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  • Writer's pictureIOWA Project

Reckoning with Racism: A Time for Taking the Right Space

After weeks of sustained protest against racialized violence towards black people, it looks like my country, the United States, is reckoning as never before with its historic mistreatment of people of African heritage. The trait that keeps emerging on my own soul curriculum, and that is key for many during this time of reevaluation and change, is Anavah/Humility.

In the days following George Floyd’s murder I attended a protest in the city where I serve on the board of a local community organization. The rally at the Middle School, attended by several thousand people, was energized yet peaceful. At the end, a large group of teenagers broke off and marched to the city’s police station. I followed with them, wanting to have my presence counted in the demands for more police accountability in the treatment of black people. We were met at the police station with a three-foot tall, hard plastic barricade and a line of 20 police in riot gear, backed up by National Guard people in military Humvees wearing battle fatigues. I could feel the teens’ energy change as they saw this show of force and some became enraged. For close to an hour I stood on the side bearing witness to teenagers screaming angrily at the police, calling for them to stop brutalizing young people and to join the protests. As the tension grew, I wondered where the leadership was. Why were there no clergy or senior leaders here to cool down, or channel young people’s anger? After I left, fireworks were thrown by teens, tear gas and pepper spray shot at the protesters by police and windows broken on several nearby stores. From my perspective there was a failure of leadership.

However, the next morning I heard from my colleagues who actually live in the city and work with the teenagers. I learned that, indeed, there were youth organizers among the teens the whole time guiding the protests. They knew that the teens needed an outlet for their anger, given that the police had a history of violence towards some of these young people, including the breaking of fingers and striking with clubs. My colleagues thought the teens were actually quite restrained and responsible. Hearing all this I realized how little I actually understood about the life of these teens and what they go through every day as black young people in this country. I realized how little I was able to see of the actual organizing that was happening in the moment, in front of my eyes, because of my perspective of what leadership looks like. I felt truly humbled. I needed to listen more and to learn. At the same time, I received texts and emails from my friends in the Jewish community who wanted to know my perspective on the protests because they know I’m active in these issues. On the one hand I needed to shut up and listen, and on the other I was being called to speak up. I was being called into Anavah.

Anavah, according to Alan Morinis in Everyday Holiness, is, “limiting oneself to an appropriate space while leaving room for others.” (p.49). To live out Anavah, we need to constantly ask ourselves what space we need to be taking in any situation. I find the image of Moshe at the burning bush powerful in this regard. God calls to Moshe from the bush, “Moshe, Moshe” and he responds, “Hineini/Here I am.” (Ex. 3:4). Earlier in the Torah, Rashi defines “Hineini/Here I am,” as “an expression of Anavah/Humility…” (on Gen. 22:1). When facing the fire and hearing the call, Moshe responds with humility, in essence saying, “I’m ready to take the space I’m being called on to take.” Of course, once he hears how big that space is, he tries to wiggle out of it, but ultimately, he accepts the leadership role with the help of his brother, Aaron. Throughout the Torah we see Moshe stepping up to fight for and hold the people accountable, while also acknowledging he cannot do it on his own. Above all, Moshe, the Torah’s model of humility, knows he is serving God and performing a role rather than acting on his own ego. Anavah asks to live into the role our soul curriculum is calling on us to play at any given moment and in any given situation. Sometimes these roles can be mirror images at the same time calling for taking and ceding space all at once. This is how I felt the morning after the protests.

Anavah, according to Alan Morinis in Everyday Holiness, is, "limiting oneself to an appropriate space while leaving room for others.”

How was I being called to show up, both with my community organization and with my Jewish community? As an upper-middle class Ashkenazi Jew, who, in the U.S.’s racial binary terms, is white, I’m being called on to show up in very different ways. Given my class and educational background I was trained to think that my experience of the world is the dominant and “true” experience. My experience of the protests laid bear the lie in that perspective, not for the first time! It was a real Hitlamdut/learning experience. I absolutely did not see what was really happening at the protest. Given my lived experience and role in society I need to take less space and spend a lot of time listening to people on the front lines of mistreatment from the police. I need to make myself smaller and learn and follow the lead of the people most impacted. At the same time, I need to speak up and share my perspective with my mostly white Jewish community, most of whom are even more removed than me from the front lines. They need to hear my voice, as limited as my perspective is. Anavah calls on us to develop just this type of flexibility.

As Mussarniks, we have an opportunity to integrate anti-racism into our middot practices. There is nothing so fundamental to Judaism, and to Mussar, as honoring the Tzelem Elokim/Divine Image in each person. There is just no place for mistreating humans based on race in a Torah perspective. However, the gap between this ideal and our behavior is great. Bridging this gap is where Mussar shines. It can be an Anavah practice to step outside your comfort zone and talk to family and neighbors about racism, or advocate with your town’s leadership to transform the way policing is done.

In this time of moral reckoning about racism we are blessed to have the ancient wisdom of Mussar to draw on for ethical clarity and practical guidance. While the gap between our Jewish ideals and the current racist reality is deep and wide, we have a path forward towards shleimut/wholeness and Teshuva/return. The choice is ours, particularly the non-black Jews among us, to take the next step.


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