Jews, Power and Privilege: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5771

From my Yom Kippur sermon yesterday:

For matter how painful the prospect, I don’t think we can afford to dodge this question. If we agree that the inequitable distribution of power and privilege is a critical problem for us and for our world, then there will inevitably be times in which we are faced with an intensely difficult question: does tribal loyalty trump solidarity with the oppressed?

Actually, I’m coming to believe that this is not the best way to frame the question. I don’t really think it’s all that helpful to view this issue as some kind of zero-sum game; to see it as a question of tribal allegiance; to insist that I either stand with my own people or I don’t. I prefer to say it this way: that it is in my self interest as a Jew to stand in solidarity with the oppressed because I believe that Jews cannot be fully human while they benefit from a system that denies others their own humanity. For those with power and privilege, the struggle against racism and oppression is fought knowing that our own liberation is also at stake.

Click below to read the entire sermon:

What’s the difference between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? There are many different ways to answer that question. Some see the Jewish New Year as a celebration of rebirth – and Yom Kippur as the day we do the work that helps us enter the new year reborn anew. Others hear the shofar of Rosh Hashanah as a spiritual wake up call and Yom Kippur as a time to arise from our slumber and return to the path from which we’ve strayed.

I’ve been increasingly coming to understand these two festivals in a different way: Rosh Hashanah is that day we focus on Malchuyot – God’s sovereignty. On Rosh Hashanah we acknowledge a Power greater than own and honestly face the limits of our own power. On Yom Kippur, we look seriously at how we use our power. We ask ourselves: in what ways has our power corrupted us? In what ways have we wielded our power destructively? And most important: what can we do – what must we do – to transform our power from a corrupting force into power that might transform our world?

In thinking about this particular theme this Yom Kippur, I’ve find myself getting drawn back to a deeper and more inexorable issue – that is, namely the ways in which we are all part of a system of power and privilege. And I’m increasingly coming to realize that we can’t really analyze our own power without recognizing the underlying structures of power imbalance that are so indelibly imprinted in our world.

We all naturally want power to be used for the good and the benefit for all. We all believe racism and sexism and homophobia to be oppressive. These aren’t particularly controversial claims. But beyond our good intentions and our well-intentioned actions, I can’t help but ponder how so many of us take our own power and privilege for granted. How we use and abuse power in ways we can’t even begin to grasp.

So if Yom Kippur is indeed the time for us to think honestly about the ways we wield our power, I’d like to take a little bit of time today to explore this issue more deeply. I’d like to examine how structures of power affects each and every one of us; how they influence our thoughts and how they determine our actions. I’d like to unpack how privilege affects our lives in so many fundamental ways. And in particular, I’d like to look carefully at how these complex inform and define us as Jews.

When defining the meaning of privilege, the first thing we need to consider is that it is always found in relationship with another. When I use the word “privilege” in this way, I refer to the benefits one party gains at the expense of another. Moreover, many of these benefits are by definition unearned.

Let’s us me as an example, I am white, male, heterosexual and born into an upper middle-class family. Every one of these factors afford me a myriad of unearned benefits that are simply unavailable to others in my community with whom I am in relationship either directly or indirectly.

The other important thing about privilege is that it is almost always invisible and unseen to the privileged party. I would daresay even those of us among the privileged who consider ourselves to be generally sensitive, enlightened and progressive people have no clue about the ways we take our privilege for granted.

To use but one example, here are some of the benefits that automatically accrue to me for the simple fact of my being a heterosexual:

The state automatically gives me the right to get married, along with the tangible benefits and protections that come with it. As a straight person, I will never experience prejudice directed toward me due to my sexual orientation; I don’t have to fear being estranged from my family because of my heterosexuality; I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my sexual orientation won’t work against me; I can be open about my heterosexuality without worrying about my job; I can walk in public with my significant other and not have people stare or possibly harass me.

Even though I intellectually understand these privileges, I must confess they are largely invisible to me on a day to day basis. That’s why in the end, the idea of privilege is bigger than just a list of unearned benefits. It’s critically important for us to grasp how these privileges affect our daily lives, our careers, our education. In what ways do we benefit from a myriad of unearned privileges without ever even realizing it?

All made more complicated because we are all essentially made up of multiple identities. Since our identities intersect, there is not necessarily always a one to one correspondence between advantage and disadvantage. For example, if someone is poor but is also white they may not have class privilege, but as a white person, it is likely that this person will have an easier time of it than a person of color with the same income level. To one extent or another, we are all advantaged and disadvantaged at the same time. Having said this, however, it cannot be denied that there are those, in sum total, who enjoy significant unearned advantage over others.

For Jews as a group it is even more complicated. I would suggest that overall, our identity is predicated on disadvantage and the experience of oppression. After all, our most central sacred narratives occur in the context of powerlessness. “Avadim hayinu – we were slaves.” We were exiled from our land following quintessential tragedy of our people: the churban – the destruction of the Temple. These are more than just stories: they go to the heart of our collective self image. These narratives form the very DNA of our sacred traditions and rituals.

Moreover, the resonance of our historical experience – the tragic legacy of anti-semitism that culminated in the Holocaust– affects us no less deeply. I once said in a sermon several years ago that to be Jewish post-Holocaust means to live with collective PTSD – and indeed, it’s a condition that affects our identity and our relation to the world in so many profound ways.

At the same time, however, I believe this legacy of powerlessness is largely at odds with our contemporary reality. Quite frankly, the truth is that right now it’s actually a pretty good time to be Jewish. Although we’re often loathe to admit it, collectively speaking we currently enjoy a level of security, power and privilege at levels almost unprecedented in Jewish history.

Here in America, we’ve succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. We constitute one of the most educated, economically secure and politically organized minorities in the country. Given the relatively small percentage of Jews in the US, we’re inordinately well represented in the corporate, academic, political and professional worlds. Anti-semitism has long ceased to be a meaningful impediment to Jewish advancement. It is difficult, if not impossible, to claim that being Jewish is in any significant way a liability in the United States of America today.

Now I’m sure many might argue that our empowerment in this country is not completely unearned, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. Like many other ethnic minorities that immigrated to the US, much of what the Jewish community has accomplished has been the result of hard work and very real sacrifice. But at the same time, we cannot deny that by and large, those who have since been born into the Jewish community are firmly a part of this country’s power structure – and as such we enjoy many of the benefits and privileges that come with that power. And at the very least we should serious thought to what this privilege is doing to our communal priorities and our relationship to other communities around us.

I’ve sometimes joke semi-facetiously that one of the cardinal sins of being Jewish is to admit that we actually have power. After all, for so long our very identity has been rooted in our powerlessness. Take that away from us and what are we left with? And further: if we’re now part of the majority power structure, could that possibly mean that we have now become our own worst nightmare – namely, God forbid, that we are now on the side of the oppressor?

Here’s a telling historical anecdote: back in the late 1960s there was growing tension in Black-Jewish relations. As Jews joined the white flight from urban centers to the suburbs and the Black Power movement began to grow, the coalition that had been built and nurtured in the Civil Rights movement was rapidly breaking down. Many Jews felt betrayed by what they experienced as anti-semitism from former allies. And many blacks felt that Jews had now become a part of the a racist white power structure that was at the root of their oppression.

It was around this time that James Baldwin wrote a famous essay entitled “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They Are Anti-White.” When I first read this essay many years ago it had a powerful effect upon me – and over the years I’ve found myself returning to his challenging words again and again.

This is what he wrote:

In the American context, the most ironical thing about Negro anti-semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man – for having become, in effect, a Christian. The Jew profits from his status in America, and he must expect Negroes to distrust him for it. The Jew does not realize that the credential he offers, the fact that he has been despised and slaughtered, does not increase the Negro’s understanding. It increases the Negro’s rage.

For it is not here, and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered, and he is never despised here, as the Negro is, because he is an American. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him. What happens to the Negro here happens to him because he is an American.

This is what I take from these words: in many ways, to be a Jew today means to live with a kind of bifurcated identity. We continue to be shaped by our memories of past powerlessness, but as Baldwin correctly pointed out, in America we benefit in so many ways from the privileges that come with power. For my part, I’ve come to believe that it is politically and morally disingenuous of us to keep playing both sides of that card. As Jews, we would do well to ask: can we, should we honestly have it both ways?

In my opinion, this cognitive dissonance represents a critical challenge for the Jewish community in the 21st century America. We currently enjoy unprecedented Jewish power and privilege. How will we choose to wield it?

Speaking for myself I’m increasingly coming to believe that it’s my obligation to recognize our power and privilege for what it truly is. To identify the ways that Jewish power privileges us in this country. I also believe that if we do this with frankness and honesty, then it becomes our responsibility to use our privilege to shift power in a more just and equitable direction.

How do we do this? For me, the answer is relatively straightforward: to stand in solidarity, as Jews, with all who are oppressed.

Now I realize this answer is not necessarily as straightforward as it sounds. In the first place, when the privileged and powerful decide to stand in solidarity with those with less power we make choices that are counter intuitive – choices that might not be of direct benefit to our own self-interest.

Here is one example. Many of you know, I’m sure, that I’ve become increasingly involved in the issue of immigrant justice. One day, about two years ago in which I was asked to offer a blessing at an interfaith vigil in solidarity with undocumented immigrants slated for deportation. As I stood waiting to speak, I was chatting with a priest who served a predominantly Latino parish. At one point he said something to the effect of, “What are you doing here?”

Or at least that was how I remember hearing his comment. I know he meant it as a compliment – but I also experienced his remark as a way of pointing out that unlike the Latino community, the Jewish community is not directly affected by this issue. I admit that when he said that comment, there was part of me that asked myself, “well, why am I here?” Is it out of middle class liberal guilt? Is it out of nostalgia? Is it because as a Jew, I’m seeking props from other ethnic communities?

But in the end, I reminded myself that no, I’m here because as a Jewish American, I’m the grandson of immigrants myself. I’m here because as a Jew, the struggle for immigrant justice benefited my own family and my own people at not long ago and that “there but for the grace of God.” And that while I might be tempted to say, “well this is not really my issue any more,” now that I have power and privilege in this country, I have an obligation to use it justly. And the primary way I can do this is to stand unabashedly in solidarity with those who do not share my privilege.

There can be no doubt that for Jews, I there will be times in which the prospect of solidarity work challenges us to our very core. Times which may force us to wrestle with own sense of tribal loyalty and allegiance. These are the times, indeed, in which we might have to consider whether or not we have actually, God forbid, become oppressors ourselves.

Still, I’m finding that solidarity work is becoming more and more important to my own spiritual vision as a Jew and as as a rabbi. It has come to inform much of the work I do in the greater community, from immigrant justice to worker justice to standing in solidarity with Palestinians. I know this latter issue in particular is enormously challenging for many – and in truth, it is for me as well. I’m well aware that the prospect of Palestinian solidarity work presents a profound challenge to the Jewish community. Nevertheless I will continue to try, in some small way, to put the difficult issues of Israeli power and privilege onto the Jewish radar screen. I also hope at least it might challenge us to have honest conversations about these issues as painful as they are.

For matter how painful the prospect, I don’t think we can afford to dodge this question. If we agree that the inequitable distribution of power and privilege is a critical problem for us and for our world, then there will inevitably be times in which we are faced with an intensely difficult question: does tribal loyalty trump solidarity with the oppressed?

Actually, I’m coming to believe that this is not the best way to frame the question. I don’t really think it’s all that helpful to view this issue as some kind of zero-sum game; to see it as a question of tribal allegiance; to insist that I either stand with my own people or I don’t. I prefer to say it this way: that it is in my self interest as a Jew to stand in solidarity with the oppressed because I believe that Jews cannot be fully human while they benefit from a system that denies others their own humanity. For those with power and privilege, the struggle against racism and oppression is fought knowing that our own liberation is also at stake.

Although these are indeed complex issues, I’ll return to what I said earlier: in another sense it is ultimately quite straightforward. After all, what is the lesson of our most central and oft-repeated Jewish narrative? God freed us from Egyptian bondage in order to show us, to show the Egyptians and to show the world that there is a power, yes, even greater than our own human power.

God then brought us into the wilderness and invited us to construct a new form of community – a society that would be, in a sense, the polar opposite of Egypt. A community where power was wielded with justice and compassion, where the well-being of its most powerless members – the stranger, the widow and the orphan – were ensured.

If we do indeed believe these to be among the most sacred teachings of our tradition, then our community is facing a challenge of truly daunting proportions. If this is our mission, then we owe it to ourselves to face up to the choices no matter how difficult or painful. It is certainly natural to seek the path of least resistance, the way of lesser tension. But as we know from our own lives and from our history, this is not the way to true transformation. In the end, power does not give an inch without a struggle.

This Yom Kippur, let us face up to the struggle together.

Amen.

2 thoughts on “Jews, Power and Privilege: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5771

  1. I thank you so much for this deeply spiritual and deeply human discourse.It is truly hopeful to me to see this unpacked with such thoroughness and care. This speaks to the greater community deeply as well as to Jews.
    It restores my soul. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for very good observations regarding privilege.

    However, please consider the huge degree of powerlessness that those of us who have relatively more privilege than others nonetheless experience. E.g., for all of my privilege, I have next to no privilege/power regarding the fundamentals that construct my life, such as wars fought in my name; the impact of war, peace and military spending on my life; class control over countless daily aspects of my life from the kinds of energy I have to use to the limited kinds of transportation available to me; the corporate destruction of the Earth that affects me and will, even more, affect my grandchildren, etc. Even for the many of us with relatively more privilege, that privilege exists within a real, if not readily visible, social-economic stockade.

    To take another example, my wife is a member of a city council, yet for all of her relative privilege she’s fairly powerless in finding the resources for the kind of city she wants to create and sustain.

    Without addressing that dirty five-letter work, CLASS, and the two old-fashioned, even dirtier words (still dear to my heart), RULING CLASS, the privilege possessed by most of the relatively privileged can be overstated.

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