Sermon delivered on October 24, 2008, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block
A history of slavery unites Jews and African Americans. Fittingly, then, when our Reform Rabbinic Conference met in Cincinnati last spring, we spent half a day at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Groups of Rabbis, with a scholar and with an expert volunteer guide, studied Jewish and African American responses to slavery and toured parts of the museum.
We stood in front of a replica of the Declaration of Independence, our guide, an African American, pointed to the phrase, “All men are created equal.” He reminded us, and these are his words, “These words were written at a time, of course, when we were slaves.”
At one level, the guide wasn’t telling us anything we didn’t know. Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal;” but he was a slave-holder. Every person standing there in the museum knew that, like everyone here. We have to ask ourselves: Did Jefferson not really believe what he wrote? Did he think, like George Orwell’s pigs, that some men are more equal than others? Or did he think Africans not to be fully human?
We don’t like to think of our American founders as hypocrites. But they were. They adopted a Constitution providing that slaves be counted as though each was merely three-fifths of a person. Yes, they were forward-thinking. Yes, they founded a great nation. Yes, they established principles that would ultimately lead to slavery’s undoing. Yes, they were brilliant and wise. But our founders were also flawed. As are we all.
The notion of all humanity being created equal emanates from Torah. Tomorrow morning, here and in synagogues throughout the world, we will read the story of creation. I’m guessing that few if any among us imagine that Genesis 1 actually describes the way that the world came to be. That’s a matter properly left to science. And yet, our biblical creation story teaches important truths.
Specifically, in the first Chapter of Genesis, we are told that God creates one human being. Our Rabbis ask why only one. Why didn’t God create an entire community of humanity, populating the world all at once? The story, they say, offers an important moral. We are all to understand ourselves as descended from a single human being. None of us can say to another, “My lineage is greater than yours.” All are created equal.
The second chapter of Genesis, though, puts a big, ugly fly into the ointment. The second human being is created. She is a woman. She is decidedly secondary. She does not descend from the first person. Instead, in chapter two, we are told that the first human is male. And he is lonely. God creates the woman to help and to balance him. She is there for him. The Southern Baptist Convention did not originate the notion that a woman is to serve her husband, who is to be the leader in the household. They got that idea from Genesis 2.
So what happened to everybody being equal? Did the framers of our Declaration of Independence get it right? Are all “men” the only human beings created equal? Are women secondary creations?
We need to go back to the first chapter of the Torah. There, we are told that the first human creation, in God’s image, is “male and female.” Admittedly, the language of Torah is awkward in this case, switching back and forth between singular and plural. Is God creating one human with both male and female characteristics? Or does God create a pair from the start? Our most sacred text, the Torah, is flawed. Like our American founders, we find imperfection.
Worse, the second chapter of Genesis tells an entirely different story. The creation of woman isn’t even the best example of the ways in which the Bible’s first two chapters contradict one another. In chapter one, plants and other animals are created before humanity. In chapter two, it’s the other way around. We may be thankful that science offers a more reliable theory of how the world as we know it came to exist. If we had to rely on Torah alone, we wouldn’t know what to think!
If we read the Declaration of Independence, and we know that its author owned slaves, we may question what is meant by the assertion that “all men are created equal.”
If we read Genesis 1, and we know that Genesis 2 is next, we may wonder about the implications of the first chapter’s assertion that both man and woman are made in the image of God. Genesis 2 is clear: Woman is made in the image of man. She is in the image of God, once removed. Men and women are not equal in that second chapter of the Bible any more than African-Americans and European-Americans were equal when our nation was founded.
And what of those sages, the Rabbis who declared that the purpose of the Genesis story is to teach that we are all equal? Did they practice what they preached? Were they any less hypocritical than Thomas Jefferson? No, my friends, they did not and they were not.
Every morning, those Rabbis, recited a prayer: “Praised are Thou, O Lord, who did not make me a gentile.” Does a person offer such a prayer, if he believes gentile and Jew to be equal? No, he does not.
Every morning, those Rabbis, all of them men, recited a prayer: “Praised are Thou, O Lord, who did not make me a woman.” Does a man offer such a prayer, if he believes women and men to be equal? No, he does not. Need further evidence? Women do not have a corresponding prayer, thanking God for not being created male. Instead, the woman is to recite, “Praised are Thou, O Lord, who made me according to His will.”
Blessedly, we are not doomed to repeat our past. Instead, we are destined to live by the words of Torah. We have been fated to follow the highest aspirations of the founders of our faith and of our nation, even if they did not.
When Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal,” his intent was apparently not to include African Americans. We, though, are not bound by what Jefferson thought, but by what he wrote.
Some in our nation and in its leadership would have us think that the United States Constitution should be interpreted in accordance with its authors’ intent, rather than in keeping with its words. Ironically, a chief supporter of such a vision is a Supreme Court Justice whom Thomas Jefferson would have enslaved.
Often, we are told that America was established as a Christian nation, and should therefore be that today. The notion is laughable, since Jefferson and Madison were demonstrably Deists, not really Christian at all. Even if establishing a Christian nation were the framers’ intent, though, that would be irrelevant. Thomas Jefferson himself assured that the First Amendment would prohibit the establishment of a religion for the whole nation or any state. Our Constitution’s own words forbid any law to restrict rights, including eligibility to be President of the United States, on the basis of religion; the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments extend the matter to race and the Nineteenth to gender. Today, in the United States, whatever the framers’ intent, all citizens are equal before the law.
Similarly, in Reform Judaism, we do not thank God that we are not gentiles. We are, of course, grateful to be heirs to our particular tradition; and we uphold that heritage with faith and loyalty. Our religion is right for us. We are dedicated to the Jewish people. But neither our gratitude nor our pride requires us to think ourselves better than anybody else.
Moreover, Reform Jewish men do not praise God for not making us women. Both men and women give thanks that God made us in God’s imagine, according to Divine will.
From its very beginning, in the 19th Century, Reform Judaism proclaimed that women and men are equal in all religious matters, even as we are equal before God. Admittedly, that promise was woefully unfulfilled for a century, as no woman was ordained Rabbi until 1972.
Even today, racism lives in America. Sexism still exists, even in Reform Judaism. We do not live in utopia. We have not achieved a Messianic Day. I need no more proof than the countless scurrilous lies and innuendos I have read in emails about Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.
Our imperfections do not define us, though, any more than Thomas Jefferson is remembered for his flaws or Torah trashed because of its inconsistencies. Let us strive toward the highest ideals of our nation. Let us make our faith live. All men, all women, all humanity is created equal.