Thursday, August 15, 2002


Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland

We are about to enter our season of repentence. We speak about teshuvah, the Hebrew word for repentence, which comes from the root sh.u.v., meaning to turn. To return. We speak very often in Jewish life about mending the world, repairing it, restoring it, returning to the way it was.

The Torah itself coveys a bold vision a radical concept of restoration. It is the notion of the Jubilee Year, the radically egalitarian levelling of distinctions, the "return," every fifty years, of the land to its "original" (Israelite) holders. However impossible the idea proved to be in practice, the ideal is there, for all to see -- that over time, inequities arise, injustice sets in, the world goes wrong. It is up to us, time after time, to attempt to set it right again.

Julie and I have a close friend in Buffalo who lives on Grand Island (the place in between the two bridges you have to go over to get to Niagara Falls, if you are coming from the United States side). Never mind that Grand Island had an interesting role to play in Jewish history -- it was once proposed (by Mordecai Manual Noah, I believe) as a potential site for a Jewish national homeland, Israel-by-the-Falls, if you will. Its current claim to fame is as the source of a lawsuit by a Native American tribe who, it turns out, might well own the island. Our friend who lives on the island has an interesting conflict of interest: she is an attorney, and she happens to represent the tribe... in their claims against her home. It is considered quite unlikely by all involved that the current residents of Grand Island would ever have to pack their bags and sadly drive off over one of those bridges. But the claim is in the courts. And justice is being sought.

On my return from vacation this summer, I turned on the radio, and heard a news report about a demonstration in Washington that I had missed. While I was on Cape Cod, coming close to Plymouth Rock where (white) pilgrims first landed on these shores, here at home there was a rally on behalf of Reparations for African-Americans. Compensation for the evil, the ill, and, indeed, for the financial loss inflicted by the experience of slavery.

Now, I know very little about this topic. I know it is a growing debate within the African American community. But for reasons of my own, I find the subject to be of great interest, for the questions it raises, and for its implications for all of us.

My first reaction to the claim that payment should be made today for the experience of slavery over a century ago, I must confess, is slight personal indignation. What did I have to do with slavery? When African Americans were brought here, my ancestors were all getting chased by Cossacks. There's an injustice here, yes, but don't look at me.

That reaction fades with a moment's thoughts. For in coming here, and in becoming citizens of this great land, my grandparents took on the narrative of this country. In becoming American, they embraced its story. And its history. That history, now, is my heritage, even as my direct descendants were Europeans at the time. That is what it means, to join a people.

My second thought about reparations for slavery is to think of the link -- explicitly made by many advocates -- with reparations for the Holocaust. How are we seen, we who demand that justice be done for the horrors of a generation ago, in the eyes of others? Are we seen as crusaders for the right and true and good? For restoring a scale that was tipped, a life that was torn away? Or are we seen as greedy, and grubbing? As: if they (we) can do this, why not we (them)? Does it make a difference, really, that in the case of the Holocaust we are talking about living memory, and its immediate single generation that follows, and that in the case of slavery it is an older wound? What is the psychic statue of limitations on the suffering of a people?

And that issue leads to my final question. How can we measure the impact inflicted across the generations by a heritage of evil? It strikes me as devilishly hard. Not that I put much stock in a counter-argument: I just heard of some study claiming that the descendants of the slaves -- not the slaves themselves, but their descendants -- were probably far better off in their situation here, now, in this country, than they would have been had their ancestors remained free, in Africa. I find this argument profoundly offensive, even if it might somehow be true. Shoulda, woulda, coulda -- its a weak argument to begin with. We can never know for sure what might have been. (This is as offensive to me as the report a couple of years ago arguing that the crime rate was down... because of abortion, that a certain percentage of future criminals had simply...not been born. What a horrible assertion, to a Jewish tradition that believes in the dignity and potential -- and free-will -- of every individual human being.)

No, I believe that there is something in the African American experience that is different from that of any other group. They are the only group in this land of immigrants to be brought here against their will. That has to have an effect that lingers, an impact on the very vision and dream of what this country can be, an impact that might well be felt to this very day. How to measure it, how to calculate it, what to do about it are questions beyond my ability to fathom at the moment. But the issue itself, I reluctantly conclude, is a legitimate question.

We read in the book of Deuteronomy: "tzedek, tzedek tirdof, l'ma'an tichiyeh. Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live." Why, the sages ask, is the word repeated? Why the redundency? After all, if God wrote the Torah, as the tradition claims, every word, every nuance is filled with cosmic meaning. So, the word "justice" appears twice. There has to be a reason.

Many answers are given. Justice once, in civil cases, but be extra cautious, we are to learn from this, in capital cases. Or: justice, whether it is to your benefit, or to your loss. Or this: justice we must pursue, though we would hide from the question, duck the answer, shrink from the implications. Justice when it seems to us the right thing to do, and justice when someone else raises the issue.

I don't have any answers in this particular case. I just know what our tradition teaches: it is incumbent upon us to look each other in the eye. To examine the heart. To look at the way the world was, and the way it should be. To return, and repent, and repair.

The debate has been joined. The case is open. The conclusion has yet to come.