Making Reparations

Kol Nidrei 5781

A Kol Nidre Story:

It wasn’t that many years ago an American Jew was traveling abroad in the old country. It was Saturday morning: a week of business had been conducted, the Traveler knew no one in town and so—either out of some nostalgic feeling or due to a lack of better options—the Traveler made their way to the small synagogue standing in the town center.  Entering the shteibel, the Traveler was taken by the simplistic beauty of the white-stuccoed walls, the broad natural beam that suspended a sagging roof.  Looking forward towards the Ark, the Traveler’s gaze caught the eye of the Rabbi, who rushed over in warm welcome.  “Bruchim haBaim,” the Rabbi exclaimed in the Hebrew language that connected them.  “English?” asked the Traveler.  “A bit,” began the rabbi in broken tones, adding, “Enough English to ask: will you do the final Aliyah this morning?”  The Traveler, never quite confident in Hebrew, demurred, but the Rabbi would have none of it.  The Traveler ultimately agreed, and the Rabbi bounced up to the bimah, beaming.  The Traveler found a pew, and sat, spending most of the service nervously practicing: Barechu…

When the Torah was taken from the ark, the Traveler stopped practicing and paid attention.  With the scroll unrolled on its special table, the Rabbi mumbled some Hebrew words, and a member of the congregation rose from their seat and walked up to the bimah.  They ascended the three stairs, and walked over to the lectern.  But, right before approaching the Torah, the person bowed low.  Then, still bowed, the person took a small step before standing upright again.  After a deep breath, they intoned: Barechu…

How odd, thought our Traveler.

When the rabbi called the second Aliyah, a different person trotted up the three stairs, this time with a spring in their step.  But before approaching the lectern, yet again, they bowed low.  They took a small step in this position, and then arose to full height.  Taking a deep breath, the second congregant began: Barechu…

“What is happening here?” wondered our Traveler.  A third honoree was called to the bimah, climbed three stairs, bowed, took a small step, stood tall, and chanted: Barechu….  So did the fourth Aliyah: up, bow, step, stand, Barechu….  And the fifth: up, bow, step, stand, Barechu….  And the sixth.  Up three steps.  Bow.  One small step. Rising to full heigh.  Barechu….

“We have a special guest all the way from America for our final Aliyah,” said the rabbi, as our Traveler stood from their seat.  The Traveler walked to the bimah, ascended the three stairs, and figured best practice was to follow form.  The Traveler bowed down low, took a small step towards the Torah, and then arose to full height.  Overtaken by an incredible feeling, and sensing a power never before experienced, the Traveler, soul filled with awe, belted out, Barechu….

After the service, the Rabbi approached the Traveler at the humble oneg shabbat of cookies and challah.  “What a beautiful Aliyah! Never in my life have I heard such beautiful, soul-stirring  chanting!”  The Traveler blushed.  “Rabbi, I was overtaken by emotion.  I saw the custom of your congregation before the Torah blessings. I admit I was scared to walk up to the sacred bimah.  But then I took a low bow of humility.  I approached the Torah bowed low, knowing that to approach the source of our wisdom, one must remember our humble origins.  But then I arose to full height, knowing that it is the height of human achievement to interact with such a source of wisdom, and such an honor to bring the Torah’s words to life. I cannot explain how much it meant to me to follow your custom.”

Now it was the rabbi’s turn to blush.  The rabbi explained, “Your words are beautiful, dear Traveler.  But you give us too much credit! The truth of the matter is that we just refurbished our humble shul last year; until then, there was a broken beam running across the path of the bimah.  Ours is no custom; it’s a habit!  We had to bow to walk under the beam before we were able to stand again at the podium!”

As I stand at this podium, it has been 16 summers since hurricane Katrina stormed the southern shores of the United States. I still carry with me images of visiting New Orleans in the months after the destruction.  Even more than the bridges no longer standing—or the vacant foundations with houses no longer upon them—do I remember seeing city’s streets strewn with stuff. Doors, dressers, refrigerators, children’s toys, toilet seats: the rotten refuse was piled high. All of it was covered in mold: destructive, toxic mold. It was then I fully learned what a creeping cancer of carpentry mold could be, unless removed.  Without remediation and repair, mold festers, ultimately destroying even a residence rebuilt from the inside out. Full recovery demanded that houses should be stripped to the studs—or further—until every last drop of this toxic mold was removed.

Our Torah, in the book of Leviticus, likens mold to disease.[1]  So too does a recent book, authored by Isabel Wilkerson, which likens toxic mold to cancer.  Wilkerson—with due respect to the difference between the stability of buildings and the preciousness of human life—compares homeowners learning that their home has mold to a woman learning she has the BRCA gene.  The homeowner who wants to be rid of toxic mold faces the same choice as the BRCA patient:

You educate yourself.  You talk to people who have been through it and to specialists who have researched it.  You learn the consequences and the obstacles, the options and treatment.  You may pray over it and meditate over it.  Then you take precautions to protect yourself and succeeding generations and work to ensure that these things, whatever they are, don’t happen again.[2]

Of course, as Caste, Wilkerson’s new book, explains, there is a vast difference between a BRCA diagnosis and a house with toxic mold.  One is the result of happenstance; the other is about confronting one’s inherited history. Genetic testing has taught us to understand what we carry coded inside our every cell.  If we inherit proclivities to heart disease, we change our diet, amp up our exercise regimen.  If we learn of family history of diabetes, we regulate our sugar intake.  If genetic testing indicates the presence of BRCA, we confront those choices.  There is one certainty: to be healthy, simply even to live, our inherited history must impact the way we act in the present.

Over a thousand years ago, the great Talmudic sage Samuel taught this same lesson, also through the eyes of a homeowner.  However, in the case Samuel considered, the homeowner was no normal citizen, but a prince living in a palace.  The prince learned not of toxic mold in the dungeons, but heard word of a different festering foundation: the central beam holding up the entire structure had originally been stolen.  Our Sage Samuel was certain about what must happen: the prince must tear down the entire palace to restore the beam to its rightful owner.[3]

If you learn your palace is built with a stolen beam, you must tear it all down to restore that beam to its rightful owner.  This is not some random teaching of the great Sage, Samuel: it is his Yom Kippur lesson.  On this most sacred day—a day when we confront our sins and change, turning towards our better selves—Jewish communities throughout the world learn about the nation of Nineveh. The people of Nineveh were steeped in sin, their evil so noxious that God dispatched the prophet Jonah to command them to change their ways.  By the time Jonah arrives in Nineveh, his message is simple: Turn, each of you, from your evil ways, and from the violence that is in your hands.[4]  But the Book of Jonah does not tell us what violence was in the hands of Nineveh; it speaks not to the specifics of their evil ways.  The Sage Samuel steps forward to explain: the King of Nineveh arose and proclaimed this message, “Even if you stole a beam and built it into your building, you must tear it down and restore the beam to its proper owner.”  The violence and evil of Nineveh was theft, the seizure of capital from one group for the specific benefit of another group.  If Nineveh was not to be destroyed, everything improperly taken, all ill-gotten gains, had to be restored.  They had to confront their inherited history.  Only a truly thorough repair could show that Nineveh had really changed.  Only by tearing down, and then rebuilding, could Nineveh be saved.

It is likely becoming apparent that I am not really speaking about stolen beams or BRCA genes, deconstructing houses or reconstructive surgery.  Tonight I am speaking about the violence that truly is in our hands, our inherited history, that great evil for which all Americans are responsible: racism.  Since we gathered last Kol Nidre, many eyes too-long closed have been opened; many hearts too long hardened have melted away when witnessing the violence, the death, the pain and the horrors of American Racism.  It is out of respect for their memories that I say the names George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; it is to the shame of Chicago, Minneapolis, Kenosha that we cannot disconnect these cities from the shooting of black people by the police.  And if there remain some in our congregation tonight who, after this tumultuous year, remain unconvinced that racism is an American cancer whose tendrils sink into every aspect of our national life—from education to economy, from medical disparities to the policing of petty crimes—then I invite you to discuss this subject with me on some other occasion.  Tonight there is simply not time for the lengthy history lesson of four hundred years from the maafa[5] of the Middle Passage to today’s legal lynching of African-Americans by our legal system.[6] On this Kol Nidre evening where we are forced to confront our sins, my fundamental, unshakeable starting point is that America, our country, is a country built upon a foundational beam of racism.

Racism is our inherited history; it is the toxic gene whose cancer needs cure.  There is a central aspect of Racism which we must confront: theft.  Early American economy was built on slave labor; for over two centuries our shores legitimated the torture of Black fathers, the rape of Black mothers, the sale of Black children.[7]  After Emancipation, societal standards of sharecropping and forced prison labor combined with legislatively-enacted Black Codes, Supreme Court rulings entrenching racist practices, and a White House that screened Birth of a Nation instead of curtailing the terrorism of the KKK.[8]  After World War II, while a Civil Rights Movement marched on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,[9] the federal government established housing policies engineering the wealth gap between White America and Black America, which in turn created the education gap, which in turn created the death gap.[10]  Poor neighborhoods, poor education, poor health: these all grow from an economy premised on promoting White at the expense of Black.  Racism cannot be separated from economics.  This is why Martin Luther King, when marching on the nation’s capital in 1968 for the Poor People’s Campaign, said, “We are coming to get our check.”[11]  Our inherited history of theft led Ta-Nehisi Coates to conclude, “When we think of white supremacy, we picture colored only signs, but we should picture pirate flags.”[12] America is a house, a nation, and an economy, built on the foundations of racism.[13]  Our United States have been built on a criminal foundation that stole Black bodies, that stole Black wealth, that stole Black freedom.

Jewish tradition teaches us what we must do with a house built upon a criminal foundation: we must tear it down in order to rebuild.  Judaism would teach us that to turn from our racist ways, to reorient ourselves towards a better future, we must engage in acts we call Tikkun Olam, repairing our world.  To fix the deep damage of American Racism, we also need a tikkun, literally a “repair”.  The simple truth is sitting right there: Judaism calls for tikkun, for repair: for reparations.  We need to make repairs that are deep and wide.  This Jewish truth coincides with the stirring in our own hearts as we see the continued pain and distress caused by racism.[14]  Our Jewish demand for tikkun, for making repair—for reparations—is in harmony with those voices protesting in the streets, those columnists claiming:

this is the time to strike, the time to take audacious steps to address systemic racial inequality—bold, sweeping reparative action.  The action must be concrete and material, rather than solely symbolic, and must address current gaps in every significant domain of social well-being: jobs, politics, education, the environment, health, housing, and of course criminal justice.[15]

What does it mean to remove the foundational beam of racism from the palace of American life and culture? What might reparations mean in religious terms?  Our sage Samuel suggests we might have to strip America to the studs; metaphorically to remove the racist beams literally built into our White House by enslaved human beings.  In a fashion that informs our modern situation, Judaism’s greatest rabbis—Hillel and Shammai—debate whether such a radical reconstruction is literal or figurative.  Discussing what happens with a stolen beam built into a foundation, Shammai, echoing Samuel, teaches that the entire building should be destroyed and the beam returned to its owners.  Hillel, however, says that the building can stand—with stolen beam in place—adding that only the value of the beam needs to be repaid to the injured party.[16]  What divides Judaism’s two greatest teachers is the best way to atone for a foundation built upon theft and deceit: do we remove the foundational beam or merely make fiscal restitution?  Either way, Hillel and Shammai agree about the central obligation: reparations are necessary. 

              Reparations are necessary.  I know some people wonder if it really matters that America was built on rotten timbers, if enslaved human beings built our White House, since that was all ancient history.  But we can no longer avoid beholding our present reality: American racism has decimated Black wealth, underfunded Black communities, incarcerated Black Bodies, and so much more.  We have a lot of atoning, repentance, teshuvah, turning and reparations to make for our toxic, systemic, and institutional racism.[17]  American reparations for slavery are made necessary by seeing the tangible results of injustice either by examining our painful present or confronting our inherited history—reparations are both an historical obligation arising from the evil of slavery, as well as the present mandate resultant from the economic condition of most of slavery’s descendants.[18]  The former German Minister of Justice, who later led the reparations effort for non-Jewish laborers enslaved by the Nazis, put it more simply: the descendants [of American slavery] should be given the support their families were unable to give them.[19]

Theft is our inherited history; the ill-gotten gains of those robberies rest in our hands.  I know in my heart of hearts that we must make reparations; Judaism likewise commands we make repair.  So the question that concerns me tonight is: how?  How do we make reparations for such a long-standing, far-reaching, historic injustice?  Do we, a la Shammai, literally demolish the foundations of America as we know it and then rebuild according to the highest values of our Constitution?  Or do we follow Hillel, and make monetary compensation to all injured parties?

              This debate, the one between Hillel and Shammai, the one ranging from financial payments to a societal restructuring, is what we call a mahloket l’shem shamayyim, an argument for the sake of the heavens.  In such an argument, where the agreed-upon goal of all parties is the reparation of our world, different approaches are valid, as is difference of opinion.  When it comes to reparations, I, Seth Limmer, have no doubt we are called upon as Americans and as Jews to see reparations made in our nation for the historic and current injustices of racism.  And, when it comes to reparations, I, Seth Limmer, have been convinced of the value of different approaches, and don’t know exactly which one I think is best.  I am committed to reparations, even though I am not certain about the best way to do so.  That is why I so admire the approach of our Union for Reform Judaism, which just this year, here in our hometown of Chicago, affirmed our resolve to:

Advocate for the creation of a federal commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to redress the historic and continuing effects of slavery and subsequent systemic racial, societal, and economic discrimination against Black Americans.[20]

I don’t know how to create the most workable and appropriate system of reparations that redresses 400 years of painful inequity and outright theft.  But I do know we are called upon to make that repair. 

I’ve always loved the story about the Traveler in the old country.  I took it as a quaint tale about how entrenched we religious people often become in certain strange customs.  But this year, the story scares the living hell out of me.  A foundational beam hangs in a sacred space: it prevents normal function, and even denies easy access to the source of our wisdom, the sacred scroll of our Torah.  The congregation, with its little old rabbi, knows the beam presents a problem, and ultimately sees it removed from its sanctuary.  But once the rotten beam is gone, its presence still lingers.  The removed beam remains an obstacle; the presence of this powerful piece of lumber is so essential to the synagogue structure—and it’s psyche—that the congregation builds its life around it even when it isn’t there anymore.  This foundational beam is a formidable presence even when absent.  It still menaces everyone.

But it’s even worse than that.

The foundational beam, even physically removed, is still present in the practices of the people.  In walks the Traveler.  Thinking the best of others, the traveler turns the congregation’s awkward adjustments to the beam into a sacred deed.  A mundane avoidance of an obstacle is twisted into an object lesson. I can only imagine the rabbi’s sermon the following Shabbat: remember our practice of bowing low and then standing upright as we ascend for the Aliyah?  We thought it was about a beam, but it’s really a message from the Heavens.  Thank God that beam split our sanctuary, that we might learn this important lesson.

No.  That cannot be.  The beam is broken, the mold is toxic, the diagnosis is cancer.  That which festers, leaving destruction in its wake, must be removed.  And we must remember why we remove it, even in the far off future when it is no longer present.  We who inherit a history of racism cannot allow any of it to live on, either in public policy or nostalgic memory.  On the model of our story, we must build a new sanctuary, and create new rituals for that sacred space that no longer in any way bring to mind the existence of that broken beam.  To make a true tikkun, to bring the full repair Yom Kippur requires, we must build from the ground up a new society with new norms, rules, expectations, hopes and dreams.  We can no longer just speak about equal rights, we must guarantee them.  We can no longer march for jobs and freedom, we must ensure people have meaningful work and are truly free in a justice system that works the same for all.  We must admit that an enslaver wrote “All men are created equal,” and rewrite a vision of an America in which all people are granted equal opportunity under law and in practice.  For the horrors and injustices that are our American inheritance, Kol Nidre comes to say: the time has arrived for reparation.

May we be the ones making that repair.

[1] See Parshat Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 13-14.

[2] Isabel Wilkerson, Caste, p. 14.

[3] Babylonian Talmud, tractate Taanit 16a.

אפילו גזל מריש ובנאו בבירה מקעקע כל הבירה כולה ומחזיר מריש לבעליו.

[4] Jonah 3:8.

[5] Maafa  is the Swahili word for “disaster”, “calamity”, or “catastrophe”.  It is the name given to the horrors of the Middle Passage that brought enslaved Africans to American shores.  See Joy Degruy, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, p. 58.

[6] Because two brief paragraphs are insufficient to speak to the depths of this profound issue, I share this suggested reading list about the history and present of racial injustice, organized alphabetically by author:
David Ansell, The Death Gap
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
Edwin Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told
William Barber, The Third Reconstruction
Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Four Years in Power
Joy DeGruy, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
Patrisse Kahn-Cullors and Asha Bandela, When They Call You A Terrorist
Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning
Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist
Joy DeGruy, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome
Charles Lane, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, The Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction.
DeRay McKesson, On the Other Side of Freedom
Susan Neiman, Learning from the Germans
Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law
Beryl Satter, Family Properties
Bryan Stephenson, ed. Policing the Black Man
Alex Vitale, The End of Policing
Danielle McGuire, At The Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance, A New History of the Civil Rights Movement

[7] This sentence is based upon Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” in We Were Eight Years in Power, p. 201.

[8] For Black Codes from the Civil War through the War on Drugs: The New Jim Crow.

On the Supreme Court: The Day Freedom Died, Policing the Black Man

Regarding the White House and the racism of Hollywood from Birth of a Nation through Gone With the Wind and Rocky: Stamped from the Beginning.

On the KKK as terrorism: William Bradform Huie, Three Lives for Mississippi.

[9] The full name of the famed August 1963 March on Washington was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”.

[10] Housing policies: Family Matters, The Color of Law

Death gap: The Death Gap. 

[11] As quoted by Susan Neiman in Learning from the Germans, p. 343.

[12] Coates, “Reparations,” p. 201.

[13] For the complete story on the theft of Black wealth during America’s centuries, see: Edwin Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told.

[14] There is no doubt we regret the institution of Americna chattel slavery; as Eula Biss expressed in a powerful essay about expressing remorse, “What is an apology without forty acres and a mule?”. 

James Baldwin, writing two generations earlier, questioned whether or not atonement is even possible for this sin, “[Structural Racism] is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” The Fire Next Time, p. 5.

see “All Apologies,” Notes from No Man’s Land, p. 193.

[15] Jennifer, A. Richeson, “Thy Mythology of Racial Progress,” The Atlantic, September 2020, p. 12.

[16] Babylonian Talmud, tractate Gittin 55a, citing a baraita found at Tosefta BK 10:5.

ועל המריש הגזול שבנאו: תנו רבנן גזל מריש ובנאו בבירה ב”ש אומרים מקעקע כל הבירה כולה ומחזיר מריש לבעליו וב”ה אומרים אין לו אלא דמי מריש בלבד משום תקנת השבין:

Interestingly, here Hillel claims that his lenient position allowing the structure to stand is a tikkun shavin, a reparation made on behalf of those who truly have changed their behavior.

[17] It’s also fair to admit that I don’t really have much patience for people, epitomized by former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, that America “is not a racist country”:

[18] Susan Neiman, Learning from the Germans, p. 347.

[19] Hans Otto Brautigam, as quoted by Susan Neiman, Learning from the Germans, p. 346.

[20] Union for Reform Judaism, “”Resolution on the Study and Development of Reparation for Slavery and Systemic Racism in the U.S.”, enacted at the URJ Biennial, Chicago, IL, November 2019:

The week before I delivered this sermon, the City of Chicago convened a subcommittee on reparations:

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