Black Lives Matter Protests: Rabbi Rami Answers Your Questions
Rabbi Rami’s inbox has been filling up with questions from people troubled by and conflicted over what they have been seeing in the news. Here are some of the questions that were sent to Rabbi Rami and his responses.
Q: I’m retired military. I took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States. My oath obligates me to support peaceful protest, but when I see these protests devolve into acts of destruction and looting, I find myself getting angry and siding with the president’s call to dominate the streets with police and military. How do I keep myself on the side of the angels?
Thank you for your service; I took the same oath and feel the same obligation, but there are no angels here. There are only human beings with all our flaws and fears. And I don’t see protests devolving into riots; I see a small group of rioters who join peaceful protests looking for an opportunity to riot.
The challenge is not to give them that opportunity. This requires all of us to rein in any impulse to overreact. This requires all of us to assist in bringing looters to justice. This requires all of us to take racist cops off the street and into prison. Don’t worry about being on the side of the angels. Worry about being on the side of justice.
When I watched peaceful protestors gassed and cleared from Lafayette Park so Donald Trump could hold up a Bible as a prop in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, I felt profound sorrow for my country and my faith. The outrage of the church’s priest and bishops was genuine but ineffective. What would you have done?
Donald Trump is a television president. He understands the power of theater. Unfortunately for him (and fortunately for those who oppose him), he is a terrible producer. His photo op was so shallow and soulless that it did nothing to change the narrative. Perhaps he only intended to galvanize his base. If he succeeded, then I fear their Christianity is as hollow as his.
If I lived in DC, I would have called the Reverend Robert Fisher, rector of St. John’s, and invited him to join me and local cantors outside his church. I would ask the cantors to chant passages from the Hebrew prophets speaking to the need for justice. As they chanted, I would read an English translation of what they were chanting. I would then turn to Father Fisher, and he would read passages from the Gospels where Jesus spoke to the same need: loving neighbor and enemy, and caring for the least among us. I would then invite the crowd to engage in eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence in memory of George Floyd. I would close the gathering with the blowing of as many shofars as I could find people who owned them and knew how to blow them. That would have shattered the president’s photo op and cleansed St. John’s of the stain he laid upon it.
How can a people victimized by white racism for 400 years ever regain a sense of self-worth, self-respect, and dignity? I wonder if the looting and rioting isn’t an expression of the impossibility of ever doing this.
I disagree completely. First, black people aren’t victims of racism, but targets of racists and racist policies. Saying they are victims can be a subtle way of excusing ourselves of their victimization. They are targets, and those of us who participate in the system that targets them are culpable for their plight. Second, what makes you think black people have lost their sense of self-worth, self-respect, and dignity? I don’t see that at all. On the contrary, it is their profound sense of self-worth, self-respect, and dignity that empowers them to take to the street, the pew, and the ballot box. Victims cower. I see people rising up.
I don’t know how to write this without sounding like a racist. I am against police brutality and of course black lives matter. But the Black Lives Matter organization is rife with anti–Israel and anti–Semitic rhetoric. As a Jew and a Zionist and a supporter of Israel, I just can’t bring myself to side with them. How do you handle this?
I side with values rather than organizations or states. When my country promotes her values of liberty and justice for all regardless of race, color, gender identity, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, etc. I stand with her. When she doesn’t, I stand against her.
When Israel stands for the prophetic values of justice and compassion for Israelis and Palestinians, I stand with her. When she doesn’t, I stand against her. When Black Lives Matter stands for justice for all oppressed peoples, I stand with it. When Black Lives Matter demonizes my people, I stand against it. My sense at this moment is that protesting racism in America is an act in sync with my values. If there are some among the protestors whose resistance to racism does not include resistance to Jew-hatred as well, I will deal with them at another time.
Eighty-two percent of Americans believe in God. That means 82% of protestors and 82% of police officers and 82% of politicians believe in God. You would think America would be a godly nation and the murder of black people by police officers would be so anathema that our justice system would deal with them, and street protests would be unnecessary. Why isn’t God enough?
Just because 82% of Americans believe in God doesn’t mean they believe in the same God or the same God you believe in. The God I know—I don’t speak of belief which is simply the affirmation of a truth without any evidence that it is true—demands I act as a blessing to all the families of the Earth, human and otherwise (Genesis 12:3) by doing justly, acting compassionately, and walking humbly (Micah 6:8). But other Gods call for other things, and many of those things lead to racism, sexism, Islamophobia, Jew-hatred, etc. It isn’t that God isn’t enough, it is that some gods are simply too much.
I pray every day for George Floyd and his family. It makes me feel good. And I think it does good. Do I have to march in the streets as well?
Prayer, as I understand prayer, isn’t an end in itself, but a catalyst for action. Prayer is an act of self-emptying and self-awakening moving you beyond the narcissism of “me” to the communitarianism of “we,” and from “us against them” to “all of us together.” Praying for Mr. Floyd and his family should push you to act for Mr. Floyd, his family, his people, and his country. Whether this means taking to the streets, I can’t say; only you can know this. But, at the very least, it means continuing to make the shift from “me” to “we” in your own life today and getting out and voting for “all of us together” in November.
What would you say to George Floyd’s family?
Nothing. This is why the most powerful moments of protest are when the people take a knee and fall silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds. I have lots to say, however, to our leaders who continue to support racist, authoritarian, and criminal policies in their efforts to maintain power. Sadly, they aren’t listening.
While I was embarrassed by President Trump using the Holy Bible as a prop in his attempt to look like the defender of the Christian faith, my pastor said I was mistaken to feel this way, and that the Bible is “the sword of the spirit” (Ephesians 6:17) to be drawn against the enemies of God. What do you think?
The American people are not the “enemies of God,” and to imply we are is to set the stage for violent repression. That said, I am not troubled by the idea that the Bible is the “sword of the spirit.” Here is what Paul tells us in Hebrews 4:12: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, capable of cleaving soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” In other words, the Bible can be alive and active in the world as it was in the hands of people like Martin Luther King Jr. defeating even well-armed opposition, cutting through anything that imprisons truth, and holding up universal love and justice as a standard against which to judge the thoughts, intentions, and policies of the powerful. I doubt, however, that this is how your pastor—or our president—hopes to wield the word of God.
Lies! Lies! Lies! Lies! All I hear from President Trump are lies! Does he really think we are so stupid as to believe most of what he says?
In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the protagonist Winston Smith finally surrenders to Big Brother by affirming that 2 + 2 = 5. It isn’t that Smith believed 2 + 2 = 5, but that he no longer cared if 2 + 2 = 5. When Mr. Trump announced that the crowds at his 2016 inauguration where larger than those of President Obama, he didn’t expect us to believe him, but when he had the Parks Department doctor photographs to “prove it,” he expected us to be awed by his power to bring the government to heel. Similarly, when he took a Sharpie and clumsily doctored an official National Weather Service map to prove his claim that Hurricane Dorian was at one time predicted to hit Alabama, he didn’t expect us to ignore the crudeness of his propaganda, but rather to be cowed by the fact he could get away with doing it. I suspect the president isn’t trying to convince you of the truth of what he says, only to get you to surrender in the face of his power to say it without consequence. For the record, 2 + 2 = 4. At least for now.
Continue reading on channeling your anger into spiritual action.