Dear Jews Who Say Black Lives Matter

in this final week of Elul 5780 —

Dear Jewish Organizations and Synagogues who Say Black Lives Matter,

In June, hundreds of Jewish organizations and congregations signed a statement of support for Black Lives Matter. That statement focused on addressing deliberate attempts to divide us:

There are politicians and political movements in this country who build power by deliberately manufacturing fear to divide us against each other….

…We’ll show up for each other every time one of us is targeted because of our differences, and reject any effort to use fear to divide us against each other.

The statement also declared sacred the work of pursuing justice, affirming Jewish support for Black-led organizing toward accountability and transparency from officials and police:

We support the Black-led movement in this country that is calling for accountability and transparency from the government and law enforcement. We know that freedom and safety for any of us depends on the freedom and safety of all of us.

…Jewish tradition teaches us that justice is not something that will be bestowed upon us, it is something that we need to pursue, and that the pursuit is itself sacred work. (Emphasis in original.)

Despite this public commitment, Jewish groups have been remarkably silent in the face of DC police shooting a youth, just barely 18, to death on a District street, September 2, 2020. Despite promises to do so, Jewish organizations and congregations have not been actively joining Stop Police Terror DC and Black Lives Matter DC in calling for accountability and transparency from government and from police. (See joint statement; more below.)

Signatories to the June letter should be prepared to stand behind our words with commitment to teshuvah [repentance] for this killing. The killing should be of national concern. At minimum, we need a greater response from signatories who live, work, and worship within DC.

The June letter is signed (on quick review) by at least 12 congregations located inside DC, more outside the city with members living and working in DC, and national organizations with offices in DC. With a few exceptions — Jews United for Justice forwarded the joint statement of Stop Police Terror/BLM DC, for example — Jewish groups have been far too silent in response to this trauma within our city and to the abject failure of our government in terms of that stated goal: “freedom and safety for all of us.

At the very least, those who have declared “we say, unequivocally: Black Lives Matter” must object to the normalizing of young Black death, in our nation’s capital and around the country, and demand re-examination of “gun recovery” policy and practice that regularly leads to Black people being harassed and hunted, even to death. (See DC Justice Lab proposals. See also Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense call for transparency.)

Those of us who are white and/or living in relative safety must stop accepting a system that funds infrastructure to our benefit while we regularly avoid consequences of uneven funding and the uneven presence and impact of police.

Jewish silence has long contributed to the conditions that led to the September 2nd killing, and Jews — whether part of groups which signed in June or not — have much teshuvah to do for this. We add to our sins if we do not mention the name, Deon Kay, and commit to seeking better conditions as 5781 begins.

Virginia Avniel Spatz
long-time resident of DC
active, over the years, in many Jewish congregations/organizations, including BLM support signatories

SHARE HERE: If you would like to add your name to THIS letter and/or report on Jewish response to the killing of Deon Kay, use this contact form. This blog will endeavor to update as quickly as possible, so we can all see how Jews are following through on the Black Lives Matter declaration.

from DC Justice Lab

See also statements of DC Police Reform Commission, an official body of the DC Council, and these from ACLU of DC and DC Action for Children.

News: Washington Informer and Washington City Paper (solid local reporting, with no paywall). Also: Washington City Paper “What Deon Kay’s Mentors Want You to Know…”


  • Fire MPD Chief Peter Newsham
  • Launch a fully independent investigation into the death of Deon Kay
  • Fire MPD Officer Alexander Alvarez
  • Defund the DC Metropolitan Police Department and fully invest in community-led resources
…amend “Comprehensive Justice and Policing Reform Act” to:
  • Require that all released videos include audit trails that show who accessed the video and how and if it was edited, so that transparency can reduce the risk that the videos are doctored.
  • Require that MPD explicitly clarify why officers’ faces in released footage are redacted, define who are considered “officers involved” before releasing footage, and include those officers’ names and faces in the footage.
  • Require that MPD state explicitly when naming “officers involved” which officer committed the act (rather than officers who were on the scene)


The Well of Sight, Seeing, Seen

Ishmael, Isaac, and a Reunion of Cousins” raised questions about what it means for Isaac to settle at Beer Lahai Roi, the wellspring that is already home to Ishmael, after the brothers have buried their father, Abraham. The Shalom Center proposes bringing this story (Gen 25:7-11) into the Days of Awe to suggest “turning and healing” of the painful Torah passages read at Rosh Hashanah. And in the context of the high holidays, the wellspring’s history seems particularly powerful.

On the run from ill-treatment by Sarah, Hagar has a divine encounter in the wilderness. An angel finds her at a wellspring on the road and demands: Where have you come from and where are you going? (Gen 16:8). An essential question for individuals at the season of repentance and return. Also key for “renewing the cousinship” of Blacks and Jews, another relationship in need of “turning and healing.”

At the conclusion of Hagar’s wilderness encounter, we read:

וַתִּקְרָא שֵׁם-יְהוָה הַדֹּבֵר אֵלֶיהָ, אַתָּה אֵל רֳאִי: כִּי אָמְרָה, הֲגַם הֲלֹם רָאִיתִי–אַחֲרֵי רֹאִי
עַל-כֵּן קָרָא לַבְּאֵר, בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי–הִנֵּה בֵין-קָדֵשׁ, וּבֵין בָּרֶד
And she called the LORD who spoke to her, “You Are El-roi,” by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after God saw me!”
Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it is between Kadesh and Bered.—
— Gen 16:13-14

In her 1984 Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible pointed out extraordinary aspects of this story, including the fact that Hagar names God — the only biblical character to do so (more here). And the name she uses has a lot to tell us.

El-roi” is translated in a variety of ways and sometimes, as in the 1985 JPS (above), not translated. But all the renderings revolve around sight: God of vision, God of my seeing, God who sees me. This, I think, points to one meaning of Isaac moving to this place: Reconciliation in unlikely if estranged parties cannot see and feel seen, so the brothers both settling in a place of seeing bodes well.

“Renewing the cousinship” of Blacks and Jews requires a lot of seeing. Coming to a place with a powerful history of seeing by/of oppressed and traumatized people could be a great beginning.


To open, moving “days between”

In her The Days Between, Marcia Falk writes of the “We cast into the depths” declaration of Tashlikh, the Rosh Hashana afternoon ritual of symbolic sin/crumb/twig tossing: “We seek in this declaration to free ourselves from whatever impedes our moving into the new year with clarity, lightness, and hope.”

In addition, I suggest, we need to look at where we might be responsible for impeding anyone else’s movement, clarity, lightness, or hope — and prepare to open that blockage wherever possible.

Open, moving “days between” to all,
followed by a good, sweet, and flowing 5776


The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season. Marcia Falk. (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014)

“Look Behind You”: Akedah 5770

In their great love my parents saved me from disappointment,
from pain and sorrow. Now I am left with their savings
plan the pain I would like to spare my children.
How all those savings have piled up on me!

The 20th Century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote a number of poems that clearly reference the Akedah [Binding of Isaac, Genesis/Breishit 22]. But I think this section of “My Parents’ Lodging Place” — from the collection, Open Closed Open — reaches the heart of the Akedah as well as anything he – or anyone else – has written about it… even if he didn’t plan it that way.
Continue reading “Look Behind You”: Akedah 5770

Worm-Hole Aliens, the Mikveh, and the Akeda

I’d like to tell you a story. For those of you who don’t happen to be Star Trek fans, don’t worry about the details–it’s mostly the punch-line we’re after:

Sometime in the 24th Century, Starfleet officer Benjamin Sisko encounters powerful, telepathic beings who exist in a worm-hole outside of linear time. The aliens repeatedly show Sisko a tragic image from his own past: his wife is killed during a battle, while his efforts are required elsewhere on the ship, so he can do nothing to save her. One of the worm-hole beings meets him in the middle of the battle scene, demanding: “You exist here! Why do you exist here?”

I see the Akeda as a moment similar to the image in Sisko’s memory, a moment in which each participant acts in a way that reflects something fundamental about who they are–with heartbreaking consequences. It’s the proverbial “moment of truth.” Abraham, Isaac and God exist in the moment of the Akeda, behaving as they must because of who they are. Sarah also exists there, reacting–when she learns the news–as she must. But most importantly, I think, we exist there. The Akeda is also our moment of truth.

Changing the Questions

To understand what I mean requires that you set aside the usual reactions to this story. I want to consider the Akeda as description, rather than prescription or proscription, and suspend all “should” questions. We can’t ask: Should God have demanded such a test? Should Abraham have complied without argument? Does this story prescribe unquestioning faith or proscribe human sacrifice?

I want to examine the Akeda for what it can tell us about the human condition and our relationship to God, to consider the Akeda as more of an existential tale than a moral one. So let’s not ask why Isaac doesn’t say, “Abba, we’ve got to talk,” or why Abraham doesn’t simply put down the knife. Instead, let’s ask: Why does the Akeda retain such power over us? Can it atone for us? Why do we all–Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, God, all of us here today–exist in this tragic moment?

The Akeda is a moment of transition, a turning point in Genesis, a point of terrifying uncertainty for everyone associated with it. Eden has long been empty of its promise, the ten post-Eden generations were a near failure, and now, in the tenth post-deluge generation, Sarah and Abraham are to parent a great nation. At this moment, however, it is uncertain whether their son Isaac will live out that promise or become its ashes.

The Torah only uses the expression “lekh lekha“–go-you-forth–twice: first, when Abraham is asked to give up his past and go forth to an unknown place. Here, he is asked to journey to an unknown place and give up his son, his future. Similarly, we must exist in the single moment of the present, without being able to change what has brought us to this place and without knowing for certain what will come of our actions. Getting into an airplane, strapping an infant into a car-seat or giving a teenager the car keys, visiting a Federal building after terrorism has been threatened, or, in some circumstances, simply being identifiable as a Jew or an Irish Catholic or a Kurd might lead to dire consequences.

Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because we can never be certain that our actions–even the most spiritually-based or the seemingly most sensible– aren’t somehow putting a knife to the throat of someone we love.

Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because we can never be certain that our actions–even the most spiritually-based or the seemingly most sensible– aren’t somehow putting a knife to the throat of someone we love.

Narratively, the Akeda is placed between the well at Beer-Sheba, a source of life in the desert, and the cave at Machpelah, a tomb. This story literally takes place between life and death. We exist in the Akeda because it’s where we are–between birth and death, with no control over the past and knowing the future hangs in the balance.

Each character in the Akeda knows this truth in a different way. Tradition has it that Sarah’s death–which is reported in the passage immediately following the one we read today–is precipitated by the news of the binding of Isaac. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg argues that it is not sorrow for the trial Isaac has been through or shock at what Abraham has nearly done that leads to her death. Nor is it grief in being told Isaac is dead or joy at hearing that he’s been saved, as various midrashim would have it.

Sarah and the Near Miss

Zornberg says that what happens to Sarah when she learns of the Akeda is similar to what happens to us in what might be called “near miss” experiences: You bend over to tie your shoe and watch a truck barrel through the red light at the crosswalk you were about to enter. You look up just as an infant you thought was sleeping reaches the top of a tall staircase. A relative misses a train that later derails. A friend of mine was walking in the woods when lightening struck just feet behind him. These near misses expose us, however briefly, to the fragility of our lives and raise questions about the limits of God’s providence.

Sarah’s perspective on the Akeda is framed by its near-miss quality. She has been the analytical one in the family, the planner, trying to ensure that God’s promise is being achieved, ever on the lookout for threats to Isaac. But after the Akeda, Sarah sees that her efforts to protect Isaac, her attempts to fulfill God’s promise–her life’s work, in fact–came a hair’s breadth away from being for nought. The 16th Century commentator Maharal says Sarah suffers from “the human reaction of panic, on realizing that only a small thing separated one from such a fate.”

According to Zornberg, “Sarah dies of this radical angst, of this radical sense of doubt about the meaning and the coherence of her life…. she didn’t manage to come through.”

Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because, like Sarah, we sometimes suffer doubt about the meaning of our lives. At least occasionally, those “near misses” illuminate the cracks and warn us that our lives may not be as coherent as they sometimes seem.

Abraham and the Moment

Abraham’s relationship with God is apparently much more solid than Sarah’s. It gives him a present solid enough to balance God’s promise of legacy with the possibilty of annihilation. Rashi and others note how often Abraham acts without knowing the outcome–where God means him to settle, where in the land of Moriah he is to bring his son, or if his son will make it back.

Abraham survives the Akeda by staying within and affirming the moment. He responds three times in the space of this terse story: “Hineini, Here I am.” Unlike Adam who answers God’s “Where are you?” with a song and dance about Eve giving him an apple, Abraham immediately responds simply “here I am.” When his son queries him about his intentions, even when he is caught with a knife to his son’s throat, he doesn’t offer explanations or excuses. He only responds, “here I am.” He doesn’t deny the contradiction between God’s promise to him and the demand to sacrifice Isaac but he doesn’t demand resolution, either.

Somehow Abraham is able to survive, at least for the space of the Akeda, within the contradictions. Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because, like Abraham, we at least occasionally realize that it is not in our power to resolve all the contradictions in our lives, and that now is all we have.

Akeda and Atonement

As for Isaac, his single utterance on the climb up the mountain seems to indicate that he well knew his father’s tendency to lose himself in his relationship with God. There is also a midrash noting Isaac’s concern that his mother not be told about Mt. Moriah while she is near the edge of a pit or on roof-top; this seems to indicate that he understood his mother’s perspective as well. Isaac survives where his mother could not, because he has inherited Abraham’s ability to leave contradictions unresolved through trust in God. On the other hand, Isaac has also inherited enough of Sarah’s analytical sight to keep him outside of Abraham’s here-I-am; he isn’t as completely in the moment as his father, because, like Sarah, he is ever aware of how small a thing is sealing his fate.

Why do we exist in the Akeda? Because, like Isaac, we’ve inherited some of Sarah’s awareness that it might all be over in a flash tempered with some of Abraham’s power to affirm the moment without resolving every contradiction it contains.

…we hope to emerge from the Days of Awe better able to cope with the contradictions in our lives.

This is how the Akeda atones for us. At one moment, it immerses us in a gathering of perspectives in much the same way that a mikvah immerses us in a gathering of waters. Aryeh Kaplan says that an individual entering the mikvah “is no longer bound by either past or future, but exists in an absolute present, which is the one instant of time over which man has control.”

As we enter the Akeda, we also ask God to remember the story with us, like friends who now and then mention a particularly harrowing shared experience because it helps define our relationship. And in God, past, present, and future are gathered together, removing the barrier between past actions and current regret, today’s hopes and our fears for tomorrow. With God in the Akeda, we enter a timeless moment of truth and return to the present–new.

Let’s return briefly to Starfleet’s Benjamin Sisko. He emerges from his worm-hole experience better able to live within the contradictions of his life. He can mourn his wife, while still affirming a career choice which contributed to her death. Similarly, we hope to emerge from the Days of Awe better able to cope with the contradictions in our lives.

Creative Commons License
Worm-Hole Aliens, the Mikveh, and the Akeda by Virginia A. Spatz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Appeared in Living Words: The Best High Holiday Sermons of 5760.

Originally delivered to Fabrangen Havurah, Rosh Hashanah 5759 (9/21/98).

(Deeply) in the Beginning

Every fall, I find myself somewhere different, “in the beginning.”

The Torah cycle carries Jews from Eden, one autumn, through to the edge of the Promised Land the next fall; then the scroll is re-rolled, and we start again. Forever rolling through that same five-book story complicates the concept of “beginning.”

And the idea of “new year” sort of rolls along for Jews:

  • One new year — once a sort of fiscal birthday for animals — begins with the eleventh month of the calendar, Elul. Elul has become a time of introspection to prepare for the much more widely heralded new year for years, Rosh Hashanah.
  • Rosh Hashanah, literally, “head of the year,” is part of a longer period of observance bringing folks from Elul, through the Day of Atonement, to Sukkot, known as “The Festival” in ancient times.
  • Sukkot, the booth-building, redemption-themed fall harvest holiday, AKA “time of our joy,” became, at some point in Jewish history, linked with renewing the Torah cycle. Where Jews once closed a harvest festival by praying for rain for the following year’s bounty, Simchat Torah (“Torah Joy”) closes and renews the reading cycle.
  • The fall holiday cycle ends with a reading of Moses’ death on the west bank of the Jordan and, immediately after, continues, “in the beginning of Elohim-God creating the heaven and the earth…”

So, last Saturday, we started the year’s reading cycle again: “…and there was evening and there was morning, a first day.”

By the end of that first reading, Eve and Adam have already been evicted from the Garden. The Eden episode, however lasting in imagination, lasts a total of 40 verses. Tomorrow, in the second reading of the year, God is already disheartened enough by the whole human experiment to consider destroying it all, finally leaving Noah and company to try again.

In our backyard the wooden skeleton of our sukkah — the fragile structure erected to help us celebrate the holiday of Sukkot — still stands. The walls are gone, packed away for next year, but no one has yet found the time or energy to completely dismantle last year’s structure.

And so it begins.
Continue reading (Deeply) in the Beginning

The Right Mistake

I’ve been thinking about the great need for personal teshuva [“return”/atonement] and reconciliation in close relationships balanced against the need for wider teshuva/reconciliation work.

In that spirit, today I picked up Walter Mosley’s newest book, The Right Mistake, the third about philosopher ex-con Socrates Fortlaw. This is not the first time Mosley has released a book on themes of teshuva at the high holidays, and I think he manages to hit the need to work on both the small and the large scales while telling a compelling story.
Continue reading The Right Mistake