Bigotry – Yours and Mine
And it come to pass, when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of mine heart, (Deut. 29:19 KJV)
This verse is read on the coming Shabbat and in many congregations it is also read on the morning of Yom Kippur. It has a context, but I am going to consider it on its own in a different context.
There is a very human tendency to exempt ourselves from dealing with ugly thoughts. We all say things in the privacy of the monologue that is our thinking that we would never say aloud, but sometimes these things do slip out. One such category is bigoted thinking.
Bigotry is judging another person on the basis of something that does not really define a person. That includes race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or even something as incidental as what a person is wearing. I’ve met very few people who admit to being bigots. If I call someone on it, the response is often to defend the prejudice as being truthful. Others will just say, “I’m no racist” or homophobe or anti-Semite.
Despite the extent to which I disobey the advice of Dale Carnegie never to correct someone if you want them to like you, I cannot help myself. It is very hard for me to hear what I see as hate speech or read words of hate and remain silent. I have sometimes offended people, including family and friends doing this. So why do I breach social etiquette this way?
The verse cited above says it very well. The “curse” is bigotry. Blessing oneself despite the curse is the excuses we make to ourselves for bigoted thoughts and speech. “The imagination of my heart” is the way I justify myself to myself for what I should know is wrong. I hasten to add that I fight bigoted thoughts in myself. We all have them. It makes life easier to put people into categories than to encounter each person we meet as a unique individual. Like most of my sermons this essay is about my own struggle to be a better person. It is also meant to get readers or hearers to move away from that comfortable Shalom/well-being spot and enter the uncomfortable arena of self-doubt.
Why is this matter so important to me? It comes from a lifetime of experience. The earliest memory I have of bigotry is going to a government office in Florida, probably the DMV, with my mother when I was six or seven years old. I was sitting in a chair, while my mother was doing whatever she went there to do and I was facing the toilets and water fountains. There were four toilets and two water fountains. I asked about that. I do not remember my mother’s exact words but I know that she did not approve of segregation and probably answered my question in a way that showed that disapproval.
My “Wonder years” were spent in the village of Skokie outside of Chicago. Several of our friends and neighbors were Holocaust survivors. Some of my friends, children of survivors, talked about the Holocaust. My rabbi, who spoke with a German accent, had grown up and been ordained in Nazi Germany. From him I learned about the Thousand Year Reich and the genocide it attempted. Meanwhile at school I faced repeated epithets like “dirty Jew.” That led to a lot of recess fights. My 5th grade teacher was an explicit anti-Semite (she would be fired pretty quickly today if she were to say some of the things I remember). There were swastikas painted on our synagogue. When I was in 8th grade a non-Jewish friend called me to tell me about a Nazi club in someone’s basement. Apparently I was already a go-to guy on such matters.
I could tell many stories about encounters with anti-Semitism and racism during my childhood. I can also tell many stories about learning to see people as they are rather than according to the color of their skin or the accent they had or where they came from. My high school had no majority group. We called it “a little UN,” because of the diversity of the student body. My friends there included African-Americans, Mexicans, Asians, rich people, poor people, immigrants, and “hillbillies.” . I loved that aspect of our school.
It did not surprise anyone who knew me that I got involved with social justice issues at a very young age. I experienced inter-faith and inter-racial programs and protested block-busting and other racist phenomena while still in high school. I met a number of people who were straight-up bigots. I learned from them too. I felt a kinship with oppressed people. I tried to understand the racists and anti-Semites I knew.
I think this came largely from my Jewish identity and experiences. The story of our liberation at Passover Seders inspired me. The Biblical prophets awoke in me a desire to work against the evils of this world. I especially admire Nathan who spoke truth to King David. When Abraham Joshua Heschel marched next to Dr. King at Selma (I was about 25,000 people behind them) he said, “I felt as if my legs were praying.” That pretty much says it.
Maybe bigoted expressions irritate a psychic wound in me. Maybe I see myself as needing to help people. Maybe…
The truth is I do not fully understand why I feel compelled to oppose bigotry at every occasion. It could be that I am overly sensitive. I know I have sometimes hurt people when calling them on these things and it really is not in my nature to want to hurt people. The truth is I would rather be wrong and apologize for it than to be right but silent.
We cannot know what goes on in someone else’s head. We can only know what goes on in our own minds. To truly do T’shuvah (repentence) we must go where no one else can go and try to make ourselves better both inside and out.
The Biblical chapter I quoted from at the start ends with this verse. The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deut. 29:29 KJV). It is not enough to do and say what others can see and hear according to the highest standard. That is hard. What is much harder is to make ourselves better in the privacy of our minds where only God can see and hear.