Sunday, March 8, 2015, fifty years and one day after “Bloody Sunday,” I joined 100,000 of my closest friends in Selma, Alabama to walk in the footsteps of the righteous. We came to Selma not just to commemorate the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that lead to the Voting Rights Act but also to re-commit to carry on the work, begun those years ago, which is still unfinished. We gathered together at Mishkan Israel, Selma’s only synagogue. We prayed, listened to inspiring speakers, sang songs of strife and of hope, and then we marched.
I did have some trepidation about this pilgrimage at first. The program I attended was billed by the organizer as honoring what the Jewish people’s contributed to the Civil Rights Movement. Fortunately, the scholar and sage, Susannah Heschel, put the day into its proper context. The day, she said, was not about what the Jewish people contributed to the Civil Rights Movement; it was about what the Civil Rights Movement contributed to the Jewish people.
Still, I did not have a definitive answer to many inquiries from friends, both white and black, as to why I wanted to be in Selma, Alabama that day. As one who is used to having his motives questioned, I began the process of reflection and self-examination to find an answer. I came to this conclusion: I went to Selma because I am a Jew.
I went to Selma because I am a Jew is a simple answer, but it is far from simplistic. If it were, then all I would need to say is, “because we once slave in Egypt,” but for many, including myself, this no longer rings as true as it once did. I am centuries removed from my people’s slavery; African-Americans are generations removed from theirs.
I could “simply” invoke the Shoah (or Holocaust as it is known in the non-Jewish world) as reason for my concern about the civil rights and struggles of others. But, the identity of victimhood does not have the currency it once did. More importantly, we need to dismantle the system which values victimhood as the prime factor in identity. It serves only to perpetuate a system of privilege by requiring groups to openly display their victimhood and compare it to the victimhood of others (and, yes, the implied phallic metaphor is intentional).
So, back to my “simple” answer: I went to Selma because I am a Jew. Let me put it another way. I went to Selma because my faith commands it. There are 613 Commandments in what is called The Jewish Bible (I prefer the term Torah). Two hundred and forty-eight are prohibitions — the “Thou shall not’s.” Three hundred and sixty-five are affirmative, the “Thou shall’s.” Of the 365 affirmative commandments — 364 are only applicable at specific times, define a specific relationship, or are passive in nature. For example, the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy can only be fulfilled on the Sabbath; “Honor your parents” does not apply to other’s parents or other people in our lives; and “I am the lord your G-d” does not require us to do anything beyond our believing.
However, there is one commandment with no time constraints, which requires action, and applies to everyone: “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (D’Varim 16:20). As a Jew, I am commanded to pursue justice not only at certain times but all the time. As a Jew, I am commanded to pursue justice not only in certain locations but everywhere. As a Jew, I am commanded to pursue justice not only for some but for everyone.
And so, I went to Selma. I marched with 100,000 of my brothers and sisters. To a lesser observer we appeared to be a diverse group of people, but we were really all of one race – the human race – and we were all of one faith – faith in the G-d of justice.