A few weeks ago Julius Lester passed away at the age of 78. Julius Lester was a fascinating character. He was a black activist in the 60’s and 70’s who rubbed shoulders with Stokely Carmichael and Jesse Jackson. He was a musician who co-wrote a guide to 12 string guitar with Pete Seeger.
And, he was an anti-semite. At the height of the Oceanhill-Brownsville controversy in New York City, Lester invited a black teacher onto his radio show on WBAI to read this poem by one of his students:
“Hey, Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head / You pale-faced Jew boy — I wish you were dead.”
As you can imagine, this poem didn’t go over too well in the Jewish community. And, in many ways, Julius Lester embodies both the problems and the potential of the black-Jewish relationship. Because a few years after Lester aired that poem, he discovered he had a Jewish great grandfather. His journey to discover his Jewish roots led him to convert to Judaism.
Subsequently, Lester became chairman of the African-American studies department at University of Massachusets in Amherst. But, he was kicked out because he regularly wrote articles in magazines like The New Republic that were highly supportive of Israel and critical of black leaders for their anti-Zionist stance.
So, Lester was then hired to be the chairman of the Jewish studies department at UMass. You couldn’t make this stuff up!
I met Lester in the 1980’s when we invited him to speak at Beth Israel in Worcester about his Jewish journey. He was fabulous!—a great speaker and an incredibly charming man. But, even more interesting, at the time, we were in between cantors. And, as Lester was musical, he said he’d love to be invited back to our shul to be a chazzan-in-residence. So, a short time later, we invited him to be a sheliach tzibur for the weekend.
So, there we had it. A black activist, former anti-semite, who at one time was friends with Stokely Carmichael leading our services because he loved traditional Jewish nusach. I love people like Julius Lester, because he exploded all the categories. And, we are living at a time when very rigid categories are hemming us in.
And, this concept of blowing up categories is central to our parasha and to the Jewish concept of God. In our parasha, we read about the construction of the Mishkan. As we know, a central feature of the Mishkan is that it could be put together and broken down very quickly. And, this assembling and disassembling of our most sacred space was done no fewer than 40 times in the course of our sojourn in the wilderness.
Let’s think about the implications of the almost obsessive deconstruction and re-construction of sacred space. One of the core features of sanctity is that it does not change. My sacred values are the ones that do not waver with time. The reason that the Torah scroll is so holy to us and we treat it with such reverence is that it is the same words written in exactly the same way for the past 2000 years.
The reason people get so upset about the disturbance of sacred burial grounds is that the sacred represents that which we can rely on completely in our lives. When we say “Is nothing sacred?” we mean—is there nothing reliable in our lives? The sacred is the ground beneath our feet. And, if that can move, then what can we trust?
We need an anchor in life, and we often look to religion to provide that anchor. The problem is that this anchor often becomes a ball and chain. The very permanence of the sacred can prevent us from growing, from looking at the world in new ways.
When that happens, God becomes an idol. When a belief system becomes so rigid that it traps us from opening our minds to new insights, we are no longer worshipping God. God is on the side of growth. God is on the side of smashing rigid categories and outworn frameworks. That’s why we deliberately broke down our sacred space 40 times in the desert—to teach us that to be truly faithful to God means continually questioning our understanding of the world.
There is a blessing we say every morning—roka ha’aretz al ha’mayim—God stretches forth the solid land over the waters. We were originally supposed to say it when we put our feet on the ground for the first time in the morning. What that means is that we must abandon our solid ground every single day, and re-create our world, re-search for new solid ground that reflects an upgraded, more comprehensive view of reality.
What are the sacred spaces that need to be de-constructed today? I want to choose one sacred cow to talk about today—social justice. We have turned the concept of social justice into an idol by thinking of it in a very rigid way. And, if we want to do social justice in the best possible way, we need to de-construct this sacred space and re-imagine it.
We have divided ourselves into rigid camps of thinking. There are many of us whose Jewish self-concept is so powerfully identified with progressive causes that we are in denial about the anti-semitism within the progressive movement. At the University of Washington, Jewish student groups were excluded from discussions about Charlottesville. Charlottesville!–where white supremacists chanted ‘the Jews will not replace us.’ That’s how far we’ve come.
Lately, I’ve noticed the creation of a moral equivalency between anti-semitism and Islamophobia. I’m sorry, they are not the same. It is wrong to hate a Muslim, just at it is wrong to hate a Jew. But, there is no comparison between the anti-semitism within the global Islamic community and the hatred of Muslims within the Jewish community. Jews don’t regularly publish anti-Muslim cartoons and give sermons about killing Muslims. And, any vision of social justice that equates these two is deeply flawed.
On the other side, there are many of us who are so fearful of our own position in the world, that we are ready to alienate people who could become our friends and allies, or have been friends and allies. We are ready to see anything associated with progressive values as anti-semitic and anti-Jewish. The hatred of Obama within some segments of our community is obsessive to the point of irrationality. And, that hatred spills over to assumptions about African-Americans in general that are wrong-headed and dangerous.
The fact is that the black and Jewish communities know far too little about each other. But, that is something that can be remedied and should be remedied.
My friend Mark Jones asked me: why does this relationship matter so much to you? I told him that I grew up at the height of the civil rights movement when it seemed to me that there could be nothing more Jewish than fighting for racial equality. Why? I don’t know that I could have articulated this then. But, now I realize that it is profoundly validating to the Jewish people to know that our central freedom narrative/the Exodus story has been at the center of another people’s quest for freedom.
That makes us relevant. That makes us alive as a people. That means that our story, our existence is not only relevant to us, but it is potentially transformational for other peoples. When Ryan Bellerose told us that the story of modern Israel is an inspiration to Native Peoples, I had that feeling again. Our core mission as a people is to be a blessing to the families of the earth. When Dr. King quoted Isaiah, that mission came alive in me.
Secondly, I’m disturbed by the prevalence of a vision of social justice that is a radical departure from the values of Dr. King. A vision of the world which sees people of color and white people on opposite sides of the desire for justice is dangerous and un-American. It feeds into simplistic understandings of justice across the political spectrum. Healing the black-Jewish relationship is a step in the direction of re-asserting the value of coalitions for justice that don’t pigeon hole people into simplistic us vs. them categories. That’s why we have reached out to the black community and received a receptive response. More to come!
Julius Lester was my personal hero of blowing up categories. He was a Jew who was once an anti-semite. He was a black activist who loved the State of Israel. He was the author of “Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama” but, also, “Lovesong: Becoming a Jew” about his conversion to Judaism in 1982.
Let’s return to the model of Abraham who smashed our too comfortable categories of looking at the world. Let’s return to the worship of a God who insists that we leave the ground beneath our feet every day. Let’s model ourselves after Julius Lester, the black, Jewish, jazz musician who loved to daven.