(August 10, 2020 / JNS) Writing in The Algemeiner about the appropriate Jewish response during Black Lives Matter, my compassionate friend Howard Langer rightly invokes the Jewish tradition in support of others who need help. But in so doing, he confuses communal responsibility for communal—and individual—guilt. More strikingly, while asking his co-religionists to support the Black Lives Matter movement, Langer ignores (in fact, effectively denies) its most trenchant and troubling accusation against Jews and all non-black people alive today.
There can be no question that Jews, even when they did nothing to cause the suffering of their neighbors, are required to address the fact that “you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” It is invoked by the Torah multiple times—treating the stranger as an equal (Leviticus 19:34), not to oppress him (Exodus 23:9) and why we must let him rest on the day of rest (Deuteronomy 5:14). Surely, it was these verses, amplified by the prophets in the rest of the Hebrew Bible that induced Jews to support the civil-rights movement so energetically.
But communal responsibility is not the same as communal guilt, and contrary to Langer’s readings, the Torah does not decree that someone who joins the Jewish community becomes guilty of sins committed by Jews before he got there. The eglah arufah—the ceremonial sacrifice of an animal to be funded by a town when someone is killed between that community and another, and the murderer is unknown—is about just that: what to do when the wrongdoer is unknown. The wrongdoers who enslaved African-Americans are not unknown. They are the people who captured these victims and sold them into slavery, and the people who purchased them and worked them as slaves.
The problem we face as Americans today is not that we don’t know who the wrongdoers are; it’s that those who are guilty of creating and enforcing slavery are known but long dead. It is we who are living with the consequences of their wrongdoing, and it is we who must address those consequences, even though we never committed that sin.
And it is here that Langer in a sense betrays—or at least, fails to support—the most deeply piercing and most troubling accusation that the Black Lives Matter movement makes against Americans today—that we are not simply the inheritors of a wrong done long ago. It is that all of us, right now, are sinning and guilty; we are guilty of racism, and we are the immediate, present, ongoing cause of the pain and suffering endured by black Americans.
Rather than repeating this claim of current racism and current guilt, Langer searches for Torah sources imposing the guilt upon future generations for the sins of past ones. But the Torah disclaims any such idea. The third commandment imposes the consequences of each person’s wrongdoing on his descendants for up to four generations. Anyone who has had an abusive parent in their family tree knows how hard it is for the consequences of sins to be eliminated. But eventually, they are, and nothing in the Torah says those consequences go on forever. We do not have or believe in Original Sin.
Communal responsibility is not the same as communal guilt.
Even the Rashi that Langer brings from the story of the Golden Calf doesn’t really say otherwise. As Langer explains, this greatest of commentators taught that every punishment of the Jews contains a bit of retribution for that first, great, formative sin of idol worship. Rashi brings this idea from a discussion in Gemara Sanhedrin. But there, Rabbi Akiva says, the punishment does not go on forever: After 24 generations, even this account was paid in full. And as we enter into the penitential season of Elul, we cannot ever lose sight of the fact that on Yom Kippur Moses did seek, and obtain for us, forgiveness precisely for the sin that Langer would have us believe stains every Jewish life forever. God forbid, and indeed, God did forbid it.
That Jewish tradition and Jewish texts teach us to care for our neighbors; they demand that we be kind, that they instruct us to help neighbors become self-sufficient when they are not that now, that they demand generosity and communal responsibility for the weak and the oppressed—all of these things are true, and I know no Jew who would deny them. Such communal responsibility is a blessing.
Communal guilt for sins committed by others long ago is a very different and far more troubling idea.
Most troubling of all is the concept that every person alive today is guilty of the sin of racial hatred. Langer’s suggestion that the problem we must solve is the legacy of slavery effectively denies this. All the more is such a denial appropriate because the people who find the problem in such a present-day sin also locate the solution in ideas that are very, very far from Jewish tradition—in the elimination of the nuclear family, in hostility to private property, and, of course, in outright hostility to the Jewish people and to Jewish nationhood. None of these ideas are Jewish ideas, and no Jewish text requires us to join in efforts animated by these principles.
Loving the stranger we are commanded to do. Loving your enemy comes from a different book, and it isn’t ours.
Jerome M. Marcus is a lawyer and a fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
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