An American Teshuvah – 2nd day Rosh HaShanah 5780
Rabbi Josh Katzan
Once upon a time in a Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, the congregation, inspired by their Rabbi and Cantor, were collectively deep in contemplative prayer. During Musaf, it was as if the Gates of Prayer were swung open, and everyone had a private audience with the Creator. Much like any given Shabbat at Bonei Shalom, the intensity of the davening was so profound, not even the Cantor would dare sing a word, as the whole of the congregation were at the ultimate peak of prayerful union with God…
Suddenly, the sheer honesty and holiness of the moment gripped the Rabbi, and he leapt to his feet exclaiming in a full voice, “I am nothing, I am NOTHING!!” Inspired, the president of the congregation stood up next to the Rabbi, and with tears in his eyes and a quivering voice he joined in, “I am nothing! I am NOTHING!” Then, as if the Shechina had descended upon the congregation, Yankle the tailor stood up, and with vigor and pain, screamed out, “I am nothing, I am NOTHING!”
To which the president turned to the Rabbi and said, “Hey Rabbi, get a load of this: look who thinks he’s nothing?!”
It’s a hilarious hypocrisy. Haven’t we all encountered people who virtue signal their purity only to then reveal their hypocrisy? This joke displays the meaning of, “I am nothing” as being “I am a fraud!”
Now, we don’t need to be too harsh on these people, just as we don’t need to be too harsh on ourselves. We may all be a little fraudulent and negligent, but we are all a work in progress. We may have righteous intentions, and may not be successful living them. And that’s partly why we’re here today.
It’s Rosh Hashanah, and you know the drill: this is the time of year we’re meant to take ourselves a little more seriously, to look deeply inside ourselves, and commit to becoming better human beings. We are to acknowledge where we’ve failed, where we’re broken, and when we’ve been the problem in the room. We are to diligently do T’shuva, to repent and return our behavior to a straighter and more holy direction. We’ve missed our marks, and today we refocus aim by taking responsibility for the problem, fixing it, paying for it, and preventing ourselves from making the same mistake. And if we fail, we start over and try again. With a healthy dose of honesty, humility, and moral stamina, this works.
Rosh Hashanah teaches us not to be perfect, but to attend to the ongoing work of perfecting ourselves. That suffering the process of change is the only spirituality that matters. This is true for us as individuals. And it’s also true for us as citizens of this nation.
This past year, I had an unexpectedly transformative moment that coalesced much of what I’ve learned, felt, and even taught about T’shuvah, repentance. It was a true “Rosh Hashnaha” experience.
I happened to read an article about an art project taking place in Germany since 1992 by artist Gunter Demnig. I believe I was first introduced to the Stolpersteine, the “stumbling stones project” by my former congregant, and one of Bonai Shalom’s original High-Holiday chazzan, and Holocaust survivor, Mr. Jack Goldman, z”l, of blessed memory. Apparently, there was an old German anti-Semitic expression that one would say if one stumbled while walking, “A Jew must be buried here.” The Stolpersteine are 4”x4” “stumbling-blocks” protruding from the street in front of the homes and businesses of Jews who were taken. They have the name and life dates of the Jews who had lived there and are a small permanent monument to each Jew, each a German citizen, each a victim of indescribable evil and injustice. As of one year ago, well over 70,000 stones have been placed throughout Germany (and other parts of Europe) with the continued support of the German government.
This triggered for me a memory of a German movie, a reproduction of an American made-for-TV movie called “The Wave.” This is the true account of history teacher Ron Jones in a Palo Alto public school who successfully started a fascist movement in his history class to teach how easily societies can be turned against even their own principles, and how it was possible for the Nazis to take over. In 2008 there was an excellent German adaptation of this story set in a German high school. There were moving scenes of the German high school students debating and arguing about what it means to take responsibility, as young Germans, for the Holocaust and for the devastation of WWII. The classic questions were raised: “Why should I feel guilty? Why should I pay for reparations? I wasn’t even born! My parents weren’t even born, or they were children! It wasn’t even my grandparents—they were against Hitler and the Reich! It was in the past, why do I need to take responsibility now? It was so long ago…”
It’s impressive to think of generations of Germans facing these questions, and they continue to grapple with what it means to take responsibility for such profound human evil. Discusssion without resolution. Conversations without comforting conclusions.
As I read about the stumbling stones, as a Jew I felt what I can only describe as a sensation of “healing,” of feeling seen and my humanity dignified. That we are not alone in carrying this traumatizing history, that young generations are growing up learning about the Holocaust, and somehow honoring the fact that I and so many of us suffer profound loss and trauma. There is healing that comes from knowing that multiple generations in Germany continue to take on sharing memory and responsibility.
Now, think for a moment how you might feel if I stood up here and reported the opposite? What would it do to you to hear endless anecdotes of modern Germans knowing nothing about the Holocaust, let alone WWII? That they’d rather “let history remain in the past, and let’s just talk about the present and the future?” What would it do to you to think about the Holocaust as a grave-but-dissolving footnote in the consciousness of the German people?
I’m sure many of you had the same debates I did when I was a child about whether or not it was OK to buy German products. Today, however, I can’t say I know anyone, including Holocaust survivors, for whom this is a meaningful question. It’s not much of an issue any longer. Why? Our memory is not that short.
I believe it’s because Germany has sustained a responsible practice of T’shuvah, for generations. As a country, and certainly as a government, they appear to be regularly confronting their greatest national sins, they endure the moral torment and confusion that comes with it, and they simply haven’t stopped taking responsibility. The murder and destruction of Jews by their hands has not been forgotten. These policies have been a source of healing for the Jews, and have also helped to heal Germany.
Of course, I wish I could report that anti-Semitism is a thing of the past in Germany and elsewhere. To the contrary, German nationalism is on the rise, Holocaust denial is becoming more of a “thing,” and German racists periodically pluck out the stumbling stones. And we are all painfully aware of the rise of White Nationalism in this country. Clearly, Mashiach has not yet arrived. I can’t speak about the future, I only know that at least until now the German government has been doing the right thing since WWII. And this has made a huge difference to us as a people.
As I thought about what it would have looked like if after Neurenberg Germany just tried to “move on,” I realized that that silence would be an isolating, endless shriek of guilt and shame. But then it also struck me: If Germany remained silent about the Holocaust, perhaps they might end up a little like the United States of America.
“America” has never endeavored to comprehend, let alone atone, for the sin of slavery. We have not truly educated our citizens, have not fully explored what it means to own a history like this, and certainly have not ruminated on the reverberating consequences of approximately 246 years of slavery on African American communities, on white American communities, and on our identity as a post-slavery United States.
Certainly, many individuals have, and the proliferation of African-American Studies departments in Universities across the country, recent emergence of some important museums, along with many groups dedicated to raising awareness, flourish and are doing good work. But as a country, we have not internalized into the system of our national consciousness the responsibility to do T’shuvah, to repent for this grave national sin. It is already many, many generations after the fact, but this is something we still can, and must, do.
I can already hear it: “Look Rabbi, our ancestry arrived long after 1865, after the 13th Amendment freed the slaves. We had nothing to do with it. ‘They’ did, not us.” True. Until this past year, I confess I, too, felt ambivalent about the subject for these very reasons.
“Look Rabbi, I treat all people, and especially African Americans with dignity and respect–especially because I am sensitive to their history!” Fair enough. Perhaps you do. Weirdly, racism isn’t the whole story here. Racism, if anything, is in part a consequence of our failure as a nation to do T’shuvah for slavery. We, as a community, may not have had anything to do with the sin, but we are obligated, as Americans, to share in collective responsibility to do T’shuvah. And it’s way overdue.
Let us contrast for a moment what we feel like as Jews today, knowing what efforts Germany has made, with how we can only imagine how African-Americans must feel knowing their own government stopped paying attention to them since 1865. How might they otherwise feel if the past 150 years were filled with commitment to educating all American teenagers about reckoning the sin of slavery, to grappling with both this historic identity and our present place in an evolving American history? We are all at least vaguely aware of the continued historic and severe racism of the South post Emancipation. We know about lynching. We know about Jim Crow. We know about voter suppression. We know about the practices of Red Lining in cities and suburbs across the country. We know about mass incarceration. We even periodically talk about it energetically, and I would guess everyone in this room would agree bigotry and racism against African-Americans is evil. But this is not enough to heal.
I know I’m projecting here, but how can multitudes in the African-American community not feel alienated from “America?” How can we tolerate an aspirational vision of “America” that glosses over the centuries-long institutionalized traumatizing of millions? The longer America makes no official and national effort to reckoning slavery, then the longer we continue to reinforce the ever-evolving harms and atrocities rendered upon the African-American community. And we need a healed America. The world needs a healed America. The African-American community DESERVES healing, recompense, and an honest reckoning of their collective history in this country. And for that to happen, “America” needs to do Tshuvah.
Just a few weeks ago I became aware of Dr. Susan Neiman, a contemporary moral philosopher who wrote the book on this very subject, “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil” If I had time to read the whole book, this would for sure have been a longer sermon! But there are a couple of points she makes that we can take with us:
In an interview with Robert Siegel from Moment magazine, Dr. Neiman explains, “What the Germans have done—with difficulty, it took them a long time to do it—is face up to what horrible crimes were done in their name, and they’ve become a better country for it.”
The generation of the Nazis took on what she calls the importance of “working off their shame.” She asks how are Americans to “work off their shame?” Have we? What would it take to do this, and what message would it send to all America to do this?
She also talks about the concept of “Setting things straight: “’Setting Things Straight,’ outlines ways to “working off” past sins in Germany and the United States. For example, Neiman calls for the removal of Confederate statues erected decades after the Civil War to promote white supremacy and the myth of the Lost Cause — and hopes it would happen more frequently. Her book gives us clear and practical insight into what has been accomplished in Germany, and what might be helpful to us in America.
The great American writer and novelist Ta Nehisi Coates wrote a brilliant 1600 word essay called, “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic magazine in 2014. It is a methodical and enlightening essay that brings the reader through the lives of real people suffering the consequences and aftermath of slavery, and the emergence of institutionalized racism. I commend this article to everyone, or listen to it for free on Soundcloud. It is a compelling and persuasive work that opens one up to the necessity to discussing, among other things, reparations to the African-American community. Reparations are a necessary element of T’shuvah.
The question of reparations has recently come up in fleeting “news-cycles.” There is much to process here: Is it worthy? If so, how do we determine what/how much/who gets what? Can there be such a thing as “restorative justice” for something like this? What should we do? One thing may be certain: the message conveyed in the practice of payment may be as meaningful as the payment itself. This is what we see in the practice of German reparations to Israel.
There cannot be simplistic and quick answers. But important as it is that we ask these questions, it is as important that we remain committed to a sustained conversation, to sustained governmental engagement in these issues. Perhaps we need to add to our short-list of “Must-Haves” that we demand from our politicians and representatives to include a desire and commitment to implementing reasonable address of slavery, and an exploration of what reparations might look like for the African-American community.
I was recently made aware of Bill H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. This Bill was first introduced by now retired Michigan Rep. John Conyers… in 1989! This Bill calls to create a commission to study the impacts of slavery, and to explore what meaningful reparations might look like. It has been dismissed year after year ever since for no logical reason I can see, but it finally got a hearing this past June. It’s a call for a study. Are our representatives so incapable of even looking at this issue? We must demand otherwise.
Each of us, in our own way, have suffered the trauma of being “othered,” of being persecuted for one aspect of our identity or another. But, as Jews, we have also been able to taste redemption and healing, even if our struggles are not over yet. Let us learn from the wisdom we have accrued from our own history, our own slavery, our own persecutions and use our hearts and our votes as Americans to demand reckoning the sins of slavery. Let’s put more “Judeo” into the so-called “Judeo-Christian” culture of our nation, and let us demand a national repentant agenda of T’shuvah. It should have been done generations ago, but it is never too late. As the George Elliot once said, “It’s never too late to become whom you might have been.”
Imagine our national symbol of the Liberty Bell, with its emblematic scar, that defining crack down its middle, suggesting the cost of liberty and freedom is dire and dear. Rosh Hashanah teaches us nothing is perfect, no one is purely innocent. But what we can perfect is our humility, our hope, the sincerity of our prayer and intention, and our votes. I conclude with a well-known teaching by Leonard Cohen from his song Anthem:
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack… a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in. That’s how the light gets in.
May we each succeed in reaching perfect sincerity in our prayer and efforts at healing the cracks in our hearts and community, and may we merit bathing in the abundant light that would pour in through the cracks of history, and our repeated attempts at helping heal our world. May the taste of honey and apples inspire healing and hope for a sweeter year for us and our whole American community. Shannah Tovah u’metukah.