It is time for us to listen and repent

Steve Floyd/MSR News The “Say Their Names” Cemetery art exhibit by Anna Barber on 38th & Park

As a Jew, I have feared for my safety. I have grimaced through hate, discrimination, and antisemitism. But in many of those settings, I simply needed to don a ballcap in place of my yarmulke—and then I was just another White man. I have done that time and again. I am a minority with White skin privilege.

Just before George Floyd tragically died, I was lamenting that disproportionately Black counties had accounted for over half of coronavirus cases in the U.S. and nearly 60% of deaths.

How was it possible that, in 2020, such systemic racism had led to the early deaths—in so many ways—of my African American brothers and sisters? And then my heart sank. A rabbi who believes in civil rights, the fight for equality and equity, the inclusion of all—became acutely aware that I had not been doing enough to fight injustice. I have not heeded the call of so many teachers before me.

Fifty-seven years ago, one of my spiritual mentors, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, preached at the National Conference on Religion and Race, held at Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel: “It is time for the White man to repent. We have failed to use the avenues open to us to educate the hearts and minds of men, to identify ourselves with those who are underprivileged. But repentance is more than contrition and remorse for sins, for harms done. Repentance means a new insight, a new spirit. It also means a course of action.”

There Rabbi Heschel met Dr. Martin Luther King, cementing a friendship that led to their marching together in Selma in 1965.
Fifty-seven years later I am but another White man—a rabbi—finally repenting, I hope.

I have White skin. I am privileged. My faith’s narrative speaks of empathy for suffering, for we were slaves in Egypt so we should know the suffering of the stranger. And yet, I cannot even begin to understand the centuries of oppression my Black brothers and sisters have experienced. My heart breaks and aches knowing that we seem not any closer to the proverbial mountaintop.

And from that mountaintop we were charged: “Thou shalt not hate your brother in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17).

This is not a command simply condemning hateful rhetoric or actions. This is a charge to uproot hate from our own heart and the hearts of humanity in general, for the verse continues “reason with your neighbor, and not allow sin on his account.”

I confess that I have allowed sin in. I have not done enough reasoning. I have not helped my brothers and sisters to stop even the unconscious hate in their heart.

And so now is the time to do better. And that starts with listening.
I have regularly invoked the great rabbi Hillel’s 2,000-year-old teaching, summarizing the full corpus of Jewish learning: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary; go and learn.”

But now I realize this is all wrong. It does not matter what is hateful to me. I need to listen and learn and understand what is hateful to my fellow human being. I have to assimilate their hurt. I have to shift myself out of the center of my world and begin to recognize that there is imbalance, there is inequity, and I unintentionally have been complicit and an accessory to that disparity.

I know that I am not going to change or repair the world alone. But if my opened eyes and ears can help inspire another to wake up and listen and look—and do—then maybe we can begin to rebuild and repair the world together. Otherwise, as Dr. King warned us: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.” And we will bear our guilt to our dying days.

Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky is a senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park.