Rabbi’s Corner: Juneteenth – The Power of Listening

Racism goes all the way back to biblical times. Yet, God created humans with the intent of everyone being fully equal.

The rabbis of old tell a midrash, a story, about how God created the first human: God took some clay from the earth: brown clay, red clay, yellow clay, black clay – all of the different colors, molded them together to form a singular person. God called that first person “Ah-dahm” – meaning “of the earth” (earth in Hebrew is “adamah”). This way, no human could claim superiority over another because of the color of their skin – every skin color was represented by that first primordial human. And God saw that it was good.

If the intent of our ancient biblical ancestors was that all humanity were to be equal, where does this ugly, hatred of others begin? We learn from the Mishna (circa 200 ce) that God created this one singular person in the beginning of the world’s origin, “for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”. (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)

This emphasis on the equality of all human beings created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) is reinforced by what we’re taught in Leviticus 19: “You shall be holy, for I the Eternal your God am holy.” The medieval rabbi, scholar and commentator Nachmanides (1174-1270) says this means Jews must obey not just the letter but the spirit of the law. The spirit of Torah is clearly conveyed in Genesis 1:27: If all humanity is made in God’s image, then clearly any kind of prejudice or racism is forbidden. Yet we know for a fact that prejudice and racism, xenophobia and hatred exist.

The United States, like many countries, has a long and ugly history of institutionalized racism: against Native Americans, Blacks, Asians and those from the Pacific Islands. Against anyone whose skin doesn’t appear to be “Caucasian.” Against those who are different from the norm, even if their skin was white, as we Jews know all too well.

If we, as Jews, want others to stand up and speak out for us, we need to speak up on behalf of others, in ways that are meaningful to them. That’s why Juneteenth is so important. It makes us stand up, take notice and begin to address some of the racism plaguing our society against Blacks. Juneteenth is a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans. It is also often observed for celebrating African-American culture. Originating in Galveston, Texas, it has been celebrated annually on June 19th in various parts of the United States since 1865.

It’s important for us, as a predominantly white community, to listen to our Black neighbors and Black-Jewish community to learn what is needed.

With that in mind, I share these words, from Kelly Whitehead is a rising fifth rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, a member of the T’ruah Board, and an alum of T’ruah’s Israel Fellowship. They currently reside in Brooklyn. 

As a black Jew, as I prepare to celebrate Juneteenth, I am reminded of the power of collective memory. While the viciousness of racism has marked every day in this country since the first Juneteenth, the memory of that joy and redemption is pertinent today. The celebration has grown beyond its Texas origins to become a national part of black consciousness, celebrating the day on which black slaves achieved legal freedom from their oppressors. In recent years, it is entering white consciousness and showing up in the national discourse. …

The promised equality during the origins of Juneteenth is yet to be achieved because the effects of slavery remain ingrained in our current society…

Juneteenth is a celebration of just one step of an ongoing journey. While the slaves of Texas were freed in 1865, the path to equality is arduous and ongoing. We do not always see the benefit of our efforts…. The original celebration of Juneteenth in 1865 was a starting point. Now, we can see the role we all have in laying the groundwork for future generations.

As a black Jew, I view Juneteenth as a reminder of how far we have come, and how far we still have to go. We can urge our government to provide reparations for descendants of the formerly enslaved and use our power to speak out against and undermine today’s deeply rooted systems of oppression. We can call out forms of modern-day slavery in the mass incarceration of black and brown people. We can be more cautious with our actions as long as we are taking part in the ongoing battle for liberty.

Action is not a bad thing, it just needs to be thought through and correct. When it comes to Juneteenth celebrations in our Jewish spaces, speak before you act. Even better, listen before you act. I encourage you to reach out to black people in your community to best meet their needs, instead of making assumptions. We cannot enter the promised land until all of us are truly free, and we can only do that through thoughtful and empowered action.

(For Their full D’var Torah, please click “Freedom as an Ongoing Struggle”)

Please join us on Friday, June 16th at 6:00 PM for our Shir Joy Erev Shabbat Outdoor service when we will commemorate Juneteenth with special readings and musical selections.

Click on the links below for more information and related resources for Juneteenth:

Jews of Color Initiative

Commemorating Juneteenth: Background and Resources from the Antidefamation League (ADL)

Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Leads Coalition of 22 Organizations on a National Study for Reparations for Juneteenth

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Sholom


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