“In a Time of Revolution”
“In a Time of Revolution”
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Revolutionary times are the stuff of history, right? Not any longer. It appears that we’re making history, today. We began with the revolutionary and novel coronavirus in mid-March. Next, we encountered the persistence of systemic racism reflected in the murder of George Floyd. Then we witnessed the dismantling of monuments and symbols of America’s history. In the past, revolutions began locally and spread by word-of-mouth or the printed press. Today, they spread globally on social media and the speed of the Internet. Many have told me that they are feeling overwhelmed by it all. Our search for relief can lead us to many sources, but one of the best sources is our own Judaism. Its wisdom and rationality easily provide ways to address the world with one’s head and heart; that is, with one’s intellect and understanding.
We begin with honesty. The revolution that COVID-19 has created will affect our way of life for some time. But, we can control its pervasiveness when we adhere to Judaism’s essential value for life. The point is that only in life can we do a mitzvah, a deed that responds to God’s commandment and which binds us to God’s Covenant. We are taught, whether in prosperity or adversity, to “Choose Life” (Deuteronomy 30). In other faiths, death is rewarded with promises in heaven, which can explain some fateful decisions to play loose with life-saving guidelines. As Jews, death is followed by the immortality of the soul or hope in resurrection in the end of days, but it is also, most assuredly, the end of a life of mitzvot. In short, we can choose life and survive this revolution with a mask (a mitzvah), social distancing (another mitzvah), and handwashing (like your mother told you to do).
Next, systemic racism has been revealed to us in ways that most of us didn’t understand in all its forms until now. I admit that I’ve learned much more about the subject since George Floyd’s death and his funeral. As Jews who are the main characters in the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the quintessential saga of persecution and redemption, we are, nevertheless, unable to claim that we know the Black experience. Furthermore, we heal no wounds when we apologize for their suffering, just as we are not healed when non-Jews make apologies for the inhumanity our people faced in WWII.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s provided some momentum for change, but it lost power and failed to produce what others now must do. Leaders who have spent years in this effort have counseled us not to rely on Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as the quintessential pairing of our times that needs no sequel. In fact, many sequels are required. Our Jewish place in this is to listen, first. To hear (shema) is the beginning of understanding what we must do. In Deuteronomy 6, we’re commanded, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Then we are commanded to love God. In Torah, there are only two other commandments to love. One is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The other is to “love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19). The revolution to overturn systemic racism is inherent in Torah and in us.
Finally, the struggle over monuments and symbols continues. It will never fail to be one of our country’s most challenging and sensitive issues. Taking them down doesn’t change history or the emotional feelings they produce, and destroying them isn’t a solution. If we can agree that we need to teach history lessons in order to learn from the past, then we might also agree that such monuments and symbols might be preserved as educational tools in a museum. Curated by experts who provide ways to understand their purpose in context, like other artifacts of the past, observers of all ages will ask questions about them. One day, learners might want to know, “Why were these monuments displayed in public despite their origins, and why and when were they removed from their places in public?”
Jews shouldn’t be bothered by this suggestion, because Torah makes it clear to us, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image” (Exodus 20). Though we do create tributes to leaders and periods in our history, even in Israel, we do not venerate them. A curated history has the power to teach lessons about the truth and our shortcomings, and to inspire subsequent generations to find paths to greater understanding and peace.
All is not lost even if current revolutions have upset the modest peace we’ve come to know. We have tools to repair what has been broken. To the best of our abilities, let’s do what we’ve been taught in Torah: take the health crisis seriously; love God, your neighbor and the stranger; and, teach lessons about the past for the sake of the future. As Jews, we know too well what it means to be driven and broken. Museums that tell our Jewish story have not denied us our truth and have not prevented us from being a people, an “Am Segulah,” a treasured people in God’s sight.