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God as a Civil Rights Activist

God as a Civil Rights Activist

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Published by: Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner on May 26, 2013
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1
God: The First Civil Rights Activist Parashat Beha’alotkha May 24, 2013
This past December far right Ukrainian legislator Igor Miroshnichenko posted on hisFacebook page an assertion that actor Mila Kunis is a “zhydovka,” a Ukrainian wordwhich basically means, “dirty Jewess.” He declared this because there was a discussionabout her cultural heritage and the fact that she was borne in Ukraine. Miroshnichenkosaid, “She is not Ukrainian, she is a Jewess by birth. She is proud of this and the Star of David. I can’t bring myself to call her Ukrainian.”A dirty Jewess. A racial slur. Is there anyone here who thinks this is okay? Is thereanyone here who does NOT have a problem with it?Of course not.What if this legislator was merely having this discussion in the privacy of his own homeinstead of posting it on his Facebook page? What if he happened to be saying it in aprivate party with personal friends only? Would it be okay then? What if he said it inprivate but was accidentally overheard and then someone shared that he said it eventhough he did not intend for it to become public? Would it be okay under thesecircumstances?Just last month a Muslim teen on the New York City subway was arrested for taunting aJewish rider with anti-Semitic slurs. Do we have a problem with this event?What about Mel Gibson’s rants and ravings about Jews?Once again, all of this is evidence of anti-Semitism that continues to exist in our world,even right here in America. And the fact that people still feel that it’s acceptable to useanti-Semitic slurs is disturbing and offensive.And yet, are we ourselves innocent of such offensive comments?In the Torah portion this week we read the following story:Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he hadmarried [declaring]: “He married a Cushite woman!” The LORD heard it. NowMoses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth. Suddenlythe LORD called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the Tentof Meeting.” So the three of them went out. The LORD came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, “Aaron and Miriam!”The two of them came forward; and He said, “Hear these My words: When aprophet of the LORD arises among you, I
 
make Myself known to him in a vision,I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted
 
2throughout My household. With him I speak face to face, plainly and not inriddles, and he beholds the likeness of the LORD. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!” Still incensed with them, the LORDdeparted. As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken withsnow-white scales! When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she wasstricken with scales. Moses cried out to the LORD, saying,
 El nah refah na lah;
“Please, O God, heal her, please!” But the LORD said to Moses, “If her fatherspat in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut outof camp for seven days, and then let her be readmitted.”Miriam was complaining that her brother married a Cushite woman. Cush was theBiblical name for Northeast Africa, most likely Ethiopia. In other words, Miriam wascomplaining that Moses’s wife…was black.And God took exception with that. This was the first case of racism in Biblical history,and without a moment’s hesitation God reprimanded Miriam. In fact, as the Torah says,God gave her a skin disease that turned her scaly white.The Bible interpreter David Daiches pondered: “Was this an example of divine irony?Perhaps the implication is: ‘She’s too dark for you, is she? If you prefer whiteness, I’llmake you whiter than ever.’”In the book of Genesis God created the first ancestors of all of humanity, Adam and Eve.According to the Torah all human beings come from those common ancestors. As such,God had no tolerance for bigotry even back in the time of the birth of the Jewish people.Intolerance for racism is not a concept of the modern world. We find it, right here, in thebook of Numbers.When we hear the stories I shared earlier, the story of the Ukrainian anti-Semite whodisparaged Mila Kunis, it disgusts me that such anti-Semitism still exists. As does thestory of the Muslim teen who berated the Jewish man on the subway. And of course, thecomments by Mel Gibson.But racism doesn’t end with anti-Semitism; and Jews are not immune to thistransgression.There is a French Jewish anti-racism activist, whose profession is a comedian, namedJean-François Dérec. Last October he was fined for making a racial slur against a black security guard (—by the way, hate speech has no first amendment protection in France).If that isn’t a disappointing story I don’t know what is. A French Jewish anti-racismactivist making a derogatory racial comment.Last August a Jewish president of a Paraguayan soccer team made a derogatory commentagainst the owner of a rival team. The comment had to do with the other person’s Arabheritage.
 
3When Rahm Emmanuel was selected as President Obama’s chief of staff his father wascommenting on his son’s influence in the White House, making a point of how importanthis son was to become. What is he, an Arab? He's not going to
 
clean the floors of theWhite House.”These are only some of the public comments we hear. Earlier when I was referring to theUkrainian legislator I asked hypothetically what if his comments had been made in aprivate setting only with like-minded individuals or in his private household.And while we might feel that people have a right to say whatever they want in theprivacy of their own home, at the same time if we knew such comments were beingmade, we would nevertheless find it offensive.And so I ask, what happens if we pick up a mirror and look at ourselves? Are we soinnocent of harboring racist attitudes?The Torah reports to us that Miriam was complaining about the Cushite woman Mosesmarried. You know how that conversation might have transpired today? Miriam said toAaron, “can you believe Moses married a
schvartze
?”Is this any less offensive than the Ukrainian lawmaker calling Mila Kunis a dirty Jewess?And when we use the word
goyim
we do not usually use it in a complimentary context.Nor are we offering a compliment to a woman when we talk about a
shikse
. And in ouropen minded twenty first century community, it might not bother us to declare thatsomeone is a
 feygele.
 Yet I am affirming that using such words is offensive, regardless of the fact that thesewords may not feel offensive to us when we use them, and we think we are minimizingour own stereotypes by couching the derogatory terms in Yiddish. By using the
mamaloshen
we may be fooling ourselves into thinking that this is not derogatory language; it’smerely using expressions out of our Jewish culture and heritage. By giving these terms aJewish flavor we think that expressions cannot possibly be that offensive because theyare Jewish, and we give ourselves a pardon because we are expressing those terms in acloud of Yiddish culture.No matter how we disguise them, when we use terms that characterize and objectify anentire group rather than recognize the individual strengths and flaws of each human beingthen we are indeed participating in racism. It doesn’t matter if the hostile words arecoming from a Ukrainian, from a skin head, from a Muslim or from one of our own.Morally it doesn’t matter if the term is English or Yiddish, asserted in public or private.These terms are dehumanizing. A bad person is a bad person, whether white or black orAsian or Christian, Jewish, Muslim or atheist. And there are holy people within everrace, religion and ethnic group on earth.

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