Sermon for Kol Nidre Night 5777

October 11, 2016

One morning last spring, Tuesday, June 7th to be exact, I was going for a run on the Lakewalk, heading from 36th Ave. East towards Canal Park.  It was a beautiful day, I felt great and – to be honest with you --- I was feeling somewhat self-congratulatory about how well the run was going. 

But then, after I turned around and started the run back towards home I found myself running against the wind, and, of course, the run became more difficult. 

Nothing unusual about all that. 

And yet, it seemed different to me that morning.  For suddenly, it struck me that,

during the whole first half of the run, I hadn’t noticed that the wind was at my back.  I hadn’t noticed that the wind at my back had been helping me along and making things easier for me.

I’m not sure what was so special about that particular moment, but it felt like an epiphany.  The next day I wrote in my journal:

“[…] I had been crediting myself for a great job but not realizing that I literally was being benefited by a ‘push’ that I had not necessarily merited from my own work.”

And I concluded that June 2016 journal entry with the advice to myself: “Okay.  drash that!”

And so, hineni, here I am, on Kol Nidre night doing so in this sermon.

So, my meaningful though admittedly oh so bourgeois experience out there on the Lakewalk reminded me that there are many aspects of my life concerning which, so to speak, I get to run “with the wind at my back” without realizing it. 

So many aspects of my life concerning which I don’t start out from scratch, but instead, start out with an advantage, with assistance, with resources, with privilege – which I may acknowledge intellectually but not really internalize in my gut. 

While others in society, those who do not have the same advantage, assistance, resources and privilege are, as it were, running against the wind --- no matter which direction they travel. 

Some of my privilege comes from being male in a society in which sexism exists. 

Some of my privilege comes from being cisgender – which means that I feel that my biological gender comports with my subjective gender identity --- in a world in which transphobia exists.

Some of my privilege comes from being middle class in a society in which classism exists. 

Some of my privilege comes from being able-bodied in a society in which many obstacles face those who use wheelchairs or are otherwise physically handicapped.

But a whole big chunk of my privilege that I often take for granted and don’t consciously notice comes from being white in a society in which racism exists.

Yup, I’ve experienced prejudice for being gay.  Yup, I’ve experienced prejudice for being Jewish.  But, oh, the advantages I have enjoyed for being white – advantages that I can easily fail to acknowledge –  just as I failed to acknowledge that I had been running with the wind at my back. 

In an influential 1989 paper[1], Peggy McIntosh, a professor at Wellesley College, made a list of twenty-six ways, drawn from her own life experience, in which she felt that she benefited from white privilege.  While I’ve used the metaphor of running with the wind at my back, Dr. McIntosh used the metaphor of having a backpack stuffed with goodies available only to white people like her who possessed those metaphorical backpacks.  Here are of few of the privileges she included in that backpack of white privilege:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
  • I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  • If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
  • I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more less match my skin.

In an op-ed piece earlier this year[2], Washington Post columnist Christine Emba writes: “The thing about white privilege is that it tends to be unintentional, unconscious, uncomfortable to recognize but easy to take for granted. But it’s that very invisibility that makes it that much more important to understand: Without confronting what exists, there’s no chance of leveling the field.”

Yom Kippur is a time of year when those of us who are Jewish are particularly focused on ways in which we can seek forgiveness for the ways in which we have failed to live up to our highest values.  And it’s a time when we can pray for the ability to do better in the year to come.  To be sure, as imperfect people, we will invariably fail to achieve total success in these resolutions.  The text of Kol Nidre --- in which we admit in advance that we can only fulfill our resolutions incompletely at best -- is stark acknowledgment of this.

And yet we must try.

This year those of us who are not persons of color, have been challenged to recognize our white privilege.  And all of us --- including those of us who identify ourselves as people of color --- have been challenged to acknowledge our implicit racial biases. 

Our society has faced these issues throughout its history.  However, these issues have become especially prominent of late in the wake of an epidemic of deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers.

In a particularly stark fashion, columnist Ed Raymond in this week’s Duluth Weekly Reader writes: “We used to have a reign of terror by lynching --- Now

we have a reign of terror by shooting.”[3] 

And the racial implications of these killings has further brought to mind the many ways in which racism permeates our society. 

Earlier this year, an umbrella group of civil rights organizations disseminated a massive document presenting what it calls “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, & Justice.”[4]

The policy demands in this Movement for Black Lives Platform are grouped into six categories: 

·        “End the War on Black People”

·        “Reparations”

·        “Divest-Invest”

·        “Economic Justice”

·        “Community Control”, and

·        “Political Power”

Within those six categories there are dozens of specific demands, backed up by policy briefs, strategic plans, and links to model legislation and to organizations working on those issues. It’s breathtaking in its depth and in its passion.

However, one particular section of one of the six categories has caused controversy in the Jewish community.  It’s in the category entitled “Divest-Invest.” There we find language labeling the State of Israel an apartheid State and accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinian people. 

The accusations sting.  They may be inaccurate and tendentious, but we still can’t honestly say in response that the State of Israel is free of discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens who comprise over 20% of the population within the Green Line. 

Nor can we honestly say in response that the State of Israel has done its utmost to pursue wholeheartedly the creation of a Palestinian State in areas that have been under its administrative control since 1967.

It’s tragic that the Movement for Black Lives coalition went out of its way to alienate Jews who might otherwise support many elements of its platform.

However, we should still put this into some context.  We may disagree with the arguably anti-Semitic tone of its characterization of Israel.  However, that defamatory language is part of a category of the document --- “Divest-Invest” – which is not primarily focused on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  Rather, here’s how the category of “Divest-Invest” is summarized in the platform:

“We demand investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people. We want investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities, and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations.”[5]

In August, I joined in as a signatory of a Minnesota rabbinic response to the controversy over the characterization of Israel in the Movement for Black Lives platform.  The statement is entitled“Minnesota Rabbinic Statement On Working For Racial Justice and Speaking Truthfully About Israel.”

It opens with a quotation from Pirke Avot: "Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata bein horin libatel mimena”  -- "One is not obligated to finish a task, but one is not free to disengage from it" (Pirke Avot 2:21)

And here’s the text of the rabbinic statement:

“We write this reflection with sorrow. Our commitment to Israel and to truth is being tested in the public square against our commitment to racial justice. Calling Israel genocidal and an apartheid state is offensive and grossly inaccurate. It also indicates a failure of dialogue about Israel in progressive circles. This reflection is meant to help our community talk about how to continue the work for racial justice in the United States, stand clearly against falsehoods about Israel, and commit ourselves to opening doors to partnership when possible.

“As rabbis we are often asked to offer moral clarity.  We stand on the side of racial justice and racial equality.  That fight has been something that the American rabbinate and the organized Jewish community have been engaged in for the better part of a century.   National and local Jewish organizations and countless numbers of individual Jews continue to engage in myriad ways to address the systemic causes of racism. Indeed the American Jewish community has a long and treasured history of standing shoulder to shoulder with the African-American community [Note: These are not mutually exclusive categories - DS] in countless numbers of actions designed to address the root causes of inequality in our society. It is a moral issue that we as rabbis today continue with renewed responsibility. Torah and the voice of generations of rabbis teachthat human dignity is non-negotiable and that the indignity suffered by any one person or group pains our entire community and nation.

“At the same time and with no apology, we reject any statement that suggests that the Jewish people in our national homeland are engaged in genocidal acts against anyone.  That lie must be denounced in the strongest language possible.  There are many Israeli governmental decisions with which each of us take issue. And indeed we have been vocal in our communities about them.  We have all worked for and promoted a two-state solution where the legitimate aspirations of both Palestinians and Israelis are realized. Labeling Israel as a genocidal state, when the facts counter this completely and the effect is to render truth meaningless, is shocking. Endorsing calls to end foreign aid and to engage in economic boycott and divestment hurts Palestinians even more than Israelis and makes the dream of a two state solution even more complicated. 

“For us as rabbis, we look to the coming New Year with profound concern and with hope.  We are concerned that Jews will forget that the battle for inclusion in our society is one to which we must remain committed.   Our own fight to address anti-semitism in our society and to find allies with whom we could work to eliminate it, mandates that we now must also work even stronger to fight to eliminate racial bias in society writ-large as well. Hate is hate and it must stop now. And we stand firm and united in opposing those voices who seek to denigrate either or both the Jewish people and the Jewish State.  These causes are not mutually exclusive and we will continue our work and our commitment to both.  We pray that the coming year is a year of peace and reconciliation.” 

The list of signatories includes:

Rabbi Morris Allen

Rabbi Norman Cohen

Rabbi Alexander Davis

Rabbi Jeremy Fine

Rabbi Avram Ettedgui

Rabbi Sim Glaser

Rabbi Tamar Grimm

Rabbi Hayim Herring  

Rabbi Harold Kravitz

Rabbi Lynn Liberman  

Rabbi David Locketz

Rabbi Cathy Nemiroff

Rabbi AviOlitzsky

Rabbi Debra Rappaport

Rabbi Adam Spilker

Rabbi David Steinberg

Rabbi Sharon Stiefel

Rabbi Aaron Weininger  

Rabbi Marcy Zimmerman


The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur versions of the Amidah include a number of liturgical additions and alterations as compared to the versions of the Amidah used during the rest of the year.

One of those High Holiday Amidah passages that always sticks in my mind is this one:

וְּבְכֵן צַדִּיקִים יִרְאוּ וְיִשְׂמָֽחוּ, וִישָׁרִים יַעֲלֹֽזוּ, וַחֲסִידִים בְּרִנָּה יָגִֽילוּ. וְעוֹלָֽתָה תִּקְפָּץ־פִּֽיהָ, וְכָל הָרִשְׁעָה כֻּלָּהּ כְּעָשָׁן תִּכְלֶה -- כִּי תַעֲבִיר מֶמְשֶֽׁלֶת זָדוֹן מִן הָאָֽרֶץ.

“Then will the righteous see and be glad, the upright rejoice, and the pious celebrate in song. For the mouth of injustice shall be shut, and all evil will vanish like smoke --- when you remove the dominion of arrogance from the earth.”

It would be arrogant indeed to deny that there is not a great deal of work to be done to heal ourselves, to heal our country and to heal our world from the scourge of racism. 

But we thank God for the drive that God has implanted within us to continue the struggle against it.

Gmar chatimah tovah.  May the soulful confessions and prayers of this Day of Atonement lead us to be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

And may the wind be at everyone’s backs.

(c) Rabbi David Steinberg  (October 2016/ Yom Kippur 5777)

[1] "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack"






Posted on October 18, 2016 .