Statement by Student Rabbi Jasha Levenson at the Charles County Interfaith Event, Sunday, June 7, 2020 which contains excerpts from the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) statement on their support for the study of reparations for slavery that came out in December 2019.
First I want to thank you for letting me take part in this service and say how blessed I feel to be part of this interfaith group.
Each of us here can rightfully say that we are carrying forward a religious tradition that has been passed down for at least 1500 years. We should be proud of our own heritage and traditions, and at the same time, respect and stand up for the rights of others with different beliefs.
As the great Rabbi Hillel used to say: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self [only], what am I? And if not now, when?”
According to Jewish tradition, Moses received the entire Torah, the old testament of the bible on Mt. Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly, and then to the great Rabbis.
Through the great Rabbis and teachers listed in Pirkei Avot, “The Ethics of the Fathers,” Judaism has maintained a direct line of connection from God to Moses to these teachings which we carry on to this day.
According to the Torah, on the sixth day God created Adam and Eve, the first humans. In the Talmud, we learn that all people are descended from Adam and Eve so that no person can say, “my ancestor is greater than yours.” (Sanhedrin 37a)
“God created humanity from the four corners of the earth – yellow clay, white sand, black loam, and red soil. Therefore, the earth can declare to no part of humanity that it does not belong here, that this soil is not their rightful home.” (Pirkei De Rabbi Eliezer 1:1)
Our biblical texts are clear on the importance of restitution for wrongs committed. The rabbis understood that the victim of a crime was made whole by financial repayment for damages done. Maimonides went one step further, linking the payment of damages to the concept of t’shuvah, noting that repentance must accompany the financial commitment (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 1.1).
Racial healing can only begin to be achieved when this systemic oppression is recognized and accounted for. As an institution striving to be antiracist, we seek to address the harms of those who came before us, and the injustices that continue to surround us, so that we do what we can to make our institutions, communities, and nation more just for future generations. Rabbi Tarfon taught, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”
In other words, pray as if the world depended on God but act as if the world depended on you.