It's Time to Dismantle the House

It's time to dismantle the house.

It's time to dismantle the house.

In this week's parasha -- that is, in the second half of the double portion Tazria-Metzora -- the Torah shares the case of what happens when an eruptive plague (nega' tzara'at) is found upon a house. I encourage you to read the text of Leviticus 14:33-47 if you aren't familiar with this passage already; it's one that we contemporary readers tend to move through quickly, as the concept of a "plague upon a house" may seem antiquated and obsolete today. Re-reading the text this week, though, I couldn't help but read it on a metaphorical level, and all of a sudden, it felt incredibly relevant.

Let's begin from the text of Leviticus itself. Here, the Torah describes the multi-step process that unfolds if a plague is discovered upon a house:

  1. First, the owner reports the plague to a priest, who comes and conducts a thorough examination. If the plague is found to consist of greenish or reddish streaks that appear to go deep into the wall, the house is boarded up for seven days.
  2. After the seven-day waiting period, the priest returns. If the plague has spread further during that time, he orders the affected stones to be removed from the house, and the walls scraped. New stones are brought to replace the ones that have been removed, and a new coat of plaster is applied to the whole house.
  3. If, after all of this, the plague erupts in the walls again, the house is declared tamei (impure, off-limits). At this point, the Torah mandates: "The house shall be torn down—its stones and timber and all the coating on the house—and taken to an unclean place outside the city. Whoever enters the house while it is closed up shall be unclean until evening. Whoever sleeps in the house must wash his clothes, and whoever eats in the house must wash his clothes."

In this moment, the parasha feels to me like such an apt analogy: I'm reading "the house" as representing the fundamentally flawed American culture we have inherited and perpetuated, and "the plague" as racism.

I'm sure that many of us can have a very different conversation about systemic racism and racial justice now than we could have a few decades ago, or a few years ago, or even (perhaps) just last year. In our society, we are in the midst of a great awakening... a growing consciousness about the ways that the "plague" of systemic racism shows up in our culture. We are recognizing, more and more, how racism is already baked into the walls of every system in our society (educational, healthcare, political, criminal justice, policing, etc.), and we are learning to name its many manifestations as we see them.

Our consciousness may be emerging, but the plague itself is an old story already. Racism has been part of the fabric of our country since its inception, and we have been working our way through the steps that Metzora describes for years and decades, if not centuries. We have already "reported" the plague, identifying the most blatantly racist systems and behaviors: slavery, segregation, lynchings. We've certainly waited (and waited and waited) to see if this plague will disappear on its own... but like the stubborn nega' tzara'at of Leviticus, it has not and will not... it just keeps resurfacing in different parts of the house. We have tried removing only the affected stones and plaster -- for example, blaming individual politicians and police officers who say and do particularly hateful things, deeming them "bad apples" -- but the plague keeps growing back, because it's as deeply rooted in the walls of our house as ever. And at this point, we have exhausted all the other easier, less radical options. So now, we must dismantle the house. We must take apart the American culture which is corroded and infested beyond repair. We must become anti-racist actors.

The moment we are experiencing right now in America is nothing less than a second Civil Rights movement. This particular movement started with the death of Trayvon Martin and hit fever pitch last year with the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. And this week, as you all know, the story continues: against the backdrop of the Chauvin trial, another black man -- Daunte Wright -- was killed by a police officer just miles away from where George Floyd died.

Recently, I have grown in my ability to name that the dominant culture we swim in every day -- what I used to simply think of a neutral setting, as "American as apple pie," -- is in fact a culture of white supremacy. It is that culture of white supremacy that made 20-year-old Daunte Wright's traffic stop so very different than the one I experienced at exactly the same age. I, too, was pulled over by a police officer when I was 20 years old. For me, it was a winter evening, already dark outside, and I was driving away from my college campus to meet a friend. When I saw the flashing lights behind me, I pulled into a parking lot, adrenaline flooding my system (as I had no idea why I was being pulled over). I rolled down my window as an officer approached. A quick conversation transpired. He told me I had been driving without headlights, and asked me to turn them on and drive carefully. I thanked him profusely, and drove away, heart still thumping. I am quite certain that I was never asked to show ID or even identify myself; certainly no background check was run; at no point did the officer ask me to step out of my car, or detain me. Although I remember having been quite nervous in the moment, the thought never crossed my mind that my life could have been in danger.

Now, I can name what I couldn't have at age 20: that all my life, I have benefited from privilege in American society because of the color of my skin. It seems absurd that anyone's life should be in danger during a traffic stop, and yet Daunte Wright lost his life needlessly as he was pulled over for as minor an infraction as mine; the very system of policing that offered me protection proved a deadly threat to him. (You can research the statistics, but I don't think you'll be surprised to hear that fatal police shootings are on the rise in general, and the rate of fatal police shootings among Black Americans is much higher than that for any other ethnicity.)

"The house" that I'm talking about dismantling includes policing-as-we-know-it, but also extends far beyond. This week, my colleague Rabbi Michael Latz (formerly of Seattle, now in Minneapolis) pointed out another manifestation of this white supremacy culture in which we're all steeped. He writes: "Racism is a government who willfully neglects to prepare for weeks ahead of a violent white nationalist insurrection at the US Capitol but is out in force by the thousands within hours as a multi-racial coalition of decent citizens show up to protest the murder of our neighbor Daunte Wright (z"l), a black man." Dismantling the house will also mean fighting this latest wave of voter suppression attempts, and ending mass incarceration (which also disproportionately affects Black Americans), two newer versions of Jim Crow.

Yes, we are living in a house that is afflicted by a terrible plague. Although we have investigated the plague of racism and tried to wait it out, although we have tried a piecemeal approach to getting rid of it, we have not yet managed to eradicate this plague. It is still there, systemic in nature and as insidious as ever. The work of dismantling our racist culture will be messy and hard and costly. On top of all that, somehow we will need to pull off the seemingly impossible trick of dismantling and rebuilding the house while also continuing to live in it! And yet, as Parashat Metzora demonstrates so clearly, with some kinds of plagues, we are left with no other course of action than to dismantle. This commandment in Leviticus 14:45 stems not from a destructive impulse, but in order that a new foundation can be laid and a new house built.

This process will of course be long-term, and multi-pronged. This past Sunday, Chava and Brian convened a powerful "Community Conversation on Anti-Racism and Racial Justice" at Kavana, helping participants consider what it means to engage in this work from a uniquely Jewish place. It was clear that there is lots of energy in our Kavana community around this work, and that many of us are already working towards similar ends across a variety of different settings (workplaces, professional communities, schools, etc.). Moving forward, there seems to be great interest in engaging in both learning and action together. My Black-Jewish clergy group is also leaning into both learning and action, currently exploring ways in which congregations might engage meaningfully in some aspect of criminal justice reform... I hope to have more to report back about this soon. These steps are all important. Most of all, though, I hope that through Kavana, each of us can find the spiritual nourishment -- the reflective space, the strength and fortitude, the good company, and the ethical grounding -- that we need in order to engage actively in dismantling racism.

This month, our Moadon Yeladim students have been learning about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In 1972, Heschel wrote a short piece entitled "The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement." In it, he wrote: "The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible." The final words of this quote -- "some are guilty, but all are responsible" -- echo so loudly for me this week.

In this moment, may we have the strength -- both individually and collectively -- to really hear Heschel's call of responsibility; may we have the courage not to stand on the sidelines as this second Civil Rights movement unfolds; may we have the wisdom to seek out allies so that we can do this work together. Together, I believe we have the power to dismantle the plagued house that is our deeply racist American culture, and ultimately to rebuild in its place a better, stronger house -- one that is better able to protect ALL of its inhabitants.

May Daunte Wright's memory forever be a blessing, and may he rest in both peace and power.

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum