Responding to George Floyd's Killing from a Jewish Place

This past weekend, our Jewish community celebrated Shavuot and the giving of Torah. At the exact same time, across our country, anger was building and protests were growing in response to the killing of George Floyd. In the days since, we've witnessed the situation in our country devolve dangerously... violence and looting (much of which has been fomented by outside agitators) is being used as a pretext for government actions that resemble facism more than democracy.

This past weekend, our Jewish community celebrated Shavuot and the giving of Torah. At the exact same time, across our country, anger was building and protests were growing in response to the killing of George Floyd. In the days since, we've witnessed the situation in our country devolve dangerously... violence and looting (much of which has been fomented by outside agitators) is being used as a pretext for government actions that resemble facism more than democracy.

In this moment, we need Torah more than ever... not in the way of false piety (the pinnacle of which is using violent means to create a photo op with a Bible as prop!), but rather in a way that values it as a tool for understanding in a profound way what it is to be human and how we should live.

The Torah begins with the story of the creation of the world, which culminates with the creation of the first human being and the blowing of breath into their nostrils (Gen 2:7). In the early chapters of Bereishit, God poses two questions to members of the first family: "Where are you?" (to Adam, who is hiding in shame, see Gen 3:9), and "Where is your brother Abel?" (to Cain, who has just killed his brother, see Gen 4:9). The whole of the book of Genesis -- and arguably all of Torah -- is fundamentally about answering these two questions: where are you, and where is your brother.

In this tense moment, we would do well to return to these "basic" questions.

Where are we? When it comes to racial justice, we know we must begin to dismantle systemic racism from a place of deep and sincere inner work. Many of us have already been reading, reflecting, and discussing, examining our own racism and our participation and complicity (both knowingly and unwittingly) in racist systems. For those who haven't yet begun this process, now is the time; for those who have, now we go deeper.

Where is your brother? We are called on to take responsibility for our fellow human beings. Cain responds to God with the rhetorical question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" But, Torah's message resounds with the unequivocal answer: yes, we ARE to be our brothers' keepers; we must bear responsibility for our fellow human beings. For me, being an active participant in a Black-Jewish clergy group over the past year has been one of the most meaningful experiences I've had, and that group has been an incredible source of support, solidarity, challenge and hope for me this week. (The Black-Jewish relationship in America has been a complicated one -- we have many shared texts and experiences, and yet, there have been fraught chapters in the relationship; this group seeks to work through that with frankness and honesty to build a "beloved community.") As a next step, I hope to expand upon that work to connect our communities in meaningful ways. It is our obligation to show up for our neighbors in a variety of ways: to rally and protest, to decry injustice, to stand beside (and not out in front of) our black friends and neighbors, to overcome the racism that's been embedded in our education and health-care systems, to protect our democracy and the rights of all to participate equally in it, to support POC-owned businesses and organizations that are doing the work, etc.

Rabbi Josh has written a powerful piece -- grounded in Torah, addressing the events of this week head-on -- that I'm pleased to be able to share with you, below.

We both look forward to hearing where you are in all this... that is, how you are doing, what you are thinking about and reading, and what actions you are already taking. We also look forward to hearing where your brother is... meaning, in this case, how you intend to show up in support of our fellow human beings and in support of black lives, human dignity, justice, equality and equity.

During this particularly tense and chaotic week, many of us are seeking comfort. We have added a Singing Circle with Chava Mirel to the Kavana calendar for TOMORROW (Wednesday) night -- and hope that you will be able to join us as we grieve and lament together, and sing our hearts out.

Hang in there. When the going gets tough, our tradition teaches us to hold fast to Torah as our lifeline (as we recite in prayer: "etz chayim hi lamachazikim bah"), and to use it to discern what it is to be human.

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum