Our Concealed Shortcomings and Charleston

By Rabbi Jill Maderer

Rebbe Nachman of Brastlav tells this tale: A young man leaves his home to learn a trade. Years later, he returns to his family and shares that he has become a master in the art of menorah making.  He asks his parents to invite all of the other artisans in town to come see his masterpiece — a candelabra inspired by those of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.  So all the finest crafters come to view this man’s menorah. Later, the son asks his parents, “What did you think?”  They reply, “We’re sorry to say all of your fellow lamp-makers told us that it was a flawed, ugly piece.”  “Ah,” replies the son, “but that is the secret! Yes, they all say it was ugly, but what nobody realizes is this: Each sees a different part as ugly. Each overlooks the mistakes that he himself would make, and sees only the shortcomings of the others.  “You see, I made this menorah in this way on purpose — completely out of mistakes and deficiencies — in order to demonstrate that none of us has perfection.”

In Psalm 90, the Psalmist calls to God: “You can see our concealed darkness; You can see our concealed shortcomings, in the light of Your face.”  Perhaps God can see our shortcomings, but can we?

Broken-hearted to live in a society where a white man enters a black church with his gun and brutally murders nine African American souls who are studying Bible, broken-hearted to learn that a survivor reports that the gunman said he let her live so that she could tell the story–that he was at the church to fatally shoot black people, I picture it:  The nine dead, lay before her.  But I also need to picture: The nine dead lay before this nation,  Before us.  Although sometimes concealed, I need to see: The nine dead lay before me.

As Reverend Dr. William Barber II preached on Sunday, “The perpetrator was caught; but the killer is still at large.” We are a part of what is at large — of the racism that exists in the institutions that form our everyday systems — the very institutions from which I benefit.  This was not simply a white supremacist lone shooter suffering from mental illness; the Charleston shooting is a part of a larger context.

For some, this concept of institutional racism sounds like a personal accusation. Although understandable, I think this response threatens to conceal something from ourselves, and we need to challenge ourselves to see it differently.  One scholar recently wrote: quote “The two most effective beliefs that prevent white people from seeing racism as a system are: 1) racists are bad people, 2) racism is a conscious dislike.  The misunderstanding is: if we are well-intended and do not consciously dislike people of color, we cannot be racist. However, when you understand racism as a system of structured relations into which we are all socialized, you understand that intentions are, irrelevant. Much of racial bias is unconscious. Negative messages about people of color circulate all around us. To not actively seek to interrupt racism is to internalize and accept it.”  end quote.

Our question then, can’t be, “Why would those racists in South Carolina still be hanging a Confederate flag?”  It’s important that flag come down and I welcome your advocacy around it.  But we cannot pretend that the seat of racism lives all those miles away.  Our question must to be, “What actions do I take, what judgments do I make, what privileges do I enjoy, that contribute to the making of a society that would accept a symbol of the brutal oppression of another people?”

The term institutional racism means that we acknowledge our institutions support a system of inequality.  One example: an analysis of demographics and education funding of Pennsylvania’s school districts reveals dramatically higher per-student funding in districts with predominantly white populations, compared to economically similar districts with more racial diversity.  What does that mean in real time? A few blocks away from here at the Spring Garden School, Principal Robinson had to choose: art teacher or music teacher.

We can be proud that Rabbi Freedman led our congregants to advocate for school funding in Harrisburg a week ago, that more congregants went to Harrisburg on Tuesday, and that interfaith partners are holding a Ramadan style daylight fast for 10 days on the capitol steps.  This school funding campaign continues in these coming days and there are still opportunities to be involved in fasting, phone-banking and more.

We have been brought together in this work by POWER, an interfaith organization where over 40 congregations are working towards a Philadelphia defined by justice.   There are times POWER might make us feel uncomfortable as it lifts up the injustices of our city.  Personally, there are times POWER challenges me.  But as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, religion exists to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

Last fall, after I participated in the protest following Michael Brown’s death, some congregants told me, they were uncomfortable. They said, “Racism is terrible but I’m not racist.  The police aren’t racist.”  I am grateful to law enforcement, and I am not saying that the police are racist.  I am saying we are all racist.  And real change demands that we discover this truth.  Human beings that we are, we will never be perfect, pure.  We all carry some bias.  That does not mean we are bad people, and that does not mean we are conscious of it.

This why we need do cheshbon hanefesh, to shine a light on to our souls so that, like the Psalmist says of God, we might see our concealed shortcomings in the light.

Still, we cannot always notice our prejudices on our own.  We need to build relationships so that others, especially others who have a different skin color or background, can help us discover our own bias, to see what might otherwise be concealed.  This week a friend spoke to me about the power of conversations with people from different races and she said– I want to come to know people, to hear their experiences, and to share enough trust that they can tell me when they hear me express racial bias.

Her comment stretched me.  To be able to graciously hear someone else’s comment about my racial bias? — What a great challenge!   It is so hard to talk about race.  But if we strip our defenses down enough to share different individual and communal experiences, I believe in the potential to deepen our understanding.

It’s my longing for that progress that left me so discouraged to think of all the airtime wasted on the story of one woman pretending to be black — it’s absurd.  Would that a week’s worth of media had instead gone to hearing the perspectives of people of color.  Authentic voices of the experience of race in America.

Last week at Mother Bethel’s Vigil for the Charleston massacre, Reverend Mark Tyler poured out his heart in gratitude as he saw all faiths and skin colors present.  We are blessed to have partners at Mother Bethel who are genuine in their interest to build relationship with us through our shared services, Bible study sessions and conversations.  When I contacted Reverend Tyler this week, to ask him what he would want our congregation to understand, it was clear that he appreciates that we are a congregation with all races and backgrounds, and he emphasized that when it comes to race in America, if we are going to see change it can’t just be people of color; white people will have to be a part of the solution.  It’s the voices of our friends at Mother Bethel that I need to hear, and that help to shine more light.

On this Shabbat of Solidarity, all denominations of Judaism have declared this a time to stand with and reach out to African American communities.  Of course, all Americans need to heed the call of solidarity, but we Jews find this especially personal.  Most of us in synagogue do not know what it is to be black in America.  Our wounds are different.  We do know what it is to be hated, to be oppressed.  When Torah commands:  Love the stranger, its sacred words remind us that we too were strangers in the land of Egypt.  And when we read these words, repeated over and over in the Torah, we remember that we have been strangers at times since then.  Love the stranger–repeated over and over, to call us to help to heal our world.

Let the words of Psalm 90 cry out to us: “Alumenu limor panecha – You can see our concealed darkness; You can see our concealed shortcomings, in the light of Your face.”

As individuals and as a community, may we heed the call to heal our world.  And may we begin with ourselves, as we uncover our concealed shortcomings, in the light of God’s face.