Finding both Clarity and Nuance in our Calls for Racial Justice (from the Spies to Hillel & Shammai)

This week's Torah portion, Shelach L'cha, opens with the story of twelve spies sent across the Jordan River by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan. They return to the Israelites with their scouting reports, and two sharply divergent views quickly emerge about the land and the prospect of conquering it: ten of the spies are naysayers, and only two (Caleb and Joshua) see the full potential of both the land and their own abilities. In the Torah's narrative, it's clear that while the spies return with two opinions, only one is the "correct" opinion; as readers of the text, we are meant to follow the example set by Caleb and Joshua, of faith and optimism.

This week's Torah portion, Shelach L'cha, opens with the story of twelve spies sent across the Jordan River by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan. They return to the Israelites with their scouting reports, and two sharply divergent views quickly emerge about the land and the prospect of conquering it: ten of the spies are naysayers, and only two (Caleb and Joshua) see the full potential of both the land and their own abilities. In the Torah's narrative, it's clear that while the spies return with two opinions, only one is the "correct" opinion; as readers of the text, we are meant to follow the example set by Caleb and Joshua, of faith and optimism.

This week, I've been thinking about the contrast between this story -- with its single, "right" opinion -- and the classic Talmudic description of the schools of Hillel and Shammai (Eruvin 13b).

"Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakhais in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel."

Here, the houses of Hillel and Shammai are engaged in vigorous debate with one another. Only one set of opinions can become law, the proscribed path. And yet, both of their opinions are considered valid enough that each one -- eilu v'eilu, these and those -- are affirmed as "divrei elohim chayim," "words of the living God." This text is often taught as a basis for Jewish pluralism, demonstrating that as long as our ultimate aim is pure, there can often be more than one valid opinion.

These two stories, then -- one with its clarity about what's right, and the other with its willingness to hold up two opposing views and declare both valid -- have been rolling around in my head, as I've struggled to figure out my place in the racial justice debates of our day. I feel fortunate that over the last few weeks, I have had a front-seat view to history in the making, here in Seattle.

In this moment, certain things feel crystal clear to me... as unequivocal as the faith Caleb and Joshua demonstrate in our Torah portion. I know that Judaism directs me towards love, justice, and a belief in the fundamental human dignity of every individual. There is only one "right" answer to the urgent question of whether black lives matter (yes!!). I believe these truths to be self-evident, and my Jewish tradition affirms and confirms them. And I know that I am not alone in feeling this sense of moral clarity about calls for racial justice... 60,000 people showed up here in Seattle last Friday to march in the rain, and their silence was thunderingly loud! Where I believe there is a single "right" opinion, I will try to amplify it and speak with moral clarity, and I ask all of you to join me in doing the same.  

At the same time, as many different policy ideas are being floated in the public sphere, I am trying to keep an open mind and apply "eilu v'eilu" thinking -- that is, the notion that both "these and those" may be paths with merit. As I've written before, I believe it is incumbent on me, as a white ally** in this conversation about racial justice, to listen carefully and with humility, and to try to follow the lead of members of the black community. My hope is to lend my support without ever drowning out their voices.

And yet, as I listen now, I'm hearing some very different messages. I was at CHOP (formerly CHAZ) again on Saturday night (with my colleagues doing "interfaith protest chaplaincy"), and then on Sunday, was privileged to attend a prayer meeting and press conference at the Goodwill Baptist Church (together with many of the members of my Black-Jewish clergy group). On the streets in Capitol Hill, I've heard some voices (and certainly seen many signs) demanding the resignation of Mayor Jenny Durkan and Chief of Police Carmen Best, calling for the East Precinct to be closed permanently and turned into a community center, and advocating for "abolishing the police." In contrast, in the Black Church setting, I heard African-American community leaders throw their full support behind Chief Best, contextualize the history of the East Precinct (how black folks in the Central District had advocated for it in the first place out of a desire for improved access to first responders) and call for reopening it, and express a disdain for police brutality but not question policing itself. There are many shades of gray, too... I have learned that even the call to "defund the police" means different things to different people.

In a posture of humility, I submit that there may be more than one path to justice here, and that I may not be in the best position to determine which path is best. Clearly, as history unfolds, we will see which ideas do and do not take hold in our public discourse. For now, I will strive to continue listening closely to understand the multiplicity of perspectives that are being expressed by black protestors, friends, and colleagues. I acknowledge that change isn't simple. I will strive to hold space for divergent views, to listen without being tempted to flatten nuance and complexity, and to hear when both "these and those are words of the living God." Again, I call on all of you to join me in this holy work (although of course, each of us will have to draw our own lines and figure out for ourselves when we are ready to advocate for one clear path and when we prefer to hold open the possibility of multiple valid paths).

Drawing on both of these stories -- of finding the one "right" path vs valuing multiple courses of action, and achieving some balance between clarity and nuance -- I hope we can all help our society finally cross over to the promised land that lies on the other side of the river.

In solidarity with all of you who join me in this earnest endeavor,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum

**As I write these words, I am cognizant of the fact that our Jewish community is itself diverse, and increasingly so. (For some, this feels obvious, and for others, this may be new learning.) Even as I write from my own perspective as a white, Ashkenazi Jew, I know how important it is for me to hear and acknowledge the often-painful experiences of Jews of Color. I highly recommend this recent JTA article, by Yavilah McCoy who reflects on her own painful experiences both in and out of the Jewish community and paints a beautiful picture of what an ally can look like... I hope it will invite us into a conversation about our own communities and the different roles we each play. (And, for those who are interested in learning more about diversity within the American Jewish community, the Jewish Multiracial Network and Be'chol Lashon are two organizations that are doing excellent work in this arena.)