Police officer Derek Chauvin allegedly killed George Floyd, but I am responsible because of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us 60 years ago: “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
Once again history has caught up with us. We cannot escape. Each of us must enter our own hearts and decide which side we are on. There is no longer a middle ground. Our country will not heal until we listen to our black and brown fellow citizens who have been left out of the progress and prosperity we claim as the birthright of our nation.
We must look into our private and collective mirrors and confront what we have done. We have built our success at the expense of other human beings. We have allowed black children to drink contaminated water so our corporations could save money for their shareholders. We have filled our shelves with food beyond our needs while those same children go to bed hungry each night in city after city. We have instructed our police to stop and frisk our African-American fellow citizens just because their skin is dark. We have forced a generation of “successful” people of color to instruct their children to put their hands on the dashboard if stopped for a traffic violation for fear of death by shooting.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was once asked about endangering the lives of “innocent bystanders” when he led a march that he knew would encounter violence, as in Selma. His answer was quite simple and direct: “the term is an oxymoron, for if you are a bystander, you cannot be innocent.”
Rabbi Heschel, King’s friend and ally, understood the insidious nature of evil. “Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous,” he wrote. “A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.”
We have done exactly what Heschel predicted. Our silence, our not-so-well-meaning looking aside, has now allowed a pervasive evil to erupt around us and begin to consume us in its fire, both literally and figuratively. The irony of the timing of this moment cannot be more poignant. Facing a virus engulfing the entire world, we are now confronting a disease far more contagious and deadly: racism. And once again we are unprepared. The masks we have been wearing for many years do not protect us from the truth. As Heschel said, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, “It is time for the white man to strive for self-emancipation, to set himself free of bigotry, to stop being a slave to wholesale contempt, a passive recipient of slander.”
Heschel understood the insidious power of self-delusion. We all experience it. We all know we have done the right thing much of the time. We are basically good people. Why are we guilty of one or 100 acts of racially motivated injustice? Again, Heschel stops us in our tracks: “That equality is a good thing, a fine goal, may be generally accepted. What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality.”
Dr. King understood this same morally compromised temptation: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
On April 9, 1968, Mickey Shur and I, two civil rights workers in our early 20s, marched through the streets of Atlanta behind the coffin of Dr. King. Earlier that morning we had been assigned to bring one of the mules for the mule train that pulled Dr. King’s body from the Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College and to his first burial site. We walked beside Rabbi Heschel and then presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy. Stunned by King’s assassination and what it would mean for the future, I asked: “Rabbi Heschel, what are we to do now?” He kept walking and said simply: “You must teach the children, you must teach them a Judaism that can remake the world.”
Five years earlier, on June 16, 1963, Rabbi Heschel had sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy in response to an invitation from JFK to attend a meeting of religious leaders at the White House to discuss the then-growing racial tensions in the country. He warned that the “Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it.” Saying churches and synagogues has failed, he called on the president to demand “national repentance and personal sacrifice” of clergy, including donating one month’s salary toward African-Americans’ housing and education. “I propose that you Mr. President declare [a] state of moral emergency,” wrote Heschel. “A Marshall Plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity.”
Our job now, all of us of all religions and belief systems, is to remake the world into a better reality, providing for, caring for and sharing more equitably with all. The era of appalling silence must finally come to an end. We must allow a spirit of compassion and empathy to enter our hearts and fill our homes, our streets, our schools, our workplaces, our houses of worship and our politics.
As Rabbi Heschel told President Kennedy, “The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
Peter Geffen is founder and president of Kivunim, founder of The Abraham Joshua Heschel School and former director of the Israel Experience Program for the CRB Foundation.