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History, Memory, and Us: We Are All Implicated Subjects, by Rabbi Micah D. Greenstein

By: Melinda Lejman | September 30, 2020

History, Memory, and Us:  We Are All Implicated Subjects, by Rabbi                                                                                                                                     Micah D. Greenstein

My dear friends, I know I’m not the only person attending this service who has gotten away during COVID sporting business attire above the waist while wearing shorts and sneakers below the belt in Zoom meetings. I also know that more than a few of you actually PREFER these LIVE virtual services since they enable you to attend in your PJs, so I won’t ask what you’re wearing, but I do want to talk about what I am wearing and why. When I attended two Orthodox day schools in childhood, I learned about the prohibitions on Yom Kippur like fasting.  No marital relations either between spouses since, on Yom Kippur, which is a rendezvous with death when our bodies wear out and we don’t experience physical senses, just spiritual rebirth, even sex becomes irrelevant.

Okay, so I WASN’T taught that one as a 1st grader at Akiva and Hillel Hebrew Academies, but I WAS told no leather shoes and to wear comfy shoes instead on Yom Kippur, like sneakers. 

Despite all the scholarly and spiritual justifications for this leather prohibition, I was never satisfied about the origin of that practice until I lived in Israel where my professor and Dean of my rabbinical school, Dr. Michael Klein, gave me a satisfactory answer.

Yom Kippur is supposed to be a day of self-affliction, yom iniui, not a day of comfort.  Back in antiquity, Dr. Klein showed, the way to avoid afflicting your feet from the gravel underneath was to wear leather sandals. No leather meant no comfort, since your feet would literally scrape the ground versus what podiatrists can do for you today to cushion the pain. Back to what I’m wearing.  At home, I share a shoe and clothes closet with my wife, okay, so my shoes and clothes are perhaps 20% of the square footage, but my beautiful bride of thirty-one years with whom I share a shoe closet isn’t even aware of the private religious practice I’m about to share with you.  Since that year Professor Klein taught me Jewish history, the same year I remet Sheril in Jerusalem, I intentionally wear uncomfortable shoes like the ones I’m wearing right now – black leather dress shoes – to remind me of the true purpose of this holiday, which is not to go through superficial motions or have an “easy fast.” The true intent of Yom Kippur is self-sacrifice over and above self-comfort and even self-interest.  

These next 24 hours in Jewish time are rather intense.  We wear white robes not for fashion or purity, but because they mirror traditional Jewish death shrouds. We empty ourselves out physically, and become spiritually reborn. We get a fresh start in line with Judaism’s teaching that Whoever created us forgives our imperfections so that we may start anew and change our lives and God’s world for the better.

But we can’t do that, of course, until we face ourselves and our past honestly and truthfully, not callously or cavalierly.  

Just outside the balcony doors here in the Main Sanctuary, above the cameras bringing you this service, is the Temple Museum with primary Jewish artifacts from Justin and Herta Adler’s collection and artist Bunny Burson’s important Holocaust artbook entitled “Hidden in Plain Sight.” The Museum Board brought a different book to my attention with a timely and timeless message.  Authored by the Chairman of Holocaust Studies at UCLA, Professor Michael Rothberg, it is entitled, “The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators.”

His argument, with the Holocaust as backdrop, is that we must all take responsibility for past injustices of which we are beneficiaries.  We know from the great Italian Shoah survivor, Primo Levi that “the network of human relationships inside the concentration camps was not simple and could not be reduced to just two neat groups, victims and perpetrators.” Levi documented a blurred morality in the Nazi death camps, in which some victims were forced to become complicit in the humiliation and persecution of other Jews.  Jews in the camps could be at the same time both victim and perpetrator, abused and abuser, simultaneously innocent and guilty, operating in a “grey zone” in which not only did the Jewish prisoners come to resemble their Nazi tormentors;  “they completely lost their capacity for moral judgment choosing self-preservation instead,” as the eloquent Jewish scholar, Zoe Waxman, comments.

A fundamental idea in the UCLA Holocaust Studies Professor’s book is that no one is really innocent when it comes to historical injustices, even if a person is born after the event itself. We are all implicated subjects, not just passive bystanders. This makes us feel uncomfortable and takes courage to face. I speak on this subject wearing my intentionally uncomfortable black leather shoes on this holiest night of the Jewish year, because Yom Kippur, like Rothberg’s book, is supposed to make us feel uncomfortable, if we are really going to observe Yom Kippur and come out better rather than just pass time until our break-fasts tomorrow evening!

Most of us have been taught that there are three main categories when it comes to the Holocaust and far lesser injustices – victims, perpetrators, and the rest of us we call bystanders.

For Rothberg, bystander is too weak and passive a concept because it doesn’t clarify the roles people play in enabling crimes to occur without ever being directly involved in them, and yet their role is so essential and critical to whatever injustice is going on.

So far instance, it’s easy to focus on Hitler’s bad guys and the SS, but who made it possible for them to do what they did to the victims? The horrific crimes of the Nazis could only be carried out because they were backed up my many implicated subjects, including hundreds of  thousands of workers with nice families who enjoyed their weekends, then went to work on Monday morning and did things like…organize train schedules shipping Jewish families to death camps. These often friendly Germans in their individual bubbles were removed from the killing but made possible the front lines of perpetration while staying far away from the gas chambers.

Rothberg’s point is that bystanders are implicated more than we realize in every society, especially where blame is usually assigned to a demagogue or a few of us, instead of all of us.

His thinking raises questions about how past events shape where we are right now in America, whether facing yesterday’s legacy of slavery and Jim Crow or today’s Black Lives Matter. Or if that’s too sensitive for some, think about Nazi Germany and how average people like you and me far removed from the murders were complicit with the perpetrators without really being the perpetrators…ordinary Germans whose quiet made the larger project possible.  Compliant citizens, professionals working their way up at IBM, Volkswagen, Kodak, Bayer, all Nazi collaborator companies who now acknowledge their complicity 75 years later. Even Hugo Boss, who started his fashion label two years before the Nazis took control of the German government, supplied and designed the Nazi, SS, and Hitler Youth uniforms.  No doubt several on Hugo  Boss’ staff making the Fuhrer’s clothes muttered at work, ‘I don’t like what he’s saying, and I have problems with a lot of what he’s doing, but at least I have a good job and Germany and the Fatherland have to stay strong.” 

Friends, weren’t those people in Nazi Germany at least partially responsible for the evil they were ignoring? Weren’t even the good people at Fanta Coca Cola Deutschland also implicated subjects?

We need to be honest that it is the bystanders in every society, the ones removed from the suffering, death, and cruelty, who often unknowingly and unwittingly support the perpetrators as implicated subjects. 

Think of Memphis in the 1950s and 1960s when black folks could only visit the Memphis Zoo on Thursdays. White Memphians were largely removed from having to witness the indignity and degradation of segregation.  After all, if you don’t have to see it or face it, you move on with your day and your weekend plans.  Out of sight, out of mind.

I urge us to reflect on our own lives as implicated subjects on this holiest night of the year.  I don’t mean Jewish guilt or white guilt if you happen to an American Jew who is white like me.

Guilt is the realm of the perpetrator. Guilt is individual not communal.  Fortunately, most of us are only guilty of individual small sins, and God always forgives. But Yom Kippur does not end with the individual.  Did you notice that the Kol Nidre prayer which Happie chanted so compellingly is written in the first person plural.  So are most Jewish prayers as Barry Leff noted in his Avinu Malkeinu video reflection.  Guilt is individual, but responsibility is communal and societal. 

Here in Memphis, we who have inherited the legacy of segregation are not guilty of slavery and those crimes, yet by virtue of benefitting from crimes others committed, do we not still bear some responsibility?

Cameron Pryor, the 16 year old Booker T. Washington High School kid who was shot and killed at the Kroger Fuel Center at Poplar and Kirby only days ago while attempting to carjack a white Mercedes SUV was ruled guilty, and the terrified physician who shot in self-defense was ruled justified. 

This begs the question, however, as Rabbi Simons articulated two nights ago on Shabbat Shuvah. Isn’t there something wrong collectively when in Memphis, the key factor for going to a good high school is whether or not your parent lives in E. Memphis or Midtown instead of S. Memphis or N. Memphis, where more than 40% of our community’s youth live in dire poverty, are hungry for food every day, and are not carjackers.

Leaving Memphis and America behind, what kind of responsibilities do Germans born after 1945 bear?  Germans today are not collectively guilty for the Holocaust, yet they admit they are collectively responsible for the society they condoned, and Germans have done far more in facing history and themselves than we in America are doing facing our own selves right now.

It may be too painful to accept that many of us who are white are implicated subjects in benefiting from white supremacy, so let’s consider Jews in another country, South Africa. 

Jews in South Africa like Judge Albie Sachs whose parents fled Eastern Europe and whose relatives perished in the Shoah could have said as a white South African Jew, “I’m a Jew and we Jews have a history of being persecuted so don’t link me to that evil of apartheid.  I’m exempt because my ancestors were victims and Nazis tried to kill my relatives in the Holocaust. I earned my nice house in this quiet suburb of Johannesburg.”  But that’s not what Albie Sachs and other Jews in the anti-apartheid Movement in South Africa said.  The Honorable “Albie” Louis Sachs (z”l) was the former equivalent of a Supreme Court justice in South Africa, a well-off white Jew.  His arm was blown off and he was permanently blinded in one eye by a car-bomb because of his outspoken opposition to apartheid.  He reminded Jews and all people that history is not just about the past, it is also about the legacy we are leaving and creating right now. 

Sachs reminds us that just because we Jews have inherited or been traumatized by histories of victimization, does not exclude us from being implicated in other injustices. White South African Jews, even observant Jews, were, at the same time, directly involved with and beneficiaries of the apartheid regime.  And while it’s true that individual Jews were over-represented among whites in the anti-apartheid struggle, looking back, the Jewish community in South Africa remained inwardly focused on narrowly Jewish concerns like status quo Jewish communal institutions and Israel, while staying away from the rottenness right in front of them.  It wasn’t until very late in the game that the South African Jewish community as a whole came out in the struggle against the evil of the Apartheid regime.

Jewish history is not unique to suffering, but it is illuminating since many Jewish families, including my own, emigrated from Poland, Hungary, Germany, and other countries where systemic anti-Semitism – like systemic racism – existed and was denied, condoned, and ignored.

On this confessional night of Yom Kippur, as American Jews as a whole are living a relatively safe and healthy life in the midst of a pandemic, are we willing to admit that being Jewish doesn’t excuse us from being implicated in the larger society from which we benefit?  

Do we not all bear an indirect responsibility, not guilt, but the responsibility to right wrongs, rather than rationalize or justify, regardless of whether we are citizens, elected officials, or rabbis?  

In Germany, taking responsibility for the Holocaust has become the official way of public discourse, but it took decades for Germany to come to terms with its collective crimes.  

American Jews in 2020 are blessed not only with freedom and relative prosperity, we also have multi-directional memories – from experiencing anti-Semitism and poverty in E. Europe to equality and good fortune in the USA. 

Certainly we are in no position to see ourselves solely through the victim only frame and not also as implicated subjects.  Or as Rothberg puts it, “Just because we have a history of victimization as Jews does not mean that we can’t also be aligned with perpetrators of injustice today, and it also doesn’t mean that we have to deny our own history of suffering and victimization.”

I could have worn tennis shoes in accordance with Jewish law tonight, but that would be too comfy for Yom Kippur. I could also invoke the pogroms my grandparents fled in Russia and pretend to see myself as an American Jew in 2020 through a victim only frame, but that would not only be dishonest, it would excuse the engagement of my children and the generations after them in the building of a better tomorrow for all people, even as my children and all Jewish children, pursue their own successful lives.

Whether Jewish or not, though, in order to change the world, we are commanded to bring about positive social change for all people, instead of self-preservation just for some.   As Orthodox Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his book, A Letter in the Scroll, “Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is; Judaism begins in protest that the world is not as it ought to be.”

In America and our increasingly interconnected world, we are all implicated in the harms done to others, so rather than assign blame to others, why not admit that we aren’t completely innocent ourselves of other people’s sufferings?  

I love the way Rabbi Harold Kushner ends his memoir at age 80.  “This world is still not the world God intended it to be,” Kushner writes.  “Some human beings have made it worse and continue to do so, while others have made and are making it better.  I am sustained by the words of Theodore Parker” he says, “a white abolitionist and anti-racist who died in 1860 and who both Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. often quoted.  

Parker said, “Democracy means not ‘I am as good as you are’ but ‘You are as good as I am.”  He was also the one who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

On this holiest night of Yom Kippur, the long arc of history and the moral universe bends not only toward justice, it bends towards responsibility, honesty, and forgiveness in helping each other and helping God transform the world that is, into the society and world that can still be.

If we will it.  

If we are willing to change.  


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