The experience of watching, on video, George Floyd desperately plead for his life — and yet still suffer the cruelest of deaths in the middle of the street in the middle of the day in the middle of America — has collectively galvanized millions of us. We’ve realized that we are obligated to struggle against the tectonic depth and scale of racial oppression and violence; tectonic shifts are, after all, what set off earthquakes and volcanoes, not unlike the protests erupting along the fault lines of American inequality. This week dispelled the comforting narrative that some epochal division (the Civil War? the Civil Rights Movement?) separates the ‘bad old days’ from a redeemed present.
As I stood outside New Haven’s police station on Sunday afternoon, one of hundreds in a diverse crowd, I searched for what we were all doing together, to understand exactly what we had realized over the past week. I didn’t agree with everything that was said through the loudspeaker, and I assume most of my fellow protesters didn’t either. But we agreed on something — we were there, after all.
I kept returning to the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and of our rabbis. In a 2016 interview with Ezra Klein, Coates said:
“We’re on the right side of history, and the arc of the moral universe bends to justice.” That’s just something I don’t share. The sense of destiny that “it will,” I just don’t share it. There’s ample evidence it might not. That’s where I come down.”
I don’t think you have to believe America is chained to its past and is necessarily doomed to reenact it. But when you study civilizations, it tends to be true that history has a weight, a gravity — if you’re going to go in an opposite direction, you need to consciously exercise an opposite force. And I don’t see us doing that. Dogmatic faith in moral progress often begets complacency; Coates suggests that progress requires a conscious and constant engagement in conflict, “an opposite force.” The moral ambitions of the millions of protesting Americans today are nothing short of “consciously exercising an opposite force” to the gravitational pull of centuries of anti-black racism.
Coates recasts not only American history, he helps us find two new resources in the Jewish tradition as well. The first is jarring: within a Jewish framework, slavery and the unfinished struggle toward justice are sins, requiring repentance. Invocation of the category of sin is a dramatic statement, but no other concept will do here.
In rabbinic thought, sin is not defined as succumbing to temptation, and has little to nothing to do with vice. The paradigmatic sin is robbery, defined in the common law as “taking the property of another, with the intent to permanently deprive the person of that property, by means of force or fear; that is, it is a larceny or theft accomplished by an assault. We see this in the choice to feature the Book of Jonah in the late hours of Yom Kippur, with its climactic renunciation of large-scale ill-gotten gain: the people of Nineveh “return what they held in their hands, which they had gotten by violence” (3:8).
Sin, we see, is intrinsically violent; it is the use of power to abuse others. As such, sin is possible for a person in proportion to the amount of power she wields. In this light, slavery and its descendants from Jim Crow to predatory lending are well-described from as sin, whereas non-violent drug possession is not. This Jewish framing of sin-as-violence is entirely foreign to the mainstream American religious-political discourse.
Judaism’s second insight is a parallel definition of repentance. Repentance is not a private act carried out between a sinner and God, nor is it completed when the sinner has mended his ways. Rather, according to Rabbi Isaac Hutner, one of the 20th century’s most intriguing rabbinic thinkers, repentance means a basic rededication of one’s life to discovering and rectifying the cascading ways that a single act of violence has transformed and broken the lives of others, and therefore the world:
“As long as the destructive effects of a sin remain in the world, a penitent is obligated to repair them, so that the evil and brokenness of the sin remain only in the past. Just as abandoning the sin prevents the sin itself henceforth, so too the repairing of what is broken cuts off the branches of the sin that reach into the future.”
The consequences of our actions race ahead of us, into the future: when a car is wrongfully impounded, a parent can no longer commute to her job, a family is evicted, children lose access to school (and with it, lunch), carrying trauma and missed developmental milestones into their adult lives. Repentance is the act of cauterizing the future against the rupture that metastasizes from the sins of the past. It is important to reform the policies by which vehicles are seized, but it is not repentance: repentance is mending the physical and psychological scars left on those whose lives were upended by the old policy. This isn’t always possible; this potentially-tragic aspect makes repentance an example of what philosophers call a ‘regulative ideal,’ one towards which we must strive even though we will never attain it, like complete fairness or perfect rationality.
Past sins are never confined to the past, but are always woven into the very fabric of the present. This is why we must, as Coates put it, consciously exert an opposite force. Repentance means not only admitting that past actions were wrong, but also reckoning with the fact that, because of those actions, the current state of the world is wrong as well.
May we all recognize in this moment’s high pitch of conflict a necessary condition of national repentance, which is to say, a necessary condition of justice.
Rabbi Jason Rubenstein is the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale University Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale and Yale Hillel in New Haven, Conn.