Reflections from the Last Century on Racism and Jewish Responsibility

As the lawless killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer has seized America’s attention, it is worth turning to a sermon given in 1966 by Rabbi Norman Lamm, who died on May 31 and was one of the outstanding American Orthodox thinkers of our time. When Lamm delivered this homily, barely over a year has elapsed since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and less than two years would go by before Martin Luther King’s assassination. He began by contrasting Abraham’s famous reply to God’s call—“Here I am!”—with Adam’s attempt to hide himself from God in the Garden of Eden, before moving on to questions of conscience and responsibility, and then to topical issues:

We Jews, as Jews, are not responsible for the conditions of Negroes in the United States. Our grandfathers were not slaveholders who devised this cruel and inhuman system. When the Negroes were being emancipated in the 1860s, we too were being emancipated in the ghettos of Europe. . . . Nevertheless, we have participated in a growing economy which has to a large extent thrived on the exploitation of minorities, and we have shared deeply held prejudices about them. . . . The question is, what shall we do about it?

Not to feel any guilt, any troubling of the conscience, is a sign of our own moral failure. . . . Yet, to go overboard and to dedicate our whole life to civil rights, to make of it an ersatz religion to replace Judaism, to concentrate only on the rights of others while ignoring the preservation of our own community here and overseas—is to lose perspective and to reveal an inner moral weakness while we try to strengthen ourselves morally in some other direction. But in between these two extremes there are two ways, one which is right and one which is wrong.

The pattern of Adam is to hide and to shift the blame—to Black Power bigots, to the hoodlums who riot in Watts, to Negro anti-Semitism. We conveniently ignore the fact that in whole sections of our country there are whites who hold power and yet we have tolerated it; that hoodlums come in all colors; and that while Negro anti-Semitism is terribly troubling, we have had some degree of experience with white anti-Semitism—six million killed in our own times alone. And thus, like Adam, we suppress our bad conscience and we become part of that insidious “backlash” movement.

But the pattern of Abraham is not that at all. The people of Israel do not participate in backlash or frontlash or sidelash. The descendants of Abraham do not lash at all! Rather, they attempt to respond constructively and creatively and sympathetically. Within this framework of putting the bad conscience to good use there may be several techniques about which well-intentioned people may disagree. But they will not allow side issues to becloud their main goal of finding a clear and moral way out of our country’s painful racial dilemma. Whether in our response to Torah, to ts’dakah [acts of charity], or to great national issues like civil rights and peace, we must learn to make constructive use of a troubled conscience.

The complete typescript of the sermon can be found at the link below; another, related sermon by Rabbi Lamm can be found here; and an overarching analysis of Lamm’s attitudes toward racism here.

Read more at Yeshiva University Archives

More about: Abraham, Adam and Eve, Civil rights movement, Judaism, Racism, U.S. Politics


The IDF’s First Investigation of Its Conduct on October 7 Is Out

For several months, the Israel Defense Forces has been investigating its own actions on and preparedness for October 7, with an eye to understanding its failures. The first of what are expected to be many reports stemming from this investigation was released yesterday, and it showed a series of colossal strategic and tactical errors surrounding the battle at Kibbutz Be’eri, writes Emanuel Fabian. The probe, he reports, was led by Maj. Gen. (res.) Mickey Edelstein.

Edelstein and his team—none of whom had any involvement in the events themselves, according to the IDF—spent hundreds of hours investigating the onslaught and battle at Be’eri, reviewing every possible source of information, from residents’ WhatsApp messages to both Israeli and Hamas radio communications, as well as surveillance videos, aerial footage, interviews of survivors and those who fought, plus visits to the scene.

There will be a series of further reports issued this summer.

IDF chief Halevi in a statement issued alongside the probe said that while this was just the first investigation into the onslaught, which does not reflect the entire picture of October 7, it “clearly illustrates the magnitude of the failure and the dimensions of the disaster that befell the residents of the south who protected their families with their bodies for many hours, and the IDF was not there to protect them.” . . .

The IDF hopes to present all battle investigations by the end of August.

The IDF’s probes are strictly limited to its own conduct. For a broader look at what went wrong, Israel will have to wait for a formal state commission of inquiry to be appointed—which happens to be the subject of this month’s featured essay in Mosaic.

Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Gaza War 2023, IDF, Israel & Zionism, October 7