February 28, 2024 -

Responding to Baltimore and Beyond: Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk of Fairmount Temple

Nosanchuk Pic 8x10

Who said the following words?

“It is dangerous for society to ignore the pain and passion now pouring out of the black community. We had better understand it…for black mistrust isn’t solely the result of an occasional perceived miscarriage of justice…Many…are convinced that there is a national campaign at work to undo whatever progress has occurred in achieving racial justice…And the riots in [our] cities seem to underscore the fact that if a nation fails to resolve the problems of poverty and welfare and unemployment, if it fails to give hope to the disadvantaged, it faces a prospect of mounting pressure and increasing hostility which creates the danger that our democracy itself may prove inadequate.”

Who said those words?

-Was it President Lyndon Johnson in a speech to the nation in 1967 as he appointed a commission to respond to civil unrest in Detroit, LA, and other American cities?

-Was it Reverend Jawanza Colvin, in a Plain Dealer Op-Ed this week, warning that Cleveland could have the conditions for the next set of provocations between protesters and police?

-Was it Congressman Marcia Fudge, speaking on the house floor yesterday about the challenge of containing rage in our communities after several incidents in which police are accused of brutality?

–Was it Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in a telegram to President Kennedy in 1962, demanding a summit with all of the nation’s religious leaders to call for solutions to the racial issues affecting American cities?

Let me repeat a portion of the quote: “if a nation fails to resolve the problems of poverty and welfare and unemployment, if it fails to give hope the disadvantaged, it faces mounting pressure and increasing hostility which creates danger for our democracy?” Who said it, President Johnson, Reverend Colvin, Congresswoman Fudge or Rabbi Heschel?

It is a trick question. The answer is none of the above. None of them said or wrote that, though each of them did and do act in their time with sensitivity to the racial division in our society.

The person who wrote those words used to sit in one of the chairs you now occupy: he was a member of our temple, an attorney who had been appointed leader of Fairmount Temple’s social action committee. The man who wrote those words was Jordan Band. Jordan was not a sitting political leader or member of the clergy. He was a shrewd Jewish lay leader. When he heard fellow Jews in Cleveland minimizing the despair present among Cleveland’s black leadership, Jordan wrote those words in Cleveland’s Press, to be sure that Jews were encouraged to lift up, rather than strangle the hope of black young people in our city.

To write such words and to repeat them and to discuss them and learn the viewpoints of others takes conviction in one’s heart. It takes tremendous savlanut, forbearance, and a keen awareness of what is within one’s power and what is beyond one’s reach. I believe right now, this week, is a time once again to act like Jordan Band did – with patience and forbearance, seeking knowledge and viewpoints other than our own, and when we are ready, to speak up with conviction and point a path to a better day.

Jordan Band died last fall. But he is hardly alone. In the history of our temple, many of our members have come to stake their name and reputation and investment of life energy into direction our community’s civil institutions to not sit on the sidelines when abhorrent results of racism seem to rule the day.Articles that Jordan Band had written in the mid 1960’s and 1970’s were literally in my bag with me when I began this week in Washington, DC, at our Reform Jewish Movement’s flagship social action event, the Consultation on Conscience, sponsored by our Religious Action Center. Honestly I haven’t refiled them since this fall when I eulogized Jordan in this chapel. They have been stirring me over these recent months as I watched events unfold as far away as Ferguson, MO, and as near as our city of Cleveland.

During a short break at the consultation, I returned to my room for a short time to rest. Then I turned the television on to see how that all the stations in the DC area had switched their focus to cameras positioned in my former community in Baltimore, Maryland, where I began my rabbinate. The pubic protests and then riots on the streets I remembered driving to Baltimore’s city harbor, to its ballpark, to its hospitals, these streets earlier this week erupted with despair as citizens protested brutality on a man named Freddie Gray.

Did you see the coverage on Monday afternoon? There was the initial reaction from press and then a deep criticism from African American leadership of the news coverage. I was keeping Jordan Band’s articulation of not standing motionless when pain and passion is cried full-throat from leaders we respect. Jordan warned Jews not to ignore, not to sit on the sidelines. In a way he told me what to say to you this Shabbat during an unforgettable week in our nation.

If there ever were a Torah portion that was meant to address the needs of this type of urgent and current moment, it is this week’s Torah portion, the holiness code from Leviticus. This portion, Kedoshim, puts into focus the most cogent ways in which a person can judge others with discernment, act with fairness in conduct with others, and live out an ethical approach to bettering our condition. So many of us say that for us Judaism is about living a good and righteous life. Our portion tells us that the holiness you bring to your home, to your community, to your place of work, it really matters. It really truly matters. If I were to modernize my interpretation of Kedoshim to the world of modern social media, I’d say Kedoshim means #blacklivesmatter or  #alllivesmatter.

Think about it. What are the key laws of our holiness code?

-We are to show reverence for father and mother and love for one’s neighbor.

-We are instructed not to reap from the crops at the edges of our fields… but rather allow the vulnerable in our midst to gather from those gleanings.

-We are reminded in this portion not to steal or deal dishonestly, not to act fraudulently, nor to hold the wages of a laborer that you have for them until morning. We are to pay your workers on time and with equality for their day’s labor.

-In addition, we are forbidden from insulting the deaf, placing stumbling blocks before the blind

-Finally, we are instructed, Lo Ta’asu Avel Ba-mishpat. Withhold judgments that are unfair. Don’t show deference to the rich or favor the poor. Don’t profit by the blood that is spilling in your streets. And Lo Tisnah Et Achicha Bilvavecha, Do not hate your brother in your heart.

One of the things that I love about my role as a rabbi and teacher of Torah is that I carry on a tradition whose laws are not pulled out of the thin air. What is written in our sacred scrolls is there because the leaders were concerned about those abrogating the law. They were plagued by the behaviors that they discovered human beings were capable of performing. The writers of the Bible had seen what human beings were doing- acts that revealed their noblest aspirations and their basest impulses.

I marvel that the composers of the Torah knew the instinct within us to judge unfairly- to tip the scale unfairly toward the left or the right, or to see an opportunity to make money or rise in power due to injustice and bloodshed. They knew this because they did not avert their eyes when troubling things came into view. In accordance with our prophetic heritage they spoke out and acted on their words because they realized that so long as there is human life there will remain an instinct for one human being to emotionally rage and hate against other human beings.

Although I deeply appreciate and take pride in the way our Torah’s relevance to the day and age we are living- I, like many of you, wish it were so much simpler. Indeed, I wish that I could order up the crises of the world one at a time. I wish we could address the horrific natural disaster of an earthquake in Nepal on different days than the news of the riots in Baltimore. I wish it were the same when the crises are personal, that it seemed worth it to pray to God that you be spared an economic loss because you are already enduring a health crisis. If only wishing could make it so, I would tell everyone of you to get busy wishing! But I don’t believe that to be true. So instead I want to remind you what our Torah teaches. Listen. Learn. Grow your knowledge and listen to multiple viewpoints. And withhold unfair knee-jerk judgments. Don’t favor the rich or the impoverished.  Choose discreetly what to say and how to say it, what to do and how to do it. For Baltimore is not the only city to watch closely. There is the very real possibility that rage and racial animus and polarization between those in power and those who are disempowered will soon spill out into the public square nearest us.

Just a couple of months ago, very real and present concerns were articulated by many of us from Fairmount Temple and hundreds more from our partner congregations in GCC at an assembly attended by the US Attorney and by the County Prosecutor, right here in Cleveland. A report, issued to the public in the fall after Tamir Rice’s shooting, does not describe the majority of the conduct of the police. Most of those on the police force are serving dutifully and courageously. But a weakness of this report is that even after a long-standing investigation, it doesn’t even address the racial injustice issues in our city’s conduct with regard to criminal activity and law enforcement. That is why, at a public assembly in the winter, attended by more than 1,000 in GCC, we shared our ideas for ending racial profiling, and pledged our role as faith institutions in bringing to bear better cooperation with legal authorities and stronger moral guidance over our families.

All this and more asks me to beg of you this Shabbat is to do all you can to withhold judgment. Lo Ta’asu Avel B’mishpat– for God’s sake do not render half-cocked half thought-through judgments. Don’t begin to draw conclusions while investigations are underway. I know the sadness is real. Believe me as someone who spent the first couple of my years in my rabbinical career working in interfaith settings as a rabbi in Baltimore, I know the desire to call out my shame and avert my eyes to what the people of Baltimore have been doing and saying.

But the Torah teaches us, this Shabbat in particular to stay alert, and to know that all lives matter. Kedoshim Tiheyu- all have the possibility to do blessing or curse, to choose life or death. Names like Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, once unknown to us, are now martyred in death. Judaism commands us that our highest obligation and most constructive act is to protect life, to save lives, and to give honor to life. We can do just that.

Honestly, the same was what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel may have been trying to communicate to President Kennedy in 1963,  determined that JFK not waste a meeting the next day with key national religious leaders in response to the crisis touching our nation Heschel told the president in a famous telegram, to demand that congregations “forfeit their right to worship God as long as the nation continues to humiliate its negro citizens.” He told the President that the hour in which they were meeting called for “high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

I wonder whether President Johnson ever saw that telegram sent to JFK, when he told the nation just four years after Kennedy’s meeting with Heschel that the “only long-range solution for what has happened within the black community [lied] in an attack mounted at every level upon the conditions that breed despair and violence…discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs. He declared that we should attack these conditions- not because we are frightened by conflict, but because we are fired by conscience…and because there is simply no other way to achieve a decent and orderly society.”

This week, both Congresswoman Marcia Fudge on the floor of Congress and Reverend Colvin in a Plain Dealer Op-Ed each raised words of decency and conscience this week. Congresswoman Fudge warned of what conditions made the situation with rioting in Baltimore possible. Reverend Colvin wrote in the Plain Dealer that the front lines every day against racial injustice in the cities of America are in our “religious institutions, community organizations and committed individuals who daily work to prevent despair from turning into rage and destruction. But then he warned us, “the simmering pot [we currently see] is only a few degrees from boiling over in Cleveland and elsewhere.”

All of these individuals and more, remind us of the dictates of what conscience, what scripture, what laws and prevailing values can tell us. Each of these individuals and others, surely sometimes ask themselves, ‘What good does my voice do? What good does my restraint or my morality or my encouragement to the next generation do?’

The Torah tells us: It matters. What you do and say, when you choose to respond and when you hold your peace. It matters. All lives matter. As we pray each Shabbat, Hashkivenu Adonai Eloheinu L’shalom, V’ha’amidenu Malkenu L’chaim. Help us to lie down in peace O God, and to rise up once more to life renewed, Amen.