Reparations/Tikkun Olam

Since we’re talking about things that get people up in arms (see recent post re: taxes and public safety…arms are another topic altogether) and scare people, let’s talk about reparations. I was not sure how to address this issue but then saw the approach of Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman at the Kol Nidrei services of Congregation Shareii Shamayim. [Kol Nidrei is the service on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of atonement.]

Rabbi Laurie addressed the issue clearly; in a way that I think people can understand and actually think about the issue rather than just run scared from it. The initial metaphor of a stolen beam used to build a house seems like an ideal lens through which to view the issue – and of course the story involves a disagreement on interpretation; and what better issue of atonement than reparations? The following is reprinted with permission.

Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman Kol Nidrei 5783
October 4, 2022

Grounding Our Communities in Teshuvah and Tzedek: A Jewish Approach to Reparations for Black Americans

The book of Leviticus states, “If you steal something, give it back.” (Lev. 5:23)

A long, long time ago, Rabbi Hillel was arguing with Rabbi Shammai: If a robber steals a beam, and uses it to build a house, how can you give it back? What exactly do you do now that that beam is holding up the entire structure?

Rabbi Shammai insisted that the robber demolish his house to extract the beam and return it.

Rabbi Hillel disagreed. He knew that a robber would be unlikely to come forward and do teshuvah, or make amends, if he knew that he would have to demolish his house. That would be too onerous – he would lose the beam, but also his home. Instead, Rabbi Hillel argued that the original owner should be compensated for what was stolen.

Rabbi Shammai was known for his strict, literal – and some might say extreme – approach to Jewish law, while Rabbi Hillel was more flexible, lenient, and pragmatic. Jewish law almost always sides with Rabbi Hillel, and indeed, his opinion prevailed in the case of marish hagazul – a stolen beam.

The rabbis enacted takanat hashavim, an ordinance for the rehabilitation of the penitent, to encourage the robber to do teshuvah. They made this ruling because they believed it would encourage the robber to repent through financial compensation and to stop stealing altogether.

This Talmudic debate is a bit obscure, but in the last few years it has become a core Jewish text to argue for reparations for Black Americans descended from enslaved Africans. Slavery, among many other evils, is theft. America stole Black lives, Black labor, and Black dignity.

Rabbi Sharon Brous writes, “Our country was built on a stolen beam. Except it was several million stolen beams. And they weren’t beams; they were human beings.”1

Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai might have disagreed about what to do with a stolen beam, but it was clear to them that justice had to be served. What was stolen must be returned, and if that was too difficult, then restitution must be made. [Emphasis added]

Today, on Yom Kippur, we are here not only to make amends in our individual relationships, but also to focus on collective teshuva. We examine our society, along with our role in it, with a critical lens. Those of us who are white must acknowledge our wrongdoings and responsibility. None of us was alive during slavery. Those of us who are descended from Jews who came from Central and Western Europe, our relatives primarily came here after the Civil War ended, but benefited from white skin. As journalist Isabel Wilkerson writes,

[Each] new immigrant—the ancestors of most current-day Americans—walked into a preexisting hierarchy, bipolar in construction, arising from slavery and pitting the extremes in human pigmentation at opposite ends…Oppressed people from around the world, particularly from Europe, passed through Ellis Island, shed their old selves, and often their old names to gain admittance to the powerful dominant majority…It was in becoming American that they became white.2

Jews of Color among us struggle with the legacy of slavery and white supremacy while being part of a majority white Jewish community. This is challenging. I give this sermon today as another step in pushing our community to become more anti-racist.

As we consider our communal responsibilities, we turn our attention to reparations, because the injustices of the past perpetuate the injustices of the present and of the future.

The word “reparations” comes from the word “repair.” In Jewish thought, we talk about tikkun olam, or “repair of the world.” We address the brokenness in our world, not just through an act of kindness here or there, but through sustained, meaningful action to effect systemic change.

To repair what is broken takes courage. It takes a willingness to understand, listen, learn, grow, and change. We can’t make change if we feel defensive, entitled, or consumed by guilt. [Emphasis added.] We make change when we examine what we have done wrong, as individuals and as a society. And from that place we engage in the critical issues of our society.

As a Jewish community, we discuss reparations through a Jewish lens. Reconstructing Judaism, one of the two movements of which we are a part, has proposed a resolution in support of reparations, and we will study the issue together over the next several months. Our members, Shahanna McKinney Baldon and Rabbi Renee Bauer, were the national co-chairs of the committee that created the resolution.

Rabbi Micah Guerrin Weiss explains:

Reparations can mean many things. It is policy, theology, a moral obligation, history, and a demand for truth and reconciliation. The National African-American Commission on Reparations (NAACR) defines reparations as, “a process of repairing, healing and restoring a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights.” Ta-Nehisi Coates understands reparations as an ethical orientation — “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.” There is no Hebrew term that fully encompasses the range of meanings that are associated with the English word, reparations. It is both teshuvah — the Jewish process of public accountability, apology, mending, and returning to right relationship, and tzedek — the ethical demands of material and legal justice.3

We can’t address the imperative of reparations if we don’t understand the brutality of American slavery. Wilkerson writes:

The vast majority of African-Americans who lived in this land in the first 246 years of what is now the United States lived under the terror of people who had absolute power over their bodies and their very breath, subject to people who faced no sanction for any atrocity they could conjure…

Slavery so perverted the balance of power that it made the degradation of the subordinate caste seem normal and righteous…The most respected and beneficent of society people oversaw forced labor camps that were politely called plantations, concentrated with hundreds of unprotected prisoners whose crime was that they were born with dark skin. Good and loving mothers and fathers, pillars of their communities, personally inflicted gruesome tortures upon their fellow human beings.4

This is the foundation upon which the United States was built – millions of “stolen beams,” who were, in fact, human beings.

In 1865, General William T. Sherman drafted an order which stipulated that Confederate land seized in Georgia and South Carolina would be split among formerly enslaved Black people in those states. Each former slave family would receive up to 40 acres and an army mule. President Abraham Lincoln and Congress gave their approval. But after Lincoln was assassinated, President Andrew Jackson vetoed the legislation.

This is the basis for current legislation, H.R. 40, which would study the ongoing effects of slavery in the U.S. and create a commission to study reparations for Black Americans. Late Michigan Rep. John Conyers introduced it in 1989 and every year after until 2017. It is still being introduced, but it has never made it out of committee. The history and legacy of slavery, apparently, is so controversial that it cannot even be studied.

As a Jewish community we don’t need to rely on an obscure Talmudic text to justify the need for a Jewish approach to reparations. We only need to turn to one of our most fundamental stories, which we tell every year at Passover. Usually we gloss right over it, but when the Israelites fled Egypt, the Torah explains that they “asked” or “borrowed from” their Egyptian neighbors objects of silver and gold, as well as clothing. They took reparations for their enslaved labor.

What’s more, they left with vast amounts. The Egyptians owed the Israelite slaves payment for their unpaid labor. As Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein writes, “According to the Talmud and even the Torah itself, not only were reparations just, but taking them by any means necessary, even deception, was just and commanded by God.”5

Reparations in the United States would look quite different from ancient Egypt. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, it would compensate families for “250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow segregation, 60 years of separate but equal, and 35 years of racist housing policy.” It would attempt to narrow disparities in wealth between white and Black Americans, for the average white family possesses ten times the average wealth of a Black family.6

Many different models for reparations exist. There could be direct payments to families, vouchers for medical insurance or college, or access to a trust fund to finance a business or home. Or there could be long-term investments in education, housing, and businesses that build up the wealth of Black Americans.7

We might wonder how reparations would be paid and whether our country can afford it. That’s a good question for an economist, but I don’t think that’s the issue for us. Coates writes,

Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate—the kind that HR 40 proposes—we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion…I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane.8

Coates writes that this is about “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”9 This is collective teshuvah. He reminds us that we must consider our obligations to other people. So do our Jewish texts. To whom are we responsible, for what, and how will we set things right? How do we turn towards tzedek, towards justice, so that we can live up to our ethical principles?

Our ancient texts and the principles of teshuvah and tzedek form the basis of a Jewish understanding of reparations. We should also consider modern Jewish history – German reparations to the State of Israel and to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

In 1951, West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, affirmed that Germany would pay reparations. “In the name of the German people,” he said, “unspeakable crimes were committed which create a duty of moral and material restitution.” 10

Many Jews harshly opposed the idea of reparations. They argued it was blood money. Future Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, urged Israeli Jews to stop paying taxes in opposition. Israeli militants tried to assassinate Adenauer. But Prime Minister David Ben Gurion believed that Israel would only survive if it accepted financial support from Germany. Indeed, by 1956, Germany was supplying 87.5 percent of Israel’s state revenue.11

At the time, only a minority of West Germans – 29 percent – believed that they owed Jews reparations for Nazi atrocities. But Germany moved forward, and it mattered – to Israel, Jewish survivors, and the German people. It led to a real moral reckoning in Germany, which led to an imperfect but tangible reconciliation. As political scientist Lily Gardener Feldman states, “reconciliation is a process” – and “reparations are the first step.”12

There are so many issues to address this Yom Kippur. But I wanted to talk about reparations because it is part of our Jewish story. Our country was built on “stolen beams,” and we must return what is stolen. When return is not possible, we must pay reparations. [Emphasis added]

As Rabbi Weiss writes, reparations is “teshuvah — the Jewish process of public accountability, apology, mending, and returning to right relationship, and  tzedek — the ethical demands of material and legal justice.”

This Yom Kippur, let’s engage in teshuvah and tzedek.
Let’s work towards “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” Let’s build now for the future, because political transformation is possible. Another world is possible.
Gmar chatimah tovah.

Notes

  1. Rabbi Sharon Brous, “Our Country Was Built on a Stolen Beam: The Call for a National Reckoning,” sermon on Rosh Hashanah II, September 22nd, 2017.
  2. Isabel Wilkerson, “Isabel Wilkerson on the Legacies of American Chattel Slavery: The Making of Color Caste in the United States,” Literary Hub, November 30, 2020.
  3. Reconstructing Judaism on reparations: https://www.reconstructingjudaism.org/reparations/
  1. Isabel Wilkerson, “Isabel Wilkerson on the Legacies of American Chattel Slavery: The Making of Color Caste in the United States,” Literary Hub, November 30, 2020.
  2. Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein, “The Torah Case for Reparations,” March 29, 2018. A shortened version of this article can be found at Evolve, October 21, 2020.
  3. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014.
  4. Patricia Cohen, “What Reparations for Slavery Might Look Like in 2019,” The New YorkTimes, May 23, 2019.
  5. Coates, “The Case for Reparations”
  6. Coates, “The Case for Reparations”
  7. Bernd Reiter, “If Germany Atoned for the Holocaust the US Can Pay Reparations forSlavery,” The Conversation, July 31, 2019 (updated August 2, 2019).
  8. Reiter, “If Germany Atoned for the Holocaust the US Can Pay Reparations for Slavery” 
  9.  Annabelle Timsit, “The Blueprint the US Can Follow to Finally Pay Reparations,” Quartz, October 13, 2020 (updated July 20, 2022).

page5image994273696

This post is meant to start or contribute to a conversation, not end it.

The other sure thing

We’ve touched on death in these pages before. I don’t know that we’ve ever talked about taxes.

I heard a politician talking about tax cuts. That seems to be the central theme of nearly every Republican. We’ve been taught to think of taxes as a bad thing and as cutting them to be the best thing our politicians can do for us.

If cutting them is the best thing they can do, why do they have jobs? Taxes pay their salaries. If we don’t need taxes and don’t need the services provided by them, why do we need legislators? It would seem their first course of action should then be to eliminate their own jobs.

But what are taxes but our shared vision as to how to build a society? We may not all agree on every expenditure – I’d be frightened if we did – but most of us like to have roads to travel on. Those of us who live where it snows like to have the snow removed now and then. Having trash removed comes in handy. Water we can drink? Not a bad idea. Sewage that flows out of pipes away from our houses? Hey, I could use that. Treating that sewage instead of just having pipes that run into the nearest body of water? Another pretty good idea.

It seems those who clamor for tax cuts are not the same who call for defunding the police. Something ironic there. Cutting taxes means defunding something, and taken to the extreme I’ve seen proposed means defunding nearly everything (including schools, Social Security, Medicare, nearly all social services).

But what does “defunding”mean? And what do the police do? (And I don’t mean to say that former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Dailey was correct that “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”1) If our interest is public safety, are police departments the best place for all of those dollars? The police likely would be the first to tell you that their job is to respond to crime after it happens. They arrest the alleged perpetrators and work with the DA to develop a case. Their crime prevention role seems to be primarily to convince us that the likelihood of being caught and the repercussions of being convicted outweigh the benefits of committing a crime. (That, and going to elementary schools to scare kids out of smoking weed; though I don’t think that program is still in existence.)

My city alder just wrote a thoughtful post about public safety which included this:

For once, I would love for our city to have intentional city-wide conversations on what public safety should mean.  I had often wondered if we could ask the question, what would you need to feel safe in the City of Madison -without framing these conversations around police and fire-what people might answer?  This question faces challenges because of competing forces preventing change.  As an elected official, if you explore alternatives to policing, you can be labelled as soft on crime by the police union and others, making electability more difficult.  For most of us, we have grown up with a media landscape or narrative about policing that informs us.  Think of the hundreds of cops shows on TV and at the movies.  For me, I cannot escape the fact that the horrific racial disparities within our local criminal justice system and policing could not exist without the other. 

    With calls to defund or abolish the police, I am left curious that if I woke up tomorrow, and there were no police at all, who would investigate murders, who would respond to sex trafficking, who is going to be the first responder if there is a shooting?  I could foresee a future where we might take long held police duties like traffic enforcement and civilianize these roles.  Imagine if you were speeding and you were pulled over by someone without a gun ( let’s call them  a Civilian Traffic Buddy), knowing that the worse outcome would be a citation (unless you were in the act of a felony) rather than jail or death.”  

My own two cents on that last part. 1) In Great Britain, between 4 and 5% of police officers are armed. Police firearms were “intentionally discharged at persons” four times in the year ended 3/31/2022. 2 This number is reported as stable over the past several years.

In contrast, in the US, police have shot and killed an average of 982 people per year over the past six years.3 As a percentage of total population, police kill Black people at a rate 2.5 times greater than that at which they kill White people, and kill Latin@ people at a rate nearly double that of White people.

My other penny’s worth…2) Alder B above talks about “the worse outcome” of a traffic stop being a citation “(unless you were in the act of a felony)”. That one deserves a closer look. When I worked in a trauma unit, the majority of the people I saw were there for injuries related to alcohol. A 90 day retrospective study of patients at another trauma center found that ⅔ of drivers tested positive for alcohol or other drugs.4 When the trauma unit was slow I used to joke about rounding up more business by heading out to the bars, buying a round for the house, and making sure everyone had their keys. The flip side of that (being serious) is that this represents an opportunity for a cultural change that can actually help prevent crime and injury, in other words be a public health measure. In the state of Wisconsin, first offense drunk driving results only in a citation – a traffic ticket. Driving drunk only rises to the level of a felony on one’s fourth conviction.5 Of course, it also becomes a felony if you kill someone. What if our culture didn’t glorify drunkenness? (Those of us who are old enough recall when we glorified cigarette smoking and televised athletic events were sponsored by tobacco companies, not just breweries. Culture change is possible.) What if bartenders and friends were encouraged and trained to take away someone’s keys when they were drunk? What if all cars had ignition interlocks to prevent starting by someone who is drunk? The average cost is $50-$150.6 Might that cost come down if the devices were produced in greater numbers?

Alder Benford went on to talk about a new city program. If you watch TV drama, this has already been implemented on “Station 19”.

 “By now, most of you have heard of our awesome CARES  team- Community Alternative Response Emergency Services (https://www.cityofmadison.com/fire/emergency-medical-services/community-alternative-response-emergency-services-cares).  As a social worker, I was so excited to learn before I joined the council, that we were on the path to developing a model, like other cities.  A public safety service that could send a skilled paramedic and mental health professional on a 911 call that does not require the police.  As I dream about reimaging public safety, so that all, regardless of our backgrounds, feel safe, I reason that CARES is our first major step as a city to accomplish this goal.  Alders agreed  to fund a tactical expansion of CARES to ensure additional coverage and long-term success.  I am excited about the future of CARES.

This is another way that tax dollars can go toward public safety and violence prevention. Not all calls to 9-1-1 require a police response. Police response to mental health crisis often results in unnecessary death. To put it more bluntly, it results in the police killing the person they were called to help.7

So when people talk of “defunding the police”, the true meaning is often redirecting limited funds to programs more likely to contribute to public health and violence reduction than the current system. It is not an attack on police. It is not anti-authoritarian. It is pro-public safety.

How we make funding decisions comes down to how we set our priorities. If our priority is to catch people after they have done wrong, increasing police funding may well be the answer. If our priority is to change the conditions which lead to crime, transferring some of those funds to other programs which address social inequities may be a more prudent use of dollars.

So while it is possible that “’tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes7, how we levy and how we use those taxes is one of the most important discussions we can have.

1 https://www.chicagomag.com/city-life/January-2020/The-Chicago-Political-Quote-Hall-of-Fame/

2 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/police-use-of-firearms-statistics-england-and-wales-april-2021-to-march-2022/police-use-of-firearms-statistics-england-and-wales-april-2021-to-march-2022

3 https://www.statista.com/statistics/585152/people-shot-to-death-by-us-police-by-race/

4 •Walsh, J. M., Flegel, R., Atkins, R., Cangianelli, L. A., Cooper, C., Welsh, C., & Kerns, T. J. (2005). Drug and alcohol use among drivers admitted to a Level-1 trauma center. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 37(5), 894-901. doi:10.1016/j.aap.2005.04.013

5 https://wisconsindot.gov/documents/safety/education/drunk-drv/owi-penchrt.pdf

6 https://www.wisconsin-owi.com/blog/2021/01/07/how-much-does-it-cost-208191

7 https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/interactive/2022/police-shootings-mental-health-calls/

8https://ia902807.us.archive.org/0/items/coblerofprestonf00bull/coblerofprestonf00bull.pdf

Note: I attempted to reach my alder for permission to quote from his weekly newsletter. I have not received a response but, as this was a newsletter sent to all constituents, privacy did not seem to be an issue. Since I didn’t get his consent, I ask for forgiveness.

In the beginning

Image of a newly-forming star from the James Webb telescope, downloaded from The Washington Post

– En el principio no había nada
ni espacio
ni tiempo.
El universo entero concentrado
en el espacio del núcleo de un átomo,
y antes aun menos, mucho menor que un protón,
y aun menos todavía, un infinitamente denso punto matemático
Y fue el Big Bang. – de Cántico Cósmico, por Ernesto Cardenal, 1989

“In the beginning, there was nothing
no space
no time. 
The entire universe concentrated
in the space of the nucleus of a single atom,  
and before even less, much less than a proton, 
and before still less, an infinitely dense mathematical point
And there was the Big Bang.”
 
(translation by half-fast cycling club) 

James Webb telescope images from UC Santa Cruz

The red spots in the images above are described as newly forming galaxies, one formed 350 million years and the other 450 million years after the big bang. They are about 13.8 billion light years away. The resolution is not as clear as the star above, so the images may not be as awe-inspiring at first glance, but this is incomprehensible…The light we are seeing left those galaxies more than 13 billion years ago.

As Sen Everett Dirksen once said about money, “a billion here, a billion there – and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” If you counted out a billion dollar bills at the rate of one per second, it would take you about 32 years to count them – multiply that by 13.8 and you have about 457.5 years. 13.8 billion is a lot.

Since light travels at about 670 billion mph, it would travel almost 6 trillion miles in a year. This makes thinking about 13.8 billion light years in terms of miles or kilometers pretty much impossible.

This is made all the more incomprehensible when you recall that the universe is only 5783 years old. ; ) Cardenal (a Roman Catholic priest) lets us know that believing in a god and acknowledging science are not mutually exclusive.

Let it snow, let it snow

It was time to remind myself that I’m somebody who rides a bike in all weather. I was afraid I was getting soft in retirement so I headed out today. It was snowing lightly, temperature 25º (-4 C), and windy (windchill 13 F). It was a great day for a ride. Since I no longer commute, getting out involves a conscious decision.

Here in Wisconsin we are strong supporters of the Right to Bare Arms. Despite that, I was pretty well covered up for my ride. Remember that when you ride into the wind, the apparent wind (and therefore the windchill) requires adding the wind velocity to your speed.

GREEN BAY, WI – JANUARY 12: Running back Ryan Grant #25 of the Green Bay Packers bares arms during the NFC divisional playoff game on January 12, 2008 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

There’s no business like snow business

I woke up to fresh snow – not enough to ski, but enough that the door scraped through it upon opening.

This means it’s time to get the winter bike ready. It needed a new rear sprocket. I have written before of the value of a belt drive bike for winter – lower maintenance being #1 on the list. While there is less maintenance to do, when it comes time, the tasks are a bit different than on a chain-drive bike.

The sprocket on top is the old one. Note how the teeth have worn down to sharp edges, unlike the rounded profile of the teeth on the new sprocket below. Changing the sprocket is simple, according to the YouTube tutorial from Gates, maker of the belt drive system. There is an expensive-looking tool – the Gates SureFit Tool – sure enough, I found it on sale for €81.95 or between $133 and $150 US on three sites. It is totally unnecessary. It is for installing the part but not for removing the old one. Installing is the easy part.

While the tool is very impressive-looking, in anodized aluminum with a knurled grip (like the knurled stock on the Official Red Ryder Carbine Action 200 shot Range Model Air Rifle made famous by Ralphie in “A Christmas Story”, or Jean Shepherd in “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” for the literary-minded among you) – it is completely unnecessary and would be a waste of your money. You can watch a second tutorial to see how to do the installation with the tool. (Photo from Rose Bikes)

What the tutorial doesn’t show or tell you is that before you pry loose the “SureFit fingers”, there may be a lock ring to remove. In the second photo, the putty knife is wedged under the lock ring. The “round lobes” on the sprocket and the opening of the lock ring are aligned with the indents on the hub shell referred to in the video. My lock ring pliers would not work on it, but it can be pried off fairly easily with a flathead screwdriver (which is also what you use on the “fingers”). The hub in the photos is the SRAM i-motion 3, which has been discontinued. The sprocket is the same used for Shimano hubs, which is what is shown in the video.

While we’re talking products, I don’t know as I’ve yet sung the praises of the seat pack I bought for the coast-to-coast tour last summer. It was the Evoc 3 liter (the large size) with Boa seatpost attachment as well as Velcro straps to the saddle rails.

Photo from Bike Closet

The bag can be rolled tightly and fastened with a clip to hold a few essential tools and spares, or unrolled to hold a complete rainsuit as well. It keeps things dry and takes just a minute to expand or contract to hold the load tightly without swaying. It is wedge-shaped – narrow at the front end so as not to rub on your inner thighs when you pedal and wider behind to increase capacity. To carry even more I used Velcro straps to attach other items to the outside of the bag. When open, things may slide out the back, so check the ground before closing up any time you move things in or out of the pack.

When the trip ended I thought I would go back to a smaller bag but, three months later, it’s still back there. I guess I like it.

While the winter bike is ready to ride, the snow tires did not go on today. There are two starts to biking winter here – the day I bring out the belt-drive bike, and the day I switch to studded snow tires. The latter usually comes at the end of December.

Ever wonder what a woolly bear caterpillar becomes? I did. It becomes an Isabella Tiger Moth. Photo from the Farmer’s Almanac.