“What We All Have In Common” – May 21, 2023 at the Laconia Unitarian Universalist Church

Rev. Judith Wright of the Laconia Unitarian Universalist Church was a guest speaker at Temple B’nai Israel.  Rabbi Katz was invited to address their congregation and share some commonalities between our faiths.

Thank you, Reverend Wright, and thank you all for inviting me here today.  I am honored to share some thoughts with you coming from a Jewish perspective that embraces all humanity.  Most especially, along with congregants from Temple B’nai Israel, I/we are here to iterate our empathy, support, and allyship as your congregation navigates your latest challenge of the defacement of your building, most assuredly symbolic of the absence of civility, respect, and acceptance of the diversity of faiths in our community.  In truth, I/we are heartsick that acts of vandalism and hate graffiti that have hitherto affected primarily Jewish and African American houses of worship have widened their girth to all communities of faith.  We join together with you in forging ahead towards transforming society for the better, baby step by baby step.

To that end, allow me to share snippets of my personal experiences these last 4 years of what is and what could be regarding justice and mercy.  Like a resume, I will begin with the most recent, sharpest in my memory.

Two weeks ago, on a Wednesday, I spent a day at Attica Maximum Security Prison in Upstate New York, as a volunteer.  I am being trained in a 12-week national restorative justice program entitled Houses of Healing, which aims to help the incarcerated restore their own humanity and dignity, whether their term of imprisonment is brief or for life.  Can you imagine spending hours in a classroom in the middle of the vast prison complex with individuals who had committed the most heinous crimes, never for a moment feeling an iota of fear and never the least bit interested in their crime sheets, albeit the presence of heavy security of walking the prison campus surrounded by guards and passing through 6 grill gates, being wanded at each, required to show picture ID’s and an invisible hand stamp.  It’s a dark and forboding place.  

Yet, once sitting in a circle in a barely furnished and barely lit classroom, I Iearned directly from the mouths of 22 incarcerated males what we humans all have in common:

  1. We all have a desire to live without fear.
  2. We all want to move ahead in life.
  3. We all want to be accepted.
  4. We all need to belong.
  5. We all want to know that we matter.
  6. We all need someone to talk to and to listen to us without judgment.
  7. We all need someone who cares about us.
  8. We all need someone who understands how we feel.
  9. We all need to relax and let our guard down.
  10. We all need to be able to trust.
  11. We all want someone who trusts us.
  12. We all want to have joy.
  13. We all have sorrow.
  14. We all want to laugh.
  15. And we all cry.

Indeed, what I always considered an absolute truth was illuminated on the faces of most likely a self-selected group – that every single human being, irrespective of their ill-fated choices and mistakes, have abiding worth.  It is no coincidence that the word for sin or transgression in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people, is chet, which means “off the mark,” referring to the target used in archery, meaning there is always another turn, another chance to get it right, through a process of atonement.  For these incarcerated individuals, atonement may never achieve forgiveness from their victims, but it does afford them an opening in their own psychic prisons of misguided judgments, limiting self-definitions, and closed hearts.  It can offer them greater personal peace and dignity, moving beyond defining themselves in terms of their past actions and personal history.  Let me be clear – this is not about avoiding past actions or personal history;  it’s about facing one’s guilt, one’s fears, one’s shame, one’s resentments, one’s internal biases, and one’s unfulfilled desires, acknowledging all of it, and engaging a future with hope, possibility, and mostly the ability to see and be compassionate to others. 

You might wonder how I ended up in prison, immersed in a program of restorative justice.  It began in January of 2019. My spouse, Rabbi Alan Katz, and I took a 3000-mile car trip from our home in Rochester, NY, to civil and human rights museums and memorials in Atlanta, in Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery, Alabama, and in Memphis.  The rawness and ugliness of racism was unrelenting, first at the Museum of Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, where the first room featured a virtual experience of the Greensboro, NC Woolworth lunch counter sit-in in February, 1960, where 4 African American students staged a non-violent protest to achieve equity in counter service, spurring protests all over the south.  Some of these protests resulted in relentless vocal defamations and beatings by whites present.  As visitors to the museum, we felt their shame and pain viscerally through virtual earphones for the longest two minutes.  I sobbed my heart out and could only repeat “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” to a young African American docent standing by.

I need to share as well that with each demoralizing echo of what the people of our country has wrought against its citizens, there were moments of redemption. We heard speeches from Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., we saw footage of the marches on Washington, and of President Lyndon B. Johnson announcing the Civil Rights Bill. 

Fast forward to the Legacy Museum and The National Memorial of Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.  The former is the brainchild of Bryan Stevenson, lawyer and civil rights activist, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative to combat poverty and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.  The most striking display at the museum were rows of jars filled with earth from the lynching sites of the over 4000 African American victims from 1880 all the way up to 1950.  These sites had been identified over the years, and teams gathered earth from them hoping to collect the DNA of victims. These jars of earth were meant to be a way for the descendants to pay tribute to the victims and to remember these acts of utter dehumanization.  From the museum we rode a short distance to the outdoor memorial to those lynched.  We walked up and down the aisles of this far-reaching but simple memorial of upright lynching blocks labeled by the counties where the lynchings occurred.  In fact, there were duplicates of each block lying flat waiting for these counties all over the south, and even some northern states, to retrieve them and erect them as local memorials.  Sadly, not many counties had followed through.  

As we walked, my spouse hummed the Jewish Memorial Prayer, El Malei Rachamim – God, full of compassion, and my mind began to percolate about the topic of my senior rabbinical thesis yet to be written.  Just to be clear, I was ordained only in May of 2021, reputed to be the oldest female ordinee in the history of the Reform, that is, the most progressive movement in Judaism (What was I thinking?).  That story is for another day, entirely.  As it turns out, I wrote about the Jewish Concept of Rakhamim, translated and understood as “mercy,” in the Bible and the role of divine compassion in restorative justice practices.  

From a Jewish perspective, understanding the centrality of divine justice tempered with mercy and its actualization in dysfunctional biblical family narratives, such as Cain and Abel, Jacob and his father, Isaac, and Joseph and his siblings, offer the potential and possibility of integrating lasting and sincere compassion in both offenders and victims.   If humankind is confused about what it means to exercise mercy, the first-century Jewish sage Hillel the Elder reminds us what to do, both before committing a violation and the obligatory response to another’s sin: “Do not do to another what you would not wish for yourself.”  Striving to restore equity and harmony in all human relationships, as reflected in God’s intended relationship with each human, is the only direction incumbent upon all who are complicit in the broken world in which we find ourselves at this moment in history.   Restorative, rather than punitive justice is both the means and the end:  it heals and rehabilitates, and enables us to love all creation and create again with love.  We may mourn what hurt has been perpetrated before today between individuals, families, groups comprising different color skins, different sexual or gender identities, different social and economic means, different ideologies, religious and political beliefs, but we cannot change the past.  From this very moment, we can pray with our voices, our hands, and our feet that each and every human being is worthy of compassion and dignity, even those who we perceive to be unredeemable and unnamable.

On one hand, as clergy, can we justify continually talking about injustice and the fragmentation of civil society when we are meant to provide sacred faith-based spaces for spirituality and harmony.  On the other hand, the biblical prophet Micah teaches

He has told you, O man, what is good,
And what the the Eternal requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God.”

Who wouldn’t agree that justice is worth doing, that kindness is worth loving, and that humility is a path worth walking? They’re so central to what it means to be human – let alone Jewish.  This is a foundational triad for every human being, irrespective of their history, identity or circumstances.  Justice is not justice if it is not accomplished through kindness, hence the remarkable success of nonviolent movements over the years. Kindness is not truly kind if you humbly brag about it later. And if choosing humility, that is, remaining silent, it inevitably causes injustice to surface again and again. 

At the expense of repetition, we are living through a moment in which millions of Americans believe that the most just thing they can do is to dehumanize those who might look different or hold differing beliefs than they do. And millions of others respond to the questionable actions of others by canceling them in and from the public square, sacrificing opportunities to judge them with kindness, or holding off on judgment entirely and choosing curiosity instead.

Allow me to close this morning with a reference to this week’s scriptural reading in the Jewish tradition.  It’s about curiosity replacing ignorance and exclusion.  In the first chapter of the Book of Numbers, God tells Moses to take a census of the people, by instructing them (actually each male twenty years and above, with the intention of counting all who can bear arms for the Israelites) to each “lift up their head.”   Moses is not to point a finger at each person he counts, but rather he is to look at them eye to eye, face to face.  It is an invitation to ask each person their name, their ancestral clan, and their ancestral tribe, and perhaps a few more relevant questions that might reveal what the two have in common, irrespective of their class differences and the Israelite hierarchy.  

We may or may not agree on the meaning of life. We may or may not agree on what we eat, wear, or do in our spare time.  We may or may not agree on priorities for ourselves and for the greater good.  That said, when it comes down to it, you and I are made of flesh and blood, personhood and soul.  With apologies to the indigenous inhabitants on the land on which we stand, we now live on it together, all of us.  Going forward, let us try with courage, to reach out to our neighbors without imposing our own coined identities or past offenses, just like what unexpectedly happened to me at Attica State Prison, and may we learn anew our neighbor’s name and story directly from our neighbor’s voice, and sincerely hope that we will learn what we have in common, in order to seed a future of respect and acceptance.  May this be Divine intention and Divine will that flows into all of us.  

Amen, and thank you for listening!