Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Day 25780 — October 1, 2019
Just over 400 years ago, in August 1619, a ship called The White Lion landed at Point Comfort, now Fort Monroe, in Hampton, about 60 miles downriver from us here in Richmond. Its cargo included 20 or so enslaved Africans, who had been stolen from a Portuguese slave ship called the San Juan Bautista. The slaves were unloaded and sold for provisions to a few wealthy English planters. These were the first Africans sold into bondage in the mainland English North American colonies that would eventually become the United States. As we know, they would by no means be the last.
By 1790, two years after Virginia ratified the US Constitution, the population of enslaved people of African descent in our commonwealth exceeded 300,000 people, fully two-fifths of the population at the time.
And here in Richmond, by the onset of the Civil War, about 40% of our city’s total population was enslaved. In addition to being the capital of both Virginia and the rebel states, Richmond also had the dubious distinction of housing the nation’s second-largest slave market in Shockoe Bottom. Before 1860, our city’s single biggest industry was buying, selling, and trading enslaved human beings.
It is commonplace in many circles nowadays to call slavery America’s “original sin.” But it is impossible to understand — and ultimately atone for — the sin of racial slavery without first coming to terms with the mindset and conditions that created it in the first place. In recent years, scholars like Richmond’s own Rev. Ben Campbell have helped us understand that slavery “was a fundamental strategy” of the European conquest of North America, enabling the colonizers to displace and in many cases slaughter this continent’s indigenous populations and exploit its resources. It’s crucial to recognize that underpinning slavery and colonization was a theology, a religious doctrine.
It’s hard to untangle whether this theology animated the conquest and plunder of the New World or whether it was simply and cynically used as a justification. But either way, faith was a fundamental element of the European theft of this continent. Animating European exploration and colonization of the New World was something that has been called the “Doctrine of Discovery.” The Doctrine of Discovery held “that European ‘Christian’ nations were entitled to claim as their own any property not held by other European Christian nations…”
The Doctrine of Discovery commanded European Christians, in the words of Pope Nicholas V, to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all…pagans[,] other enemies of Christ[,] and their kingdoms…and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”
It is important to note that those who advanced this doctrine of Christian supremacy could point to the Bible itself as justification. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, when the Israelites enter the promised land they are to utterly wipe out the Canaanites who were living there. They are to spare no one — man, woman, or child — and they may seize the Canaanites’ property for themselves.
Within this framework, Christians, who had long regarded themselves as the new Israelites, could view the New World as a new Promised Land. And all non-Christians — like Native Americans — became contemporary Canaanites. In this religious spirit, European Christians asserted that their conquest of the New World was ordained by God Himself in the Bible.
It is impossible to understate how influential the Doctrine of Discovery was. Eventually, legislators even enshrined it into American law. And it was the implementation of this Doctrine that gave rise to racial slavery in the New World.
A little history: As colonists in Virginia established a tobacco economy on the land they took from the Algonquins, they continually sought to maximize profits by looking for cheaper and more expendable labor. At first, Virginia’s wealthy landowners solved this problem by importing indentured servants from England. But as the tobacco industry boomed, they increasingly turned to African slave labor.
While English bondservants in Virginia were viewed and treated very poorly, enslaved Africans, from the get-go, had an even lower status and were subject to far harsher treatment. Whereas a bondservant worked for a prescribed period of time, an enslaved person was presumed to be under the dominion of his master for life. A master could beat a slave as he saw fit. If a slave were to die as a result of his master’s wrath, the master could not be considered guilty of any crime. Additionally, slavery was regarded as a hereditary status — any child born to a slave was automatically to be considered a slave.
The legal distinction between an enslaved person of African descent and a bondservant of English descent came from the same mindset that produced the Doctrine of Discovery: a theology of Christian supremacy. This theology dictated that Christians were superior to non-Christians. And this theology insisted that Christians were commanded to dominate and subjugate — or else, annihilate — inferior nonbelievers. Thus, the earliest slave codes in Virginia distinguished enslaved Africans from the rest of the population not along racial lines but rather along religious ones: “Christian” was one class of people, non-Christian another, with “Christian” understood to be synonymous with “a person of English descent.”
It is again important to note that those who advanced this doctrine of Christian supremacy pointed to the Bible as justification. The Hebrew Bible regards Israelite and non-Israelite slaves differently, and non-Israelite slaves could be treated much more harshly. Again, with the simple move of regarding English Christians as the new Israelites and non-Christians — like Africans — as Canaanites, people of English descent justified the slave system they developed and implemented as divinely ordained.
What complicated matters was that some enslaved Africans were themselves Christian. By this point in history, some Africans already practiced an indigenized Christianity in their home countries. The Jesuits had long forced all enslaved Africans to be baptized as Christians prior to boarding the slave ships. And some colonists converted their African slaves, both because some enslaved people wanted to become Christian and also because many believers saw it as their duty to “save” their slaves’ souls. So, to maintain a distinction between masters and slaves, legislators quickly transformed slavery from a religious caste system into a racial one.
The fact of this transformation from Christian supremacy to white supremacy — which involved the very invention of “race” as a concept and the racist attitudes and systems that necessarily follow from it — can help us understand why those who perpetuated and defended racial slavery did so with religious zeal.
And it can also help us understand why racial inequality persisted and continues to persist long after slavery was abolished. Knowing that racism and white supremacy originate as a pernicious but widely-held article of Christian faith, we can see why, for example, almost immediately after Richmond fell to Union forces, Richmond’s elite mobilized against extending legal equality to the newly freed slaves.
The religious roots of racism and white supremacy can also help us understand why, as soon as Reconstruction ended, Virginia’s white leaders brazenly took the franchise away from black citizens, segregated public transportation, made it virtually impossible for many black citizens to secure adequate housing, prohibited racial intermarriage, denied black children equal access to a quality education, and legalized racial discrimination in employment. It can help us see why white southern leaders in the 1950’s advocated “massive resistance” to school integration and desegregation. It can help us see why Richmond is today, sixty-five years after Brown v. Board of Education, more segregated by race than it has ever been in its history, and how the segregated map of the city correlates perfectly to inequities in everything from income to wealth to educational outcomes to access to healthcare to air and water quality to life expectancy.
In other words, there is a through-line between the conquest and plunder of this continent and the institution of racial slavery. It’s there between the fact that the bloodiest war in American history was fought to preserve that institution and the fact that, following the war, the former slaves and their descendants faced a coordinated and often violent campaign to retain racial slavery by any means and under any name; between the system of apartheid, disenfranchisement, and discrimination that was erected after emancipation and the unrelenting initiatives to challenge and undermine those newfound rights and equalities once the laws began to change in the ‘50’s; between redlining, massive resistance, white flight, the drug war, mass incarceration, and the fact that on average people of color in our country earn less, are arrested more, and die younger than white people. That through-line is white supremacy, which is rooted in the Christian supremacist Doctrine of Discovery, which in turn is rooted in a distorted, demented, and dangerous interpretation of Scripture.
The Christian origins of white supremacy does not mean that we Jewish Americans cannot be implicated in or bear no responsibility for it. True, most of our Jewish ancestors came to America after the end of the Civil War. Many were fleeing persecution and poverty. It is also true that the American Jewish community is multiracial, that many of our ancestors were excluded and discriminated against for much of our history here, and that many Jewish Americans have been on the front lines of advocating for equality. It is also unfortunately a fact that antisemitism endures and, in some corners thrives, in American society.
Nevertheless, the racialization of slavery — and thus the American consciousness — enabled American Jews of European descent to be considered white. And our whiteness afforded us power and privilege. This is most obviously evidenced by American Jews who perpetuated and defended racialized slavery. Indeed, a Jewish Richmonder held several of the highest offices in the Confederacy, and Beth Ahabah’s rabbi was one of the most prominent defenders of the Slave States. There were many Jewish slave owners in the antebellum South. In the decades following the Civil War, many Jews actively defended segregation. Others passively supported it, through silence and white flight.
Yes, Jews have thrived in America in large part thanks to our ingenuity, our grit, and our chutzpah. But we Jews of European descent have also been buoyed by our skin color. We may not have created white supremacy, but we have nevertheless benefited from and perpetuated it.
Additionally, the Christian origins of white supremacy does not mean that Christians or Christianity are the enemy. The Doctrine of Discovery was never universally embraced by Christians, and I am certain that the majority of Christians today would categorically reject the Doctrine. And though Christianity has been mustered in defense of colonialism, slavery, and segregation, Christians have also been at the forefront of movements for liberation and social justice. At the same time, it is crucial for American Christians, especially those who benefit from white privilege, to recognize the role that Christian faith played in creating and entrenching the racial dynamics that continue to affect this country.
Ultimately, we all must come to terms with this basic fact: white supremacy is more than an overt ideology, the kind espoused by skinheads or khaki-clad white guys marching with tiki torches in Charlottesville. It may have Christian roots, but it has become deeply rooted in the American psyche, etched into the entire infrastructure of our country. We’re all in one way or another impacted by or implicated in economic and social systems shaped by the oppressive theology of the colonizers. We will therefore never be able to heal our city, our commonwealth, and our country, without treating the underlying infection. The sickness at the heart of our society is bad faith. And the only thing that can overcome bad faith — is good faith. The remedy must match the malady. A religious problem requires a spiritual solution.
A careful reading of Today’s Torah portion can help us chart a path forward. It is a troubling story, and yet also so familiar that many of us can recount it by heart:
God, we are told, “tests” Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham immediately and unquestioningly takes Isaac, along with two of his servants, to Mt. Moriah. Abraham leaves the two servants at the base of the mountain and ascends with Isaac. Atop the peak, Abraham builds an altar and binds Isaac upon it. As he lifts up the knife to slaughter his son, an angel calls out from heaven and tells him to stop. Abraham then finds a ram in a nearby thicket and sacrifices it in Isaac’s place.
This story raises so many challenging questions: Why is God testing Abraham? What, exactly, was the test? Does Abraham pass? What happens to Isaac? What lessons are we to learn from this unsettling narrative?
Let’s look closely at the text. God’s instruction to Abraham is:
קַח־נָ֠א אֶת־בִּנְךָ֨ אֶת־יְחִֽידְךָ֤ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַ֙בְתָּ֙ אֶת־יִצְחָ֔ק וְלֶךְ־לְךָ֔ אֶל־אֶ֖רֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּ֑ה וְהַעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה עַ֚ל אַחַ֣ד הֶֽהָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֹמַ֥ר אֵלֶֽיךָ׃
Typically, this is translated as, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will point out to you.”
However, the specific actions God prescribes here are not quite so clear in the original Hebrew. God definitely tells Abraham to “take” Isaac to the land of Moriah. There is little ambiguity in the word קח. But there is much more ambiguity in the phrase וְהַעֲלֵ֤הוּ שָׁם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ה. It of course can mean “offer him there as a burnt offering.”
But the Hebrew verb עלה literally means “to go up.” It is the same root we use for עליה, to ascend the bimah for an honor, to make a pilgrimage, or to move to the Land of Israel. So another way of understanding God’s command could be “take him up there as someone who ascends,” or “take him up there to be honored,” or “take him up there as a pilgrim.” No less an authority than Rashi, the greatest of the medieval commentators, points out this very fact. According to Rashi, the text specifically says “take him up.” And it specifically does not say “kill him.”
If God had wanted Abraham to kill Isaac, or even if God had wanted Abraham to think that God wanted him to kill Isaac, God could have said so explicitly. The fact that God specifically does not instruct Abraham to kill Isaac means, according to Rashi, “that the Holy Blessed One did not want [Abraham] to slaughter him, but rather [merely] to take him up to the mountain.” As evidence for this fact, Rashi notes that once Abraham had taken Isaac up there, God tells him to take him back down.
This insight helps resolve one of the central difficulties in the story, namely the nature of the test God is giving Abraham. Typically, the test is understood to be about Abraham’s total loyalty to God, whether his devotion was so complete that he would be willing to perpetrate a horrible crime simply because God told him to. Sometimes, the test is understood to be about Abraham’s faith in God, whether he would follow God’s command, however confusing or painful or uncertain, without the guarantee of a particular outcome.
And as evidence that Abraham passed one or both of these tests, commentators typically point out that, after Abraham shows his willingness to slaughter his son, the angel says, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”
But if we read carefully, we will see that the angel specifically does not say that Abraham passed God’s test. The angel simply says that Abraham had, through nearly killing Isaac, demonstrated a fear of the Divine. To fear God means to faithfully obey God’s commands out of a respect for Divine authority or out of a concern for what will happen to you if you do not. Clearly, Abraham thought God was ordering him to sacrifice his son, and, in dutifully obeying what he perceived to be the command, Abraham shows that he either respects God’s authority enough to unquestioningly obey, or sufficiently fears the consequences of disobedience. In other words, Abraham certainly proves that he fears God. But does he pass the test?
What if the test wasn’t about whether or not Abraham feared God? Rather, what if the test was about whether Abraham interpreted God’s command in a way that was consistent with who he understood God to be? God deliberately gives Abraham a command that could be interpreted in one of two ways: either God was ordering Abraham to bind, slaughter, and burn his son, or God was ordering Abraham to take him up to the highest of heights in honor or in homage. Which interpretation to follow depended entirely on what Abraham knew about God. Was the God that Abraham knew to this point a deity who would order an atrocity, or was the God that Abraham knew a deity who would only ever command uplift, a Sovereign who, to borrow a line from today’s liturgy, desires life most of all?
For whatever reason, Abraham followed the former understanding, and with devastating consequences. True, he secures the blessing of empire, though it’s important to note that the substance of the angel’s blessing merely repeats what God had already promised Abraham elsewhere. And it all comes at a terrible cost: Abraham returns to his servants alone. Sarah, the next we hear of her, is dead; neither God nor Isaac ever speak to Abraham again. Isaac, for his part, is irreparably damaged physically and emotionally according to many of the traditional commentaries. And Isaac’s children and grandchildren spend most of their lives at each other’s, and others’, throats.
Given what we know today about transgenerational trauma, this dysfunction is unsurprising. Long before the advent of modern psychology, the Torah conveys that Isaac’s pain and alienation were passed on to his descendents. So Abraham gets the empire he is promised, but it is — much like our own American empire — lonely and fractured and built on a cracked foundation.
What would have happened if Abraham had interpreted God’s command differently? How would the story have played out? How would history have changed?
It’s impossible to know for sure. But what we can do is treat the Binding of Isaac as a cautionary tale with the aim of helping us make different choices. We can recognize that it is within our power to choose whether ours is a God of domination or a God of love, whether ours is a God who instructs us to divide and conquer or to unite and uplift.
And if we believe in a God who lifts the fallen, heals the broken, and releases the bound — the terms our tradition repeatedly uses to describe the God with whom we are called to be in relationship — then it is not only possible but obligatory to interpret sacred text and religious imperatives in a way that aligns with such a God, and to reject understandings that could never emanate from such a God.
Rabbi Moses Maimonides put it this way: “The laws of the Torah are not vengeance in the world, but mercy and kindness and peace in the world.” If the purpose of Torah is to advance mercy, kindness, and peace, then, as my dear teacher, Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes, we are not only permitted but rather duty-bound to “construe its demands in terms of these moral goals.”
Reorienting ourselves to this way of understanding God, interpreting scripture, and applying our tradition is the only way to repair what Abraham broke that fateful day on Mt. Moriah. And, indeed, it is the only way to repair what those first colonizers broke when they planted crosses on Algonquin lands and claimed them for the crown and for Christ. Only by zealously adopting a theology and spiritual practice that aligns with the godly virtues of love, justice, and peace can we undo and utterly root out attitudes, customs, laws, and systems that fly in the face of the notion that every single human being is created in the Divine image, infinite in dignity and equal in worth. Only good faith can repair what bad faith has torn asunder. Bad faith broke us. Only good faith will fix us.
How could we be remade through good faith?
Imagine, for a moment, what our city and our commonwealth could look like if our most deeply held belief, if our highest religious ideal, were affirming that every human being were created in the Divine image, that we are all of us equally and infinitely valuable, and that we are therefore all of us obligated to lift each other up.
If we were to truly embrace this ideal, if we became fundamentalists for human dignity and equality, I imagine we would say that 65 years after Brown v. Board, and 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, it was past time to dismantle the systems that perpetuate segregation and inequality.
I imagine we would become more insistent that poor, African American renters deserve to stay in their home than we have been about keeping statues of Confederate “heroes” on their pedestals on Monument Ave.
I imagine that we would demand one’s zip code no longer determine their life expectancy, and that the color of one’s skin no longer determine their prospects for escaping poverty.
And I imagine that we would no longer tolerate a status quo in which 25% of Richmonders, and nearly 40% of our children, mostly racial minorities, go to bed hungry each night.
We whose tradition is rooted in the principle of human equality have a crucial role to play in forging a better future. We who have come to benefit from the white supremacy embedded in the structure of our society have a unique ability and responsibility to dismantle it. And we who reside in the birthplace of American racial inequity have the power and the obligation to work toward inclusion and justice.
In this year, as we commemorate the 400th anniversary of those first enslaved Africans being unloaded on these shores, in this moment when white supremacy is ascendant and inequality is more rampant than ever, in this place, in this still-segregated “Capital City of Slavery,” and on this day of judgment and repentance, we are called to begin the work of repairing what is broken in our society. And we must start by healing the sickness in our souls. Because two hundred fifty years of slavery, ninety years of Jim Crow, sixty years of separate but equal, and forty years of mass incarceration are but symptoms — pernicious, painful symptoms, but symptoms nevertheless — of a deeper spiritual illness, a disease transmitted to us by those first colonizers. But today on Rosh Hashanah, and here in Richmond, we can commit to begin the healing.
The soul of this nation is sick because of the bad faith of white supremacy. That bad faith both made us what we are, and continues to break us apart. But there is a cure. We can heal ourselves. For though bad faith broke us, good faith can fix us. This year, in this city, and starting with this very community — let’s let the healing begin.