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Responding to Discrimination: Yom Kippur 5777/2016

posted Oct 13, 2016, 2:37 PM by Heidi Hoover   [ updated Oct 13, 2016, 2:47 PM by Michael Rose ]
When I was in college, I had a bad experience with a man on campus. He was someone I considered a friend. We had both been drinking. We were arguing about sexual assault at our university: I contended that it happened, and frequently; he insisted that it did not. The argument became heated, and in his anger, he grabbed my throat. He didn’t do it hard enough to hurt, but definitely hard enough that I could feel it. He said, “I’ll kill you if you don’t listen to me.” People intervened, everyone calmed down, no one, including me, was physically hurt. But I was terrified. Who does that? Maybe you grab someone’s arm if you feel like they’re not listening. But their throat?

I am fortunate. That is just about the worst that has happened to me, though there are other stories I could tell too. So many women, and I’m sure some of you in this room, have far worse stories. In the past few days, many women, some of whom I know personally and some of whom I don’t, have courageously and publicly shared what has happened to them. Only one of the stories that I’ve seen shared, of women and girls being groped, threatened, assaulted, sexually harassed, resulted in prosecution of the man responsible.

People who are discriminated against, disadvantaged, or oppressed respond to it in different ways. Whether they are women, Jews, African- or Caribbean-Americans, Latinos, or a combination of these identities or others, there are commonalities in the types of response to discrimination and oppression.

Some become activists. They rage against the system, insist that their treatment is wrong and needs to change. Sometimes that work is dangerous, and there are many who perceive them as rabble-rousers, extremists, people who are overreacting to a system that isn’t really so bad. Many of these activists are part of the discriminated-against group, and some are not, but are allies. Some examples of those who have stood up against various types of oppression are: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Gloria Steinem, Susan B. Anthony, and Cezar Chavez.

Some do not become activists. They take the view that the world just is the way it is, and it isn’t going to change, so you just have to live with it. People for whom this is the response say things like: Men always say lewd things about women when they’re alone with other men, and there’s no way to change that; boys will be boys; racism is too deeply ingrained to be rooted out; antisemitism is always there, so don’t be too outspoken about being Jewish. These people often depend on staying under the radar, not drawing too much attention, and dismissing discrimination as something you might as well not protest against, since you can’t do anything about it.

Still others, often some of those who have become successful despite discrimination, take the view that members of their group, whether that group is women or a minority, can succeed if they follow the rules and work hard enough. They see themselves as evidence of this, and dismiss anyone who complains of discrimination or oppression as weak, complaining because they are not strong enough or don’t want to work hard enough to overcome their circumstances.

Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River, an epic novel about a small German town in the years before and during World War II, does a very good job of showing all the various types of reactions people had when oppression of Jews began and increased under Hitler and the Nazi party, leading to the Holocaust. Some of the Jews said, “This is definitely bad, but we’ve been through bad times before, so we just need to hunker down, stay put, and wait for it to pass.” Others immediately began to try to leave the country. Still others became resisters. Among the Christians in the town, some were active Nazis. Some were resisters. And there was a whole range in between—those who tried not to get involved, those who reported someone to the Nazis and then experienced such remorse that they became resisters, reluctant resisters, and more.

I am not judging any of these reactions, except for the active Nazis. Them, I judge. But when you are in a group that is discriminated against and oppressed, it isn’t my place to judge anything you need to do to get through that and try to survive.

When I was in college, I thought a lot about the issue of women not reporting sexual assault. It was known then, and it is still the case, that sexual assault is underreported, and it is still true that women have terrible experiences at trials for their attackers. Women are still blamed for how they dress, what they drink, and where they are. Men are still excused because “their lives shouldn’t be ruined by one thing they did.” A well-known case in point is Brock Turner, who raped a woman behind a dumpster, was caught in the act by two other men, and who was let off by Judge Aaron Persky with a very light sentence of six months because he was a champion swimmer with a bright future. He served three months. There is little concern for the impact on the life of the woman who was assaulted.

So there are good reasons for not reporting assault. At the same time, if it isn’t reported, and if it isn’t prosecuted, certainly nothing will change. I didn’t want to place an added burden on women who had already been through a horrible experience, though. Where I landed was with the idea that if you are able to speak out, if you are able to call for prosecution of your attacker, if it isn’t too scary for you or too hard to do, then you have an obligation to do it. However, if you can’t, because it’s too much, then you should not, and you should not feel bad about yourself for that.

As we repent and atone for our sins on this Yom Kippur, we might spend some time thinking about our responses to the discrimination and oppression we witness in our lives—against us and against others. To what extent have we been bystanders? Have we listened to lewd, demeaning talk about women and laughed, or said nothing? Have we listened to racist talk and said nothing? I am not proud to say that I have done both, and that is one of the sins for which I am atoning today.

To what extent are we able to stand up against discrimination and oppression, against our own group or a group we are not part of? To what extent is it our responsibility to do so? Our texts are pretty clear that we have an obligation to take care of other Jews. The Torah tells us not to cheat or steal from our neighbors, and that means Jews. The Talmud tells us that one may break the Sabbath if it means saving the life of a fellow Jew. If we are caring for fellow Jews, that means we must be aware of and concerned with racism and discrimination against people of color, knowing as we do that Jews come in all races and colors.

But our sacred texts don’t tell us to care only about other Jews, and I’m not sure there’s anyone in this room who would say we have no obligation toward anyone who isn’t Jewish. In the Torah, 36 times we are told not to neglect or abuse the stranger living among us. In the Torah that meant people from non-Israelite tribes who had joined the Israelites, perhaps Egyptians who chose to leave with the Israelites in the Exodus, and others who joined with them, perhaps because they married Israelites. For us, today, it can mean those we encounter, and those who live in our neighborhoods and in our country, who are not Jewish.

Our society is pluralistic. Brooklyn is a place where many languages are spoken, many religions are practiced, and many great restaurants offer cuisine from around the world. In my neighborhood, and in the neighborhood of our temple, there are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and more. People are black, white, Asian, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Latino, Middle Eastern—including Israeli—and more. There are immigrants and 1st-generation Americans—I’m a first-generation American on my mom’s side—as well as those whose families have lived here for many generations—that’s also me, on my dad’s side. The vast majority of us live together in peace. This is something to be proud of. I love my neighborhood, where the Polish deli is just down the street from the Bangladeshi shop. Our neighbors might not be Jewish, but we live among them, and they live among us. We’re all invested in being safe and allowed to make a living and raise our families. Our tradition says we should all be treated the same—“The stranger among you shall be to you as a citizen,” we read. All the moreso when the person who is different from us actually is an American citizen! So it is on us, according to our tradition, to stand for the rights of everyone in our country, whether they are different than us or not.

Our haftarah for today is the book of Jonah. The short story of Jonah is a story of a guy who did not behave in an optimal way. Ordered by God to go to the people of Nineveh—the ruins of which are in northern Iraq, by the way, across the river from Mosul—and tell them to repent, he instead runs away. That doesn’t go so well for him—you probably remember about the whole getting swallowed by a big fish and all that—if you don’t, we’ll be reading it later. Eventually he does get to Nineveh and delivers God’s message. The people of Nineveh—not Jewish, let’s remember—immediately repent and put on sackcloth and ashes, from the king on down. And Jonah is angry. He would have preferred that this city full of human beings be destroyed, as if it were nothing more than a hill of ants or a bowl of Skittles. He gets more upset about the death of a plant than he would have about the destruction of an entire city-full of people and animals.

God doesn’t condemn him. The story ends leaving us hanging. Here’s how I understand Jonah. Jonah is a guy who has lived the same way his whole life, and he thinks he understands how the world works, and how God works. He’s content. But then one day he’s told the world isn’t quite the way he thinks it is. He has to interact with people who are unfamiliar, help them, because they desperately need help—their lives are in danger. Jonah doesn’t want to. He likes his life the way it is, so he resists, tries to ignore how his world has changed, and literally runs away. Maybe he’s afraid of a world different than the one he knows. Running away doesn’t work, though. So, reluctantly, he does what he was told he had to do. He gives them the message that, when they respond to it, saves their lives. God can make him do what he has to for these people who are different than he is, but God can’t make him see their humanity or appreciate their culture, or understand that he might learn from them, that knowing them could make his life richer. So at the end of the story, Jonah’s life is small and he feels alone, and he probably doesn’t even realize that that is a choice he made.

Our tradition obliges us to help each other as well as those different from ourselves, to not stand by the blood of our neighbor and to care for the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. One way to do this is to stand against racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and discrimination of all kinds. If we don’t like the way the world is changing, we can try to run away by ignoring it, but that probably won’t work. We can help others fearfully and begrudgingly, out of obligation. Or we can stand proudly, open ourselves to new experiences and people, and see that we don’t have to hide and be alone. We can have faith that as the world changes, we can help it change for the better. We can believe that if we get to know the strangers, they can become our neighbors in friendship as well as proximity, so that when we do disagree we can work it out. And we will know we are not alone, because as we reach out to others, they will reach out to us.

This world is our home. We have no other. It is often a very harsh place. In our liturgy we say that teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah—repentance or returning to the path we want to be on, prayer, and giving our money to create justice—are the actions that avert the harshness of the world. Let us do teshuvah and atone for the times we have participated in, benefitted from, and stood by discrimination and oppression. Let us remember how we have felt when we were discriminated against or oppressed, and remind ourselves not to let it happen to others, whether they are like us or not. Let us have faith that is bigger than our fear. Faith in ourselves, in our culture, in our God, in whatever way we understand that word “God”, and in our future. Let us recognize the obligation and the benefit in helping those who need it, in standing up for dignity and equal rights for everyone, with the resources of our money, our voices, our participation in civic life. Amen and g’mar chatimah tovah—may you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year to come.

Anthem that followed the sermon--"Home," performed in this recording by artist Phillip Phillips: