the Aspaklaria of Race
This year's Kol Nidre sermon focuses on antiracism from a Jewish perspective. I suggest that we have a Jewish obligation to look at the world through a "racial lens," drawing on the rabbinic concept of aspaklaria to deepen our understanding of this critical and timely issue.
Text available below the recording.
Through the Aspaklaria of Race
I might easily have pulled this slogan off a yard sign in Oak Park. I’m actually quoting Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a 2014 dissent. She continued:
Race matters in part because of the long history of racial minorities’ being denied access to the political process. … Race also matters because of persistent racial inequality in society—inequality that cannot be ignored and that has produced stark socioeconomic disparities. … And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away.
Justice Sotomayor reminds us that we cannot overcome racism by blinding ourselves to race. Perhaps in some distant utopian age, our society can transcend itself to reach the hoped-for pinnacle of so-called “race blindness.” But in the world we all inhabit, race does matter, and to pretend or even aspire otherwise only serves to prop up a status quo built on foundations of injustice.
It is not easy to speak of race. Books are written by scholars more expert than I, whose life experience has forced them to reckon more directly with racism than I ever have. Still, even the certitude that we shall make mistakes and, at times, speak falsely cannot hold us back from speaking at all.
Tonight, I endeavor not to speak directly of race but of the moral courage required to bring race more fully into view.
Like many of you, I recently read Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. Kendi reveals his central thesis in recounting his personal story of transformation—perhaps we can call it teshuvah. He argues, against the grain of common understanding, that racist policies do not emerge from racist ideas but rather the other way around. Racist ideas emerge from racist policies, policies whose purpose is first and foremost to serve the interests of the powerful. Whenever those who have power design laws and norms to help them keep it, racial minorities are the perennial casualties.
For centuries, antiracists have endeavored to persuade people to change their opinions; these efforts have borne much fruit, and conditions are better now than once they were. But in Kendi’s view—and I find it compelling--persuasion is not the ultimate goal; justice is. We miss the point when we focus on changing hearts and minds; when we work instead to enshrine laws, policies, and norms that generate equality for all, racism inevitably wanes.
This is the prophetic tradition of asot tzedek—of “doing justice.”
As we discover by opening to any scroll in our books of prophecy, the likes of Micah and Hosea care much less about how people feel and a great deal more about what they do.
Thus tomorrow’s haftarah reading from the Book of Isaiah proclaims:
Cry from the depth, says God--
do not hold back,
lift up your voice like the shofar! …
Is not this the fast I desire--
to break the bonds of injustice
and remove the heavy yoke;
to let the oppressed go free
and release all those enslaved? (Isaiah 58:1, 6)
As stated beautifully by another advocate for the oppressed, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—may her memory be for a blessing—“The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.” In this tradition that Justice Ginsburg reveres, “justice” does not mean fairness. It is a process of reorienting, of noticing who are vulnerable in society and enforcing safeguards to their wellbeing.
The Torah’s vulnerable groups included widows, orphans, and strangers. Later, Rabbinic tradition focused mainly on the poor. In our society today, legacies of intersecting inequalities have produced a complex network of vulnerable people and groups whose racial identities motivate protests and activism that we, as Jews, cannot ignore.
With the cries of mourning for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and so many others still ringing in our ears, we may feel overwhelmed by the Jewish summons to justice. But paralysis helps no one. Even a small step is a step nonetheless. Yom Kippur, more than any other day of the year, reminds us that what we do matters. Our tradition insists that we can make a difference and we must make a difference.
Helpfully, it also provides some tools to guide us along the way.
The study of antiracism and the Jewish approach to justice share much in common. In particular, one will discover again and again an emphasis on seeing. The way we see something affects what we see of it, and looking at the world through what we might call a “racial lens” allows us to perceive the more clearly effects of racism and to better understand what we can do about them.
There is a term in Jewish tradition for such a view-shifting lens. It is called aspaklaria, and it symbolizes the attempt to reframe what we see in order to know greater justice and truth.
The word aspaklaria entered Hebrew through Latin and shares a root with English words such as inspection and perspective. An aspaklaria can be a lens, and it can also be a mirror, a prism, or a screen. The metaphorical aspaklaria is used to reveal the importance of looking at things in a different way.
In his recent biography of the theologian and Civil Rights hero Abraham Joshua Heschel, Michael Marmur explains that the aspaklaria “[played] a central and recurrent role in his imagery and thought.” For instance, arguing that “true continuity demands change,” Heschel wrote in 1943:
Not through our own eyes but through lenses ground by our intellectual ancestry do we look at the world. But our eyes are strained and tired of staring through spectacles worn by another generation. … We want to face reality as it is.
In other words, if we look through the glasses of our ancestors, we will see their world – not our own and certainly not the one we endeavor to create. We are obligated to see anew.
To do so, we need an aspaklaria. One way Heschel imagines this optical device is as a “precious stone” with many facets; as we rotate the gem we see the world from different angles, refracted through its polished faces. Heschel urges us to adopt this shifting of perspective as a regular practice, to attune ourselves to perceive the acts of injustice that too easily go unseen.
One recent attempt to bring new perspectives to old ideas was launched by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist responsible for the New York Times’ “1619 Project.” Through a series of essays on topics such as public health, prisons, and reactionary politics, the “1619 Project” seeks to demonstrate slavery’s lasting impact on people of color, particularly African Americans. The goal of this project has been described as “[reframing] America’s history through the lens of slavery.”
To take just one example, Matthew Desmond and Mehrsa Baradaran trace the throughline from the 19th-century plantation-based southern economy and the violent clash between state and federal authority to what they describe as today’s “byzantine … dual banking structure” that enabled the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. They challenge the notion, advanced by many historians, of “plantation slavery as precapitalistic,” arguing instead that today’s economy is inextricably linked to and inescapably influenced by the enforcement of slave labor.  Their research levels harsh critique at commercial practices most consider run-of-the-mill by holding up a “racial lens” and revealing the injustice within.
In this way, initiatives like the “1619 Project” are modern-day aspaklariot. In looking through such lenses, we see our world more clearly and better understand the necessary goals of our struggle for justice.
This does not mean—to be clear—that the racial lens is the only one we use; we cannot, for instance, see today’s economy only as a recasting of chattel slavery. This is the beauty behind Heschel’s apt metaphor of a multi-faceted gem: we are obligated to turn it to a facet we may not be familiar with, but we will also continue to rotate it for more and more perspectives. The aspaklaria is a more of a prism than a telescope.
Nikole Hannah-Jones herself, though devoted to increasing awareness of the foundational impact slavery has had on this country since its inception, also knows that there are other narratives worth telling. In her words:
If you believe that 1776 matters, if you believe that our Constitution still matters, then you also have to understand that the legacy of slavery still matters and you can’t pick and choose what parts of history we think are important and which ones aren’t. They all are important.
Hannah-Jones is right; they are all important. We don’t look at the world only through a racial lens.
However, as we are painfully and truthfully reminded again and again by honest reporting and thoughtful scholarship and the telling and retelling of personal stories, the fact remains that the preponderance of honor and attention paid over the past four centuries has vastly favored the stories of wealthy and influential and, almost uniformly, white men. The racial lens exposes this imbalance, helping us see the work that must be done to right it.
We must ask on this Day of Atonement not only what the world looks like through the aspaklaria of race but what we see when we turn it to face inward. And so we ask ourselves and challenge ourselves to answer with honesty: what does the racial lens reveal in our own lives?
What do we learn by listing the authors, actors, and essayists whose work we readily consume?
Who are the political figures we revere, and can their views on race tell us of our own racial politics?
When does race impact the choices we make at work, with the projects we accept, the voices we lift up, the decisions we make to say no or say yes?
And where is race exposed at home, in the values we promote and the stories we tell of ourselves, our people, and our country?
In 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke at a conference on “Race and Religion” in Chicago. It was here that he first met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Heschel spoke with his customary eloquence and passion about the religious duty to work for equality. The God who created all humankind demands that we see the divinity in one another; and racism, Heschel insisted, “is worse than idolatry. … [It is] unmitigated evil.”
Heschel framed his remarks that day with these familiar words, which we will read from the Torah tomorrow morning:
“I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). [He continued,] The aim of this conference is first of all to state clearly the stark alternative. … I have set before you religion and race, life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.
For Heschel, opposing racism was essential to choosing life, for himself as a person who benefited from white privilege as well as for America’s oppressed minorities. So he drew his speech to a close--as I do tonight--with a call for teshuvah. He said:
We have failed to use the avenues open to us to educate [our] hearts and minds…, to identify ourselves with those who are underprivileged. But repentance is more than contrition and remorse for sins, for harms done. Repentance means a new insight, a new spirit. It also means a course of action.
Today as well, on our sacred Day of Atonement, repentance entails for all of us a new insight and a course of action.
May new vision and a commitment to action be our blessing in this new year.
May the aspaklaria of race guide us to a finer understanding of ourselves and our communities.
And may the truth we reveal bring us closer to tzedek and shalom, the pursuit of justice and the embrace—for one and all—of peace.
 “The source of racist ideas was not ignorance and hate, but self-interest. The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policy-makers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume those racist ideas, which in turn sparks ignorance and hate.” How to be an Antiracist (New York: One World, 2019), p. 230.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Sources of Wonder (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), p. 143.
 Ibid. 156.
 From “The Holy Dimension,” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, reprinted in 1996). Quoted in Michael Marmur’s Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Sources of Wonder (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), p. 156.
 The image is found in Heschel’s The Earth is the Lord’s (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979), p. 54. Quoted in Marmur ibid. 152.
 See an assessment of the spotty research in this area here: https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/an-open-letter-to-the-jewish-community-we-stand-with-jews-of-color.
 The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays On Human Existence. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966. p. 86.
 Ibid. 96.
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