What does it mean to atone? This year, as the High Holidays’ annual meditation on repentance coincides with a wider societal discussion of reparations for racial injustices, we asked the rabbis to ponder similarities and differences.
In his 2014 essay for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates described reparations as “an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts.” He turned to Jewish history and the 1950s Israeli and West German debates about reparations, writing, “Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name.” America’s national reckoning is long overdue. We are witnessing the largest and most diverse protest in American history. Millions refuse to abet the mendacious erasure of our past and present transgressions, of the unbroken chain of crimes against Black humanity from 1619 to today. Many of us feel that the time for reparations has finally arrived. In 1989, Representative John Conyers first introduced H.R. 40, the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.” He reintroduced it for decades. A first-ever hearing on that bill took place only last summer. The next Congress must enact this legislation. It is a crucial step towards a more just America. Failure to do so will again lead us to the same dishonorable place where we’ve found ourselves decade after decade after decade.
Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Birmingham Temple Congregation
for Humanistic Judaism
Reparations are problematic. Because half the nation lost their lives to free the slaves, ought their descendants now pay reparations for what the other half did? Maybe Native Americans ought to chip in because the Cherokee and Choctaw owned Black slaves. For that matter, in 1830, approximately 3,800 free Black people owned a total of 12,760 slaves. A global court could extract reparations from the nations of Africa that were complicit in promoting and facilitating the slave trade, which had gone on for centuries prior. Reparations are a distraction from the real issues, which continue to be conveniently swept under the swelling rug. To compare them to Holocaust reparations, which address living survivors of a specific nation’s official genocidal policy, is beyond ludicrous if not sacrilegious.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Absolutely—not just as Jews but as Americans. Slavery is one of America’s cardinal sins, and in this season when we’re doing teshuvah and trying to make a tikkun, it seems all the more appropriate and urgent. Tikkun means repair—we are trying to repair injustices that have been done to descendants of formerly enslaved people. As Jews, we have a special understanding of what that means. Look at the reparations that have been given to German Jews because of the Shoah. Some people might be concerned about how we do reparations: It seems so large, how can we possibly attack this problem? But reparations don’t have to come in the form of 40 acres and a mule. (Although if someone wants to give me an acre in Brookline, I’ll take it!) With racism so deeply ingrained in the foundations of our country, reparation looks like examining those systems and putting money into reversing them, fixing them, doing the tikkun for that injustice.
In Exodus 12:35, when the Israelites left Egypt after 400 years of being enslaved, they didn’t leave empty-handed. They took silver and gold, which reminds me of a recent video clip that went viral in which the Black activist Kimberly Jones says, “You’re lucky that what Black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.” Deuteronomy 15 says that when you free an enslaved person, you don’t send them away empty-handed either. We need to support this as Jews because it’s not just in our Torah, but in our mythic tradition as a people freed from slavery, and also as Americans, because it’s the original sin of our country.
Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum
Temple Beth Zion
American society has reached a point where it makes real sense to examine the notion of reparations. At the Shalom Center, we’re publishing a series of articles from different perspectives on the question, starting with the work of Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein, which finds a strong tradition in favor of reparations in both Torah and midrash. Indentured servants, when freed in the seventh year, were given a kind of goodbye financial package; the Torah says that if the landholder balks at paying this extra money, he should remember what incredible wealth the servant created for him during the six years he worked (Deuteronomy 15). The concept of 40 acres and a mule during Reconstruction is connected to this biblical idea that every formerly enslaved family was entitled to be able to build an economic base. It was thrown out; it never happened. And that’s been the pattern over and over. So what is the 21st-century equivalent of 40 acres and a mule? For the first time in American history, there’s a multiracial movement to end American racism. At this extraordinary moment, we should work out what it means and do it.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow
The Shalom Center
I believe Jews should strongly support reparations for African Americans. The restoration of what is stolen or harmed is an important part of justice in Jewish texts. God arranged for the Israelites to take silver and gold from their Egyptian neighbors as a kind of reparations for slavery (Exodus 11:2; 12:35-36). As we know from German reparations after the Shoah, the most painful losses can never be restored or repaired with money. Nevertheless, monetary reparations are an acknowledgment of responsibility that justice requires. They can also help address the compounded economic losses that are the result of systemic racism over generations. The economic effects of redlining and discriminatory lending, unequal implementation of the GI Bill, disparities in health care, discrimination in criminal justice, underfunded and unequal schools are all examples of a system that continues to rob African Americans of opportunities, wealth, health and well-being. If we engage in an honest process of tikkun that redresses these injustices, it can ultimately benefit all Americans. Tradition teaches that some materials the Israelites took from the Egyptians as reparations went into building the mishkan, the holy tabernacle, in the wilderness. Imagine what a real process of teshuvah, including reparations, can build. Reparations are a step toward genuinely inclusive democracy. Let us start building.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA
In 2019 the Reform movement adopted a Resolution on the Study and Development of Reparations for Slavery and Systemic Racism in the U.S. It asserts textual, historical and moral reasons for supporting reparations for African Americans.
Texts as early as Exodus 12:36, in which the Egyptians “let [the Israelites] have their request” for objects of silver, gold and clothing as they escaped their enslavement, suggest that reparations were appropriate forms of restitution. The rabbis of the Talmud also recognized that victims of crimes were made whole by financial payment or other forms of compensation. If we can receive reparations, such as those granted to Holocaust survivors by the German government, shouldn’t we support giving them to others? The United States gave reparations to the Japanese interned in camps during WWII. Shouldn’t we also seek ways to heal the wounds caused by 400 years of slavery and ongoing centuries of racial injustices? If we are truly committed to justice, we must take responsibility and action to apologize, make amends, change policies and practices and transform our society into one that is more just and equitable.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
Hebrew Union College
Los Angeles, CA
Unequivocally yes. As an African American, I absolutely believe that reparations are deserved by our community because of the servitude through bondage and slavery that African American people suffered in this country. Teshuvah means to turn or to return. When you do teshuvah, if you’ve done something wrong, you can’t simply say “I’m sorry”—you have to make repair, reparation, for injustices you’ve done to another individual. How are we going to atone with the Eternal if we have not atoned with these individuals we have wronged? So from a Jewish perspective, I believe absolutely that the Jewish community should support reparations.
When Moment asked in this feature about the Jewish perspective on racism, rabbis from all movements pointed out that man is created in the image of the Eternal. How then can we justify a group of people made in the image of the Eternal being enslaved, desecrated, treated inhumanely even to this day? When I think of that young man being shot seven times in Kenosha, WI, I keep comparing the image in my mind to that of Dylann Roof, who murdered nine individuals in that church in Charleston, SC: When the police captured him, they brought him Burger King! Somehow or other we must get past the prejudices of white supremacy and affirm that people of color, African American people, are also made in the image of God.
Rabbi Capers Funnye
Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken
Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation
At the root of the word reparations is the idea of repair—to take something broken and bring a measure of wholeness to it. The Jewish equivalent is tikkun, whether among individuals, families, communities or nations. Many relationships thrive between individuals of different colors and ethnic backgrounds. But African Americans have been historically disadvantaged because of the legacy of slavery and ongoing discrimination and injustice long after slavery was formally abolished. Tikkun is necessary. Those of us in the white population have a particular responsibility, as the majority, to take extra steps to make it. Tikkun, like teshuvah, begins with the acknowledgment that something is wrong. Just as on Yom Kippur the individual confesses in solidarity with the entire community, so too, in the process of tikkun, each of us recognizes the injustices in society even though you or I have not necessarily caused them. The injustices borne by Black Americans—and that includes some Jews of color—disrupt society and are a problem for all Americans. It is also not enough to say that it all happened long ago, and I am not responsible. If I move into an old house, and my room is stable, but the floor of the room next door is caving in—is that not my problem, too?
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
My heart says: Absolutely. 1) The Torah tells us that when a slave goes free, we give him special payments to help him reestablish life as a free person (Deuteronomy 15:14). 2) I already support affirmative action. But apparently it has not been enough to overcome inherited inequality and continued racism. Let us try reparations. 3) After the Holocaust, Germany paid reparations to individual survivors and to the State of Israel as the successor of destroyed European communities. Maybe slavery is not as devastating as genocide, but it is bad enough to inflict post-traumatic aftereffects. The descendants of slavery survivors need and deserve special efforts to overcome the past.
My head steps in and says: Stop. This is overreach and will end badly. To go from affirmative action to reparations will require a public that accepts full guilt for all the evils inflicted by slavery and Jim Crow and concludes that slavery and exploitation are the real American story. In this view, those whites who insist that the American system enabled millions to achieve new lives, upward mobility and freedom are only unrepentant and clueless beneficiaries of white privilege.
But most Americans believe that this is a false impeachment of a great human advancement system (albeit one that failed African Americans). My gut tells me that a program for reparations will ignite a massive backlash—just when the nation is ready to take concrete steps to shake up the discriminatory status quo. The right next step is a matter of degree: How far do we push to get a just outcome? My gut reminds me of the Talmudic warning: “If you grab for too much, you will grasp nothing.”
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement
of Jewish Life, Hadar Institute
Jewish tradition commands us, Tzedek tzedek tirdof (Justice, justice you shall pursue). This is often misinterpreted as “social justice.” However, pure justice alone is designed to treat all parties with perfect impartiality. The Torah warns us not to favor the poor or the rich. Still, you have a winner and a loser. The rabbis encouraged mishpat tzedek (loosely translated as compassionate justice) as a means to arbitrate settlements that enable shalom, or peace. This form of justice moves away from the binary of right vs. wrong toward a dynamic of moving forward together. In this spirit, any funding that can help raise those in poverty to a place of self-sufficiency would be the highest level of tzedakah and tikkun.
Rabbi Yossi Serebryanski
Chabad of South Denver
Let’s rephrase the question: Should Jews stand shoulder to shoulder with the African American community and demand justice and equal rights? A resounding “yes” should be obvious to any observant Jew, anyone who has read the Tanakh or studies Jewish law: The responsibility for the future of that community lies upon all American citizens. A country was built, prosperity achieved and fortunes amassed on the backs of countless innocent victims, transgressing many biblical prohibitions and societal norms. The words in Isaiah 58 are highly appropriate as Yom Kippur approaches: If you have a choice between fasting on Yom Kippur or standing in line with Black Lives Matter, you should join the protesters. Well, not exactly in these words, but that is his message. Sadly, though, the average Orthodox kid will probably not have a personal relationship with non-white American peers until after high school, because our schools and societies are segregated. We feel entitled to victimhood because no one suffered more than we did. People live in poverty? People are targeted by police because of their skin color? We have been through much worse! Our nation was decimated while the world stood idly by. But having been a victim of injustice does not exempt me from helping other victims. Ask Isaiah!
Rabbi Haim Ovadia