On Yom Kippur in 2017, a few months after the horrifying white nationalist rally and violence in Charlottesville, Va., I gave a talk on “Slavery and Its Atonement.” I was wrestling with how our failure as a country to properly reckon with and atone for the foundational sins of Native American genocide and the enslavement of Black people had led us to that terrifying moment.
It’s revealing to reflect on what has happened in America in the five years since then. On the one hand, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the widespread Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, there was a marked shift in the awareness of millions of white people about the realities of systemic racism in America. And, on the other hand, we are today witnessing a concerted campaign to suppress the votes of Black and brown citizens across this country.
On the one hand, scores of Confederate statues have been taken down since Charlottesville. On the other, legislation has been introduced in 23 states, and passed in 12 states, that restricts the teaching of basic facts about slavery and the history of racism in the United States.
On the one hand, in 2020 we elected a Black woman as our vice president, and this past spring, U.S. President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth a national holiday. And on the other, access to clean running water that most Americans take for granted is denied predominantly Black communities in places like Flint, Mich., and Jackson, Miss.
Some progress has been made, and so much remains broken.
So, five years later, I want to revisit the topic of what it means for a society, for America, to do teshuvah, to truly atone for its foundational sins. And I am heartened by the fact that I am not giving this talk in a vacuum. Our movement, Reconstructing Judaism, is in the process of considering a resolution that would put us on record as acknowledging the vast harms done in the founding of this nation, and in the centuries since, to both the indigenous people of this land and to enslaved Africans and their descendants. It would commit us to joining with Black and Indigenous communities in their calls for reparations.[i]
Back in the fall of 2017, I had the honor of meeting with the German consul to Boston in my then-capacity as president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. Given the work that Germany has done to acknowledge and make atonement for the horrors of the Holocaust, I asked the consul general, how does a society get to that point? And he said something that has stayed with me: “First,” he said, “the country has to have a shared narrative of its history.”
And this, of course, is what the forces of reaction here in the United States are trying so desperately to prevent. While the legislation to thwart the teaching of the facts of American history purports to protect the feelings of students, specifically white students, the actual goal is far more insidious. It is to prevent us, as Americans, from having a shared historical narrative. It is to thwart our understanding of the past in such a way that we are incapable of adequately addressing the crises we face in the present. If we cannot confront the realities of white supremacy in our history, then we will fail to overcome its ongoing power in our society today.
In the priestly literature on repentance, the Torah speaks of the necessity of coming to “know” the sin we have committed, especially if it was in some way done unawares, unintentionally. Once it is known, there must be a public confession, an acknowledgment of the harm that has occurred. The process of coming to awareness and speaking aloud the truth about damage done is an essential component in both individual and collective atonement and repair.
I am fairly certain that the vast majority of Americans would condemn slavery, and most white Americans believe that they are not racists. And yet, there remains a widespread desire to hold on to our mythic history, to avoid painful truths about our nation. In a recent poll gauging attitudes towards different options for reparations for slavery, a bare majority of white Americans — just 52% — supported the idea of some kind of national memorial acknowledging the reality of slavery. Even fewer, less than 40%, favored a national apology.
The sin of racism persists because of an ongoing unwillingness to acknowledge the difficult realities that are woven into the fabric of our country. The evil at the heart of legislation to pervert the teaching of our history is that it actively promotes not-knowing and places a stumbling block in the path of those who would be willing to learn, if given the opportunity.
To counter this willful hiding of history, the contemporary movement for reparations calls for a national process of acknowledgment and confession. On the federal level, this call takes the form of House Resolution 40, a bill “to address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”
The commission proposed in H.R. 40 would be tasked with fostering a nationwide conversation about the history and ongoing consequences of anti-Black racism in the United States, as well as exploring practical measures for “appropriate remedies.” When I gave my talk in 2017, H.R. 40 had 32 sponsors. Today, it has about 200. For the first time, its passage has gone from distant hope to potential reality.
As our movement engages in the conversation about reparations, how might we understand it as not just an American issue, but also a Jewish issue? Here are a few ways that I answer that question.
As masses of European Jews began arriving on these shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they came into a society in which the main fault line was not — as it had been in Europe — between Jew and gentile, but between white and Black. In seeking safety and stability, European Jewish immigrants embarked on a process — very much like their Italian and Irish neighbors — of becoming white. As those of us of European descent took on white status, we joined the majority in enjoying the fruits of all of the unpaid labor that had made the United States one of the richest countries in the world. We settled on land that had been stolen from Native Americans. With no particularly malicious intent, we benefited from the many government programs of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s — from Social Security to the GI Bill to the Federal Housing Administration — that in practice excluded a majority of Black and brown citizens. Both because today we are an increasingly multi-racial American Jewish community and because we remain a predominantly white community that has benefited enormously from the privilege of whiteness, we need to be engaged in the work of reparations.
Why is reparations a Jewish issue? In the recent, excellent documentary “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” the filmmakers make clear the links between American support for eugenics and white supremacy in the early 20th century and the development of Hitler’s policies in Germany. The use of science to buttress claims of racial superiority was an American export. So was the lesson that mobs could destroy property and lynch people in the streets without repercussions — and with the tacit support of local authorities. Hitler was paying attention. The Nuremberg laws, with their restrictions on every facet of Jewish participation in German society, were inspired by America’s legal system of Jim Crow. The suffering of European Jews and of African-Americans have very different histories and trajectories, but they are also intertwined. It is not happenstance that antisemitism is rife within the white nationalist movement in America today. It is not random that both the Confederate flag and a “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt were displayed during the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6. Repair of the ongoing harm of anti-Black racism in this country is part of our struggle as Jews to dismantle antisemitism.
Why is reparations a Jewish issue? In my talk back in 2017, I mentioned a section of the Book of Deuteronomy in which a person is found murdered on the road in between cities, and no one knows who did the crime. The leaders of all the cities in the surrounding area are instructed to come out and measure the distance from the body to each of their towns. The leaders of the city that are closest to the body then have to take responsibility for dealing with the guilt associated with this murder. The core concern of this text is what the Bible calls “blood guilt.” When a crime has occurred that involves the death of a human being, the land itself – and those living in it – become polluted. Even if the people directly responsible for the crime can’t be found, that guilt must be dealt with; the pollution must be cleaned up, or all the inhabitants of the land will suffer.
In my talk, I suggested that even if our Jewish ancestors arrived in America after the end of slavery, we are still implicated in its evils. There remains on this land the “blood guilt” of Native American genocide and the enslavement of Black people. Even if we or are ancestors are not directly responsible, our tradition demands that we come out of our houses and measure our distance to those crimes, to participate in a collective act of acknowledgment and atonement. If not, then we, along with all of the inhabitants of this land, will continue to suffer.
During the Reconstructionist Day of Learning on Reparations that took place in 2021, Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein led a session exploring the role of reparations in the Torah story of the Exodus from Egypt. Both in God’s instructions to Moses about taking the people out of slavery and in the moment of liberation itself, the Israelites are described going door to door and receiving gold and silver from their neighbors as they make their escape. In later rabbinic tradition, the Israelites’ taking of wealth from their neighbors was explicitly articulated as repayment for the hundreds of years of unpaid, involuntary labor that they endured as slaves. Rabbi Bernstein calls this “the Torah case for reparations!”
A bit later in the book of Exodus, when the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai and are instructed to build a beautiful Mishkan, a sanctuary to allow God’s Presence to dwell among them, they are told to bring gold, silver and copper, colored yarns and fine linen, for this holy construction process. Where, in the middle of the wilderness, did they get all of these precious items? The Torah doesn’t explicitly say, but Jewish tradition assumes that it was the reparations from the Egyptians that became the building materials of the Mishkan. The Mishkan itself becomes a physical representation of the new social structure the Israelites are called upon to build: a structure that will allow the godly qualities of love and justice to dwell among them. That structure, our tradition teaches, was built through reparations.
What are the reparations being sought in America today? There is no one answer to that question, even though local experiments in reparations for both Native American communities and African-Americans have begun in different places around the country. In 2015, the National African American Reparations Commission was launched by a group of scholars and activists to begin envisioning a comprehensive plan for reparations for slavery and its aftermath. The commission has created a powerful 10-point platform that lays out a vision for healing and restoration for the Black community and for our nation as a whole. It includes demands for formal apology and the creation of sacred sites and memorials; the development of institutions, foundations and funds to transform the health and well-being of Black people in America; and plans for generating wealth in the Black community and transforming our system of justice. It is, in short, a vision of a new Mishkan — a new kind of physical and social structure in which at least some of the harms of the past can be healed.
It is easy to dismiss the call for reparations as too difficult to achieve, too pie-in-the-sky to contemplate. We are so far, as a nation, from having a shared narrative of our American history, much less agreeing on how to right the wrongs that have been done. But perhaps we can look to our one-time enemies — the German people — for an example of a journey towards a national reckoning with the truth.
In 1951, a few years after the end of the war, the West German government declared that “unspeakable crimes had been committed in the name of the German people” and made a commitment to pay reparations to Holocaust survivors. Yet at that time, only 5% of West Germans admitted to feeling guilty towards Jews. Less than 30% agreed that West Germany owed restitution to the Jewish people. Then, in the 1960s, attitudes began to shift, as the younger generation began protesting the fact that former Nazis remained in power. In 1979, another shift occurred when the television miniseries “The Holocaust” aired in Germany. This was followed in the 1980s by local activism to acknowledge the realities of Nazi brutality. By the 21st century, reunified Berlin had become one of the safest places for Jewish people on the planet (and a magnet for thousands of Israelis). In recent years, Germany has been in the forefront of welcoming refugees from around the world. While its grappling with the Holocaust has in no way been perfect — and while there remain forces of reaction and hatred in that country — Germany provides a model for the possibility of a nation taking responsibility for some of its gravest sins.
However challenging it might seem, I do not believe we have the luxury of avoiding the work of reparations. Our ongoing failure as a nation to reckon with and atone for our foundational sins threatens to bring down the entire edifice of our democracy. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared during the 1963 March on Washington:
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given [African-American] people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
Dr. King laid out a hope and a challenge to us. There is a check awaiting Black Americans, awaiting Native Americans, a check waiting to be cashed. May we as a community do our part in helping make that day come.
With your permission, I will end with words from the civil-rights activist and theologian Vincent Harding, words that I shared in my talk back in 2017, to remind us that our efforts matter:
“Living in faith is knowing that even though our little work, our little seed, our little brick, our little block may not make the whole thing, the whole thing exists in the mind of God, and that whether or not we are there to see the whole thing is not the most important matter. The most important thing is whether we have entered into the process.” (Quoted in Original Sin, p. 224)
May we indeed enter into this process with our minds and hearts open to learning and to inspiration, and may our efforts be part of the healing that our nation so desperately needs.
Yom Kippur 5783
Resources and references:
My talk, “On Slavery and Its Atonement,” https://www.dorsheitzedek.org/divrei-torah/rabbi-toba-spitzer?post_id=358267
Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein, “The Torah Case for Reparations,” Medium, March 29, 2018
The Who We Are Project, https://thewhoweareproject.org/
“The U.S. And The Holocaust,” documentary by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/us-and-the-holocaust/
The National African American Reparations Commission, https://reparationscomm.org/
The text of H.R. 40, https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/40/text
For information on the national process of repentance in Germany and elsewhere, see On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, Beacon Press, 2022.
Vincent Harding quote from America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, Jim Wallis, 2016.
[i] Editor’s Note: As of this posting, the resolution was approved by the Plenum of Reconstructing Judaism in December 2022 and will soon be considered by its Board of Governors.