Lucidity and Racism (Beyond 18)

Yesterday’s post warned of the dangers of “pretension to total lucidity,” a concept based on Zornberg’s commentary on the Book of Numbers. (See also quote, citation.) Today, Race Forward released a series of videos responding to the query, “Systemic Racism: Is that really a thing?” — a key element of “lucidity.”

Race Forward, formerly Applied Research Center, has been researching racism and pushing conversations about it since 1981. Its publication, Colorlines, covers “stories from the perspective of community, rather than through the lens of power brokers,” with breaking news, investigative reporting, and dispatches. Jay Smooth is Race Forward’s video and multimedia producer — a cultural commentator with a gift for succinctly addressing complex issues. (See also “Oppression as ‘Normal'” for more from Smooth.)

Looking at each entry in the new series about Systemic Racism, I found myself asking: How will this move the conversation forward? Those who see this, see it already, and who else will take the time to look at the videos? But the video below (separate from the series) cogently explains how Race Forward’s examination of news found that much of it (2/3 of stories examined) “fails to be systemically aware.” Exploring this can only improve our societal “lucidity.” (the related 2014 report)

We counted 18 on the evening of April 21. Tonight, we count….
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Pretension to Lucidity (Beyond 17)

As the “Tifereth” [“beauty”] week of this journey away from oppression continues, I return again to the biblical concept that all humans (other than Moses) see only a part of any picture:

…The problem arises when one is not aware of one’s own deflections of vision. Imagining oneself clear-eyed, one may become the greatest fantasist of all….the greatest illusion may be the pretension to total lucidity.
— from Bewilderments, Avivah Zornberg’s study of the wilderness travels in the Book of Numbers (see fuller quote and citation in Beyond 14)

In a post published today, Talia Cooper, program director of Ma’yan, provides an example of failing to get the “full picture.” the failure to understand and acknowledge anti-Semitism in the “leftist activist community.”

Anti-Semitism is real. It has and continues to negatively impact our Jewish people.

The leftist activist community doesn’t always do a good job acknowledging or understanding anti-Semitism.

It’s a problem because it means the left won’t have a full picture of society, which is necessary in order to build power and win. And it’s a problem because it perpetuates anti-Semitism itself.
— “A Call to My Beloved Jews: We Gotta Talk About Privilege” on

She goes on to explore the “privilege” factors in the complicated intersectionalities of any one identity expression:

Sometimes it seems so simple: of course it’s possible for me as a white Jewish woman to experience sexism, white privilege and anti-Semitism all at the same time. It’s “simple” because I’ve lived it my whole life.
— Read the rest of Cooper’s piece

LucidityCooper addresses specific conversations she believes Jews must have around intersectionality.
This omer series introduced the topic with “Are (Any) Jews White?” early in the Passover week. Readers are urged to share their thoughts and if/how their thinking has evolved over the course of this omer journey.

The midrash quoted above — insisting that we NEVER have the whole picture — offers a powerful call to remember the dangers of “pretension to total lucidity.”

We counted 17 on the evening of April 20. Tonight, we count….
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Endurance and Transformation (Beyond 16)

“Endurance is not to be confused with transformation,” bell hooks (see “Balancing Compassion and Strength“)

“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
— Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin 37a.

stolendreamThere is still much to be learned on the omer journey away from oppression. As our learning journey progresses, the March 2 Justice approaches the U.S. Capitol, providing an opportunity to learn directly from civil rights leaders and marchers themselves.

In their “Why We March,” the NY Justice League notes that JUST THIS YEAR the individuals listed here on the right, many with mental health issues, were killed by police.

In their honor, and in the names of Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, John Crawford III, and Ramarley Graham, the NY Justice League is calling for

  • an end to racial profiling,
  • stopping the militarization of our local police forces, and
  • demanding the government invest in our youth and communities.

We counted 16 on the evening of April 19. Tonight, we count….
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(Beyond 15)

Yesterday’s post included a note from Bewilderments, Avivah Zornberg’s study of the wilderness travels in the Book of Numbers.

…Moses alone of human beings ‘saw b’aspaklariah meirah— through a clear lens.” All others, including prophets and seers, saw through an unclear glass, a distorted lens of subjectivity (Babylonia Talmud: Yevamot 49b, Rashi to Numbers 12:6). The problem arises when one is not aware of one’s own deflections of vision. Imagining oneself clear-eyed, one may become the greatest fantasist of all….the greatest illusion may be the pretension to total lucidity.

Also yesterday, theGrio — the African American Breaking news site — published “Study: Teachers more likely to label black students as troublemakers,” describing the “black-escalation effect”:

…teachers were shown records of kids with either stereotypical black names (Deshawn or Darnell) or stereotypical white names (Greg or Jake) and asked what disciplinary steps should be taken after certain infractions.

While the response to the first infraction was the same across both races, after the second rule infraction, teachers pushed for more punishment for the black students than the white students.

“It’s not that these are racist people, it’s just that we all are exposed to stereotypes in the world,” Jason Okonufua, the study’s lead researcher, said.

“The problem arises when one is not aware of one’s own deflections of vision.”

We counted 15 on the evening of April 18. Tonight, we count….
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Balancing Kindness and Strength (Beyond 14)

With the new week, we begin a third leg in our journey away from oppression, and so shift focus to a new aspect of divinity. The first week focused on Chesed [“loving-kindness”]. The second, on Gevurah [“strength” or “boundaries,” sometimes “judgement”]. The third, “Tiferet” [“beauty”], is said to combine the first two. On its own chesed and gevurah are each untenable: in individual lives and in the universe as a whole a non-stop flow of loving-kindness leaves no room for boundaries; unmitigated strength leaves no room for compassion. The third attribute of God, and this third week of the Omer count, represent a balancing of forces.

In the early days of this omer journey, we focused on knowing as an act of loving-kindness, moving away from the moral deficiency of not-knowing — as when Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph (his country’s past) — in the early Exodus story. In the second week, we focused on strength required to persevere in the face of oppression and complex boundaries of gender and race.

To launch the third week, here are two potentially “balancing” thoughts —

one from bell hooks on Black women and feminism:

Usually, when people talk about the “strength” of black women they are referring to the way in which they perceive black women coping with oppression. They ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, that endurance is not to be confused with transformation.
— bell hooks. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1981.) p.6

and one from Avivah Zornberg on subjectivity and post-slavery views of a “good Land”:

bewildermentsThe world cannot be seen without ‘interference.’ According to a classic Talmudic description, Moses alone of human beings ‘saw b’aspaklariah meirah— through a clear lens.” All others, including prophets and seers, saw through an unclear glass, a distorted lens of subjectivity (Babylonia Talmud: Yevamot 49b, Rashi to Numbers 12:6). The problem arises when one is not aware of one’s own deflections of vision. Imagining oneself clear-eyed, one may become the greatest fantasist of all….the greatest illusion may be the pretension to total lucidity.

[Moses sees the land as “good.”] But the people are driven by fantasies and anxieties that make goodness an issue of love and hate; the Land represents other questions about themselves, the world, and God. No demonstration of lush fruit can ever lay rest the efes [however] coiled within them. Moses’ dream of vindication cannot address their need. For them, a journey will have proved necessary, if they are to find a way of speaking of the good Land with all their heart.
— Avivah Zornberg. Bewilderments. (NY: Schocken, 2015), p.134, 146

We counted 14 on the evening of April 17. Tonight, we count….
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Race and Gender and Strength and Boundaries (Beyond 12)

As we come to the close of the omer journey week focusing on strength and boundaries, we should at least begin our reflections on the complex intersection of race and gender. My own time at the computer does not permit a long note today (a blessing, perhaps?), so I offer just a few suggestions:

One place to begin is with Zoe Spencer’s short independent film, Epiphany, an insightful and watchable exploration of related issues:

The answer will not be found
in the crooked hook of some misogynistic rap song
…there are far too many mothers crying
for far too many brothers dying
Far too many buying
trying to undue the stain of inferiority
by placing that new platinum noose around our necks
…I have allowed the history of racism
to separate me from my history
— from the introduction to “Epiphany”

Also consider watching or rewatching the powerful documentary on Anita Hill and the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing. There is a lot there to explore, and the anniversary material is quite powerful in its own right.

He had a race.
I had a gender.
Anita Hill Film

Finally, from Nina Simone again:

…You lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears.
And talk real fine just like a lady.
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie

Oh but this whole country is full of lies….
Mississippi Goddam (1964)

Just scratching the surface on our journey from oppression.

We counted 12 on the evening of April 15. Tonight, we count….
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One Seven Times Seven Reality (Beyond 9)

“What the deaths of Garner, Brown and Scott do have in common are individuals who didn’t want to go to jail and cops who wanted to take them there,” wrote Peter Moskos, in yesterday’s Washington Post.

“[They] didn’t want to go to jail.”

This may seem too obvious to mention.

And Moskos’ suggestion that our country “stop criminalizing so many people” as “one logical way to reduce potentially deadly arrest situations” may also seem obvious.

Before moving on to solutions, however, it’s important to stick with our exploration of oppression. Let’s pause to consider just a few of the basic realities of imprisonment in this country.
As we continue our 7 X 7 (seven week) journey in the omer, let’s just make sure that we absorb these realities:

  • Black children are seven times more likely than their peers to have an incarcerated parent.
  • Children with incarcerated parents are seven times more likely to end up in prison themselves.
  • Here is a a link to four pertinent reports with much more on this topic.

Blu Greenberg’s comment quoted yesterday, about this week’s Torah portion suggests that we might try — for one evening at least — not to analyze or prescribe but instead simply mourn for the suffering across generations that this represents.

We counted 9 on the evening of April 12. Tonight, we count….
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In Praise of Silence (Beyond 8)

We’re coming to the end of the eighth day out, the first full day of this omer journey in which we are not celebrating Passover and/or Shabbat [written on April 12, 2015]. The Torah portion for this week is also called “Eighth [Shemini]” and speaks of the eighth day of ritual in the wilderness, one which turns tragic, as two priests offer “strange fire” and are lost:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before [YHVH] alien fire, which had not been enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from [YHVH] and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of [YHVH]. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what [YHVH] mean by saying:

Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
And gain glory before all the people.”

And Aaron was silent.
— Leviticus 10:1-3 (translation in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)

The Deepest Response…

In her commentary on this portion, Blu Greenberg links Aaron’s loss in the Torah portion with her own loss in 2002, when her 36-year-old son JJ was killed in a bicycle accident:

What could have happened? We struggle to understand? Was this a punishment from God, or a random accident? What crime could they have committed that was so heinous as to warrant death by flash fire?

…Aaron responded with a profound, shattering silence, a stunning silence, a shocked silence. He does not justify the cruel decree by blaming his sons and accepting their fate as punishment for their sins. Yet neither does he revolt or protest God’s action. Total silence.

…[Some visitors after JJ died] tried to justify God or soften the loss by giving it some meaning. “He was so good that God needed Him by His side” was one such attempt…I responded, “But we on Earth need him more!” Most people understood at the deepest level that there is nothing that could justify, nothing that could offset the pain or soften the blow, and they wisely remained silent. We ourselves were silent, as there were no words we could speak that would make any sense of it.

Jewish laws of bereavement…stipulate that the shiva [mourning] visitor should not speak until the mourner speaks. I had always thought that the point of that precept was to ensure that the conversation would flow to the place the mourner needs it to reach. But I now understand that the halachah [law] enjoining the comforting visitor to hold back in silence serves a different function: to caution against offering a rationale for the decree of death. The deeper human religious response is to be silent, to live with the contradiction, and to affirm that we need not force meaning into tragedy. Sometimes, the deepest response of love is to be silent.
— Blu Greenberg, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
(NY: 2008, Women of Reform Judaism), p. 632-633

…Is Silence

Throughout the centuries, commentators reading about Nadav and Abihu have rushed — as Greenberg notes above — to either assign guilt, thus justifying their deaths, or exonerate them and so vilify God. Similarly, our nation reacts to the seemingly unending litany of black deaths at the hands of police and others:

  • she was armed;
  • he shouldn’t have run;
  • he was a “good” kid;
  • she was going to college;
  • the officer felt threatened;
  • the whole damn system is guilty as hell.

This week’s Torah portion reminds us that each individual whose death becomes part of this on-going discussion about racism, policing and state violence was first a person.

And, somewhere in the midst of all that is to be said, we must make space and time, too, for silence.

We counted 8 on the evening of April 11. Tonight, we count….
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Strength and Boundaries, Imperfection and Hope (Beyond 7)

With the close of Shabbat and the end of Passover, we move into the “gevurah [strength, boundaries]” week of the omer, on our journey away from oppression.

In the spirit of gevurah as strength, I suggest we begin this week by honoring the strength of individuals of color, persevering in a society that too often sees them in ways that do not celebrate their humanity. In the spirit of gevurah as boundaries, I suggest we begin this week by honoring the many different routes such perseverance can take.

At the close of Shabbat, we mark the division of holy and mundane, and Rabbi Jonathan Saks says:

By inviting human beings to engage in Havdala [dividing] at the end of Shabbat, God invites us to create worlds. Creation involves the ability to make distinctions, to rescue order from chaos, to respect the integrity of creation….The message of Havdala is: if we respect the integrity of boundaries, we can turn chaos into order, darkness into light.
— commentary to Havdala prayer, p. 726 Koren Saks Siddur

In addition, R. Saks teaches that the moment of lighting a candle to mark the transition from Shabbat to the weekdays also recalls the exile of Eve and Adam from Eden and how God showed them how to make light, so that they could become partners in the on-going work of creation.

Letting go of Shabbat is a moment of deep realization that the world is still imperfect and that we have work to do. But it is also a moment of special yearning and hope, as we breathe in the spices to fortifying us for the week’s work ahead. Havdala, and the going out of Shabbat, is thus a great time for considering strength and boundaries.
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An Old Pattern Caught (Beyond 6)

With the final days of Passover, we come to the end of the omer’s first week, focusing on God’s attribute of Chesed [loving-kindness]. We began this week considering the “not-knowing” at the start of the Exodus story, what David Silber called “callousness and a lack of sensitivity,” a “moral deficiency.” We explored Moses’ “capacity to twist his neck,” to see what others missed, as an impetus for redemption. Meanwhile, the news conspired to graphically illustrate — for all to see in ways that seem impossible to refute — how easy it has been for police to create, and much of the population to acquiesce in believing, an oppression-affirming view that is the opposite of the “trouble to see” with which redemption begins.

An Old Pattern Caught

For some, the story of Walter Scott — a Black man apparently gunned down in cold blood by police and then vilified in police and subsequent media reports — is a shock. For some, however, it’s an old pattern that just happened to be caught by video this time:

[A piece of fiction:]
Earlier today DC police fatally shot a mentally ill man in Petworth after a brief stand-off in front of the man’s home….

…Witnesses say that police stopped the recent transplant from the South-Side of Chicago for unknown reasons. “The dude was clearly nervous. From across the street it looked like he was scared of police and was wearing a dark hoodie,” says neighbor and eye witness Mark St. Claire….

*update: post originally said that victim was armed….
*update: post originally identified the victim as only 3/5ths of a person.
*update: post was originally titled “Another Dead Nigger.”
— from “Mentally ill man fatally shot in Petworth,” by Aaron Goggans
on the Well-Examined Life, December 2014

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