"Exodus Revisited" with Rabbinical Student Andrew Mandel

Fourth-year rabbinical student Andrew Mandel is enrolled in a cross-institution class at Union Theological Seminary called “Preaching and Protest” taught by Reverend Dr. Timothy Adkins-Jones. Andrew shares, “The class is helping us think through our role as justice-centered faith leaders, and the assignment was to imagine ourselves as a preacher from the Civil Rights Era. As you’ll see, I chose Rabbi Milton Grafman from Birmingham in response to Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail — because I thought it would be an important chance to consider what it might look like to pursue a public journey of teshuvah related to racial justice. This sermon imagines what Rabbi Milton Grafman of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham might have preached on Friday night, April 20, 1963, in response to the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Rabbi Grafman was the only Jewish clergy member to sign the ‘Call for Unity’ statement that prompted Dr. King’s letter. Andrew’s sermon, “Exodus Revisited” is below.

Andrew Mandel (left) speaks at Central Synagogue.

Andrew Mandel (left) speaks at Central Synagogue.

We have just completed the festival of Passover, z’man heruteinu, the time of our freedom. We just had one seder recounting the story, and then another the next night. As a rabbi, I have studied the Exodus throughout my life. I have led this synagogue since 1941, so I have read it with you for 22 years. As we conclude Passover, I should be moving on. We follow a schedule when we read Torah, so we should now be looking forward to the Israelites in the Sinai desert. Yet something so upsetting and so horrifying has happened that I am suspending that tradition and instead re-reading the story once again.

I was slapped this week. Not physically, but I felt it with every fiber of my being. You may have read Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from the city jail, where he criticizes the statement that my fellow clergy and I composed in response to his announcement to engage in protests in our city. He said that we are the “great stumbling block in [the] stride toward freedom,” that we are worse than the Ku Klux Klanner. Can you imagine?

I have now felt the sting of critique not simply from those who wish to defy desegregation, but also from those who support it. I get death threats to my house from one side and warrants for my moral arrest on the other. It is not a comfortable feeling to be in the middle. It is not a comfortable feeling to be called out by Reverend King publicly. It is painful. I have been trying to do the right thing. I feel indignant for everything I have tried to do. Eight years ago, I refused to speak at an event at Ole Miss after the state legislature blocked a minister who had said something positive about the NAACP. Two years ago, I spoke out against the city’s decision to close all our parks, golf courses, and swimming pools rather than integrate them. I have put my family at risk. I defied Governor Wallace. Reverend Dr. King wrote, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” He called me shallow. He called me a white moderate. I don’t feel moderate. I am feeling self-righteous. Reverend Dr. King has blamed us. He blamed me! It makes me want to just give up.

In moments like these, I need to breathe. I need to pray. I find that I must turn back to our sources, to gain my footing, to put my trust in G-d.

So I go back to our texts once again to determine whether Dr. King’s arguments are consistent with, or oppositional to, the teachings of our Torah.

We clergy made three basic claims in our statement. One, Dr. King is an outsider. Two, those desiring change should be patient rather than rash. Three, they should use the proper legal channels to address grievances, not agitation, to avoid violence.

To our concern that Dr. King is an outsider, he asserts: “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” When I review our Torah, I recognize that Moses was in many ways an outsider. He was a comfortable prince of Egypt who “butted in.” The text is ambiguous about whether Moses knew that he was even a Hebrew himself when Moses slew an Egyptian taskmaster for whipping a Hebrew slave. Regardless, he saw a wrong. It’s true that Moses and Aaron only seemed to make things worse before they made things better with G-d’s help, but only because Pharoah played Moses against the Israelites initially. Could the slaves have risen up without Moses and Aaron, or were they too steeped in their situation, too frightened, and required someone different? I will acknowledge that we local people may not be operating as urgently as Dr. King — perhaps because we frankly have too much to lose by being too public in our opposition to the status quo. It may actually require some outsiders.

To our claim that those desiring change ought to be patient rather than rash, Dr. King writes: “‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never'” and “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” When I review our Torah, I do see how Pharoah used many a tactic to stall. Whenever G-d imposed a plague, Pharoah relented. As soon as the plague disappeared, Pharoah reinstituted the same oppressive system again. The nonsense, the insult, the dehumanization of segregation, despite court orders, has gone on far enough. I can see why saying “wait” is the luxury of the unaffected.

To our claim that they should use the proper channels and avoid agitation, our Exodus story does not support this position. Everyone from Sifrah and Puah — the nursemaids who defied Pharoah’s decree to kill the baby boys in the first place, to Pharoah’s daughter herself, who defied her father’s decree and adopted one of those babies, knowing full well who he was — was protesting by breaking the law. The plagues themselves were terribly violent. Every seder, we of course regret the pain of these plagues, and I am certainly not advocating for violence in this situation, or any, and am grateful that Dr. King and his colleagues are not either. But it would be hypocritical to be observing Passover this week on the one hand and telling Dr. King to check himself on the other.

We’re the ones who should check ourselves.

Now I take my role in this community very seriously, a community that itself feels it is important to work side by side with our siblings across the political spectrum and certainly the religious spectrum. We Jews often feel quite justifiably in grave danger of being targeted. Perhaps we fear that we will be treated like our African American neighbors. Indeed, if we are honest enough to say that that is a reason, then we need look no further than the events of 20 years ago, then the events of the War in Europe, to recognize how foolhardy and shameful that is.

Starting this year, a commission headed by a justice of the Supreme Court of Israel has been charged with the duty of awarding the honorary title “Righteous Among the Nations” to individuals who aided Jews in the face of the horrors of the Holocaust, often at great personal risk. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, reports that “Attitudes towards the Jews during the Holocaust [in Germany] mostly ranged from indifference to hostility. The mainstream watched as their former neighbors were rounded up and killed; some collaborated with the perpetrators; many benefited from the expropriation of the Jews’ property. In a world of total moral collapse there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. These were the Righteous Among the Nations….These rescuers regarded the Jews as fellow human beings who came within the bounds of their universe of obligation.”

This group included Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat living in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas. Mr. Sugihara wrote 2,000 visas for any Jews who showed up at his office. With a Japanese transit visa, the Soviets would allow the refugees to take a train across Siberia en route to Japan. Mr. Sugihara reportedly spent 20 hours a day that month writing as many visas as he could and was still writing them on the train platform when he was evacuated. The State of Israel will plant a tree for Mr. Sugihara and each of the other Righteous Among the Nations. You’ve heard the song in the streets, drawing on the psalms: “just like a tree that is planted by the water, we shall not be moved.”

And yet if we refuse to be that tree, if we refuse, who are we? The famous rabbi Hillel teaches: “If we are not for ourselves, who will be? If we are only for ourselves, then what are we?”

I would add one point from the Exodus story to apply to our current moment here in Birmingham, one that Dr. King is too humble to say. When Moses sees that a Hebrew has been struck by an Egyptian taskmaster, what does Moses do first? Exodus 2:12, before he strikes: וַיִּ֤פֶן כֹּה֙ וָכֹ֔ה.  “He looks this way and that way.” What is going on here? My initial read is one of fear; Moses is looking side to side, he’s nervous. “Will I get caught? What are the consequences?” Once he thought no one was watching, he decided to do the deed.

But there’s another way of looking at this moment. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg over a hundred years ago said this: “Moshe thought that one of his Hebrew brothers in the area would rise up against the Egyptian and save his fellow Jew. Moses then saw that there was no man of courage; not one of them took his brother’s travail to heart to try and save him.” Moses was expecting someone else to step up, and seeing no one, he himself had to act. This squares with a core Jewish teaching, in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, which says in its original: “when there is no man, be the man,” or “when there is no one, be the someone.” Act as if you are the only one. With no one stepping up, with no one taking care of our own here in Birmingham really, at least not on the timetable that the situation truly merits, Dr. King stepped up.

Dr. King draws on our tradition, speaking often about Moses and the Israelites. And yet here we are, “the people of the Mosaic persuasion” as one text describes the Jewish community, and we don’t seem to know our own story. What was so horrifying that I had to review the Exodus story was not that I was insulted by Dr. King. It was because he was justified in doing so. There are six months until Yom Kippur, but it is never too early for teshuva, for asking forgiveness, for seeking atonement. This is mine.

I cannot be observing Passover and muting a modern-day Moses, liberating his people. You may or may not join me in choosing to link arms and be part of the mixed multitude that marches through the Sea of Reeds into the Promised Land, but none of us can stand in its way. If we are afraid that torches will come to this building, which is not an overly dramatic fear, rather than cower in the corner, we should sound the shofar, we should call upon the National Guard, the Federal Government, we should call upon all those liberal Yankees who criticize our hesitation and our moderation, and tell them to come and stand with us, but we cannot lay silent. For if we do not die a physical death, we will surely die a spiritual one.