[This remarkable Dvar Torah was given by Rabbi Tamara Cohen on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5776 (2015) in the Dorshei Derech Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. The Torah reading for that day is on the Binding and near-death of Isaac. Rabbi Cohen connected that story with the deaths of unarmed Blacks at the hands of police –- deaths that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. In doing so, she helps us deepen our understanding of action for eco-social justice as a profound spiritual journey. [Rabbi Cohen is Director of Innovation for Moving Traditions. She has been a liturgist for Ma'yan in shaping its feminist Passover Seder, and five years ago was the Barbara Bick Memorial Fellow of The Shalom Center. She wrote "Eicha for the Earth," an English-language Lament for the Earth modeled on the Book of Lamentations and occasioned by the BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. [The graphic above is a transcript of Eric Garner's last words as he died in a police chokehold. There are other graphics as attachments. You can see the one above and those attached in full size by clicking on the title of this essay. The attachments are “The Binding of Isaac” and “The Choking of Eric,” the first by Caravaggio and the second from a videocamera; and a baby held aloft in the midst of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Ferguson, MO. -- AW, editor]
By Rabbi Tamara Cohen
This Dvar Torah was born a few times over this year.
I think the first place it was born was in the powerful experience of giving birth to a beautiful baby -- who among many other things is a white Jewish boy with blond hair and blue eyes -- in a moment when the Black Lives Matter movement was reaching a new level, in a moment when the stories of parents mourning the deaths of their children of color due to police violence were all around me.
We took our son Kliel to a Hanukkah Black Lives Matter protest for his first outing. He was barely a month old. Why? In part because I wanted to be there and in part because I was struggling with how to allow myself the joy of this new baby knowing that all around America and Philadelphia and even Mt Airy, other parents were also celebrating new babies, babies with all different colors of eyes and skin and hair, and that all of us lovestruck parents, wanting to do everything for our children, feeling acutely aware of their vulnerability, also had different relationships to the vulnerability of our kids because of the systemic racism in the America in which these babies were being born.
I remember waking up in the middle of the night to nurse and realizing that this waking in the night was the core of my current spiritual work. It was a way to teach my baby's little body and deepest self: Yes, it's true, there is nothing I won't do to care for you. You are safe in this world and can take root. You are loved and cared for. Each time you cry out, or murmur, or show me your need, I will respond.
And then it occurred to me that the difference between my parental instinctual hearing and spiritual instinctual hearing was this: I wanted to be, and to raise my children to be, people who wake in the night when they hear not only the cries of their own babies but the cries of every and any baby.
The kind of people who can respond with love and surrender each time they hear a cry of human being in need, even in the dark of night, even when we would rather sleep.
Another moment when this D’var Torah was born was on a phone call with my friend Y. after Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell. Y. was saying something like, “What’s going on? What’s going on? This is America!” And there was an urgency in her voice, a terror.
I had read a headline or two about the case but I hadn't yet taken the time to read more. I was busy, planned to get to it soon. But something in my friend’s voice, something said to me in a starkness, painful and real, that the difference between being a good white friend and ally and being a black mother in that moment was the difference between my upset at the story and her terror.
And I saw it clearly. I saw her daughter, 17, headed to Princeton after graduating as the only black Jewish girl from her yeshiva high school. I saw her suddenly, briefly, through her mother’s eyes.
I saw the terror of having to release one’s child, one’s black child, to an unknown world, the terror of having to allow one’s baby to drive on a street through Princeton. Anywhere really.
And I felt shaken awake in a new way to the difference between my reality and the reality of my dear friend, both of us Jewish mothers who love our kids and would do anything to protect them, one of us white and one of us black.
I tasted for a moment the physical terror in her voice. And then I went into my house to have dinner with my family and she went into her house to have dinner with hers. But before we got off the phone I made a promise to her, yes, we would do something, no I wouldn't forget the moment, no I wouldn't let this fear and anger and horror all sit solely on her shoulders.
The third place this dvar Torah was born was in my reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s amazingly beautiful, powerful and heart-wrenching book Between the World and Me, which I read this summer, thanks to the fact that the Germantowwn Jewish Centre’s Racism group decided it would be a good thing to do together. For those of you who have not yet read this book, and I strongly commend you to read it, what you need to know for now is that the book is written by a black father to his fifteen year old black son.
The book tells the story of how Ta-Nehisi, in his words, has made the struggle to live free in his black body in America the central meaning-making struggle of his life.
He writes about his childhood on the harsh streets of inner-city Baltimore, his struggles with school, his period of valorizing and learning from Black Power and Malcom X, his awakenings at Howard University to the deeper complexities of race and racism and blackness, and about becoming parent.
He shares the story of the loss of a peer to police violence and of his intense visit with the mother of this murdered son, a professor and dean, who had raised her son in the suburbs, sent him to private schools and given him so much, none of which protected him from being murdered by a police officer in the prime of his life.
These three experiences led me to feel compelled, if still somewhat anxious about, giving this Dvar Torah. So here’s the essence of what I want to say:
For me, this year, the Binding of Isaac is a story different from any other year I have read it. This year it is a story about an Abraham who loves his son but who is so terrified by the realization that he could be taken away from him that he almost kills him himself.
This year for me, Abraham is a black father. And Isaac is his beloved son. And what happens in the story is that Abraham, through binding his son on the altar, passes on to his son the terrifying truth that his body could be taken from him at any moment.
Isaac and Abraham are both afraid. Fear is something they live with and know. Indeed fear becomes part of Isaac's name (as Gideon Ephrat points out in a blog post on the use of the phrase Pachad Yitzchak after the Akeida).
I want to briefly read you a few quotes from Between the World and Me that may help you see how I have arrived at this reading of Akeidat Yitzchak.
“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.”
“That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.
It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mother’s hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine.
“And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of “race,” imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods.” - p. 82
So, what happens when we read these two texts, Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Genesis 22 together? A few things happen.
One of the most difficult and important things that Ta-Nehisi Coates asks his son and his readers to do is to accept a radically different and more violent narrative of America than the one we generally believe in.
He asks us, as does the Black Lives Matter movement more broadly, to recognize that what has gone on this year have not been the acts of some bad cops, but instead a reflection of and carrying out of a policy of systemic racism consistent with the basic tenets of the American Dream in which the of safety and prosperity of people who get to claim the identity of “white” get that through the plunder, ownership, and terrorizing of Black bodies.
I hear in this two calls to us as a community of primarily white Jews.
The first is that we recognize how much we have benefited from the process of mostly losing, at least in the United States, the marker of having Jewish bodies, and of being accepted as having white bodies.
But we can’t stop there. We must also take the step of deciding to stop believing in the whiteness of our bodies, while still fully acknowledging white privilege, and of no longer acquiescing to the system that gives us advantages because of our supposed whiteness on the backs of those whose skin is black.
Another equally hard and important move that I invite us to make is for us to be willing to look at the Torah and at Israelite civilization with the same hard scrutiny with which Coates looks at America, and also, through the course of the book, at blackness.
"The writer, and that was what I was becoming, must be wary of every Dream and every nation, even his own nation. Perhaps his own nation more than any other, precisely because it was his own” (p.53)
"Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it."
I think it’s important for us as Jews to be ready to admit that indeed our beloved Torah is not exempt as a story in which some great power is elevated through the violent exploitation of other human bodies.
Despite the power of the Exodus narrative, in the Torah, in the end, Israelites bodies are the chosen bodies. It is the bodies of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan who are plundered and destroyed in order to pave the way for our Dream, for the conquest of the Promised Land. This is a very troubling way to look at the Torah, just as Coates presents us with a very difficult read of America. But the fact that it makes us uncomfortable doesn't make it not true.
And if we can tell the truth -- tell the truth about America, and tell the truth about the Bible, and tell a more whole truth about our changing and evolving position as American Jews in the civil rights struggle, not just about Heschel in Selma, and Andrew Goodman, and the stories we are proud of -- we will be moving closer to being able to make necessary radical change.
Let’s return to Isaac, bound and trembling with the knife raised above him. On the one hand I am seeing him and asking you to see him as an American boy with a black body. I am doing this because black bodies are the bodies in America today that hold the position of Yitzchak, the position of fear, of lack of freedom, of being struck, bound between the promise of a grand and fruitful future and the very real possibility of immanent unexplained and incomprehensible death.
But at the same time that I want us to hold the image of Yitzchak as a black child, I also want to hold him as every child.
The binding of Isaac is a story that reveals that actually we all have bodies. And that actually every one of our bodies is vulnerable. Every one of our bodies would cry out "I can't breathe" if it was put into a chokehold and we had asthma. Every one of our bodies would be destroyed if it was bound and driven around in the back of a police van.
Isaac is our reminder that really race is a construct that creates an unnatural line between those bodies that are vulnerable and destructible and those that are strong and invincible.
Our narrative does not end with Yishmael cast out and Yitzchak protected as the chosen one. Yitzchak ends up vulnerable in today’s Torah reading just as Yishmael did in yesterday’s. Isaac's body lies there bound and afraid, just as Yishmael sat in the desert thirsty and in danger of dying. Both of them together remind all us that all of our bodies could be taken from us for reasons we don't understand and will never understand. Each is dependent on an angel shifting their parent’s vision in order to enable their survival.
So on the one hand I am saying that some bodies are more vulnerable than others and on the other hand I am saying that all bodies are equally vulnerable. Yes.
Racism and the American Dream's dependence on it makes it true that black bodies are far more vulnerable in America than white bodies. But this is not an inherent truth. This is the result of a system built to protect and construct white bodies and to control and destroy black bodies, families, and communities.
When we recognize that whiteness is a construct, that blackness is a construct, that race is a construct, we take one important step. We then need to take another. We need to take the step of saying that we want to exchange our sense of distance from the reality of the vulnerability of the body for a society in which all bodies are equally vulnerable and equally free.
We don't yet live in that society. The Torah doesn't live in that reality either. But Isaac's bound body and the rabbis choice to force us to look at it every year is perhaps a way in to that worldview.
That's where we want to go. To the worldview where the color of Isaac's skin doesn't make him more or less likely to be bound or unbound, where the color of his skin doesn't make him more or less likely to live with a constant underlying sense of fear.
As Jews we often read this story in a way that focuses us more on the intellectual, spiritual, philosophical questions raised by the Akeida. I have felt compelled this year to stay with the body. With the embodied terror of Isaac and of Abraham. And beyond them of Hagar and Yishmael. And even Sarah.
I have felt compelled to stay with the deep experience of bodily fear that is not right now equally shared in this country. But which perhaps we can begin to more deeply understand through our bodies than through our minds.
Racism can only partially be unlearned through the mind. The racist’s fear, the fear that the supposedly white body carries of the black body is also a bodily fear. And so perhaps we can get more to the root of racism if we go to this body place. And perhaps this year that is where Isaac is inviting us to go.
At least it is where his body invited me to go this year. His body and a mother’s terror, and the crazy sad fact of Sandra Bland's death, and all the lives taken this year because of police violence and the powerful gift of Ta-nehesi Coates’s words to his fifteen year old son — his act of father to son truth telling that somehow calls out to me across time and space as an answer to Abraham's deafening silence during his three day walk with his son.
Towards the end of the book, Coates addresses his son:
"Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams, their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real—when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities—they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be.
"And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact... I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” (pp.107-8)
May we keep learning, may we keep struggling, may we raise our next generation — all of them -- to be conscious citizens of this terrible and beautiful world.
May the shofar keep blasting and shaking all of us awake.