What it means to breathe from the perspective of Jewish theology
Updated: Jul 6, 2020
Dear Sinai Members and Friends:
We express our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, whose recent killings are merely the latest and most graphically public demonstrations of the continuity of racism and injustice for people of color in America. We are in solidarity with communities of color and victims of racist violence and discrimination everywhere. We are outraged at the slow pace of justice and the failure of public officials to provide liberty and justice for all in our nation.
We come to this position specifically as a Reform Jewish congregation with a multiracial membership. Our congregation contains Jews of color and individuals of diverse backgrounds who often face discrimination. Our commitment to them is meaningless without a broader commitment to end injustice for all people of color. Furthermore, our fight against antisemitism and our insistence that society afford us freedom from fear are diminished if we do not also stand for those who face violence and bigotry based on their skin color.
George Floyd’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” resonate in terrible irony with Jewish tradition. The first prayer recited upon waking each day is a prayer of gratitude for breathing: Modeh ani lifanecha melech chai v’kayam she-hechezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah rabbah emunatecha. I am grateful to you, O living and established Sovereign, for you have returned my breath/soul to me in compassion, great is your faithfulness. The central element of that prayer is “neshama” which means both “soul” and “breath.” Neshama is one of the unique signs of human life first described in the Torah. In the creation story we read: “God formed the first person from the soil of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life (neshmat chaim) and the first person became a living human.” (Gen 2: 7)
Modeh Ani is a quintessential expression of the Jewish value of gratitude: even when there seems to be nothing for which to be thankful, we should still start each day grateful we can breathe. George Floyd’s murder is a violent inversion of Judaism’s vision for the world. The Modeh Ani prayer reminds each of us that our lives are fragile. Our ability to contemplate another day of soulful life rests on the ability to take a breath and on the assumption that only God has the rightful authority to withhold that life force. For anyone with black or brown skin in America, those assumptions are simply not true. The killing of Mr. Floyd with such shamelessness and impunity, like the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others before them, is another striking example of the extent to which we live in different worlds from each other.
We know that we have been here before and not enough has changed. Racism has been part of American culture since before the nation’s birth and we are only the latest to stand up against it. Our community’s response to this outrage and tragedy should take many forms. It is a mitzvah to remember the deceased in prayer and so we will continue to offer our voices and think of all the victims of racist violence when we gather for worship.
We have been in touch with our partners and friends from WIN, the Mayor’s Office, and historically black churches around the city to express solidarity, support, and grief. We will follow their lead and join with them in the work to be done. Though there is great urgency, lasting change is the result of ongoing and dedicated effort. Temple Sinai believes that tikkun olam (repairing the world) is an essential element of Judaism and our pursuit of justice has continued during the pandemic (see more on our website). In the coming days and weeks, we will share additional opportunities, in coordination with the Multiracial Sinai Committee, to deepen your commitment to anti-racism at Temple Sinai and in the larger world.
We are also committed to Sinai being a caring community whose members feel a sense of belonging and support from the clergy and each other in times of celebration and need. We urge you to lean on each other and use the strength of this sacred community as you experience the profound grief and shock of a world so violently out of balance. We stand with Temple Sinai’s members of color especially as we know that this has been a particularly painful time. Do not hesitate to call on any of us from the clergy team or the temple leadership if you need personal support, you have ideas for how Sinai can be a force for good and improvement, or you have a challenge you’d like to discuss.
In response to the past week of rioting, we offer these words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., written in the wake of riots over 50 years ago. We believe and endorse his words for today (slightly changed from his original text to meet current usage):
Riots are indefensible as weapons of struggle… Indeed, those living in the [predominantly black and poorest inner-city neighborhoods] always suffer most directly from the destructive turbulence of a riot. Yet the average white person also has a responsibility. They have to resist the impulse to seize upon the rioter as the exclusive villain. They have to rise up with indignation against their own municipal, state and national governments to demand that the necessary reforms be instituted which alone will protect them. If they reserve their resentment only for people of color [or for rioters of any background], they will be the victims by allowing those who have the greatest culpability to evade responsibility. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention. – Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, Chapter 1.
We pray for peace to return to our streets alongside justice. May the memory of George Floyd and all the victims of racist violence and murder be a blessing and may their families soon be comforted. May we redouble our efforts to create a just society, build lasting friendships across race, class, and geographic divisions, and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of Mr. Floyd, Mr. Arbery, and Ms. Taylor specifically.
On behalf of the clergy team, our executive director, and temple president,
Rabbi Jonathan S. Roos