Read Reflections on Charlottesville from Distinguished YU Faculty
Among the signal Jewish contributions to the store of human wisdom, the best known are likely the Ten Commandments, and the concept of monotheism. But as I think about the appalling display of racism and anti-Semitism in Charlottesville this past weekend, I am reminded of a comment by the great Talmudic sage Ben Azzai. According to several ancient rabbinic sources, Ben Azzai proclaimed that the most fundamental idea in all of Jewish thought is to be found in the Biblical verse, “in the divine image did God create humankind” (Genesis 5:1). For this verse introduced to human civilization the radical notion that each and every human being shares a common sacredness.
In a seminal article published in 1966, the legendary scholar of Biblical literature, Moshe Greenberg, explained that this notion—which underlies so much of Jewish law and philosophy, from criminal and civil law, to Biblical narrative—completely upended the values of the other major, ancient Near Eastern societies. For these societies—from the Babylonians to the Assyrians, and beyond—humans could be treated as merely instrumental for the accumulation of power, wealth or honor. But in the Biblical tradition, in which every single human being partakes equally of God’s own likeness, such instrumentality is inconceivable and untenable. In Greenberg’s words, “Of all the treasures of Judaism, there is scarcely one that deserves more publicity in our time than this emphasis on the value of the single human life. What began in the Bible as a revolutionary break with the instrumental view of man, has here developed into an awareness of the infinite worth of individuality.”
Lest one think that the devaluation of human life died out with the ancient civilizations of the Bronze and Iron Ages, the shocking bigotry we witnessed in Charlottesville should disabuse one of that notion. The idea of the “divine image”—that most radical of Biblical propositions—is certainly as necessary as ever.
Certainly all people of conscience unambiguously condemn the racism and hatred on display in Charlottesville. I further hope that you, members of the YU community—from our high schools, to our undergraduate and graduate populations, to our alumni and friends across the world—will use this weekend as an opportunity to think deeply about the terrible events of last week, and consider how to respond moving forward. In support of that end, I am pleased to present below several short essays written by thoughtful scholars from across our institution. They will help shed light on Charlottesville from their unique disciplinary and personal perspectives.
As YU moves into a new era in its history, I am confident that the engaged thinkers within our institution will stand at the center of moral discourse both in this country and throughout the world.
A Halakhic Perspective: The Dangers of Racism in Jewish Law and Thought
Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman, Rosh Yeshiva at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and instructor at Sy Syms School of Business and Wurzweiler School of Social Work
The suffering that racism and its offshoots have inflicted upon humanity throughout the course of history is both wide ranging in its impact and egregiously pernicious in its multifaceted assault on dignity, justice and life itself. As such, rejection of racism is a visceral, intuitive matter and is essential to decency. No explanation is necessary.
Nonetheless, there is great benefit to be had from examining the basis for this rejection. Such attention is vital to combat effectively the most damaging elements at racism’s foundation, while providing an intellectual context for the varying nuances that cloud the landscape of contemporary discourse.
Moreover, “racism” is a composite term, applied in multiple contexts and in varying ways, encompassing many actions and attitudes. Clarifying what these components are, and how they work, is essential if we are to dismantle them.
In the course of such a discussion, the corpus of Jewish law and philosophy provides valuable tools and crucial insight useful, not only to those who regard this corpus as authoritative, but to any and all who care about improving our society. Important for this discussion are several principles of Jewish thought and practice, which I discuss in extensive detail in this lecture. In this space, however, allow me to mention two of them.
The first is the prohibition of lashon ha-ra (derogatory speech). The extensive legal, philosophical and moralistic literature surrounding the prohibition of lashon ha-ra—a transgression marked by extraordinary condemnation in Jewish tradition—provides a framework for a value system of speech that transcends the technicalities of its many details. As such, it furnishes insight into one element of racism, namely, the act of engaging in disparaging speech about entire groups of people.
A common misconception is that speaking disparagingly of a specific individual is somehow more damaging than spreading that disparagement across an entire group of people.
However, the halakhic literature (the literature comprising Jewish law) represented most prominently by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan in his broadly authoritative Hafetz Hayyim (Laws of Lashon ha-Ra 10:12) published in 1873, vigorously opposes this premise, stressing that speaking against a group is the greater offense.
This additional severity appears to be not only a factor of multiplication but also emerges from the likelihood that completely innocent individuals would be smeared by a blanket criticism against their relevant group, with the speaker claiming the veneer of justification that the statements are not targeted at such innocents.
Other contemporary commentators to the Hafetz Hayyim add further elucidation to his basic ruling. In his Rigshei Hayyim, for example, Rabbi Yehonatan Rozler notes that even when listeners are made to understand that the statement is not directed at everyone in the group, it nonetheless unacceptably lowers the status of each member. After all, each and every member of the targeted group will come under suspicion as being one of the “bad ones.”
The second issue relevant to the dangers of racism relate to the Torah prohibition of ona’at devarim (verbal oppression), which forbids unjustified and unnecessary infliction of emotional suffering through speech, in a broad range of contexts and formats. Ona’at devarim shifts us conceptually from the harm involved in speaking about people to that involved in speaking to people
The Mishnah—our earliest rabbinic source for Jewish law—lists a number of seemingly disparate examples of this transgression. In a 1972 article published in the Torah journal Hadarom, Rabbi J. David Bleich noted a common denominator: they all involve cases in which the speaker displays disregard for the value of the other individual. As the speaker conveys his feelings of superiority over his subject, or, more pointedly, his premise of the listener’s inferiority, he commits an explicit offense magnified by its implicit subtext.
One extension of this prohibition is especially pertinent to a discussion of modern racism. The use of a demeaning nickname, or epithet, to describe another person carries an additional prohibition, one the Talmud takes pains to note is distinct from any humiliation it invokes.
After all, beyond merely causing embarrassment, a further level of emotional violation is present here. A person’s name represents his connection to his sense of identity, to his awareness of his own existence as an independent individual. To be deprived of this name is to become disenfranchised from the reality of being a unique creation, to stand bereft of any evidence of individuality.
Fortunately, our society has matured to the extent that sensitivity to individual human dignity has more than ever become a vital component of any definition of decent and worthy character. The twin Biblical mandates that the Jewish people serve as a mamlekhet kohanim ve-goy kadosh (“a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” Exodus 19:6), as well as an am hakham ve-navon (“a wise and understanding nation,” Deuteronomy 4:6), require us to ensure that the contribution of Jewish law and philosophy to this welcome development in human history is evident, appreciated and actualized. Accordingly, it is in this area that the Jewish obligation to sanctify G-d’s Name and His Torah—and conversely, not to degrade it through malice or indifference—rings loudest.
A Legal Scholar’s Perspective: Facing Our Past
Michelle Adams, professor of law and co-director of the Floersheimer Center for Constitutional Democracy, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—William Faulkner
In 2010, when my mother was still alive, I organized a conference entitled, “Acknowledging Race in a ‘Post-Racial’ Era.” The conference brought legal scholars, advocates, historians and others from across the country to the law school to talk about the legal ramifications of the Obama election.
It was a moment of optimism. For the first time in American history, a black man had been elected president of the United States. I was of course very happy about Obama’s election. But for my mother the feeling was something else besides. She was positively jubilant. She and her childhood friend attended Obama’s first inauguration dressed in their Sunday best. And who could have blamed her? Born in 1935, just past the height of the second Klan’s popularity and political influence, she could never have imagined that the highest office in the land would be occupied by a black man.
Many Americans recognized that Obama’s election was a step forward for our country. And it was. But we were wise to put the phrase “post-racial” in quotation marks in the conference title. Obama’s election marked a moment of progress, but it did not obliterate the past. It was one step along the way.
Recent events now put the Obama years in perspective. Just over six months into the Trump presidency, we see the outlines of a familiar pattern. Our national history, and by that I mean our shared racial history, has been one of advance and then retrenchment. The best examples are the Civil War and Reconstruction. My students are usually surprised to learn that in 1868—just after the end of the Civil War—the South Carolina legislature was majority black.
But the era of Reconstruction was short. It ended after the disputed presidential election of 1876 and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. The reality is that the South lost the Civil War, but it won the peace. But that’s not the story we are usually taught.
By 1935, the year of my mother’s birth, there was not a single black representative in South Carolina’s upper or lower house. This helps to explain why my mother was so excited when Obama was elected president in 2008. In her lifetime, she saw the worst of Jim Crow. But she had also lived to see the best of what this country could be.
Recent events, Charlottesville and the President’s reaction to it, are truly horrifying. The president of the United States defends Nazis and Klansmen. He legitimates them. They are “very fine people.” History and the past are flashpoints: “Is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” Perhaps it stops when the official public record is corrected, and we are finally able to face up to all of our past.
Many of us have never experienced anything like this before. But these events would not have been totally alien to my mother. They would have saddened her, but they would have not been entirely unfamiliar. Just 20 years before she was born, President Woodrow Wilson screened D.W. Griffith’s virulently racist “Birth of a Nation” at the White House. (The novel upon which “Birth of Nation” was based was written by Thomas Dixon, Wilson’s good friend.)
The film was a brief for white supremacy. Whites fought against each other in the Civil War, but the film suggested that it was time for the superior race to close ranks in the face of calls for black equality. And that is exactly what happened. The majority of Confederate monuments were erected not after the Civil War but during the “Birth of a Nation” period of racial retrenchment and Klan power. They spoke not to the past but to the present.
The question now is whether we are entering a prolonged period of racial retrenchment much as we did after 1877, or whether this is just a “speed bump” on the road to a more multiracial and egalitarian society.
Much of the answer will depend upon whether we are able to hold two conflicting ideas in our minds simultaneously: that our country is equally capable of electing both Barack Obama and Donald Trump to the highest office in the land.
These two men don’t just represent two different policy choices, Democratic versus Republican. They also embody two very different visions of what America was and can be. Now we must decide whether we will move forward or take several steps back. After Reconstruction, we made the wrong choice. I pray we are wiser this time around.
A Psychological Perspective: Preserving Civil Society after Charlottesville
Dr. Carl Auerbach, professor of psychology, Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology
The recent events in Charlottesville and President Trump’s equivocal response to them are deeply disturbing to the majority of American citizens. They are particularly troubling for those of us with mass trauma in our family histories and who are, as my research student Leah Rubin puts it, “waiting for the sound of marching boots.”
My perspective on this is based on the graduate-level clinical course I teach on “Multicultural Issues and Diversity.” The course trains students to work with populations coming from backgrounds very different from their own, populations that display all the diversity in ethnicity, country of origin, religion, social class, sexual orientation and so forth that make up the citizens of the United States.
The course goes beyond issues of individual mental health to consider broader issues of social justice and the good society, in particular what social conditions facilitate positive mental health and what social conditions work against it.
A central concept in the curriculum is that of “civil society,” by which is meant a society that is both just and good, and how a just and good civil society is a necessary condition for individual mental health.
A key point, put in somewhat ponderous academic language, is that there is a mutual reciprocal relationship between individual moral flourishing and a well-functioning civil society. People need a good and just society to develop as individuals.
Moreover, a good and just society requires flourishing moral individuals in order to maintain itself. An example, put in less academic prose, is that a good and just society can only function if people are honest and obey the law, whether or not the law benefits them in the short run. Equally, in the other direction, people will obey the law only if society functions well enough that the law is enforced fairly and equitably.
Psychologically, civil society depends critically on basic social trust. If civil society is to continue to exist, people must trust both each other and society. A great deal of psychological research has shown that individual mental health depends upon this basic social trust.
One of my research students, Leon Gellert (now Dr. Gellert) and I, investigated how these issues played out in minority populations.
We interviewed a group of minority men and women about their experience with the mainstream social system. The open-ended interviews focused on the general topics of civil society and whether these minority men and women felt included in the social system.
It is difficult to summarize a complex study and analysis here, but suffice it to say that a great deal of what our interviewees told us was not encouraging.
They talked about not being protected by the laws of our country, making statements such as, “Do people of African descent, or colored folks, have the right to exist? Because that is what society is saying to me: ‘You don’t have the right to exist.’”
They spoke about society not holding itself accountable: “How much worse does it need to get? We keep seeing more and more images of the injustice and things happening… and there are no repercussions.” They expressed a loss of faith in the system: “I really hoped…that things were different or changing…that there was more change then there actually is.”
However, the picture that emerged was not totally grim. They also spoke about a hope for dialogue and for an open and honest discussion about their reality: “I’m not saying that you have to agree with me, but at least be willing to engage in a real open dialogue…and not be so stuck in your ways.”
In my view, the results of our research are very relevant to Charlottesville and our present situation.
They demonstrate just how much the present events are a challenge to the sustainability of our civil society. They also challenge us to respond in such a way that our American citizens, particularly those threatened by racism and hate, can maintain the social trust necessary for civil society to continue.
And, if any further motivation to respond is needed, I can do no better than to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from Birmingham Jail: “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
A Jewish Historian’s Perspective: Places of Memory, Good and Bad: Paris, Rome, Jerusalem and Charlottesville
Steven Fine, Churgin Professor of Jewish History and director, Center for Israel Studies
French historian Pierre Nora spent his life describing and explaining “places of memory,” sites commemorating significant moments in the history of a community that continue to resonate and to transform from generation to generation.
For the French Republic, the Bastille is one such “place of memory,” as is the Arc de Triomphe. Begun by Napoleon and completed in 1836, the Arc is a place of French pride and memory, where war dead from the Revolution to the present are recalled and military triumph exalted.
Part of the power of this central “place of memory” resides in the architecture itself. The Arc de Triomphe is a larger version of another triumphal arch, the Arch of Titus. This arch, located on the Sacred Way in the ancient center of Imperial Rome, commemorates the victory of the Roman general Titus in the Jewish War of 66-74 CE.
Built circa 82 CE, its deep reliefs show the general, soon emperor, processing through Rome in a triumphal parade. The spoils of the Jerusalem Temple are borne aloft by Roman soldiers. Napoleon and those who came after him literally lifted this Roman triumphal arch from its foundations and placed it in central Paris, transferring the glory of Rome and the glory of Roman triumph to the French nation.
Commemorating French military prowess, the Arc de Triomphe is quite a complex monument. French victory in World War II, for example, was hardly unequivocal. Hitler did, after all, celebrate his own victory here, and France did not exactly emerge victorious by its own power.
The Arch of Titus, too, is quite a complex place. Titus had not defeated a foreign power but put down a pesky rebellion by a small province. For Christians, the Arch became a place to celebrate Christian triumph over Judaism and the imperial power of the Catholic Church. For Jews, this arch was a symbol for their own defeat, even as some took solace by claiming that its magnificence was proof that Israel had once been a “powerful nation” and formidable foe. In modern times, it became a symbol both of Jewish rootedness in Europe and a place of pilgrimage where Jews, religious and not, could proclaim, “Titus you are gone, but we’re still here, Am Yisrael Chai.” Or as Freud put it, “The Jew survives it!” Where once Mussolini had celebrated the Arch as part of the heritage of Fascism, Jews after the war assembled here to demand a Jewish State. Others imagined exploding the Arch and thus taking final retribution against Titus for his destruction of Jerusalem. Instead, the State of Israel took the Arch back unto itself, its menorah becoming the state symbol.
I tell these stories of Paris, Rome and Jerusalem as parallels to the horrible events in Charlottesville. The sculptural remains of the Civil War, North and South, are still very living “places of memory.” Whether in the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Brooklyn, also modeled on the Arch of Titus, or in the thousands of statues across America, the Civil War is very much with us. Each place and time since then has thought about and reimagined “The War of Southern Secession” in complex and differing ways. The meanings of these “places of memory” are not stable. They shift and transform as essential elements of our social fabric and civil religion from generation to generation. Conflicting visions often inhere in the same sculpture, much as Jews and Classicists often “see” very different messages in the Arch of Titus.
Tearing down a “place of memory” is a serious matter. The act of iconoclasm, of tearing down or transforming a “place of memory” is never neutral. The list of such events is long and includes the Maccabees’ destruction of idols in the second century BCE, the midrashic account of Abraham breaking the idols, late antique Christians and Muslims smashing Roman religion (and burning synagogues), Orthodox Christian iconophobes destroying sacred icons during the eighth century, Protestants ravaging Church art during the Reformation, Kristallnacht, the Taliban destroying giant sculptures of the Buddha, or Eastern Europeans tearing down sculptures of Lenin and Stalin after the fall of Communism. (The list goes on.)
Such transformations of our visual cultures mark major transitions and often culture wars. They are attempts to change our memory by obliterating or shifting what we see and expect on our social landscapes, to change how we relate to our places of memory.
The ceremonial—the liminal—moment of removing a “place of memory” is always laden and significant. It is a “shorthand,” a summary statement and dramatic enactment of the ways that those present understand the place and encode its memory.
The march of the neo-Nazis, the texts they recited, the torches and flags they carried, and the violence they instigated are essential to understanding who these people are and what values they see in the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville.
Reading this event, one can tease out their entire worldview—and it is horrifying. Similar tools help us to understand the counter demonstrators, civic leaders and others involved, including President Trump. This “place of memory” is now a place of bloodshed. This transformation deepens the memory and transforms a site where the soon-to-be-removed statue of Lee will no longer be present, but its shadow will be felt for decades, perhaps centuries, to come.
A Legal Scholar’s Perspective: Reflections on Charlottesville
Julie Suk, professor of law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law
Our ardent commitment to free speech in the United States sometimes motivates our government to embrace neutrality between all viewpoints, even in the face of racial hatred and anti-Semitism. Universities also try to advance knowledge by understanding all sides of truth.
But this past week, the freedom of white supremacists to march has enabled a violent act of murder. Some of our leaders, including President Trump, have lifted up the torch of neutrality in declining to express moral outrage or condemnation. But now, more than ever, moral leadership is required.
In our love of free speech, we often say that we should fight racist speech with more anti-racist speech, not with censorship. But one woman who confronted white supremacists with an anti-racist voice was murdered. What can we now say about how best to counter racist speech?
Counter-speech now requires far more courage, and potential sacrifice, than we had imagined. Yet we cannot advocate more violence. After Charlottesville, the torch of neutrality must be extinguished. Our leaders must speak in morally certain terms against white supremacy as an inherently degrading and violent ideology.
Universities have a special responsibility to prevent racial violence through an education in human values. We need to understand the social, economic and historical forces that have led our fellow citizens to march through Charlottesville chanting messages of racial hate.
For many, the American Dream has given way to economic despair and cynicism. This experience has left many Americans morally disoriented as well as demoralized, motivating resentful attacks on immigrants and the values we thought we shared.
We need to understand human suffering in all its complex manifestations, but we cannot accept the violence it unleashes. As producers of knowledge and seekers of truth, we the universities need to articulate a strong moral vision of a nation where every human being can belong but hatred cannot.
A Social Work Educator’s Perspective: Living True North
Dr. Danielle Wozniak, MSW, PhD, Dorothy and David Schachne Dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work
Shortly after the November election, The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote about the tensions many college presidents felt in the week since the presidential election. Many of them reached out to their students while not sending an overtly political message. On my deans and directors listserv, many administrators, especially those from state-supported institutions, walked this fine line. Many worried that any email that hinted at a political statement would be considered, at worst, illegal and, at best, inappropriate. Yet they wanted to reach out to their students to send a message of hope or at least comfort. Others talked about how their otherwise peaceful towns and campuses had been converted, during the election, to contentious, hostile places where minority students no longer felt safe. Hard stop. No longer felt physically safe. The writer of one post conceded, “They do not believe our institution will protect them. They are right….” Other educators reported acts of violence and violation on their campuses. The Chronicle of Higher Education detailed these acts. The list is long and grows longer. And these are the incidents that were serious enough to be reported. Consider the daily acts of intentional humiliation and denigration that minority students endure that never make the press.
I recall the events surrounding the election because the shocking neo-Nazi, white supremacist rally in Charlottesville brought to the surface the roiling hatred validated and emboldened through the presidential campaign. But it did not start there. The events in Charlottesville are the dénouement of a story that has been written for years. I wish I could say that I have never heard or seen such bold acts of violence before, but as a child of the Civil Rights era, I have. And as the daughter of parents who watched Fascism explode through Europe, I have. There were people in each generation who worked tirelessly to fight those glaring evils. Clearly, we are called, once again, to continue that effort.
Advocating for basic values of democracy, speaking out against acts of violation and marginalization, is not about being a Democrat or a Republican. It is about being human. It is about following a moral and ethical imperative that allows us to retain our humanity. For me, it is about fighting indecency—the indecency of intentional violation. It is about having a moral compass and knowing north. I am reminded of Lillian Hellman’s words when she was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” There is never a time when spray-painting a swastika on a dorm room door is right. There is never a time when confronting Muslim women and demanding they remove their hijabs is right. There is never a time when shouting homophobic epithets is right. There is never a time when shouting Nazi slogans is right.
What is at stake as the list grows is that these acts can infect policy, and deliberate cruelty can become routinized, if not legalized. These are acts of intentional cruelty; they are displays of dominance based on beliefs of superiority; they are manifestations of xenophobic aggression emboldened by shameful political rhetoric that intentionally creates and scapegoats the Other as the cause of misery. Nothing makes these acts right. Shortly after the election, I wrote to students asking them to remember who they are. This memory not only impacts what we do as advocates for social justice but impacts who we become as a nation. It is not about us and them. It is about us: about who we are and who we will become. Our mandate as professional social workers is to act, to speak out and to be incisive in our vision of policy. How we articulate this mandate shapes us as individuals, as practitioners, as citizens as much as it shapes the landscape and future of our nation. We speak out against these acts because not to do so changes us.
In the words of Elie Wiesel, “One day a Tzadik came to Sodom…. He preached to the people. ‘Please do not be murderers, do not be thieves. Do not be silent and do not be indifferent.’ He went on preaching day after day….But no one listened. He was not discouraged. Finally someone asked him, ‘Rabbi, why do you do that? Don’t you see it is no use?’ He said, ‘I know it is of no use, but I must…. In the beginning I thought I had to protest in order to change them…..Now I know I must picket and scream and shout so that they should not change me.’” [Source: Quoted in Wiesel, Elie. One Generation After. Words from a Witness, NY: Schocken Books, 1982: 52.]
As we renew our efforts to speak out against evil, to work against those forces that divide, degrade and harm us, may we maintain and renew our commitment to fight injustice guided by our moral compass and our deep commitment to social justice. May we not be changed in our resolve or our knowledge of what is right.
A link to a PDF of these essays can be found here.