Protests have sprung up around the country in response to the decision of the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth, on August 9, 2014. How many times have we heard in recent days: “We need a conversation on race”? Could we even hold an open, honest conversation on race? I doubt it. First, there is no such thing as race; it’s a social construct without biological meaning. But even more: How many people claim to be “color blind” or “race neutral” and feel the “conversation” has nothing to do with them?
In a famous field experiment entitled, “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal,” Marianne Bertrand of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and Sendhil Mullainathan of MIT measured and quantified job discrimination based on skin color. They submitted 5,000 fictitious resumes to 1,300 employers who advertised openings in the Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune. Comparable resumes were sent for a variety of positions—with one exception: the names at the top were Emily Walsh or Brendan Baker, or Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones. Here is the authors’ summary of the disturbing, but not surprising, results: “The authors find that applicants with white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to get called for an initial interview than applicants with African-American-sounding names. Applicants with white names need to send about 10 resumes to get one callback, whereas applicants with African-American names need to send about 15 resumes to achieve the same result.”
How many of us—without a shred of evidence nor a reliable statistic to our name—talk about crime rates among people of color, and even cultural deficits among African Americans? I hear it all, again and again, from the mouths of people I otherwise like and respect, who believe themselves to be beyond “racism.” The truth is, we are not honest with ourselves about our own biases and bigotries. Albert Memmi wrote: “There is a strange kind of enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still, racism persists, real and tenacious. When one asks about it, even those who have shown themselves to be racist will deny it and politely excuse themselves: ‘Me, racist? Absolutely not! What an insult even to suggest such a thing!’ Well, if racists don’t exist, racist attitudes and modes of behavior do; everyone can find them… in someone else.” In Racism Without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva concludes: “…my answer to the strange enigma of ‘racism without racists’ is as follows. The United States does not depend on Archie Bunkers to defend white supremacy… Today there is a sanitized, color-blind way… Today most whites justify keeping minorities from having the good things of life with the language of liberalism (‘I am all for equal opportunity; that’s why I oppose affirmative action!’). And today, as yesterday, whites do not feel guilty about the plight of minorities (blacks in particular). Whites believe minorities have the opportunities to succeed and that, if they do not, it is because they do not try hard.”
This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, begins:
וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם
Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau, his brother, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom. (Genesis 32:4)
It may be difficult to imagine that Jacob’s reunion with his brother, Esau, is connected to the situation in Ferguson, the oft-heard call for a “conversation on race,” and the inability of so many of us to recognize our own biases and bigotries, but a commentary on parshat Vayishlach from an unexpected source sheds light on our situation.
Rabbi Elimelekh Weisblum of Lizhensk lived in Galicia in the 18th century. A disciple of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch, he views this seemingly straight-forward verse (Genesis 32:4, above) through a kabbalistic–hasidic lens. He weaves for us a complex tapestry. If we view the tapestry from behind, we see a veritable confusion of crossed threads and knots, a jumble of biblical verses (employed in masterful word plays) and several passages from Talmud woven together with the kabbalistic notion of the Supernal Letters that structure the universe and order reality, the controversial hasidic doctrine of the Tzaddik as leader and intercessory to God, and even a discussion of neo-Aristotelian metaphysics.
R. Elimelekh begins with the account of Jacob’s wrestling match the night before meeting with his brother following a 22-year separation.
וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר
Jacob was left alone; a man wrestled with him until the rising dawn. (Genesis 32:45)
He points out that the Babylonian Talmud preserves a disagreement concerning who Jacob thought he was wrestling that night: Did Jacob believe the “man” to be a Gentile or a Torah scholar? If a Gentile, R. Elimelekh tells us that we learn the importance of being a Tzaddik, as Jacob yearned to be:
…a Tzaddik’s prayer is answered when praying for a sick person or for others in need. This seems as if the Creator is subject to change, heaven forbid. But the root of the matter is as follows. The Holy One of Blessing created letters, which in their original state are pure potential. [Here, he is speaking about the Supernal Letters which with the godhead structures and creates the universe, a mystical concept found in the Zohar.] A Tzaddik can reconfigure the [supernal] letters so that they form whatever words are desired [i.e., prayers]. These configurations are what a Tzaddik does in prayer–make new combinations. The Tzaddik’s prayer does not cause change in the Creator, since the letters are always there. All the Tzaddik is doing is creating combinations [of letters].
While on the surface this sounds to the student of philosophy like an attempt to reconcile the neo-aristotelian concept of a perfect God who never changes with the Hasidic cult of the Tzaddik, it is far more, as I will point out shortly. In a masterful act of textual interpretation surrounding Psalm 119:40, R. Elimelekh further tells us that what distinguishes a Tzaddik as such is that he is someone who loves everyone; indeed, this is what constitutes his service to God. Jacob was such a Tzaddik, just as R. Yochanan b. Zakkai before him. Talmud says of R. Yochanan that his love included both non-Jews and Jews, both of whom he greeted in the marketplace before they greeted him. From the vantage point of America in the 21st century, this may not seem a momentous thing, but we must remember that R. Yochanan led the Jewish community during the height of the Roman siege of Jerusalem. The Temple and City were destroyed during his lifetime. To love a Roman was no small feat. R. Elimelekh was born 60 years after the Chmielnicki (also: Khmelnytsky) Massacres, a decade-long Cossack killing spree (1648-1657) during which tens of thousands—perhaps 100,000—Jews were murdered. Should not the challenge of loving someone different from us be far easier in America today? And certainly, R. Elimelekh’s challenge relates to renewed calls for a “conversation on race.” R. Elimelekh describes how difficult is to love someone who seems “other” or different from ourselves:
In reality a person may not love all equally—Jews and Gentiles. One’s love for a Jew could be complete, while the love for a Gentile might be lacking, still retaining the traces of foreignness. This is the Talmudic opinion [BT Hulling 91a, see footnote 4 for the passage he has in mind] that Jacob thought the person was not Jewish. That was the struggle: the traces still there [i.e., for Jacob to rid himself of negativity toward the traces of foreignness that were still there in the “man”].
Concerning the Talmudic opinion that Jacob thought the “man” he encountered was a Torah scholar:
The (second) Talmudic opinion was that Jacob thought the person was a scholar—[and this is the case] even though Jacob’s love for this person was not complete because Jacob understood that he, himself, is still has not perfected his personality traits. Jacob did love him, but this love was still incomplete because of these deficiencies. This is the meaning of the verse, A person wrestled with him until עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר the rising dawn (Genesis 32:45). He struggled to remove the darkness (shechorut) within him, so that he could love him perfectly. So the Talmudic debate is not so strange after all. Each position highlights a different aspect of Jacob’s ability to achieve perfect love for every person.
Even when a person is presumably easy to identify with and love, nonetheless, our love is not complete because we are never complete. We are “works in progress.”
I have quoted only excerpts of R. Elimelekh’s commentary. It’s complex and involved. But I hope you can see that viewed from the front, the tapestry is an exquisite piece of art, inspiring these thoughts:
• R. Elimelekh says that it is only a Tzaddik who can affect healing. Why? Because his focus is on loving everyone: he treats everyone he encounters with respect and love. It is not that the Tzaddik is more spiritual, or has a divine connection the rest of us don’t have, or is intellectually endowed beyond the rest of the community: it is because the Tzaddik approaches other people—all of them—with love. The Tzaddik does what the rest of us could if only we had the commitment and made the effort, but few do.
• How does the Tzaddik manage to love everyone? He taps into the potential already inherent in reality (in psychological terms, we would call this “reframing”). We cannot change reality until we change our thinking. The Tzaddik understands this and has made the commitment to change his thinking. This includes honestly confronting his own biases and bigotries (as Albert Memmi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva urge us to do) and working vociferously to expunge them.
• The Tzaddik never considers himself a perfected work. He knows that there are deficiencies in his personality traits (middot). This humility is what enables him to improve. He does not engage in the blame game (the attempt to delineate what is wrong with others) but rather in the struggle to remove the darkness (shechorut) within himself.
For us, reframing requires understanding one another’s perspective and narrative. After George Zimmerman was found not guilty by reason of self-defense in the murder of Trayvon Martin in July of 2013, the passions of many Americans were inflamed. Yet another white man who gunned down a young black man, was exonerated. Five days later, President Obama addressed the nation, reminding us all that our reality is not the only reality, as R. Elimelekh teaches us.
You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
And I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws -- everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
I offer you another way to reframe: We humans are extraordinarily diverse. There are 6.5 billion people on planet Earth. We speak some 6,000 different languages, and have diverse cultures, appearances, beliefs, customs, values. Perhaps it’s no surprise that we have so much difficulty bridging our perceived differences. But here’s a perspective that may help. We human beings are but one of millions of species that have existed. The first creatures we would identify as human beings walked the earth 200,000 years ago. On the scale of the history of the universe, which began with the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, if all time were to be condensed into a 24-hour day, as Carl Sagan cleverly conceived, the first anatomically modern humans appeared on December 31 at 11:52 pm — in the last hour of the last day of the year. Our species has only been around for the past 200,000 years. We are far more like one another than we are different. How important are the things that separate us? Are they truly as insurmountable as we make them out to be?
Even more, “Mitochondrial Eve” lived in Africa 100,000–200,000 years ago: every single human being now on earth is descended from her. There was a “Y-chromosomal Adam” who gave rise to all the Y-chromosome diversity on the planet. He is the male ancestor of all of us. Scientists variously estimate that he lived somewhere between 60,000 and 338,000 years ago. Our Sages knew this long ago—not biologically, but morally and spiritually. The Talmud tells us that God created Adam, and Adam alone, in the beginning to prevent precisely the mess we have created:
For this reason one man was created alone, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul, Scripture holds him responsible for destroying an entire world, and whoever saves a single soul, Scripture credits him with having saved an entire world. Furthermore, [one man was created alone] for the sake of peace among people, that one might not say to another, “My father was greater than yours.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, 37b)
How do we extricate ourselves from the much and mire of bigotry and denial? How do we reach out to others in love, like the Tzaddik? One answer comes to us from Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch, in a commentary to next week’s Torah portion Vayeshev. Jacob, R. Elimelekh’s model of the Tzaddik, settles in the land where his father Isaac had sojourned. He brings Psalm 34:16, The eyes of Adonai are toward the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry to teach something very much akin to R. Elimelekh’s comment about the Tzaddik whose prayer moves heaven by rearranging the Supernal Letters. He writes: …the Blessed One thinks what [the righteous] are thinking. If [the righteous] think of love, they bring the blessed Holy One into the world of love. On the surface, this sounds like an audacious claim: the righteous control the thoughts of God?! But the Maggid is quick to explain that yes, the Mind [of God] is in the hands of the righteous. But how do they merit this rung? By thinking that they are dust and that they can do nothing without the power of God. Whatever they do, it is actually God doing it, for without the Blessed Holy One, they could accomplish nothing. Ultimately, it is a combination of deep humility and the attempt to align our thinking and goals with that which is higher than us that will bring us to where we need to be.
R. Shmuel b. Nachmani said: He appeared to [Jacob] as a Gentile, and the Master has said: If an Israelite is joined by a Gentile on the way, he should let him walk on his right. R. Shmuel b. Acha said in the name of Raba b. Ulla, in the presence of R. Papa: Whoever walks at the right hand of his teacher is uncultured. And the Rabbis? [They said that the angel] came from behind and dislocated both [thighs]. And how do the Rabbis interpret the verse, As he wrestled with him (Genesis 32:45)? They interpret it in accordance with the other statement of R. Yehoshua b. Levi, for R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: “This teaches that they threw up the dust of their feet to the Throne of Glory, for it is written here, וַיֵּאָבֵק As he wrestled with him (Genesis 32:45) and it is written there, And the clouds are the אבק dust of his feet (Nachum 1:3).” (BT Hullin 91a)
Historians disagree about the number of Jews murdered. Simon Dubnow and Edward Flannery estimated between 100,000 and 500,000. Martin Gilbert and Max Dimont set the minimum at 100,000. Shall Stampfer claims 18,000-20,000. Whether the “minimalists” or the “maximalists” are correct, the number is staggering.