Do not remain indifferent

Nearly 70 years ago, On August 30, 1952, Rabbi Goldberg, of blessed memory, was arrested in Albany, GA for participating in an anti-segregation protest[1].

One year later, in 1953, just weeks after Dr. King delivered his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, Rabbi Goldberg reflected on his arrest during his Rosh Hashanah sermon. Rabbi Goldberg wrote, “I was grateful to have put my religious principles to a test of action. Yet I felt on my return – that enough people in the congregation were disturbed by the arrest that I did not make racial justice the theme of my New Year’s address. Looking backward, I’m somewhat ashamed at my decision not to do so.[2]

I feel the same tension as Rabbi Goldberg. Given COVID and the intense divisions in our society, I am reticent to offer a sermon that some might deem “political”. I know that many of you come tonight seeking words of comfort, perhaps even to forget about politics for these few hours. Yet when I look back next year, or ten years, or when Maggie and Aiden are grown and ask how I responded to the great crisis of our day, I do not want to feel shame at remaining silent, I will not remain indifferent.

Torah and history have taught again and again that, as Elie Wiesel is often quoted: “The opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference.” Wiesel later wrote that “Of course, indifference can be tempting – more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes…. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction.[3]

Even though today we have unlimited access to first-hand video and audio accounts of the horrors that people inflict upon their fellow, it is also so easy to choose to turn our heads, to render our brothers and sisters as meaningless. It should be unthinkable to us as Jews to not stand up and fight with our black and brown friends, neighbors, congregants, or family members when they are suffering. Rabbi Goldberg later wrote in his sermon from that Rosh Hashanah, “I am asking that we, with deep humility join people of color in their struggle for a better nation. The Judaism to which we are heirs should have prompted us long ago to do this. [4]

We are now the inheritors of this struggle. A lot has changed in the last 70 years, the civil rights act and the voting rights act have emancipated people of color from many overtly racist systems of oppression. And yet, covert racism has continued to oppress people of color to this very day.

Policies that disproportionally affect people of color, some remnants of Jim Crow and others newly devised are finally being discussed if not addressed. These include racial disparities in our criminal justice system, drug laws, education funding, persistent segregation, voter suppression, and more. Rabbi Goldberg and Rabbi Brockman engaged in these very struggles and inspired our congregation to become known as a bastion of love and acceptance, a congregation that lives our Jewish values by working with others to repair our world. It is now up to us to continue this work in order to make our world more equitable for all, so that everyone has sufficient access to the resources that they need no matter the color of their skin.

Rabbi Goldberg also wrote in his sermon that, “Perhaps we may redeem ourselves for our transgressions and our indifference…by actively engaging ourselves as never before.”

That is why we are here tonight, on Yom Kippur, to redeem ourselves from the ways we have missed the mark in the past. Teshuvah, repentance, is a continual process obligating us to reflect on the past in order to create a better future. Without examining our past actions, individually and collectively, we are bound to repeat the same transgressions in the year to come. We look back not to feel guilty, for guilt is not going to change the past or the future. Yom Kippur is not a holiday about guilt – instead God challenges us to look forward. Instead of guilt we can feel inspired, curious, energized, and excited by the possibility that each one of us can make life better for ourselves and for others. We have the opportunity to create a more peaceful, equitable, loving world than in the past. This is Yom Kippur’s message of hope.

During our prayers tonight we ask forgiveness for the harm we caused both knowingly and unknowingly. “Al Cheit Shechatanu l’faneicha,” we prayed, “for the harm we have caused in our world consciously and unconsciously.[5]” When we know what we have done wrong we often know how to act differently. However, the only way that we can free ourselves from the harm that we caused unknowingly, is to engage in cheshbon hanfesh. The process of examining our actions from the past and learning how we may have caused harm to others. We then choose to be different, to be better.

Our confessional prayers began “And when we turn to You do not be indifferent. God, we are arrogant and stubborn, claiming to be blameless and free of sin. In truth, we have stumbled and strayed. We have done wrong.[6]” If we ask God not to be indifferent to us, we must not be indifferent to others.

This is the very premise of Ibram Kendi’s term “anti-racist.” Kendi writes, that “it isn’t possible to be simply “not racist.” Kendi believes that all of us must choose a side; in fact, he thinks that we are choosing, all the time.[7]” Having spent many hours this summer protesting and more importantly learning from both white and black friends who devote their lives to racial justice, I believe Kendi’s statement to be true. Through no fault of our own, but rather because of how deeply racism is ingrained in our society, each decision we make has racial consequences. Kendi teaches that indifference itself is itself a form of racism, echoing Wiesel’s warning. For when we are indifferent, other people’s lives become meaningless, their visible anguish is of no interest, they become an abstraction leaving us devoid of empathy. Being anti-racist means that we consciously and consistently choose love over indifference.

I shudder with fear and sadness when I read about the violence and rioting that continues to erupt throughout our country – I do not condone violence of any kind. However, I am empathetic to the struggle and fight of those rioting…. I can understand that when people feel hopeless, or that their lives literally do not matter to those in power, or when they can’t breathe, that violence will result. We can help reduce violence of all kinds by seeing other people’s suffering and working as a community to create a more equitable world.

It is not enough to simply say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ though it is an important first step. We must transform our world so that black lives do matter, in every corner of society. This transformation happens not in the streets, but within each of us, as we explore who we are and who we want to be, by examining how our society functions and how it could function. Jews know this transformation – we do it every year on Yom Kippur when we engage in chesbon hanefsh – when we examine our actions from the past year in order to be better in the next.

Kol Nidre, perhaps the most powerful prayer in our tradition, focuses on the future. It speaks of the promises we make from this moment until next year, when we will gather again, recite the same prayers, and recall the same ways that we have missed the mark. The beauty of Judaism is that it asks us not to be perfect, but rather that each of us continually strive for perfection. My hope on this Kol Nidre is that the rabbi of CMI in 2090, seventy years from now, is not quoting my sermon from this evening, but instead speaking of the ways in which all people, regardless of race, or religion, gender or sexuality, enjoy full equity and equality. May we commit ourselves to this task, and may we bring into our world more love, peace and hope.

Ken y’hi ratzon, may it be God’s will


[1] https://www.jta.org/1962/08/30/archive/nine-rabbis-among-seventy-arrested-for-anti-segregation-protest

[2] Judaism, the Jews, and the Negro Revolt. Rabbi Robert Goldberg, Rosh Hashanah Sermon Sept. 18, 1963

[3] The Perils of Indifference, Elie Wiesel https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ewieselperilsofindifference.html

[4] Rabbi Goldbers’s sermon

[5] Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur: Machzor for the Days of Awe (p. 300). CCAR Press. Kindle Edition.

[6] Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur: Machzor for the Days of Awe (p. 296). CCAR Press. Kindle Edition.

[7] The Fight to Redeine Racism¸ Kelefa Sanneh https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/08/19/the-fight-to-redefine-racism