Naso terms: Only when all of us have access to the blessing, can any of us really be blessed.

Line 2: Ya-er Adonai panav elecha vichuneka/ May God’s light shine upon you and be good to you.

What does it mean for God’s light to shine upon us? Torah commentary suggests God’s light indicates divine purpose.  What is God’s purpose for you, for me?  Our circumstance – our privilege– helps to determine: for what are we responsible?

Privilege. Some of us have white privilege; some male privilege; middle or upper class privilege, ability privilege, or straight privilege. Most of us have privilege in one area but lack it in another.  Privilege is not about guilt, or shame; it’s about responsibility. When sixteen years ago I wedded my beloved, in a time before marriage equality, I was no more deserving of marriage than my queer friends were. That didn’t mean I was guilty, but I was responsible. Understanding privilege is about acknowledging that some groups have unfair, unearned advantages, and I ought to take responsibility to help to repair this world in which some other groups have unfair, unearned disadvantages.

First step: I need to listen to people with less privilege, especially to voices that stretch my thinking. Riots and vandalism are not the kind of activism I support. Still, I need to work to understand. 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a challenging piece for the LA Times this week, and I’d like to share passages. 

“The black community is used to the institutional racism inherent in education, the justice system and jobs. And even though we do all the conventional things to raise public and political awareness, the needle hardly budges. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years. What you should see when you see black protesters… is people pushed to the edge, not because they want bars and nail salons open, but because they want to live. To breathe.  So what you see when you see black protesters, depends on whether you’re living in that burning building or watching it on TV.”

In the metaphor, I am watching the burning building on TV.  That’s me.  That privilege – the power it affords me in our society — sheds light on my divine purpose.

Every one of us can consider: what is my privilege, how can I listen to others who do not share my privilege, and what do I have the power to do. Here are two ways to join me this week:

To stand in solidarity with Philadelphia’s multi-faith, multi-race community, join me on a Virtual Call of Lament and Active Hope, this Saturday, 3:00pm, info in the chat and on our website.

To join an RS Anti-Racism Journey Group that will begin with learning and work on ourselves, and that I hope will help to inform our congregational Equity, Inclusion Diversity work, join me this Tuesday, June 9, 6:00pm, info in the chat and on our website.

Each of us can rediscover our divine light—our purpose in dismantling white supremacy.

Line 3: Yisa Adonai panav elecha, y’yasem l’cha shalom / May God’s presence be with you, and bring you peace.

What does it mean for God’s presence to be with us? Our spirituality is a critical part of who we are, as souls and as Jews. We stop and pray, we pause for Shabbat, so that we can re-center ourselves, deepen our understanding of Jewish teachings, ground ourselves in community and intention, and affirm the holiness of humanity in all that we do.

Our society is sick, and that sickness infects us all. White supremacy is the virus that, long before COVID-19, has infected not only the races, genders, religions and sexual orientations that it targets, but it infects all of us who are made to exist in a society, that does not treat all humanity with equal dignity.  Only when we heal, will God’s presence be with us, in all of its wholeness, and all of its holiness. 

Yivarechecha Adonai v’yishmerecha

May we do the work, that all of us, will have access to the blessing.

Ya-er Adonai panav elecha vichuneka

May we discover our divine purpose.

Yisa Adonai panav elecha, y’yasem l’cha shalom

May we see the divine, in the eyes of every human being.


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