Freedom and Human Dignity

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Rabbi Yitzhak, January/February 2015

“In a free society some are guilty
but all are responsible.”
— Rabbi A.J. Heschel

Honoring life, human dignity and freedom are foundational to our Jewish system of values. In Genesis we learn of humanity being created B’tzelem Elohim – In the Divine Image. This is the foundation for the Jewish view of the sanctity of life and the dignity every human being must be accorded. In Exodus we read the story of liberation revealing the Divine Will as a force for liberation and release from oppression. This liberation story, while being focused on the Hebrew Tribes, was to be understood as a foretelling of a future redemption for all humanity. Universal freedom is an aspiration that has long been a cherished value and vision of our Jewish tradition.

While we know that our world is yet far from the fulfillment of these aspirations, we must never forget that working toward their fulfillment is a primary task of the Jewish soul.

In recent weeks we have been forced to take an accounting of the status of freedom and human dignity and the value of human life in our national condition in America.

There has been a light shining upon the powerful and tragic realities of racism and unequal justice under the law. Within a few short weeks we witnessed the death of several unarmed African American men at the hands of apparently inadequately trained, or inappropriately hired law enforcement officers. Those tragedies were then followed by the shocking outcomes of grand jury refusals to pursue criminal charges. What is perhaps most amazing and awful about all of this is that this has long been business as usual in our country. It is only because of the extraordinary media coverage of these recent killings and the massive demonstrations throughout our nation that we have had the opportunity to wake up to a troubling reality that has perpetually brought suffering and anguish to our African American fellow citizens.

Black young men are at a far higher risk of being harmed and/or unjustly incarcerated in our inadequately just Justice System. We have been starkly awakened to this powerful and painful discrepancy, and with awareness comes responsibility. It is my hope that, as members of the Jewish community, we will do what we can to be ever-present allies to the African –American community and to work alongside others who seek to correct the failures of our current system.

The task of Tikkun Olam doesn’t ever end, and we have an important opportunity to join with others to make this a safer and more just world for all members of the human family in our country. The Jewish community is speaking out and numerous Jewish organizations are developing resources to address this pressing situation.

There are some issues that seem so big that we can wish to turn from taking up an effort. We must understand, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel so eloquently stated, “In a free society some are guilty but all are responsible.” I know that among my own personal responses to these recent tragedies, I once again renewed my membership in the NAACP in the hope that my expression of solidarity would count for something and that I would be better informed through their resources about the urgency for change and opportunities to participate in making change happen. In the NAACP’s recently released report Born Suspect we find this statement, ”The NAACP believes that law enforcement officers have an important and noble role to play in every community across the country. And we appreciate the great work done by the majority of officers who uphold their commitment to equality and fairness. Yet the prevalence of so many incidents of police brutality, police killings, and racial profiling-particularly of young men of color- serves to undermine the entire system of policing and damages the credibility of police work. Racial profiling further creates a deep divide between communities and law enforcement officers. It breeds mistrust and ultimately leads to decreased public safety for all.”

I hope that we will all seek to rid ourselves of whatever subtle remnants of the sickness of racism we yet carry in our own hearts and work together in healing our society. For so many people, this is no less than a matter of life or death.