Nasso – Facing the Past and Making Change

The events of this past week are shaking us awake and demanding teshuvah.

I wish you could have all seen our 7th graders this morning. They were celebrating their Chagigah – what should have been the culmination of their bar- and bat-mitzvah year, and they individually led different parts of the services, with voices so strong and clear. You all would have been proud to hear them.  A special shout out to Cantor Barbara who did an amazing job of setting them up for success.

I asked our 7th graders to remember various safety lectures they’ve been given in their young lives.  Those of us who are parents or teachers might also think about safety lectures we’ve given to our children.  I recently explained to my daughter how to bike safely in traffic.  My son finished the online portion of drivers ed not long ago, and soon he’ll be getting that safety lecture.  Don’t drive too fast,  Never drive if you drank alcohol or you are very tired.  Do not touch your cell phone while driving.

But for African-American parents, the pre-driving safety speech includes something else as well.  Most will warn there children that if a police officer is signals them to stop, they must stay very calm.  When the officer is talking, do not make any sudden movements.  Do not lean forward in a way that might make it look like you are getting out of the car, do not open the glove compartment – or reach for anything –  without asking the officer for permission.

I only realized a few years ago that nearly all African-American teens get that safety speech from their parents.  It made me so angry and sad!  One of my safety speeches for my own children is that if they are ever lost or feel threatened, they should look for a police officer who will help them.  I myself feel a little more safe, protected when there’s a policeman around. How unfair that for Black Americans, the sight of a police officer has exactly the opposite effect.

It also didn’t make sense to me at first.  We know many of the Redwood City police officers personally. They are good people.  And most police officers are honorable people, who have a tough, dangerous job and see themselves as serving and protecting their community.

 The ruthlessness of the murder of George Floyd shakes your soul.  Of course, any parent who saw that video, and the hauntingly similar killing of Eric Garner in 2014, is going to be deeply shaken.  As we were shaken by the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Rodney King. But these are just the high-profile killings, that made a momentary national impact.  But you don’t even know the names of most of the unarmed black people who have been killed by police. There are nearly 20 every year.  (Washington Post)

But it’s not just the fatal cases that shape fears and attitudes.  It’s the lived, personal experiences. According to a study done by Dr. Rebecca Hetey and colleagues at Stanford University of police records in Oakland, you are more than 4 times as likely to be pulled over by OPD if you are African-American than if you are Caucasion.  (Hetey et al. 2016)

How many of you have ever been stopped by a police officer?  Most drivers have at some point, and it’s an intimidating experience.  It happened to me just a couple years ago. I rolled through a stop sign, and there was a cop parked right on the other side. He was very gentle, he actually just gave me a warning, and still my heart was pounding through the entire experience, and was kind of shaken for the rest of the day.  So I’m trying to  imagine what I would have been feeling if after pulling me over, the officer had told me to get out of the car, had put hand-cuffs on me, and made me stand there watching while he searched my car.  According to that same study, once an African-American is stopped, they are more than 4 times as likely as white drivers to be handcuffed – even if there’s no arrest made, and about 4 times as likely to have their car searched – even though the searches are no more likely to turn up anything illegal.  

In other words, African-American parents have good reason to warn their children to be afraid of the police. 

How do we reconcile that fact with the positive, respectful relationships we have with our police officers?  When we hear of a brutal killing, it’s easy to dismiss it as a “bad apple”.  The man who murdered George Floyd is NOT representative of his colleagues. But the statistics I just described cannot be explained by a few bad apples.  It’s something much deeper.

Here’s where, if you grew up on Star Wars, and Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings -it may be hard to break away from seeing the world in terms of the good side and the bad side of the force. That way of thinking won’t work here.  Because the problem is not the police – or, not just the police.  The problem is all of us.  It’s attitudes that are transmitted so subtly it’s almost as if it’s in the air we are breathing.  The problem is called implicit bias. 

Implicit bias is pernicious, because you don’t realize it’s there.  It’s buried deep in the subconscious, but it comes out when your filters are turned off, and you’re making quick decisions in the heat of the moment.  Many psychology experiments in the US have shown that test subjects are more likely to be afraid or suspicious of a stranger who is Black than of one who is White.  In some cases, that’s even true if the test subject himself is Black.  Because, as I said, it’s in the air we breathe.

Even when our intellectual filters on, and we think we are in control, implicit bias whispers quietly into our decisions. For example, it’s been shown that voters are more likely to support harsher criminal sentences if they are told that the populations in our prison are heavily Black. (Hetey and Erberhardt, 2014)

It feels like a Catch-22, but I have to say it.  The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the number of Black people we put behind bars is appalling. It just doesn’t calculate with our vision of ourselves as the land of the free.

How did we get to this place of bias, and injustice, and violence?  Well, it’s no mystery.  The history of how Africans were brought to this country is brutal beyond contemplation. Our people claim a long distant memory of once having been slaves in Egypt.  But for us to stand tall as a proud, strong people, we first needed all mighty God to whup our oppressors, and then we had to leave their presence so they could no longer have power over us.  African-Americans had no such luxury.  After slavery and the brief tease of  citizenship, immediately came the crackdown of reconstuctrion, the terrorist campaigns of lynchings, and the legalized oppression of Jim Crow.  And though a lot changed in the 1960s, never was there a real attempt to repair the deep, deep harm that was done.  Instead, we have been trying to build structures of tolerance on a rotted foundation.

Here’s where I wish I could open the Torah and offer words of beauty and promise. Certainly the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King found much hope in our Torah, and most weeks so do I.  But what I found in THIS week’s Torah portion is not that.  Maybe because what we find in Torah depends on where we are sitting at any given moment.

The Torah does not give easy answers.  If you are looking for clear lines of good and bad – go read Harry Potter.  Because real people are far more complex, and morality is almost never as simple as right and wrong. Our Torah is as complex as we are, and what it gives us is not straightforward code of law, but a broad set of ideas and history, with lots of room for exploration and interpretation. 

The opening story of our Torah – its foundational story – is of the creation of a humanity that is neither male nor female, neither black nor white nor brown, but is in the image of God. But immediately in the second chapter, woman is divided from man and soon told to serve him.  And it only gets worse from there. The second man ever kills the third man ever.  And within a few chapters, we see the worst of humanity emerging – slavery, war.  Eventually the Torah tries to regulate, to reign it in – but it cannot excise the evil.  

In this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the Sotah.  The Sotah is a woman whose husband suspects her of cheating on him.  It’s eating away at him.  He’s jealous, he wants to punish her – and mind you, in ancient times the punishment for adultery was death — but he has no proof. So what he could do was take her to see the priest in Jerusalem.  The priest would humiliate her, by making her take down her hair in public.  Proper women kept their hair covered, of course.  Then, he would write God’s secret name on a slip of paper, and put the paper in the water and let the ink dissolve.  She would be made to drink the water. If she was guilty, the dissolved holy name would be poison to her.  Her belly would distend and her thighs would sag and everyone would know she had been cursed.  But if she was innocent, it might taste a little funny, but she would be fine. In fact, now that he has proof of her innocence she would suddenly be endeared to her husband, and they would go home and make a happy family together.

Anthropologists of religion are quick to point out that in many cultures -both  ancient, and not so ancient – trial by torture was common. Throw her in the river, if she drowns you know she was guilty.  Or, worse, throw her in the river, and if she survives you know she is guilty. So trial by drinking a harmless potion was maybe an improvement over neighboring cultures.  

Women in ancient times were totally dependent on their husbands, and a woman whose husband mistrusted was in big trouble.  So the Sotah ritual protected her, by allowing her to prove her innocence to her husband.  

But the very fact that she needed that protection reveals just how deeply disempowered she was.  Of course there was no inverse Sotah ritual, because the wife had no right to demand fidelity from her husband.  He was allowed to take as many women as he wanted. 

The system was rotten. The Torah put in place many protections for women -including some much more significant than Sotah – but it did not attempt a radical remake of the power structure.

And that’s what’s needed, right?  A radical remake of the power structure. For women, even today.  And certainly for African-Americans.

We can look back on the long history of Judaism, and say that in the 3500 years or so since the Torah was written, men have slowly ceded much of the power they held over women. By the end of the second temple period – when the rabbis began writing – the Sotah ritual had disappeared.  In the Talmudic period, the rabbis instituted the Ketubah – financial protection for a divorced or widowed woman.  In the 10th Century, Rabbenu Gershon outlawed polygamy for Ashkenazi Jews. And in modern times, the liberal movements of Judaism allow women to do pretty much everything men can do, including – most relevant to the Sotah discussion – initiate their own divorce.

Our history shows us that change is possible.  And not just our history.  Belief in the capacity of human being to change is at the core of every Jewish idea.  We call it teshuvah, and we pray for it, and restate our belief in it, in every prayer service.  Hashivenu Adonia eylechah v’nashuva – Return us, O God, to You – to the version of ourselves that is more like You – and we will return.  And in fact, in every area of human endeavor, the pace of change has accelerated exponentially. So I do believe there is hope – not just for three thousand years from now, but for significant change, within our lifetime. 

I don’t think that change will come from intense flares of outrage when something really, really horrible happens, as it did eleven days ago in Minneapolis.  That intensity cannot be sustained.  But if these hot flares can be channeled into a slow, smoldering fire.  If young people of all colors and all ethnicities are awakened by what they have seen and heard these past two weeks, then we can begin to change attitudes and shift power – beginning with ourselves.  It will requirement humility, it will require commitment, it will require effort.  But to quote Maimonides, “Nothing can stand in the face of a genuine desire for teshuvah.”  (Hilchot Teshuva chapter 3)