Among the most difficult topics of the day for me is that of apparent racist actions by public figures like Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. You cannot have missed this. Now other public figures are proving to be guilty of the same kinds of behavior. I condemn the behaviors, which are part of the legacy of a nation that has never really gotten beyond the Civil War.
The questions this issue raises for me, and for many with whom I speak, are about appropriate consequences for such behaviors when they were committed decades ago – when such behaviors were evidently commonplace in parts of our society – and the perpetrators seem to have made what we Jews call teshuvah (repentance) and have led lives that seem to prove that they are no longer the person who made that terrible choice so long ago. Governor Northam would seem to be a perfect example of that kind of change, even if his apology included a stab at denial. But this is a good man who has done a lot of good for a lot of people, including blacks and the poor. Should his racist behaviors be judged on an absolute scale of right/wrong or be judged in the context of his whole life? When is zero tolerance not appropriate?
I come back to two pieces of Jewish tradition. One is the story of Moses who led a stiff-necked ragged band of ex-slaves for forty years in the wilderness but couldn’t enter the Promised Land because for one moment in those forty years he lost faith in God’s ability to do miracles? When I teach that text, I always say that public figures are judged differently than others, that in fact leaders may not be allowed to make a mistake. For them, there may well be zero tolerance. In that case, the Governor has got to go.
The other piece of Jewish tradition argues the opposite. We have elaborate processes to allow for teshuvah which we play out on the High Holidays. Contrition, public admission of wrongdoing, reconciliation and recompense where possible, avoiding the same behaviors when tempted. There is a clear path to change what we do and who we are. Why isn’t that path open to all? Who among us has never done something stupid and/or wrong? Why the rush to judgment about others when we somehow, almost always, figure out a way to absolve ourselves?
I don’t like any part of this mess, but maybe it has to be the lose-lose proposition that we are seeing. Maybe it will help us move to a new understanding of the pain that racism causes. We are learning from the #MeToo movement that sexual assault and harassment leave scars that don’t go away and cannot be tolerated. Maybe this will be a pivot point in the sad history of racism in our country.
Ponder all this. Responses are always welcome. Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph