Reflections on MLK Day from Rabbi Ethan Linden

Posted by Aleeza Adelman on under Uncategorized

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In his 1923 essay on “Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick,” D.H. Lawrence writes, “What do you think of the ship Pequod, the ship of the soul of an American?  Many races, many people, many nations, under the Stars and Stripes.  Beaten with many stripes.  Seeing stars sometimes.”  Lawrence was an Englishman, and so his reflection on the American soul was necessarily that of an outsider looking in, albeit one who had traveled extensively in the United States following the European ruin of the First World War.  But despite, or perhaps because he was not American, those words, written almost a century ago about a novel published nearly seventy years before that, still resonate.  One could do far worse in trying to boil down the incredible and infuriating, amazing and appalling history of this nation than to simply state, as Lawrence does: “Beaten with many stripes.  Seeing stars sometimes.”

The violence at the Capitol occasioned, as such wrenching national events always do, a series of arguments about the essence of America, since only with that agreement in hand could we proceed to understand what, exactly, was under assault on January 6th.  The fact that the attack interrupted a Congressional debate—itself unprecedented in scope—on the integrity of the elections meant that we were treated to what amounted to a rapid reaction from our elected officials on the meaning of what we had all just witnessed.  Already primed to address the meaning of free elections in our Republic, many of the Senators and Representatives who spoke after the unrest had abated tended towards the mystical in their rhetoric about the genius of the Constitution or the profound soul of America.  And, in those words, I could see the shape of the country that had, in fact, saved my grandmother’s life when she was tempest-tossed, yearning to breathe free.  This America had taken her in, and in so doing, allowed for the possibility of all that she—and her family after her—could and would become.  “This is not who we are,” was a refrain spoken in one form or another, attempting to place the violence and the rage outside of the American story.  Sometimes, as Lawrence would have it, we gaze above and see the stars.

But of course a nation’s soul, like a person’s, is never quite so simple as that.  The notion that, as Vice President Mike Pence said in his remarks reopening the Senate debate, “Violence never wins,” is a comforting fiction undone by many, many examples, not least of which is the fact that the very chamber in which he spoke those words counted not a single African-American member from below the Mason-Dixon Line from the end of Reconstruction until the appointment of Senator Tim Scott in 2013.  That exclusion was accomplished by violence both threatened and delivered, and there is no other way to understand that reality other than to admit that, for a very long time, violence won.  The specter of the Confederate flag carried through the Capitol angered and upset many Americans, as it should, but of course that flag—in many iterations—flew over many State capitol buildings until quite recently and flies still in too many hearts. These are the blood red stripes of our national soul.

In his life and in his example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sought to bring these two pieces of the American soul into conversation with each other. He knew that conversation would be hard and halting and even vicious at times, but his words and his works always aimed to show Americans what the country was, and what it could become.  This was a reason his rhetoric favored the value-driven text of the Declaration of Independence over the more compromise-laden practicalities of the Constitution.  This was a reason he reached for American hymns and Biblical exhortations of justice when trying to drive home his most salient point: America could be the nation of justice and righteousness it imagined itself to be, the City on the Hill whose foundation brought forth a new birth of freedom.  But it wasn’t yet.  At heart a pastor, Dr. King believed that honesty about our national shortcomings could begin the process our tradition calls teshuva, a process which is really about reconciling who we are with who we know we should be.

And that process, as anyone who has ever taken Yom Kippur seriously knows, is difficult. We evade, we excuse, we dissemble, we deflect.  Finally, with enough work and introspection and confession, we advance.  Then we slide back again, but not quite so far back as we were at the start.  And so, by small and painful steps, we improve.  We hope for forgiveness and for grace –though we don’t always deserve either– and through this work of teshuva we draw ever nearer to the ideal version of ourselves.  To repurpose Rabbi Tarfon, we will never complete that work, but neither are we free to desist from trying.

But teshuva, whether personal or national, can never be a wholly internal affair.  As the Talmud says in Massechet Pesachim, human beings are not granted to “know the heart of their fellow.”  Others can only know our improvement if it is manifest in the way we move through the world.  Our repentance is only complete, as RAMBAM famously teaches, when we find ourselves in the same situation that had once led to our sin and we do not repeat the error.  Repentance is realized only when our actions reflect the change our soul proclaims.

As we look towards the summer, and we envision a Camp filled once again with campers and staff, we expect these campers and staff will come to us with strong, and sometimes conflicting, feelings about all that we have lived through in these past many months.  I want you to know that we have been thinking quite a bit about how this moment of national and personal reckoning will be reflected in our tefilah and in our Torah.  Our values of inclusivity and community and justice seem to offer a good place to begin, but any educator knows there are no easy answers here.  I hope and expect our campers and staff will help lead us. 

For our part, some members of our year-round team spent the fall training with educator Yavilah McCoy from Dimensions on issues of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity.  I speak for myself when I say that I have a lot still to learn, both about my own place in this difficult history, and about our national efforts to “live out the true meaning” of our creed.  But my Jewish faith and my Jewish learning lead to this, at the very least: that I can be better, and that we can be better.  We can be better masters of our own souls and of the nation’s soul as well.  We can steer our ship to calmer waters where all can find safety and security and dignity.  We can suffer fewer stripes.  We can look aloft and realize that we can see so many more stars together than we ever could apart.