Imagination, Creativity, and Courage for Re-Imagining a Jewish Future
Tisha B’Av and Building an Anti-Racist Temple
Authors Talya Gillman and Mira Klein are both white, Jewish, and grew up at Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, WA. They reconnected as adults through Jews Undoing Institutional Racism, a Seattle-based group that is “mobilizing a collective of Seattle-area Jews from across denominations, ethnicities and identities to collaboratively and accountably undo racism within ourselves, institutions, and communities broadly, with Jewish histories and traditions in heart and mind.” On Shabbat // July 21, 2018, they offered a version of these reflections, in the form of a d’var torah at Beth Shalom:
Last weekend Jews marked Tisha B’av, the most mournful day in the religious calendar. It is a day for grieving many moments in our history, stretching from the destruction of the temple, to Crusade massacres, to expulsions, to the Final Solution. We want to propose using Tisha B’av and Jewish mourning to activate personal and communal agency for racial justice.
Tisha B’Av is a knot that ties together threads of grief that have been deeply woven into in our collective consciousness. It conjures memories of sacred objects, torn and burned. Of shattered structures, and crumbling senses of safety. Of terror, despair, and death. We surface these images and stories, and swim in the emotions they carry, because Tisha B’Av offers us a vehicle to “get proximate to the pain” of it all.
First century scholar Yosef ben Matityahu described the destruction of the Israelite Temple in words that are hauntingly relevant today: “The flames,” he said, “made an echo, together with the groans of those who were slain…one would have thought the whole city [was] on fire. Nor can one imagine anything greater and more terrible than this noise.”
That noise — the sound of things on fire — rings loud, especially now . The sound is searing. It echoes through news, social media, protest, politics. Some say God’s presence can be found in the demama daka — the sound of a thin silence. Where within this chaos can we find that still, small voice? By making ourselves proximate to pain on Tisha B’Av, we open ourselves up to that noise. We clean out our ears, rub the dust from our eyes, and shake the cobwebs from around our hearts. We feel things in our brains, and in our bones. Tisha B’Av challenges us to hold noise and thin silence at the same time.
This year, we met Tisha B’av in especially trying times. We remember a Jewish lineage of destruction as we also wake up to the scope and depth of oppression in the world around us now. For some, this atmosphere of crumbling and shattering is nothing new; it may be ongoing, personal and deep, because of how oppression targets other layers of identity, intersecting with Jewishness.
We have been — we are — in a prolonged and escalating Tisha B’Av. If bodies are temples, consider the scale of sacred structures under threat as a result of, and intersecting with, racism. Police brutality. Incarceration. Deportation. Violent vigilante “justice.” Denial of shelter to people who are poor. We are in a city on fire! And holding onto a sense of personal agency, and the will to actively build a better world — with the boldness, creativity and humility these times require — is hard.
In Seasons of Our Joy, Rabbi Arthur Waskow describes the Tisha B’Av atmosphere of communal loss: “It is the heart of summer: hot as a furnace, dry as the tomb….The earth is panting in exhaustion — … And people are exhausted too…”
How can we get “proximate to the pain” of it all when it seems that everything is aflame? When it burns to get close? The thing is, connecting with the pain of racism — the shock, the horror, the anger, the grieving — is important. Racism dehumanizes us; it numbs us to its horrors, and disables our senses of agency. We must find ways to practice feeling because that is what helps us connect with the sacredness of what — and who — is being lost; of what is at stake . It’s what helps us realize that none of what is happening is right, or inevitable. Feeling — being affected — is what fosters our capacities to learn and grow and act through pain and discomfort. It opens us up to our own vulnerability and, in turn, the voices of people who are claiming dignity — and who have the relevant input as to what that looks like in practice. Feeling helps us embrace the fact that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” — the ones who must teach ourselves how to listen to Native, black and brown people, and join them in building new ways of existing together; ways that enable more people to be safe, respected, and self-determining. This is agency.
To be clear: anti-racist agency — and using it — means us asking ourselves: How do we get close to the dehumanization and pain of racism in ways that are productive? How do we get clear on what our contributions to that dehumanization and pain are? Whose voices are we listening to, as we seek clarity? And how do we situate ourselves in a trajectory of transformation that is accountable to those whose well-being and safety literally hinges upon such transformation? We must ask ourselves these questions with urgency, because many lives around us depend on our doing so. This is not meant to evoke saviorism — rather, respect and accountability.
Growing up embedded in progressive Jewish community, we are proud that tikkun olam has been a guiding force for understanding and moving through the world. This commitment shows up in synagogue social action committees. It shines through the nation-wide Jewish response to the crisis at the southern border, and refugee resettlement, and environmentalism. It comes to life in the conversations we’ve had directly, with countless Jewish friends and family. It has shaped the lenses through which we see ourselves, and our responsibilities in this life.
And yet, our participation in activism in Seattle over the last few years has revealed to us that Jewish communities, including our own, still have work to do in order to become equipped with the clarity and capacities necessary to foster truly healthy atmospheres, and to work for justice, in transformative and accountable ways.
If we are to live out our values, we absolutely must commit ourselves to understanding and actively addressing how racism in our congregations, JCCs, social service agencies, and philanthropic institutions, overtly and insidiously undermines people’s abilities to live with full humanity, dignity, and self-determination. The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond teaches:
- That “individual acts of racism are supported by institutions and nurtured by societal practices;
- That racism is the single most critical barrier to building effective coalitions for social change.
- And that racism has been consciously and systematically erected, so it can be undone only if people understand what it is, where it comes from, how it functions, and why it is perpetuated.”
Because we’re not deliberately taught to understand racism or how we ourselves exist within racist structures, unchecked racism can undermine even our well-intentioned efforts to create community, and social justice. Anti-racism must be a compass with which we orient ourselves. And Jewish tradition offers many illuminating touchstones and metaphors to turn us in that direction.
Tisha B’av offers an especially important kind of bearing. We should ask ourselves not only what it means to view this day as a container for commemorating destruction, but also what emerged in its wake: breathtaking creativity and innovation; creative agency channeled by our ancestors into building new ways of being Jewish together.
In her book Great House, Nicole Krause describes the revolutionary legacy of Yochanan ben Zakkai. A scholar in the time of the second temple, ben Zakkai was in Yavne when he heard news of Jerusalem burning. Krause describes him asking: “What is a Jew without Jerusalem? How can you be a Jew without a nation? How can you make a sacrifice to God if you don’t know where to find him?”
In his agony and mourning, ben Zakkai determined that instead of making sacrifices to God, the Jews would pray. To facilitate this prayer, he instructed his students to assemble more than a thousand years of Jewish oral law. His students argued and debated and thought deeply about transforming oral tradition into written text…and the result? The Talmud.
What ben Zakkai and his students did, Krauss continues, was “turn Jerusalem into an idea. Turn the Temple into a book…as vast and holy and intricate as the city itself. Bend a people around the shape of what they lost, and let everything mirror its absent form.” (278–279)
We can only attempt to understand how radical a shift this was in Jewish tradition and identity. We now have text and ritual and knowledge built by a diasporic Jewish community that was forced to completely reimagine Judaism: a Judaism with no temple, no priests, no sacrifices. This is a legacy of using stories, skills, and fortitude to dream up and build new structures.
Black scholar adrienne maree-brown argues that, “All organizing is science fiction.” When we organize our communities for justice, for a world without racism, we are literally asking ourselves to build something that’s never existed. There’s no step-by-step road map to liberation. It’s through this creative imagination, this science fiction, that our Jewish communities, committed to tikkun olam, can find our individual and collective agency.
As synagogues have been established through the ages, our elders have thought deeply about the objects, rituals, and atmospheric qualities they’ve wanted to mark these holy spaces. So too, should we unleash our imaginations about the resources, policies, and cultural commitments that could facilitate safety, well-being, opportunity, and dignity for everyone in our communities, and in society broadly. Harnessing thousands of years of creative Jewish imagination, we have the capacity to build what we might call an “anti-racist temple infrastructure.”
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo recently offered a profound reflection on the ancient temple, and what it could mean for our contemporary Jewish world. He builds off the work of Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi, who considered why the Torah repeatedly commands temple sacrifices be brought as a “re’ach nichoach LaShem” — as a “pleasant aroma to the Lord.” Rabbi Ashkenazi argued that this phrase indicates that worshipers cannot atone through sacrifices alone. “The sacrifice is only ‘a pleasant aroma,’” he says; “a foretaste of what is yet to come.” Just as we use our sense of smell to anticipate things ahead, the sacrifice was a sensory indication to God of Jewish intent for future good deeds.
Rabbi Cardozo argues, then, that the Temple’s purpose is actually “to function [metaphorically,] as a medium through which people are stimulated to take… step[s] toward inner transformation… [Coming to the Temple] is a departure, not an arrival. That must take place within the person’s heart and can be evident in their deeds only outside the Temple court.”
Rabbi Cardozo’s teaching inspires us to see our contemporary Jewish institutions as structures to ignite our commitments to righteousness. It invites us to build upon our Talmudic legacy of creative agency to re-imagine another Jewish future. A future that is facilitated through the construction of, and commitment to an anti-racist Jewish temple; a vast and holy and intricate structure that activates our foretastes; shaping our commitments to create the justice needed in our own times, and engaging us in the active creation itself.
How can we build this temple — metaphorically, in making anti-racism inherent to contemporary Judaism; and literally, through making our Jewish institutions explicitly and tangibly anti-racist? We need the visionary spirit our ancestors have gifted us. We need anti-racist principles to help us understand how to live and work in anti-racist ways — like the 10 Commandments serve as a guide for ethical living. And we need deep clarity about what our particular jobs in the construction plan are — based on who we are, and how society sees us.
Let us share some personal experience: Despite working and participating in Jewish social justice for many years, only when we began organizing in secular spaces did we hear voices advocating the need for building something new, something anti-racist, and with an expanded set of tools. Anti-racism wasn’t wasn’t part of our social justice framework…because it didn’t have to be.
A few years ago, one of us sat in an Undoing Racism workshop. Participants were there to get clear on what racism is; how it’s the foundation of our country, how it functions — and most importantly, how we’re personally situated in its landscape, so that we can cultivate the particular self-awareness and skills to lessen harm towards others, heal from what racism has taken from us, and understand what it means to undo racism from our own positions in the hierarchy that affords power and self-determination based on whiteness. Talya remembers:
“One exercise prompted everyone to to go around the circle, identifying their race group membership. When my turn came, I said, with a sick sort of this-lets-me-off-the-hook pride — ‘Well I’m white, but I’m Jewish.’ The (Ashkenazi Jewish) facilitator replied without a pause, ‘Ok — white. Next person?’ It was the first time someone asked me to consider my relationship to whiteness. To be clear: our culture, and unapologetic Jewishness is exactly an antidote to whiteness. But I had been raised to lean on the conditional nature of my Jewishness; the part of me that — mingled with my earnest tikkun olam values — absolved me of responsibility for confronting white supremacy, or examining the ways that, naturally, I’d been conditioned by its ideology. It’s what enabled me to associate white supremacy with the KKK — not my own kind.
But now I know that white supremacy is a part of me. It tells me I have a place at the table, no matter how theoretical my connection to the topic at hand. It convinces me I have a right to be in whatever space I want, in whatever ways I want — even when that same space is physically or psychologically inaccessible to friends of color. It justifies interrupting those friends of color when I think I have a better idea, or if I deflect their assertions of racism. It hangs on the words I use to apologize — because I will still never personally know the sting of a racialized micro-aggression…so the harm can’t truly be repaired. It leads me to pontificate about what impact all of this might have on those same friends — imagining them feeling abandoned like there really is no such thing as real ally-ship; like it’s not worth it, or safe, to put trust in people who are white. But the truth is, that presumption is just another insidious form of whiteness; paternalism. Whiteness filters my thoughts and feelings, enabling me to dial back my activism, and my thoughts about all of this, when I’m tired. It allows me to compartmentalize racism as separate from “other” inequities we’re trying to address; as separate from my relationships.
It’s not only friends that are harmed by these patterns of disassociating myself from racism, and whiteness; my life is affected, too. I can’t be my most authentic, integrous self if I’m causing harm to others — especially if I don’t even realize it. So I thank God for mentors who have helped me see that the most central barrier to tzedek and tikkun in our country is the insidiousness, and multi-layered-ness of racism — and the unwillingness of those of us who benefit from whiteness to examine the psychological and physical violence that results from our complacency.”
To build this anti-racist temple — those of us who move through the world as white must get proximate to this pain, and the ways we’re contributing to it. It can seem hard to figure out what that means and looks like, especially given the legacy of unhealed (and sometimes even current) Jewish trauma. And yet we must. Puerto Rican Jewish writer Aurora Levins Morales says, “The work of identifying and removing the invasive and parasitic beliefs about each other that we have been deliberately infected with [and the ways those beliefs have fueled our inaction] can be painful and mortifying…” Waking up to ideas we never realized we had, and beginning to see how deeply and depressingly they’ve infiltrated our social systems, our culture, our own behaviors and vocabulary can be disorienting.
So how do we move forward, towards this anti-racist temple, when the ground beneath us becomes unfamiliar? We must remember that our Jewish muscle memory is calibrated to wandering. We’re a people that knows what it means and requires to move forward without knowing precisely where we’re going.
As it always does, Torah serves as a timeless mirror: After hundreds of years in bondage, the Israelites were released from slavery and wandered the desert for 40 years. Last week’s parsha, Devarim, recaps the Israelites’ journey. Why spend a whole portion re-telling what’s already been in three books-worth of Torah? Perhaps, to emphasize the importance of wandering itself.
Committing to this wandering was not easy for the Israelites. Midrash teaches us that once they’d crossed the Red Sea, rather than rejoicing over their newfound freedom, the people cried out to Moses: “Why did you take us out of Egypt, where we knew our place in society? Why did you bring us here to languish in the desert, where we have no sense of who we are, or where to go?” We can imagine these questions in today’s context: “Why should I wander into the realm of anti-racism when things are so dire; when I don’t even see myself in all of this; when I’m unsure and scared of how to move forward?”
Last summer, Talya studied at Pardes, in Jerusalem. A class on the book of BaMidbar dove deep into the particularities of wandering. Inspired by Avivah Zornberg’s book, Bewilderments, the teacher, David Debow, suggested that wandering was a developmental process through which the people increasingly woke up to, un-learned, and shed their slavery mentality; a process through which the people became ready to take responsibility for themselves. Wandering called upon the Israelites’ vulnerability, humility, and courage — to exist in spaces that felt unknown, and awkward — and to move forward anyway.
Now, millenia later, we are again called upon to wander towards freedom, as, or alongside people of color. Across time, we’ve accumulated capacities for emotional and psychological flexibility in the midst of uncomfortable ambiguity and painful truths. These are are exactly the tools we need for cultivating anti-racism within ourselves, and for showing up in response to the specific calls people of color are making now.
Levins Morales says that, “When the fog is burned off” — which is to say, as we become more conscious of how racism has dehumanized us, and deformed our ways of relating to one another — “what remains is an illuminated social landscape, where the entire geology of our lives is laid bare. This is the landscape of solidarity, where no life is a distraction, where we move in and out of our necessary home spaces, continually expanding the area of the liberated commons, that world-in-creation where all of our identities simultaneously mean everything and nothing, because every excuse for injustice is gone.” This is the landscape upon which to build the frame for an anti-racist temple — a spiritual structure that enables us to be our best, most loving, most justice-oriented selves.
Indeed, this very writing process was one of wandering. We’ve thought deeply about the balance we’re inviting Jewish communities to explore with us: that of finding and activating our agency for racial justice, and showing up with the deep self-awareness and humility that whiteness requires of many of us. We’ve thought seriously about what it means to communicate these ideas as white Jews, intending — above all — to use this platform to emphasize the vital importance of listening to the voices of people of color who are clear about what racism is, how it festers, and what we need to do about it: Internalizing those messages. Answering their calls and following their lead. Taking stock of what within, and around us, gets in the way. Activating ourselves nonetheless.
We are fortunate that our tradition offers us infrastructure for mourning and feeling, for cultivating vulnerability and resilience in times of wandering, and for channeling creativity to build new, beautiful things — the kinds of tools we need to locate and use in terrible times. They are our inheritance. How will we use them to build an anti-racist temple; a spiritual structure that enables us to be our most actively liberatory selves? What can it look like, concretely, in our Jewish communities and institutions? And how will we exist as individuals within that structure?
We can begin by asking ourselves these very tangible questions:
- Whose voices are we paying attention to, to continuously deepen our consciousness about the intersections of racism and Jewishness?
- What practices are in place to help Jews of color feel more welcome? Who is designing them?
- How does Jewish education erase, or elevate, non-Ashkenazi experiences and traditions?
- How are the white Jews in our community intentionally using our relative positions of power — including wealth and influence — against racism in our neighborhoods and cities?
- How does the social justice organizing that happens through our synagogues follow the leadership of people of color, and POC-led organizing happening beyond our congregations?
Rabbi Jill Hausman’s poetic words give shape to, and ground us in this moment in Jewish time, and invite us to channel the revolutionary imagination, creativity, and commitment that characterize our people so well. What will we build?
“…Not a structure of stone
Cut with the implements of war;
Not a city where divisions tear us apart
And hatred burns away all the softness,
But a temple of justice
A tent of peace
A diversity of belonging
Let us continue imagining, creating, and building this home, together, with the clarity that comes with the lens of anti-racism.