Sunday, July 14, 2013

Tisha B’Av and Reflections on Trayvon Martin


I found an article that discussed Facebook and the tasteless posts using the body of Trayvon Martin  while was doing some research on FB memes that had come across my newsfeed the week before my vacation . . . images of Trayvon Martin's body with hateful remarks and racist comments -- images of someone's dead child used to score a political point -- and yes - these points were on the extreme right of the spectrum . . . and I wondered to myself - how are these images any different than the images of triumphant good ol' boys standing next to the lifeless body of any number of un-named black men as they hung from trees in the south? The images were of black men that were murdered - and were used to send a message - to other blacks - to whites who sought to help blacks - to anyone who saw the images -  and even as souvenirs.  But they also demonstrated to all who saw them that black souls came cheap – and could be tortured, beaten and killed with impunity.

What struck me throughout these last 18 months or so - is that a young man - who was not in the process of committing a crime was shot and killed after being stalked by someone with a gun -- and the dead young man was subsequently put on trial both literally and figuratively in the blogosphere and social media. But why? For wearing a hoodie? For images on his FB page? For using the term "White ass cracker?” For buying Skittles?  Because he looked “gangsta?” Or was it because he fit our media driven profile of a criminal: young, black, male. 

This incident – along with the relentless flow of “information” (loosely called) on FB has made me angry. I’m angry that so many people I thought were "smarter than that" - just aren't. I’m angry that people  who love to sing “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. . . . “ Only mean little black children that they know – or that go to their church – or who act like “the rest of us” – you know – don’t act too black, don’t like rap or hip-hop, vote Republican,  talk like “us”, keep their pants pulled up, and don’t rock the boat. But it doesn’t apply to black children who fail to make us comfortable, or who force us to confront our own prejudices.  I’m angry that ‘pro-lifers’ (so called) are pro-life in utero and play fast and loose with “life” after birth. They will bomb a health clinic to save a fetus, and be willing to look the other way when minority children grow up in substandard housing, go to substandard schools, and have substandard nutrition. While for them a fetus is everyone’s responsibility, a living child – especially a minority child – is no one’s responsibility. Suddenly, – “the right to life” doesn’t apply to a young black man with Skittles and Iced Tea – a  young black man that might make us nervous – or that might just be some mother’s son.

And the constant stream of social media has demonstrated to me that we are still far removed from being a “post-racial” society. Rather, it has reaffirmed that uncomfortable feeling that race is still a major player in American culture and in American politics. And those who claim otherwise are really only fooling themselves. If anyone has taken just a peek at the invectives thrown at President Obama – not on policy – an arena of legitimate criticism in a democracy – but on the basis “otherness” – then you can only conclude that we are far from where we need to be.

Tisha B’Av – the 9th of Av begins tomorrow after sunset. For orthodox communities it is a time of mourning the destruction of the Temple accompanied by fasting, prayer, and abstaining from things that are otherwise enjoyable – including Torah study. For other Jewish communities it is a time to contemplate the impact of “sinat chinam” – baseless hatred. Eitan Press quoted a passage from the Talmud in a Huffington Post article last year. It asks and answers the question of why the Temple was destroyed:

"Why was the first Temple destroyed? Because the three cardinal sins were rampant in society: idol worship, licentiousness, and murder ... And why then was the second Temple -- wherein the society was involved in Torah, commandments and acts of kindness -- destroyed? Because baseless hatred was rampant in society. This teaches that baseless hatred is equal in severity to the three cardinal sins: idol worship, licentiousness, and murder.”

He goes on to say that, “One of the most destructive ways baseless hatred manifests itself is through judging others. . . . Baseless hatred dehumanizes us, until we lose our empathy and no longer see the "other" as people like us, who feels like us.”   I would also add that baseless hatred begins by dehumanizing the “other.” They are not only different from us, they become “less than.”  The person on the other side of the political divide becomes a non person to us, which allows us to throw out all decency in how we speak to one another. The person who speaks a different language or practices a different religion becomes an enemy and someone or something to be feared rather than someone who has a family who loves them, who dreams of a brighter future, or  who seeks peace. Baseless hatred allows us to see the other as a criminal first, rather than as a son, a brother, or a neighbor.

Rabbi Micah Peltz of Cherry Hill notes in a recent Haaretz article  that, we read Lamentations – “Eicha”  on the Ninth of Av  and that “Eicha” – or "How?” is the central question of the day. “How do we find meaning in this ancient destruction?” He goes further and draws a parallel to God’s question of Adam and Eve in the Garden after they had eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil: “Where?” The same Hebrew letters are the basis for both words. This is the first question God asks of human beings. "Where are you?”  Peltz continues, “When we hear the word eicha repeated on Tisha B’Av, we are not only crying out for answers, for insight into how these many tragedies could have happened to our people, but we also hear God’s question coming right back to us. Eyeka, where are you? What are you going to do to repair the brokenness that still exists in the world? How are you going to help?”

And so for this, my first Tisha B’Av as a Jew by Choice, I find myself wrangling with what this day of mourning an ancient catastrophe means to me. And how do I , as a Reform Jew, find meaning in this day? I can mourn the past, but I cannot change it.  I can be outraged and mourn the senseless death of a young man, but I also know that I cannot stem the tide of racism alone. That will require the work of all of us together. For my first Tisha B’Av I have chosen to reflect on my own “sinat chinam” – my own failures to see people as individuals with value and worth and the ways I can change my own thinking in order to help others change theirs. Because if there is to be change in society – and a move toward understanding and peace it begins with individuals. As Sy Miller and Jill Jackson wrote: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

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