Our Concealed Shortcomings: On Bias and Race

delivered by Rabbi Jill Maderer, Yom Kippur, Congregation Rodeph Shalom     

A story I love, from Rabbi Nachman of Brazslav.  A young woman visits her family and shares that she has become a master in the art of menorah making. She asks her parents to invite all of the other artisans in town to come see her masterpiece.  So all of the finest crafters come to view the menorah.  Later, the daughter asks her parents, “What did they think?” The parents reply, “We’re sorry to say, all of your fellow lamp-makers described a different flaw.” “Yes,” replies the daughter, “but that is the secret! They all say it was flawed, but what nobody realizes is this: Each sees a different part as blemished, but overlooks the mistakes that he himself would make.  You see, I made the menorah in this way on purpose — replete with deficiencies — in order to demonstrate that all of us have shortcomings.

Rabbi Nachman’s parable is drawn from the Psalmist, who calls to God: “Alumenu limor panecha” (Ps 90). “You can see our concealed darkness; You can see our concealed shortcomings, in the light of Your face.” God can see our shortcomings.

However you perceive God–as an external creator, as an inner judge, as the force that connects you to that which is greater than yourself–however you perceive God, today is your day to open your eyes.  Guided by the tradition of cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of the soul, we are here to uncover our deficiencies, so that, like the Psalmist says of God, we might see our concealed shortcomings, in the light.

Perhaps you have noticed there is a presidential campaign going on…  Amidst the unrest, how might our experience of the election season, compel us in the spiritual work of this High Holy Day season?  We have witnessed in our national rhetoric, and many of you have expressed concern, about the atmosphere of anger, unease and bias in our country.  Today, however, we turn away from the national conversation, and we turn inward, to our own souls, to shine a light on our concealed shortcomings, to uncover the anger, the unease, and the bias, within each of us.

In your cheshbon hanefesh–your accounting of your soul, do you uncover anger?

Imagine the parent of a young family.  After a stressful commute home from work, a father calls the children downstairs to eat dinner.  Do they come down the first time he calls?… (no, never).  The second time?  (probably not).  By the 3rd or 4th call, the father could lose his temper.  Has this ever happened to anyone you know… last week?

Still, no matter how aggravating we find our children’s behavior, or anyone else’s actions, it is not the behavior that causes us to lash out.  Whether a result of a short fuse, disappointment with ourselves, or resentments about our lives, we bring frustration.  Out of control, we say and do things we do not mean.  You do not need to have children, in order to understand how frustration can creep into your interactions in the boardroom, at the doctor’s office, on the bus, in personal relationships or in public discourse.

Judaism offers an image to help us begin to interrupt our natural anger.  (To be clear, if you have rage issues, that is something different and requires professional counseling.)

In the Torah service, we recited the special holiday prayer Adonai, Adonai, Compassionate One, full of grace, slow to anger.  Remember the old tip: take a deep breath; count to 10?  The Hebrew for: slow to anger–erech apayim—literally means a lengthened nose, lengthened breath.  When we encounter corrosive anger within, the Jewish strategy is: breathe.  The longer the breath, the more time there is for an alternative to anger.  What is it, that we want to make space for?  Anger or compassion?  Blame or forgiveness? Alienation or understanding?

Much like the menorah-makers, each of us overlooks the mistakes that we ourselves would make.  Only when we shine a light onto our concealed darkness, such as anger, can we begin to see our own shortcomings and move towards tshuvah in the light of God’s face.

In your cheshbon hanefesh–your accounting of your soul, do you uncover unease, or the urge to distance yourself from that which makes you uncomfortable?

In a recent discussion about vulnerability, a member of the community who uses a wheelchair shared a perspective about how it feels to move through life, with one of your challenges on display.  He said, that he can see that when people first look at him, they see his vulnerabilities, more than they see the vulnerabilities of others, and they feel a distance from him.  That which is different often makes us uncomfortable.

Judaism offers an image to help us begin to interrupt our unease.  Tradition imagines timtum ha-lev, an obstructed heart.  Any of us can have a heart that becomes spiritually blocked with residue.  Mindfulness wisdom within Judaism as in other traditions, teaches us to clear the blockages by contemplating our unease.  Meditate, journal, stretch outside of the comfort zone that keeps us distant from that which is uncomfortable.

Much like the menorah-makers, each of us overlooks the mistakes that we ourselves would make.  Only when we shine a light onto our concealed darkness, such as unease, can we begin to see our own shortcomings and move towards tshuvah in the light of God’s face.

In your cheshbon hanefesh–your accounting of your soul, do you uncover bias?

A white, Jewish writer and activist who protests racism and anti-Semitism, Paul Kivel, describes a workshop he led at a conference.  He wanted to divide a group into a caucus of people of color, and a caucus of white people, so that each group could have more in-depth discussion. Immediately some of the white people said, “But I’m not white.” A white gay man stood up and said, “You have to be straight to have white privilege.” A straight, white middle- class woman said, “I’m not white, I’m Italian.” Kivel’s African-American co-worker turned to him and asked, “Where are all the white people, who were here just a minute ago?” Of course, Paul Kivel then replied, “Don’t ask me, I’m not white, I’m Jewish!” With a little analysis, Kivel reflects, we can see how each of these “I’m not white” people, in reality benefits from white skin privilege.

Those of us who are white, or perceived to be white, even if we represent a minority group such as Jews, in reality benefit from white privilege. Here’s a simple personal experience:  Last week, I ran some errands at my neighborhood drug store.  After I paid at the self check-out line, and exited the store with my bag of purchases, the security alarm at the door sounded.  When I turned around to show a clerk my bag, she waved me off, simply saying, “I’m sure it’s fine; you may go.”  Nice, right?  Benefit of the doubt.  But now, imagine my skin were black.  Would the clerk’s response have been different?  Sometimes white privilege is simply an extreme benefit of the doubt.

Years of unequal benefit of the doubt must have an effect on our own souls. There is an anti-racism activist, who describes this conversation with his young daughters. At a family movie night, he and his girls are watching the movie, Evan Almighty, a modern re-telling of the Noah’s Ark story, in which Morgan Freeman plays God.  The younger daughter asks, “Is that really God?”  And the older daughter jumps in to reply: “No. God is not a black man, God is white.”  Why did she believe God is white?  This is the family of a man who devotes his life to anti-racism.  How could even this family, be conditioned by bias?   In her recent NY Times column called “We’re All a Little Bit Biased, Even if we Don’t Know It,” urban policy journalist Emily Badger writes: understanding bias allows us to recognize “that our values compete on an unconscious level with all the stereotypes we absorb from the world around.”  If the anti-racism activist’s kid, can’t imagine that God is black, then surely, I too, am a little bit biased.

Bias does not require malicious intent, it is not an accusation of moral failing.  Badger writes: “Understanding bias allows us to confront racial disparities without focusing on the character of individual people.”  It is an acknowledgment:  how could I live in this society and not ingest some of the racial inequality that surrounds me? As a 21st century sensitive modern Jewish woman, who would never consciously discriminate, I have a concealed shortcoming.  In order to bring more justice into my world tomorrow, I need to take a hard look at the blindspots around difference, that live within me, today.

My generation was taught that principally, the Civil Rights Movement solved the problem. I came to believe that my role in the journey towards equality, was to become, colorblind.  It turns out, that was the wrong goal.  Undeniably clear in works such as “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nahisi Coates and “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, we have real differences in background and experience; denying those differences does not make me colorblind; it just makes me, blind. In a society where, in school, the honors-track was so often the white—track; where the outcomes of mortgage-Redlined neighborhoods left me in neighborhood isolation from others…  How could I possibly be free of bias?

More recently, I have feared that I may be well-meaning, but not yet well-understanding.  I began a conversation with a white preacher who has devoted his life to being an ally to African Americans.  I wanted to know how he partners, and how our synagogue might more deeply engage in anti-racism work.  I shared our congregation’s involvement in POWER– which is our multifaith community organizing effort, and in the joint Bible Study group with Mother Bethel AME Church.

The preacher surprised me with a provocative suggestion: A congregation of mostly white people should not entirely depend on our congregants of color, or on people of color outside the congregation, to educate us.  Most of us who are white are not yet thinking enough about race and what it means to be white. We have homework to do.  The preacher suggested we initiate some honest, soul-searching, small-group discussions about books on white privilege.

I invite you to join me in taking this on.  Here at Rodeph Shalom we will create some small book groups to gather in a few months.  For now, here’s your first assignment: Debby Irving’s book, “Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.”  Debby Irving calls the Jewish community a vital partner in values-driven anti-racism work, for she has said: “For centuries, Jewish people have been marginalized, ‘other-ized,’ persecuted, …and now are highly attuned to injustice.”

Highly attuned.  On our path of t’shuvah/repentance, you and I take a hard look, to become more profoundly attuned, to begin to interrupt our bias, to see the assumptions we have ingested.  To come to see ourselves in the other.  To recommit to the notion that all people are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God.

Much like the menorah-makers, each of us overlooks the mistakes that we ourselves would make.  Only when we shine a light onto our concealed darkness, such as bias, can we begin to see our own shortcomings and move towards tshuvah in the light of God’s face.

Maimonides teaches, repentance demands not only contemplation, but also verbalization. He says we must “give voice to those matters, which we have resolved in our hearts.”  Without verbal expression teaches Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik, it is too “easy to flee from reality, to deny its existence and to avoid seeing things as they are.”  On Yom Kippur we encounter our concealed shortcomings, we contemplate and we confess: Al chet shechatanu lifanecha/these are the ways we have wronged You.  

We have witnessed the anger, the unease and the bias of the campaign season.   In these moments of confession, we turn away from the national conversation, and we turn inward, to our own souls, to uncover the anger, the unease, and the bias, within each of us.

May we heed the call to heal our world.  And today, may we begin with ourselves, as in the words of the Psalmist, we uncover our concealed darkness, in the light of God’s face.

 

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