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Lives Matter

This isn’t just an American issue, but a Jewish one, too


Istand with the president, who said regarding the current nationwide unrest, “We cannot allow the righteous cries and peaceful protesters to be drowned out by an angry mob.” I stand, too, with former President George W. Bush, who said, “Black people see the repeated violation of their rights without an urgent and adequate response from American institutions. We know that lasting justice will only come by peaceful means. Looting is not liberation, and destruction is not progress. But we also know that lasting peace in our communities requires truly equal justice.”

I stand with General James Mattis who wrote, “The words ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand – one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values….” I join the 64% of Americans — that’s hundreds of millions of them, of every race, creed and political persuasion — who are “sympathetic to people who are out protesting right now.”

And I stand with Agudath Israel of America, which said, in part:

As in all matters, and at all times, our Torah guides the way…. Like all decent Americans, we are horrified by the senseless and ruthless killing of George Floyd, and we join in solidarity with the outpouring of hurt, anger and frustration expressed by responsible citizens protesting peacefully. We are also greatly saddened by the frightening scenes of innocent bystanders and store owners under siege, threatened by violence and mayhem, and facing the prospect of lost livelihoods and uncertain futures….

The Agudah statement is important because this isn’t just an American issue, but a Jewish one too. The sifrei mussar teach that middos, both positive and negative ones, don’t split. In other words, if we are generous or compassionate, we will naturally be giving and empathetic toward all whom we encounter.

That’s a psychological truism, not a religious one. In normal, non-schizoid people, character traits express themselves consistently in all situations, unless actively suppressed in certain situations or regarding certain people. Yes, there are people who are only generous or compassionate toward their family and friends, but that means that even their generosity is, at least partially, ego-based.

We were given a Toras chesed, one which, as Chazal teach, begins with kindness and ends with it. The overriding purpose of the mitzvos, the Torah says, is l’tzaref bahen es habriyos, to refine us and turn us into loving, giving individuals. And if we have absorbed the teachings of the Torah that we study and live by regarding human dignity and sensitivity to others’ plights, how is it possible for us to be distraught at the suffering of one community yet apathetic about or dismissive of the tribulations of another community? After all, middos don’t split.

This isn’t about what we do, but how we instinctively feel. And that, in turn, is something of a litmus test of the totality of who we are as Jews. If I learn Torah and do mitzvos as they were meant to be learned and performed — with an understanding of the big picture, of what Hashem wants from me, from us, from this world — then what ought to ensue naturally is a deep sense of fairness, of empathy and of respect for the inherent G-d-given dignity of another human being.

That’s the Torah’s recipe for exalted living, and the Jews we’ve known who truly applied it in their lives, who lived Torah as it’s meant to be, were embodiments of fairness and compassion for all. I merited learning under Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Zelig Epstein, and it would have been unthinkable for either of them to be callously apathetic to the plight of any person or community of whatever race or religion. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rav Pam, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum, Rav Yaakov Ruderman… Go down the list, the great Yidden we know and revere. They’re all on it.

No doubt it can be difficult to truly relate to the experiences of others that are beyond our frame of reference, such as the mistrust, fear, condescension, harassment, and various forms of bias that many American blacks face on a regular basis. Yet the Torah shows the way when it says (Devarim 10:19), “And you shall love the ger, because you were geirim.” Jews, more than most Americans, should be able to tap into their own experiences past and present to understand and feel for what their black fellow citizens still endure.

Part of using our experiences to understand those of the other is to imagine how we would react if we Jews faced injustice of some sort, yet unsavory elements among us used unacceptable tactics that severely undermined our just cause, giving others an excuse to ignore it. But we don’t have to imagine, because it has happened to us quite often. Indeed, for many years now, I have been one of those called upon to defend against such attempts to obscure and distract from legitimate injustices.

And yet, that is what happens when some voices, even within our own community, frame this story as: “A black man was horrifically killed. How terrible. And then ‘they’ rioted. How dare ‘they’!” They thereby render invisible to our consciences the tens or hundreds of thousands of non-violent marchers (many of whom tried to stop the lawbreakers from undermining their cause), representing millions of fellow citizens who face real problems simply because their skin is the wrong color.

There’s another way, too, to try to relate to the experiences of others — to simply listen to them describe their reality. An excellent place to start is by reading what Tim Scott, Republican senator from South Carolina, said on the Senate floor in 2016 about the reality of his own life — and he’s a US Senator — and that of fellow blacks. Here’s an excerpt:

In many cities and towns across the nation, there is a deep divide between the black community and law enforcement…. And as a family, one American family, we cannot ignore these issues because while so many officers do good… some simply do not. I’ve experienced it myself… in the course of one year, I’ve been stopped seven times by law enforcement officers… as an elected official… the vast majority of the time, I was pulled over for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial….

I also think about the experiences of my brother who became a command sergeant major in the United States Army, the highest rank for an enlisted soldier… pulled over by a law enforcement officer who wanted to know if he had stolen the car he was driving because it was a Volvo. I do not know many African-American men who do not have a very similar story to tell, no matter the profession, no matter their income, no matter their disposition in life….

Imagine the frustration, the irritation, the sense of a loss of dignity that accompanies each of those stops…. I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness and the humiliation that comes with feeling like you’re being targeted for nothing more than being just yourself… there is absolutely nothing more frustrating, more damaging to your soul than when you know you’re following the rules and being treated like you are not….

This is a situation that happens all across the country whether we want to recognize it or not. It may not happen a thousand times a day, but it happens too many times a day. And to see it as I have had the chance to see it helps me understand why this issue has wounds that have not healed in a generation….

Today, however, I simply ask you this: Recognize that just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish of another, does not mean that it does not exist. To ignore their struggles, our struggles, does not make them disappear. It simply leaves you blind and the American family very vulnerable. Some search so hard to explain away injustice that they are slowly wiping away who we are as a nation.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 814. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com


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