In my office lies a poster ready to be framed of two legs and feet walking with a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that says, “when I marched in Selma, I felt my feet were praying.” Rabbi Heschel proclaimed this after coming back from marching alongside Reverend Martin Luther King in the voting-rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1965. We have come a long way in this country since the civil rights movement, but, if this week has shown us anything, we still have some praying to do with our feet (and our mouth, heart, mind and soul).
Last week I wrote that I wanted to talk about the Akiba Research and Development Department. I still do, but my focus has shifted from explaining what we did to a homework assignment given during the training. We were asked to read “Willing to be Disturbed” by Margaret Wheatley. I highly recommend printing it out and reading it with your family this Shabbat. We read it to set the stage for difficult conversations about the change required for innovation. However, in light of the hateful and cowardly acts in Charlottesville it has taken on new meaning for me, specifically, where she writes, “it’s not differences that divide us. It’s our judgments about each other that do.” We will never move forward, change or innovate if we sit in judgment of those people or ideas that appear different than what we believe to be true. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his book Dignity of Difference, “one belief, more than any other (to quote a phrase of Isaiah Berlin’s) is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals. It is the belief that those who do not share my faith – or my race or my ideology – do not share my humanity.”
We read in Bereishis (the first chapter of the Bible) that when G-d created the first person, Adam, he was created in His image. Humanity reflects the Divine. We, as Jews, chose the beautiful gift that is the Torah, but we must always remember that we do not exist in isolation. We are a part of a divinely created humanity, and there is holiness in everyone. The Torah makes it clear that we have a responsibility to each other. We are told that “you shall love your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19:18)”, “you shall not oppress your friend (Leviticus 25:17)” and “you shall do the right and the good (Deuteronomy 6:18)”. We are commanded to take care of others and be mindful not to take away their dignity. We can’t tolerate prejudice and hate towards or among our Jewish brothers and sisters, nor, and with equal weight, those of different faiths and cultures. As Rabbi Heschel did, we must walk the walk, whether it be marching in protest, being kind to a stranger or having difficult conversations with someone who does not share your beliefs. This is who we are as humans, and as Jews, we are told we have the added and beautiful responsibility of being leaders in bringing dignity to others.
I know these ideas are not foreign to you, as it is evident to me that at Akiba and in your homes our students are taught empathy, compassion, and kindness to each other and the world around them. However, we must never become complacent in our ideals, and we should remind ourselves of their importance rather than have hate in the world act as a reminder. I leave you with the last paragraph of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks book mentioned above and wish the families of those killed in Charlottesville comfort and a Refuah Shelemah (a complete recovery) for those injured.
“Difference does not diminish; it enlarges the sphere of human possibilities. Our last best hope is to recall the classic statement of John Donne and the more ancient story of Noah after the Flood and hear, in the midst of our hypermodernity, an old-new call to a global covenant of human responsibility and hope. Only when we realise the danger of wishing that everyone should be the same – the same faith on the one hand, the same McWorld on the other – will we prevent the clash of civilizations, born of the sense of threat and fear. We will learn to live with diversity once we understand the God-given, world-enhancing dignity of difference.”