Jewish Particularism and Race

In this d’var Torah delivered in 2009, Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein reflects on race, particularism and the work needed to be done by white Jews to address racism and colorblindness in Jewish communities, neighborhoods, schools and relationships.

[Author’s note: “I delivered this d’var Torah back in 2009. Since then, I, and many of my friends and colleagues, have been engaged in the slow process of educating ourselves about racism and white privilege.  If I were to offer this d’var Torah today, I would do so with a greater awareness that an estimated 20 percent of Jews are people of color, and that this conversation is not just about how we relate to those outside our Jewish community, but also how we relate to many within our Jewish community.“]

While I was in college, I began to struggle with a number of our traditional prayers, as I paid closer attention to the language. One Friday night, a dear friend of mine who was Chinese joined me at Shabbat services at Hillel. She loved being there, and it was an honor to be sitting next to a friend who was so engaged. And yet, I began to feel ashamed as we reached the Aleinu. She was reading the lines about the God who “didn’t make us like the other nations of the earth.” I personally did not want to be associated with such an expression of Jewish superiority, and so after that Shabbat, I stopped saying the Aleinu. It was confusing that the Aleinu, which offers the ultimate vision of unity, of all nations coming together in service to the One God, also had what I felt to be an offensive expression of our specialness.  

A few years later, while studying at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, an RRC student introduced me to the Aleinu in her Reconstructionist prayer book. It was so refreshing to discover that I wasn’t the only one who felt alienated by the language of Jewish particularity found in the traditional Aleinu. I now had language that affirmed our special path without implying that we have the only special path. This was the start of my journey towards affiliating with the Reconstructionist movement.

Aleinu originated at the core of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service. Envisioning God as sovereign is an important theme for High Holidays. Aleinu only became part of our daily liturgy around the 13th century.

Reconstructionists aren’t the first ones to change the Aleinu. It originally had an additional line, shehem mishtakhavim lahevel varik—“that they bow down to emptiness and nothingness.” Responding to Christian objections to this description of Jesus as “nothingness,” we removed this line, as well as the ritual spitting that accompanied it.[fn]Ironically, the form of Aleinu that those of us who were raised Reform or Conservative inherited is even more problematic than the original prayer. The original prayer expressed a religious elitism—a denigrating of their approach to God—whereas the version so many of us grew up with, shelo asanu kegoyei ha’aratzot, expresses a more general denigration of their very identity: “God has not made us like the other nations of the earth.” This version seems to suggest that we are a special group, and at risk of being provocative, that we are a superior race.[/fn]

I no longer recite the traditional version of the Aleinu, and yet uncomfortable expressions of particularism remain embedded in our tradition.  One such uncomfortable text Isaiah 60, chanted as the Haftarah on the sixth Shabbat of Consolation following Tisha B’Av. It begins, “Arise, shine, for your light has dawned/Kumi ori ki vah orekh; The Presence of the Holy One has shone upon you!” What a beautiful image of comfort and hope—envisioning that our light is dawning and that God’s presence shines upon us. Yet, the following verse shifts the focus from our light to everyone else’s darkness: “Behold! Darkness shall cover the earth and thick clouds the peoples, but on you the Holy One will shine and the Holy One’s presence will be seen over you.” In this worldview, comfort comes from knowing that we’re the ones upon whom the Light will shine, and like the traditional Aleinu, it seems to imply that we are superior and closer to God.

Social-science experiments have explored how children learn to discriminate.[fn]See Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children.[/fn] In a study at the University of Texas, 4- and 5-year-olds were randomly given either a blue T-shirt or red T-shirt to wear. They wore these T-shirts for three weeks, during which time the kids were never grouped by their shirt color and there was no discussion of colored shirts. The kids played freely with each other across colored shirt lines. When after the three weeks, however, they were asked which color team was better to be part of or which team might win a race, they chose their own color. And when “reds” were asked how many “reds” were nice, the kids answered: “All of us.” Whereas when asked how many “blues” were nice, they would say: “Some.” They would also say that some of the “blues” were mean and some were dumb, but not the “reds.” Starting at a young age, we see differences and favor our own group. The challenge becomes how we as adults talk to children about differences, and also, how we as adults embrace our own group while remaining open to others, particularly others who are oppressed and treated as “the other” in our society.

A 2006 study in Austin, Texas, followed 100 Caucasian families with a child 5 to 7 years old. The goal was to study whether multicultural videos have a beneficial effect on children’s racial attitudes; this is a practice that has become a part of school curricula across the country, and yet they have not had the hoped-for effect. The researcher, Birgitte Vittrup, was interested in whether watching the videos accompanied by discussion with parents about interracial friendships would transform attitudes. What she found that very few of these white parents, who all outwardly embraced multiculturalism, had ever talked to their kids about race directly. They wanted their kids to grow up colorblind; however, just as in the study with the blue and red shirts, when these white children were asked how many white people were mean, they often answered, “almost none.” Whereas when they were asked how many blacks were mean, a number of them answered, “some” or “a lot.” The parents had a hard time following through with the study; in fact, only six of the 100 sets of parents went ahead and talked with their kids about interracial friendship. These six families who did talk about race saw a dramatic improvement in racial attitudes of their children when they were tested the following week. Many of the other parents came to Vittrup after the study and told her that they hadn’t spoken with their kids because didn’t know what to say and didn’t want to say the wrong thing; however, as a result, they were unintentionally reinforcing racism. The children were discriminating because that’s what children do, and the adults in their lives can help them process how they discriminate.

When we moved back to Philadelphia some years ago, I began thinking a lot about my own relationships as a Jewish woman to African-Americans in our community, and also how to talk about this topic with my then 3-year-old son. A number of the significant people in our lives, including one of my son’s beloved teachers, were black. Our condo is a diverse community—black, white, Jewish, Asian. Our investment as owners of different races and cultures is tied up together in this building, which is in need of significant and expensive repairs, and I sense that unspoken racial tensions is one of the reasons that it has been so difficult to get the repairs under way. In the realm of parenting, our son began to develop a beautiful friendship with a black boy his age; they delight in seeing each other and love the same kinds of trains and trucks. As we grow closer to the family of our son’s friend, I am challenged to face some of my own unprocessed feelings about race and my responsibility as an American who passes for white, and who is in so many ways part of the privileged class. As a liberal American who believes that we shouldn’t discriminate, I feel like I’m supposed to have this all figured out already, and yet I don’t. I share this challenge today because this is where my inner work lies as we begin a New Year.

As I struggle to make sense of what it is I need to work on, I am reminded of an experience when I was a high school student in New Mexico. I was chosen to attend Girls State, a week of training in American government sponsored by the American Legion. My roommate that week was a Hispanic girl from one of the small, impoverished towns in the south of New Mexico. She knew in advance that she was going to have a Jewish roommate, and when we first met, she shared with me that she and her history teacher had been discussing how she was going to apologize to me for the Holocaust. This didn’t make any sense to me. First of all, she had no responsibility for the Holocaust, and secondly, I didn’t lose any immediate family in the Holocaust. And yet, she was processing the horrific history of the Holocaust with the first Jew she had ever met. As I get to know the family of my son’s close friend, I feel that I am entering similarly new territory. I want to apologize for the violence with which African-Americans were brought to this country in chains, and for slavery, and for their mistreatment even after they were freed from slavery, and even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed racial segregation. How do I become equal with one who is treated as less than equal by society?

We are now going to move into a reflective, sharing phase. On this day of judgement and taking account, I invite each of us to take stock of our relationships with our black and African-American neighbors and friends. The future of the city of Philadelphia lies in our ability to know one another, to uncover the assumptions we hold about each other and to overcome unspoken tensions. What roles do African-Americans play in our lives? In what ways are they our equals and in what ways do they remain “the other”? What gets sparked inside of us when we think about the line from the traditional Aleinu, “God who has not made us like the other nations,” in the context of thinking about our African-American neighbors?

Find a partner and swap stories; we will speak and listen from the heart, sharing about a connection with someone who is black here in Philadelphia. This is not a time to debate or attempt to solve the issues of racism; rather, in the spirit of Rosh Hashanah, we will take account of our relationships with a special group of neighbors, and for some of us, family members. In the ongoing work of developing deeper relationships across communities, we must first take stock of what’s going on inside ourselves, and we take a step towards that effort today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Resources

February 5, 2024
Posted in Race
Narratives can be shaped and reshaped, often omitting crucial truths, particularly regarding racial issues in America.
August 6, 2023
Posted in Race
The process of reparations requires a transformation of the soul of America.
June 4, 2023
Posted in Race
We must bring to life that world where the tzelem Elohim (image of the Divine) of every person is recognized and can shine out.
June 4, 2023
Posted in Race
Our children inhabit a race-based society and receive messages about how to apply racial labels.
February 6, 2023
Posted in Race
A Purim drash
January 3, 2023
Posted in Justice, Race
How might we understand reparations as a Jewish issue?

The Reconstructionist Network

Serving as central organization of the Reconstructionist movement

Training the next generation of groundbreaking rabbis

Modeling respectful conversations on pressing Jewish issues

Curating original, Jewish rituals, and convening Jewish creatives

Get the latest from Evolve delivered to your inbox.

The Reconstructionist Network