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.