Charlottesville and Beyond

Torah begins with a radical assertion. We are created in the image of God. This assertion comes before Babel, Abraham, or even Noah. It means: every single human being, Jew or non-Jew, white or black, is created in the image of God.

Amid witness instructions in death penalty cases, the Mishnah in Sanhedrin expands on this notion. Why, asks the Mishnah, was Adam created singly? To teach that no one can say their lineage is better than anyone else’s. Racism is nonsense for the Mishnah because we are all descended from that first Adam created in the image of God. Our differences, says the Mishnah, reflect the infinite manifesting itself in our limited form. After all, when a King mints a coin, says the Mishnah, each subsequent coin is identical. Not so God. We are all minted in the form of Adam, and yet each of us possesses a uniqueness. Our differences of skin color, religion, political viewpoint precisely show the glory of God.

Even more radically, the instructions in the Mishnah are directed at someone testifying against an accused murderer. Even in that case, even in front of a hateful violent thug, we are commanded to see the divine image, to realize that saving a single life is like saving a whole world. We may not demonize others. We are all in God’s image. Instructions like this profoundly affect testimony. The Rabbis choose to err on the side of shared humanity, of reminding witnesses of the sacred value even of an accused murderer.

Racial divides and other baseless hatreds and bigotry stubbornly persist. Charlottesville was frightening in part because for the first time in a long time, different hate groups responded to a call and gathered together. A fragmented group of Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the Klu Klux Klan living in the shadows of the internet emerged into the light of day. They proclaimed their hatred and their bigotry, and one of their number murdered a counter protester.

We cannot meet hatred with hatred or violence with violence. We cannot let the efforts to dehumanize others infect us. We ought instead to build bridges in friendship across religious, racial, and political divides. We must celebrate our shared humanity and offer teachings in Synagogue and on the street and in our daily interactions that celebrate the divine image implanted within each of us. Violence of any sort cannot infect our politics and discourse. Dr. King, the great teacher of human dignity, believed in non-violence as a means and as a method because only through non-violence do you teach in your actions that each life has value.

We have a responsibility to fight against racism and for equality. The same Mishnah that urges caution in testimony urges action as well. We must stand up for the Divine Image against those who would deny it. That means to speak out against racism and bigotry in all its forms. It means making clear that white supremacist ideology represents a hateful dead end that cannot be condoned.

We are created Equal and endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights and infinite value. Let us in our deeds, words, and actions embody those values and in so do doing evoke that Image from all those around us.

Shabbat Shalom-

Rabbi David Booth

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