The First Conference on Religion and Race
One of my favorite stories about the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is how he opened his keynote address at the Conference of Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963, a conference where he would first meet Dr. Martin Luther King, and one, therefore, that would change his theological approach to Jewish action and responsibility forever. He opened his speech:
At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me." While Pharaoh retorted: "Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go."
Heschel continued, "The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a person of color* to cross certain university campuses."
Stated with quintessential Heschel wit yet also dramatic sincerity, the words he spoke that morning were met with shared laughter at first and then somber head nods immediately thereafter.
Humor and frustration, celebration and heartbreak … this is the paradox of Passover. Because what Heschel spoke about that January morning was the aspect of this amazing holiday that is perhaps the most challenging, both theologically and pragmatically.
While we spend the first two days of Pesach sitting around our seder plates, raising our cups while raising our voices in song and prayers of gratitude, Chol HaMoed and the final days of Yom Tov present us with a serious question that demands a response:
Nu? Did you want to have a party, or did you want to journey to freedom?
It is a question, to be fair, that we’ve been asked since our ancestors crossed the Yam Suf. We remember that in the wake of that great miracle, while the last Israelite runs to the shore and the waves come crashing down on the pursuing Egyptian army, that Miriam leads the Israelites in song and dance. But then the party stops, and our ancestors begin, almost immediately, looking back to Egypt rather than forward to a land flowing with milk and honey.
Exodus is Happening Right Now
Pesach is the central narrative of who we are. It is a reminder that just like those men, women, and children who were liberated from the tethers of oppression, we too are given the opportunity to cross the sea and journey to a Promised Land.
But we are also reminded that the Promised Land is not just on the other side of the sea. We don’t go from slavery to overnight redemption, from bondage to utopia. We go into the wilderness, and the wilderness is where we are meant to be until we merit the milk and honey.
The redemptive idea of Passover, and in Judaism more broadly, is not relativism. It is not the peace and prosperity of one people in their ancestral homeland. It is a dream of a world filled with that freedom, one where the prophet Yoel tells us that all people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and one where the prophet Micah tells us that each individual will sit under their own vine and fig tree and none will be afraid.
None will be afraid.
It doesn’t take much looking around before we are forced to acknowledge that’s not where we are. It’s not when we are. Despite what we’ve been told by revisionist history books and by talking heads applauding us for solving the problem of inequality with civil rights legislation, for giving the reverend Martin Luther King Jr. a day on the US holiday calendar, for claiming that we’ve reached our final destination of a post-racist society, we are still very much ba’midbar … we are still very much in the wilderness.
Navigating the Wilderness of Hate
As Jews, there should be nothing more disheartening and unacceptable to us than the rise of bigotry and hate based on skin color or peoplehood. It is, afterall, the essence of our post-Exodus identity — that we were strangers, that we were oppressed, and that we will never allow ourselves or anyone else to feel that hate ever again. That’s what we promised, that’s what we continue to promise. That’s what Passover is all about.
But right now, race based hatred in this country, especially towards the AAPI community, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, is rising at a shocking rate. And you don’t have to trust me, or agree or disagree with me, the statistics speak for themselves. And what they tell us, is that we’re not post racism. We’re very much still leaving Egypt, and we might have even taken some steps back to that land of shackles, of burden, of ensnarement.
I have my own thoughts and opinions about why we’re here, in this wilderness of bigotry and xenophobia, but those opinions won’t get our feet moving and pushing forward to the place we know we are supposed to go.
So instead of thoughts and theories, of hypothesis and analysis, let me say as clearly as I can what I feel is necessary for our leaving Egypt. For putting us on the path towards the place of plowshares and pruning hooks, of vines and fig trees.
The not so Hypothetical Hypothetical
A little over a month ago, our Beta Midrash adult education class was proposed with a hypothetical question that turned out to be not so hypothetical for many of us.
The scenario was this: to imagine that you’re at a big dinner with acquaintances, maybe neighbors or coworkers, and at some point during the meal, the host makes an antisemtic comment, slur, or conspiracy theory. What do you do?
So I’ll ask you, right now, to think of that scenario. What would you do?
And what if it wasn’t an antisemitic slur? What if it was a conspiracy theory about Asian Americans, or a vitriolic comment about the AAPI community? What would you do?
For several of us in the class, the answer was built into what we’ve always been taught. We either ignore it (sticks and stones, right?) or we wait until the dinner is over and approach the individual or individuals in private to let them know that we were hurt or offended by what they said. After all, again this is what we’ve been taught, we don’t want to spoil the evening or ruin the dinner.
If we take away the hypothetical and place the metaphor of that dinner into American society in general, whether it be at dinner parties, on the bus, at the grocery story, or at the ballpark, chances are that the answers would be the same. We try to speak up in private, when there’s an appropriate time to do so, and we politely whisper that we need some change.
The Dinner Party Lie
But here’s the thing about that metaphor. Even though it feels relatable, it’s antithetical to what America is supposed to be. Because the whole idea of America is that there aren’t hosts, that there’s not someone sitting at the head of the table who is allowed to control the conversation or lead our conversation in the first place. This isn’t a dinner we’re invited to — it’s a potluck, and everyone, just like at the Pesach seder, sits at a seat of honor. So as we keep quiet, afraid of spoiling the meal or upsetting anyone who has fallaciously awarded themselves the role of host, we end up propagating an inequality of power that was never real to begin with. We help perpetuate a lie.
And because that is not a place where we, as Jews can allow ourselves to be, we must say Dayeinu. Maspik. Enough. We have spent so long worrying about not ruining dinner and just being thankful we got an invitation to the table in the first place, that we have not only allowed Pharaoh to travel through the wilderness with us, but we have perpetually and consistently given him a megaphone and a makom kavuah, a permanent place of tolerance and respect.
It’s enough with the wilderness already. It’s enough with the wandering and speculating when we’re ever going to reach the places we know we’re destined to go. It’s enough looking back. It’s enough silence.
Because right now, there are far too many people who feel emboldened in their hate. Who feel so comfortable with their perceived superiority that the bigotry comes out of their mouths and out of the tips of their typing fingers without a second thought. The dinners are becoming more frequent, and the self assumed hosts are growing more and more confident in their bigotry. Because around the rest of the table? There’s a palpable silence. There’s acquiescence.
Not anymore. It’s time to be okay with ruining dinner. And quite frankly, it’s time to start making a scene. To ruin the dinner loudly and passionately, because speaking to those fake hosts at the end of the night in a private way has played into the power dynamic that has done serious damage to our society. And if anything, our silence has shown others that we ourselves are okay with how those people have been speaking and acting.
And we’re not. We’re not okay with it. Because as we are reminded not just every year, but every day as we recall the central narrative of our peoplehood, we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the Egyptians dealt harshly with us. And that was the first of a long history of our people being othered and oppressed. It’s built into our communal memory, our ancestral DNA, and we know how painful it is.
The exodus began but is far from having been completed. And so while our Asian brothers and sisters, not just Asian Jews, but all Asians and Pacific Islanders who are being targeted for their appearance are suffering at the hands of bigotry and hate and otherness, we’re going to remember that we promised not to stay quiet, and despite what we’ve been told, despite the myths and lies that we’ve somehow reached the Promised Land of equity and mutual respect, that somehow we’re beyond the days of hate based on race or ethnicity, we’ll keep trekking through the midbar, and you better believe that we’re going to ruin some big dinners along the way.
Passover isn’t over. Sure, the holiday itself is behind us, but the exodus continues. And while we take the time to sing and dance and give thanks for the steps that we’ve talked to this day, we also must pluck up our courage and our strength and remember that the central theme of Pesach is right now, in this moment.
And it asks us...Nu? What are you here for? And we respond that we didn’t just want to party. We packed up our lives in the dead of night and walked into the unknown because we promised to never let Egypt write the story of how people should be treated. Any people.
We’ll keep our promise. We won’t be silent. Because we are sitting through some truly lousy dinners, and it’s about time that we stopped being afraid of ruining them.