Sermon for Reconciliation

Sermon for Reconciliation

Rabbi Mark Solomon

Sukkat Shalom, Edinburgh, 27 November 2021

Dear Friends

A few of you here will remember that before I was with my current lovely partner Lobo, I had a partner for several years named Chaka. He was originally from Barbados, very tall, very black, and very non-Jewish. In those days that was unusual for a rabbi’s partner, to say the least, and I was quite nervous about taking him with me to rabbinic activities. The first occasion when Chaka accompanied me to an official rabbinic function was a wedding for a family I knew well. It was happening far from London in Portmeirion, North Wales, so I thought that was a fairly safe way to start.

We’d had a fine dinner and plenty of wine so everyone was a bit drowsy and waiting for the dancing to begin, when the speeches came along. The father of the bride was no longer alive, so it was the bride’s uncle who gave that speech. He droned on for a long time, and everyone was drifting off, when with a jolt we realised that he was telling a joke. Not just a joke, but – as it turned out – a deeply unsavoury joke. This was 2008 when Barack Obama was running for President, and the joke had to do with the colour of his skin. It drew on an age-old, racist stereotype of black people as lazy. We listened with growing horror as the joke unfolded, everybody squirming in their seats and feeling mortified – but what could we do, he was the bride’s uncle! It so happened that there were only two black people at the wedding, my partner Chaka and a much older, close friend of the family. Chaka listened with utter disbelief, because, frankly, this wasn’t the type of joke that anyone we knew in London in 2008 would be likely to tell. Of course everyone was immediately profoundly apologetic, rushing up to both Chaka and the other gentleman, saying “We’re so sorry, he’s just a silly old man … he doesn't know what he's talking about … this is terrible … we apologise … please don’t take it seriously,” and so on and so forth. Even though Chaka felt quite outraged at what had been said – and I was mortified that, the first time I took him with me to a rabbinic gig, something like this should happen – he graciously agreed to put it to one side and we went on to enjoy a lovely party.

The reason that I've shared this story from long ago is of course that a bitter row has broken out here at Sukkat Shalom within the last week and this is something I feel I need to address in my sermon today.

[section missing from recording] ... nevertheless, didn't harbour within themselves deep down attitudes, stereotypes, that take for granted that certain parts of town are less safe because of the ethnic background of the people who live there.

This was a view shared in a sincere attempt to help a fellow congregant in a WhatsApp conversation towards the end of last week. I know many of you here were on that WhatsApp group or may have heard bits about it. To some of you it may come as a complete revelation, especially to those of you online who are not part of Sukkat Shalom. But this is something that has been a terrible shock and has unfortunately preoccupied many of us associated with Sukkat Shalom since last Friday, a week ago.

This was an attempt to help but unwittingly it led to great hurt, to great pain. And as we read earlier in the service, in the section about prejudice from our prayer book, racial prejudice hurts not only those who are the targets of it but those who practise it as well. And both have been hurt here. Those in our community who feel that their existence has been portrayed as lesser, as other, as not quite fitting in with our community in the way that others do. And that is a shocking and horrific thing, I believe, for all of us at Sukkat Shalom.

And there's also been great hurt for the person who carelessly made the remark, which was simply passing on something that someone else had said to her, but, nevertheless, it must have been passed on or said in the first place. And so there's been a lot of pain throughout our congregation this past week. And in visiting Edinburgh this Shabbat, it’s impossible for me not to address it.

There will be many aspects of the situation that I can't adequately deal with. It's not appropriate in a sermon, but I can’t not address it. I believe that everybody in Sukkat Shalom, every single member, is utterly convinced that racist views are wrong, that racist language is always wrong, that racist opinions are not options to be discussed, they are not up for debate in an open exchange of opinions, but are simply to be excluded, rejected, and condemned by those who hear them, but, at the same time, to remember from going to see Avenue Q, – and, it just occurs to me now, sorry to share my personal recollections again, it was the very first date that I took Chaka on – was to go and see Avenue Q in London: Avenue Q was a musical with puppets, based on the Muppets. It was a really wonderful work of art. One of the songs, they were all rather risqué in Avenue Q, one of them went “everyone's a little bit racist”. I think every single member of the audience of Avenue Q recognised the truth in that.

That however pure we may think ourselves, however right-on and amongst the righteous we believe ourselves to be, and in many ways are, nevertheless, it's very hard to deny that part of our cultural background, from whatever culture we come, means that we do see people who look different or come from a different cultural background as different from us. We express that in all sorts of conscious, but perhaps more unconscious ways.

We all know that we need to work on ourselves. We need to be vigilant with ourselves all the time. When thoughts of a prejudiced nature pop into our heads, as they do into mine sometimes – and I imagine I’m not alone – there's another voice in our heads that tells us: No! I shouldn't be thinking that way. You'll say, look at what I've just thought and correct myself. We do that in all kinds of ways, not just about racism and prejudice, but all kinds of impulses that all of us experience all the time as part of that inner struggle that the Rabbis talk about where they discuss the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra, the good impulse and the evil impulse always struggling within us.

This is part of what it means to be human, to have such struggles within ourselves and, of course, what happens within ourselves is reflected also in the community that we’re part of. We may indeed need to censor ourselves, to stop before we say something, to think about whether it’s fair or right, and maybe find a different way to say it. In hindsight, if the person who made that remark in the first place in the WhatsApp group had only said, it’s a rough part of town, perhaps none of this would have happened. We all understand there are rough parts of town.

It was the fact that the rough part of town was specifically identified as the Black part of town that led to such terrible words and such a heated discussion on the WhatsApp group. As a Liberal Jewish community, Sukkat Shalom has an obligation to place itself in the vanguard of the fight for racial justice. In the wake of the horrific murder of George Floyd which so stunned us during the lockdown last year, Liberal Judaism as a movement and congregations within Liberal Judaism and far beyond began to re-evaluate themselves, to take stock: how inclusive are we in fact? How sensitive are we to the language we use, to the stereotypes we hold? Is there work we need to do? Many liberal communities, or their own accord, undertook racial sensitivity training of some kind. In our small and diffuse community of Sukkat Shalom, without a building of our own, I'm not sure that it really occurred to anyone at that time that we needed to take similar action.

If we now decide to do so, of course it would be in response to the tensions and the fissures that have opened up within our community. But it would also be joining with other liberal Jews, with other communities within the movement itself and following their lead. There would be no shame or disgrace involved in that whatsoever – quite the contrary.

I want to turn now, however, to the dynamics that take place between people and the Jewish values that I speak here, specifically Jewish values in discourse with other people. Here I'm going to get very rabbinic and very biblical, I'm afraid, because I think it helps us to go back to our Jewish basics.

There is, of course, a whole burgeoning culture, of social media and norms, and etiquette, or the lack thereof, that applies to forums like Twitter and other social media, and also make their way into WhatsApp groups, even those that are supposed to be there for care and support in the community. Rather than looking at those secular values, however valuable (or otherwise) they may be, I think it would help us to go back to our Book, to our teachings.

The first one is part of that great chapter, Leviticus 19, that we read on Yom Kippur afternoon hoche’ach tochiach et amitecha. The verse begins: “You shall not hate your fellow in your heart, but you shall surely rebuke your fellow and not bear sin on their account.” You shall surely rebuke your fellow. This is a difficult commandment, that when you see someone doing something wrong and you are able to prevent it or to offset the ill effects, you have an obligation to speak out and to rebuke your fellow, to try to stop them doing it or point out that they’ve done wrong so that they can put it right. That’s what happened in the WhatsApp group. The initial response to the problematic comment that had been made was, I feel, a very good attempt at fulfilling this commandment. To rebuke your fellow but in a sensitive and helpful way. Not condemnatory, just pointing out gently that it's wrong to use “Black parts of town” as shorthand for bad parts of town. That involves racist stereotypes. Unfortunately, some of the remarks after that were not so sensitive, nor so helpful.

Each time the WhatsApp discussion seemed to be mercifully petering out, somebody else felt that they had to weigh in and add their own remarks, and set things off again and again, and again, and it spiralled way out of control. There are ways of rebuking people that are sensitive and helpful, but the Rabbis in the Talmud said that nowadays – in their times – nobody really knows how to rebuke someone appropriately in a way that’s actually going to help. Instead when people rebuke one another, it generally has the opposite effect. It just sparks off anger and defensiveness and an exchange of unpleasantries.

There is a deep truth to that, and we should hearken not only to what the Torah says, to rebuke one another so that we don’t share responsibility for what’s gone wrong, but also to bear in mind that rebuking appropriately is a very difficult thing to do. There's an art to it. It's not something that everybody should throw themselves into with gusto and with relish. That seems to happen a lot on social media when there’s a “Twitter storm,” for instance. One should exercise restraint in rebuking, as with everything else.

There's a verse that comes immediately before that in Leviticus 19, which I think is relevant here as well. Lo telech rachil be-amecha: “You should not go about as a tale-bearer among your people”. Had the dissension been restricted to that WhatsApp conversation and the people involved in it, it might have been possible to address it, to deal with it, to help, and to calm things down, and help people process what had happened. I suspect that what happened next was that people who had not been involved in the original discussion were told about it and the rumours went around, as rumours do. Many people acted as talebearers, spreading dissension, amongst those who hadn’t initially known anything about it. That too is something to be discouraged.

There’s another very important verse a couple of chapters later, in Leviticus 25. This is one that we’re told and emphasizes perhaps more than many other ethical verses in the Torah. V’lo tonu ish et achin: “A person should not wrong their fellow”. The Rabbis in the Talmud say this wronging refers to wronging with words. You should not wrong your fellow, but you should be in awe of your God: I am the Eternal One”. Why does it add, you should be in awe of your God? Because sometimes people say, “I didn't intend those words to hurt.” “I didn't mean what I said.” “I was only joking,” but God knows what the real intention was, and you should be in awe of God who, in traditional theology, sees into our hearts.

What does it mean not to wrong one another? The rabbis emphasise above all, it's what they call halbanat panim, the “whitening of the face”. When someone is so shocked and humiliated and embarrassed in front of others that the blood drains from their face. Maybe that they blush red initially, but then the blood drains from the face and goes white and the person feels utterly mortified and unable to face others.

The Rabbis say you should throw yourself into a fiery furnace before you humiliate or shame another person before others. That applies whether they're present or not present. It's one of the strictest and strongest prohibitions in our tradition, of shaming another person. Now, of course, the shaming here could go both ways. Those who felt hurt and excluded by the remarks that were made in that discussion, some of the overheated and less well thought out remarks, might have felt deeply ashamed and hurt and excluded, in a way, from the community – a terrible feeling.

Likewise, some of those who made the remarks, that were seen as racist, were racist and problematic, probably also felt their faces were whitened, deeply shamed, humiliated, stigmatised for being racist, when in fact, they're probably not. Just people who said foolish and ill-thought-out things as we all do. It's a very very grave thing in our tradition to shame or humiliate someone, to make someone run away because they simply can't face others. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the situation, that kind of reaction brings its own reckoning.

As the Talmud says that, although words of prayer might not get through to God, words of repentance might not get through to God, the tears of those who are shamed and humiliated before others always get through to God. That’s what God pays attention to.

There's another line that we read earlier in the service, in the section on racial prejudice, which was a quotation from Pirkei Avot, Hevei dan et kol ha-adam l’chaf z’chut “Judge every person favourably”, which means, give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Now, the Rabbis discussed and analysed this statement, as they do with everything. Does it really mean you always give people the benefit of the doubt? To everyone? The Rabbis distinguished. If you know that someone is a no-good-nik, is arasha, is a wicked person, a criminal, then you're not obligated to give them the benefit of the doubt. If they did something bad, the chances are they meant to, because you know they do such things all the time. But, if you do not know that someone is a rasha, if you do not know that they are wicked, then you are obligated la-dun l’chaf z’chut, to judge them favourably – to give them the benefit of the doubt; not to assume the worst about people.

In this case, it means don’t leap to accuse people of being racist when there may be other ways of explaining the words that were used. The words may be racist but don’t say that the people are. We know in our current political climate – and this is a good thing – to level the accusation of racism is one of the gravest, most painful, and devastating things that can happen.

Just look at the situation unfolding now in British cricket. The parallels are somewhat interesting: as I mentioned before, even the person who was the victim of the racist remarks was then found to have made his own racist remarks years ago because (going back to Avenue Q) “everyone’s a little bit racist.” We all have things that we wish we hadn't said, that we deeply regret and would like to go back and cancel out, and do differently. We need to give one another the benefit of the doubt.

I'll also say here a word – I'm not going to go on much longer – there have been a lot of accusations and discontent levelled against the chairs of our community, partly because some of the chairs of the community were present in the WhatsApp group but didn't intervene or didn't do so in the way that others felt they were obligated to. Unfortunately, that has led to an atmosphere, it was expressed to me in an email from someone who's not here, someone I've never met, who said that when they wanted to vent their anger, their feelings about what had happened, the last people they would have sent it to were the chairs of the community.

I wrote back rather sharply. I said I'm sorry you think so poorly of the chairs of our community. People who have given themselves, life and soul, for year after draining year to establish Sukkat Shalom, to keep Sukkat Shalom going, to do all the grinding work and planning and physical labour and bringing a Torah scroll. I'm not singling out any individuals, but we know that nobody else is stepping up to do those jobs. No one else perhaps is in a position to do so. The chairs of our community, if anybody deserves the benefit of the doubt, give them a break.

We need to treat the leaders of our community, who do so much hard work, with honour and with respect. Each of them is a person of the highest moral standards. People who have been campaigning throughout their lives for social justice. Many different, excellent causes, including equality in our society here in Scotland. To accuse them of somehow being complicit in racism, of harbouring racism in the community, is an almost unforgivable slur. A real instance of l’shon hara, of evil speech, which the Rabbis warn us against so often.

We need to take time to listen to one another with respect. That doesn't mean respecting racist ideas. It means respecting human beings, fallible, vulnerable human beings. In a situation like this, when everyone is hurting in different ways, for different reasons, now, above all, we need to do what the chairs have said in their email sent out yesterday, which is to take time to reflect, to listen to one another, to be good to one another, to care for one another as that WhatsApp group aspired to do, but sadly in this case did the opposite.

Our community is not a Twitter account and if you feel inclined to “unfollow” as you might if somebody says something you don't like on Twitter, if your first instinct is unfollow, cancel, then I'm sorry, that means you don't really belong in the community. Being part of a community of human beings, any community, but above all a religious community, means hanging together, it means working together. We have had many arguments in Sukkat Shalom, deep arguments over the years. Some people have left because they couldn't agree to differ with other members of the community.

I suspect that here we're talking about something that we can all ultimately agree about. There is no deep dissension here. It's just about how to survive this shock to our system, to reaffirm our values as a Liberal community: that we stand against racism in all forms, we stand with minority groups including ethnic and racial minority groups in our society and within our community one hundred percent. There is no question that everyone who wants to be and sincerely tries to be a part of our community is welcome, whatever their colour, whatever their background.

There has never been any question about that for anyone in Sukkat Shalom, and there isn’t now. But we clearly need to make everybody realise that is the truth, and perhaps we have a bit of work to do to make that happen. I'm sorry to have kept you so long with my remarks and I know that inevitably you won't all agree with everything I've said, but I hope that I've helped a little bit to outline what I as a rabbi – I’ve been told also in an email that I'm not really responsible for anything – but nevertheless, I hope that I've done a little bit of my job of reaffirming both the values that we stand for but also the ways that we need to go about together to make those values real and cherished and public and understood by all in our community. Sukkat Shalom is bigger, better, stronger than one WhatsApp spat, however serious some of the issues at stake may be. I hope out of this, our community can learn and grow morally, and can emerge better and stronger as a result. Not significantly different, because I don't think we need to be significantly different, but perhaps more self-aware. May it be God’s will to strengthen us in this, to keep us together, talking, studying, and celebrating together. Let us say, “Amen.”