The Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates
In the Hebrew tradition prophets cry out in the wilderness in part because their audience tends to be uninterested in the message. If the people were ready, after all, they wouldn’t need a prophet. “The prophet faces a coalition of callousness and established authority, and undertakes to stop a mighty stream with mere words,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote. “The purpose of prophecy is to conquer callousness, to change the inner man as well as to revolutionize history.”
Last week, The Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations,” a remarkable piece that in many ways calls to mind Rabbi Heschel’s portrayal of prophetic literature: Facing a coalition of callousness and established authority, Coates offers “mere words,” with the intent of revolutionizing history. How might an American Jew respond?
Tasked with considering “The Case for Reparations” from a Jewish perspective, however, I must first make some disclaimers: I’m not a rabbi and don’t by any stretch represent all Jews or Jewish opinion. Furthermore, Coates and I have known each other online for several years, via his blog; I’m a long-time member of his commenter community. I’m not objective.
Yet for all that, the Jewish space opened by Coates’s words is, to my mind, inescapable. At base, “Reparations” is a call for collective action in response to collective injustice, a demand for “the just return of honest industry,” and an insistence that “a delinquent debt [cannot] be made to disappear if only we don’t look.” These ideas resonate with the Jewish experience at every level — in our prayer, Scripture and history.
Jews have always been at the forefront of labor movements (“the just return of honest industry”), in no small part because our tradition calls for fair compensation at every turn: “You shall not defraud your fellow,” God tells the Israelites, “the wages of the laborer shall not remain with you until morning.”
Collective accountability is a cornerstone of Judaism, however, beyond any particularistic commands — I don’t have to employ laborers to share the obligation of building a fair society.
“All Israel is responsible one to the other,” we learn in the Talmud; in Leviticus we’re enjoined to remember that “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.” Certain prayers may only be said in community; on Yom Kippur, we seek atonement in the plural. We’re even taught that the coming of Messiah (or the Messianic age) turns on our interconnected behavior.
The structured, institutional, top-down-and-bottom-up nature of American racism laid out in “Reparations” was never the decision of a single person or a group; likewise, the implications and consequences of individual decisions wash along distant shores. As a child growing up in suburban Chicago, did I have anything to do with policies that snared Black families in poverty-wracked city neighborhoods? No — but everything in my adult life stems from the education provided by suburban property taxes (and a constantly growing tax base) from which those families were systemically barred. Even unto the third and fourth generations.
Another question about the discrepancies between my childhood and that of children just down the road: Did I or my family even know about or understand the consciously stacked nature of our racial good fortune?
I certainly didn’t, but I would argue (based on that most dicey of historical tools, memory) that the adults around me didn’t either. If they did, they observed a scrupulous silence, and ignorance was at the very least fostered, if not simply passed on, as most ignorance is.
But what of that ignorance? Does ignorance change the nature of the wrong? When we ask forgiveness for sins committed “knowingly or unknowingly,” our liturgy acknowledges that we often break with God’s commandments in ignorance — but we’re also taught that the moment we know that we’ve erred, we’re bound by all relevant commandments. The sin is always a sin. In Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9) we learn that the community that discovers a corpse and cannot explain the death must make expiation before the Holy One, if only for the sin of failing to prevent the stranger’s death. Ignorance may be understandable, but we’re still responsible for the cost.
Moreover, we have a moral duty to seek an end to ignorance. This is what Torah study is, and by extension Jewish culture’s attachment to education — an eternal effort to free ourselves of ignorance. Earlier in Shoftim we’re called to scrupulousness in our legal proceedings; verse 20 reads: “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” In the eyes of our faith and our God, it’s not enough to passively allow the right thing to happen — we are enjoined to seek out the right, actively.
Of course, the Black and Jewish communities also share a very specific American history, and in some cases, crossover. Many of our brothers and sisters of color are descended from those who were whipped and hanged, and when Heschel wrote that we are sometimes enjoined to pray “with our feet,” he was referring to Selma. Klansmen were just as willing to kill New York Jews as they were to lynch local Black residents.
Yet these facts cannot erase the legacies of other American Jews, those who remained silent in the face of or benefited from slavery — or who benefit and perpetuate the legacy of segregation today. Our history can only serve as a starting point for future collaboration.
“We must imagine a new country,” Coates writes. “Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely,” later adding “I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as — if not more than — the specific answers that might be produced.”
Is there anything more Jewish than the call to wrestle with questions of right behavior? Jacob wrestled with the angel; Abraham and Moses argued directly with God. We codified the disagreements of our sages and hold them as holy writ; our Torah, we’re told, has “Seventy Faces.”
We can never know what will come of any discussion (perhaps that’s why we so often set terms and conditions before sitting down), but Judaism doesn’t allow us to not ask the questions — and once raised, we must wrestle with them. Our comfort level, and the potential costs, aren’t of very much concern.
I don’t know Ta-Nehisi well, but I know him well enough to suspect that he would be uncomfortable with the mantle of Hebrew prophet. I don’t come to declare him such, but to recognize in his work the echoes that we hear in our faith, rolling down through the centuries.
I also don’t know where a genuine reckoning may lead. We don’t have to know that, though, to know that the reckoning is necessary — that in fact, given the wanton destruction of and disregard for so many millions of lives, it’s a moral imperative.
We learn in Pirkei Avot that while we aren’t required to complete the task of righteousness, neither are we free to desist from it. Otherwise, we run the risk of (in Coates’s words) “ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”
Is America ready for the message? Probably not. But then, as Jews know, people never are. That’s why we need prophets.