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Judaism means putting obligation toward others before yourself

Shadows of people at a march.

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“Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)

Los Angeles and other cities across the United States are experiencing riots and social unrest the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. Our nation is deeply divided politically, racially, and economically. The situation is exacerbated by a global pandemic with profound consequences to our collective health and economic well-being.

And on a more individual level, our hearts are broken as we mourn the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor.

In the face of these challenges and tragedies, our Jewish tradition—as always—provides guidance and perspective. The great 20th century philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, famously described Judaism as a “religion for adults,” one that focuses primarily on our obligations towards others as opposed to our own self-interests. It’s a tradition that encourages a nuanced, mature analysis of our world: we can and must acknowledge multiple truths at the same time.

Here are some truths that are particularly relevant right now:

Racism continues to be a pernicious evil confronting our nation. This is glaringly apparent in the way people of color are treated throughout the criminal justice system and in the way they are unjustly targeted due to the color of their skin.

The central story of Jewish history begins: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…” We are commanded to remember that story in order to develop empathy and love for others, for our neighbors as well as for strangers who are, ultimately, just like us.

True justice — the type imagined by our tradition — must apply to everyone. The same law, as our Torah puts it, for the citizen and stranger alike. We must hold members of the police force to the highest standards and ensure that anyone suspected of a crime is treated similarly, regardless of skin color, gender, or sexuality. Peaceful protest is a hallmark of a healthy democracy and concerned citizens have the right — the duty even — to make their voices heard in the face of injustice.

There is no place for violence or vandalism and those who commit such acts—whatever inspires them—must be held accountable for their lawlessness.

What is to be done?

Now is a time for embracing our responsibility to care more deeply, more fully, for the other. Many people are suffering and it’s our duty as Jews to respond to their pain. Maimonides taught that the mitzvah to love your neighbor as yourself is to want for your neighbor what you want for yourself — health, food to eat, a roof over our heads, and the ability to go for a jog, take a drive, or stroll in the park unmolested. Now is the time to demand justice for those who have been victimized by systemic racism and bias. Now is the time to redouble our commitment to know and love our neighbor more fully.

Now is a time to listen to one another, to hear each other’s stories so that we can try to feel each other’s pain. Last Thursday night at our congregation in Los Angeles, we celebrated Shavuot online with our sisters and brothers from Greater Zion Church Family in Compton. We talked about our shared Biblical tradition and discussed the killing of George Floyd in the context of the commandment not to murder. We talked with members of Greater Zion about their pain, their sadness, and their anger. We shared the pain that we feel as well. Some parents spoke of the fear that their son or their daughter would become another hashtag, another black or brown person who can’t breathe. This Friday night, their Senior Pastor, Michael Fisher, will join us for Shabbat services and share some of his reflections on this difficult moment.

It’s a time for empathy, for listening. A time for compassion. A time for justice. A time for love. It’s a time for taking responsibility and for seeking to understand life’s many nuances. It’s a time for adult leadership and responsibility as we endeavor together to embody the values and obligations of our Judaism.

Yoshi Zweiback is senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, California. He is the founder of Kavod, a non-profit dedicated to promoting human dignity and continues to compose and record music as part of Mah Tovu.

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