Yom Kippur, Forgiveness, and Race

Today’s guest post comes from Sarah Barasch-Hagans who is a queer Jewish woman from St. Louis and a third year rabbi-in-training at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Sarah is also the founder of the Fargesn Media Project and one of the founders of the acclaimed Black Lives Matter Haggadah. Her post shares her perspective on Yom Kippur. It also sheds light on the relationships between atonement and forgiveness as well as looking at how race affects those concepts. You can find more of Sarah’s writings on her blog.

Yom Kippur is the Jewish “Day of Atonement” of fasting and soul searching that seems to come every autumn exactly when we need it. This past week, after a year in which I engaged intensely in challenging accepted ideologies around race and class and power that Ferguson had highlighted in my hometown of St. Louis, Yom Kippur again came right on time. This year, I finally realized how truly countercultural in America is the Jewish approach is to apologizing and forgiving.

American society tends to make apologizing optional for the powerful yet demands forgiveness from the powerless. We have never offered reparations for slavery yet we tout as exemplary the Black families in South Carolina who have forgiven Dylann Roof for mass murdering their relatives while they prayed in church–even though he has expressed no remorse for his evil actions. On the heels of this news, set amidst this year of the rebirth of the Black Civil Rights Movement, it has felt especially important to me clarify the theology of forgiveness in Judaism.

In Judaism, we are not required to forgive those that wrong us. Rather, responsibility rests with the one who has done wrong and is required to atone. Even if we are not forgiven the first time we apologize, we must still attempt to fulfill the commandment by offering atonement three times with sincerity. Especially in cases where we may have sinned repeatedly, demonstrating sincerity arguably requires that we perform actions to show we are on a path to truly changing the behavior we are apologizing for. Only then, only after we have sincerely attempted atonement with the person three times, are we are said to have atoned properly before God.

This theology has serious implications for dialogues on race in our country. I believe that Jewish theology is absolutely clear that the current role of White Americans–Jewish and non-Jewish–is to atone.

Judaism would not demand that individual Black Americans forgive White People or the institutions that uphold racism. If individual Black Americans find peace in forgiveness, that is their choice, but but that is not required. Jewish tradition does have much to say about short term restorative justice and and long term reconciliation and community building, but is a conversation for another day.

We must delay those conversations because they are too comforting. This is our time to avoid the impulse to deflect blame or to try to plan for the future. This moment, this exact season in the Jewish calendar, is when we atone without knowing whether we will ever reach a place of comfort.

This time is for difficult spiritual exercises by those of us who are implicated in sinful cycles. Each of us of all races and genders and class backgrounds and sexualities and ability levels must look honestly at ourselves and our place in oppression, interpersonal and communal, and seek teshuvah–usually translated as atonement but literally meaning “turning.” This is our time of turning towards a path of love and justice. This is our time to exercise faith in turning to a path we may not even be able to imagine. Because until we are absolutely honest about the path we are on, we will never be able to see, much less travel, along the path we seek.

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The Ritual Of The Top Ten

We would be remiss to end this month of exploring the ever-evolving ritual of the “Top Ten”. As 2014 comes to an end we all want to look back at what the year has held. We have selected ten posts, not because they are the best, or the most popular, but because they have represented some important moments from 2014. Even though we have only selected ten, we have been honored by every post and every comment. We hope each of you has found lots of wisdom, love …and even a little lint on your spiritual journey this year. Happy reading and Happy New Year!

  1. A Prayer for New Beginnings— A prayer for anyone starting a new journey
  2. Millennials Strike Back with Professions of Love— A post from Jenni Taylor about the value of Millennials
  3. Ferguson: We Are Praying— A spiritual reaction to the racism in Ferguson and across the USA
  4. Fear Vs Self Worth— A post about bullying by a former Miss Arab America and a notMyKid volunteer
  5. The Choice of Leaving Syria–A post about one woman’s choice to leave her home in Syria.
  6. For the Love of ElephantsJenni Taylor thoughts on justice for all of God’s creatures 
  7. It’s Your Church Too— Patrick Cousins,a campus minister at Saint Louis University, writes about LGBTQ justice
  8. Secular Spirituality: Is That a Thing?–Hailey Kaufman’s eloquent post on atheism and spirituality
  9. Strength To Endure–a reflection on sexism and strength after the shootings in Santa Barbara by Autumn Elizabeth 
  10. Fear and Hunger for Justice–Hafsa Mansoor writes about fear and justice as a Muslim

Rituals and Racism

By: Autumn Elizabeth

As an expat, I am constantly creating new rituals. New ways to celebrate, to morn, to live in new places.  have become pretty good at re-creating rituals, yet confronted with the recent epidemic of violence, I am struggling to find rituals that sufficiently encompass my beliefs. I try to live my life in the model of the anti-racist, anti-sexist, radical lover I know as Jesus. In these weeks that have led up to the celebration of this radical leader’s birth, and in light of recent events across the USA, I have been forced to look at the rituals I use to acknowledge this birth and question whether these rituals resonate with the Jesus I know, and the world I live in.

For me, this year, I have felt the call to prepare for the birth of Jesus with new rituals. Ones where I chant with hands raised, ones where I lay on the cold ground and contemplate the lives taken unfairly, and the unfair privilege my skin color endows upon me. My church this year hasn’t been filled with pink and purple candles and biblical scriptures, but with red and black painted signs, ad the words of other radical spiritual leaders working for peace and love like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet tonight I will go to a traditional church service, with rituals that will not reflect the anti-racist message of my advent. I will do this because for all my thinking, and for all my experience with re-creating rituals, I have not adequately been able to re-create a Christmas Eve mass or the christian church that encompasses my anti-racist beliefs. This failure of mine and of the christian community in which I currently live, saddens me. I have seen some of my Jewish friends celebrate Chanukkah in beautiful ways that honor radical anti-racist movements. I am honored to see the ways they have honored the voices of people of color in the rituals of their faith.  I hope to learn from them. I hope to find a way to encompass my grief at the world’s current state into religious rituals of joy and hope. I hope to find a way to listen to the voices of the oppressed as we together celebrate the birth of Jesus.

How does an anti-racist church make new rituals in times like these? How would my radical savior want me to honor his birth today? I am not sure, but I know the answer requires more of us all than simply lighting a candle. If we are to honor the birth of Jesus who died with love on his lips, we have to live in that radical love always. We have to face the bruised, murdered, tear-gassed world, and bear the pain we have brought, we must listen to those we have silenced for so long.

Ferguson: We Are Praying

Searching Sophia’s Pockets prides itself on being dedicated to global spiritual journeys, and yet today we feel most keenly that both Autumn and Jenni spent years of their respective spiritual journeys in the Saint Louis area, which struggles at this moment with the decision not to indite officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown. 

To honor that part of our journey and to stand in solidarity with everyone affected by the decision, firstly we offer Searching Sophia’s Pockets as a safe space, as always, on the internet. We offer these pages, these posts, these prayers, and their comment sections a as a safe place for conversation, rest, and action.

Secondly, we offer the following prayer, along with the quiet lamentations of our hearts, to the people of Ferguson, Saint Louis, and more broadly to those upon whom our racist systems inflict harm, which is to say, the world.

Dear God,

We are in agony,
crying, aching, but still we are praying.

This is the world we have made,
one where hurt has boiled to the surface,
despite our attempts to deny it.

Give us strength to bear witness to the racist systems that run this world,
to face the realities of oppression with open hearts and minds.

Give us compassion to gather with those who are not like us,
make us united in our common love,
our common search for justice,
and our common desire for peace.

When systems of power rage against us,
help us continue to survive as beacons of love.

Let us not dally in sentimental love,
the easy love that cannot withstand times like these.

Let us show the ferocity of love,
the bravery of love,
love that is not sated with mere words,
but demands living justice for all.

We are afraid, we wish for an easier way,
yet, filled with radical love,
we can stand together against even the greatest injustice,
calling out, in voices clear and united,
Black lives matter!
Amen!
Amen.
Amen.

Faith and Fear

By: Autumn Elizabeth

Fear not, you shall not be put to shame; you need not blush, for you shall not be disgraced. The shame of your youth you shall forget. –Isaiah 54:4

It is often said that if we trust in God, we need not fear. But here’s the thing. I am afraid. I have not forgotten the hard times of my youth. The disappointment of being a millennial looking for a job, the pain of enduring the violence done to my body and psyche, the hopes dashed, the dreams broken, I still feel them all, and it makes me afraid.

I am afraid to make anything permanent, for fear it will be taken away again. I am afraid of showing my passion for justice; for fear that the world will beat it out of me. I do not yearn for confrontation, yet this is what our world gives me. I am afraid that the world will continue to throw away all the lives, black, brown, queer, female, trans*, that don’t matter to those in power.

Yet, I know that for myself, as a follower of the radical Jesus, I cannot let this fear win. Perhaps, that is what all those passages in the bible are about. Maybe when they say “do not be afraid”, they mean “do not let fear own you”.  I cannot stop fear, but I must dare to move beyond it.

I have to dare to co-create a better world side-by-side with the spirit of universal justice. I have to dare to believe that we can all be valued and safe in this world.  I have to dare to show my heart to the people I love, and to show kindness to the people I don’t know.

I have to dare to believe in a better world, because I believe in a loving God, a powerful force that holds every creation dear. I believe in a God that does not victim blame, does not value some lives more than others. I believe in a God that moves with me in this world so that even the smallest acts of service, of change, of care, matter.

Yes, I am afraid. My faith does not erase my fear, but neither does fear annihilate my faith. They walk hand-in-hand with me as I travel through this messy, broken, and beautiful world.

A Prayer for the Movement

There has been a lot of violence in the world lately. It seems that the efforts of peacemakers, equality seekers, and  justice sojourners are being required everywhere this month. So today we offer up a prayer for the movement–the movement of people working together to seek a more peaceful and just world, the movement of people working against racism and sexism, agasint violence and destruction. This is for all of us…this is a prayer for the movement.

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Dear Spirit of Merciful Peace,

We ask you to sustain us
as we work together
across lines of race and religion
through differences of creed and culture,
towardsa world of  peace and love.

We ask that you help us help each other
during these times of darkness and pain.

We ask that you help us open our eyes
to see the beauty and hope in one another,
even when our differences seem vast.

We are each a part of this world,
and we need strength and wisdom
to be part of the movement of peacemakers and healers,
to live with compassion and work for justice.

We pray together,
for ourselves.
We are the movement.

Amen