RH2 5781 - Sermon
“What we’ve got here… is failure to communicate.”
That famous quote comes from the movie “Cool Hand Luke” from 1967, starring Paul Newman and George Kennedy. The scene has a prison captain, trying to beat a convict into submission, getting ever-more frustrated that this obnoxious, worthless lowlife, Luke (played by Newman) continues to be stubborn, defiant, and proud. After knocking him to the ground, standing in the scorching heat overseeing the chain-gang, the exasperated captain, played by Strother Martin, utters this immortal phrase: “What we’ve got here… is failure to communicate.”
Three days ago, The Forward, one of the largest Jewish newspapers in the country, published an article entitled, “Nick Cannon and Public Enemy’s Professor Griff were both called antisemitic. Only one recovered.” The reporter, Ari Feldman, was referring to a conversation that turned antisemitic and became a scandal, which took place between a well-known Hollywood actor and director, Nick Cannon, and a older musician who is most famous for having been a founding member of a rap group from the 1980’s. Professor Griff, originally Richard Griffin, started Public Enemy together with bandmates Chuck D and Flava Flav. I don’t want to get into all the background, but I encourage you to read about it online, say, for example, on the Forward’s website. The point of this most recent article was to reflect on how Nick Cannon, since this took place in July, had been “allowed” to redeem himself, while Professor Griff never was. In fact, the only time, in thirty years, that Professor Griff has EVER been invited to speak to a Jewish group, or any leader within the Jewish community, was in 2018 when he sat with me on the Wolf Auditorium stage here at Ohev Shalom. We were brought together by Dr. Khalid el-Hakim, who runs something called The Black History Mobile Museum 101, based out of Detroit, and el-Hakim invited Griff to join us for a panel discussion. I didn’t know this at the time, and only found out two years later, when the three of us were interviewed for last week’s article in the Forward, that when Griff first heard about the invitation, he thought it was a joke. The lines of communication had NEVER been opened.
It turns out, that dialogue at Ohev Shalom was significant enough that Professor Griff mentioned it to Nick Cannon in their interview - mentioned that he spoke to a Jewish group and with a rabbi (me!) - and after it became international news that the two men had veered into antisemitic territory, this reporter tracked down that I was the rabbi in question. Ok, so here’s why I’m telling all of you this; why it’s the topic of my second High Holiday sermon, why it’s a tragedy that we all need to work on, and why it is a vital message for today, right now, this present moment:
“What we’ve got here… is failure to communicate.” We are not speaking the same language. White Jews - and I acknowledge there are also many Jews of color, so my point isn’t to say “Jews” and erase the experience of people of color, but in this conversation, I am specifically talking about the rift and the tension between the WHITE Jewish community and the African-American community. And it is a language barrier. You may not agree, but it feels clear as day to me, and it is causing us ALL tremendous damage and pain. And it simply doesn’t need to. We can change this RIGHT NOW.
Soon after the scandal with Nick Cannon erupted, Ari Feldman, that same reporter for the Forward, wrote another article entitled, “What’s behind the spate of anti-Semitism among Black celebrities?”, in which he stated: “Most of these anti-Semitic expressions build on an increasingly visible theology among Black cultural figures: That Black people are the true descendants of the ancient Israelites.” From Louis Farrakhan at the extreme end of vitriolic speech, to Nick Cannon, Ice Cube, Stephen Jackson, the basketball player, and our own DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles, AND Professor Griff as well, what they are trying to say and what we hear them saying are two totally different things. So let me lay out to you the two trajectories of thinking, as I understand them, and hopefully together we can see the tragic - and ALMOST comical, if it weren’t so heart-breaking - language barrier in question.
As I explained to you in my sermon yesterday, the history of the people brought to America as slaves was stolen from them. Severed deliberately as a means of control and subjugation, and brutally efficient. It has in fact been SO successful over the course of the last few hundred years, that today the absence of history has become a source of embarrassment for some people in the Black community. How did white America manage to not only rob them of their stories, but then somehow make THEM feel bad about it?!? I spoke to a couple of friends recently who had similar experiences, one herself as a teenager, and one with her teenage son. The two youths each had an assignment in High School, to create a family crest, like one of those medieval shield-thingies hanging above an English or French castle. Both kids, AND their families (in two totally different communities), felt embarrassed that they didn’t know what to put on there. What, Africa? The whole thing? Maybe pick a random country and GUESS that that’s where you’re from? Why don’t we know this? Why don’t we have more stories?? How embarrassing…
So what did the African-American community do? It borrowed stories from the Bible. That powerful article I quoted yesterday, by Rhobena Nelson, writing in the “Negro History Bulletin,” she mentions Abraham’s prophecy of his descendants being enslaved for 400 years, and says “What other people could fit this prophecy so perfectly?” (And to jump, for a moment, to the OTHER side of this miscommunication, we as Jews might be soooo tempted to chime in with, “What other people???” “OUR ancestors in Egypt; hello!?!?!” But just hold onto that feeling for right now…) Think about old spirituals referencing “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s Land,” or “By the rivers of Babylon, where we went down.” Why are they using that imagery? Because their own images were ripped away from them, and beaten out of them for centuries.
And when Black celebrities, like Cannon, Ice Cube, DeSean Jackson, and Professor Griff, say things like “we are the true Jews,” what they are TRYING to do is give the people in their community a sense of pride and dignity: “We began in Africa, the seat of all life, and we were around before ANY of these other people.” It’s not about trying to edit historical records! It’s not about trying to usurp or co-opt our Bible… and it’s REALLY NOT meant as an antisemitic attack to try and erase us. Again, we may disagree. I believe it represents a life-long, centuries-old struggle to regain an identity, a sense of communal and individual pride, and to reclaim some history. BUT, in doing so, they ARE accidentally pinching a very painful nerve for us as Jews.
So here’s the other side of our “failure to communicate.” We Jews have been here before. Other people, in our 4,000 year history, have leaned in, peaked over our shoulder at our book and our stories, have said “hey, those are pretty great! I think I’ll base my own stories on some of these.” And then, slowly but surely, they hijack that story, make it their own, and then try to destroy us in the process. This may be uncomfortable to say about Christianity, but think about it for a second: They had the audacity to share our Bible, our Tanach, then slap the label “Old” onto it - now it’s the “Old Testament” - then merge it with a second book, called the “New Testament,” and then, as a final insult, they commandeer our word, “Bible,” and say we’re using it wrong. “Bible” means both books together. That is A LOT of Chutzpah!
Christianity did it, later Mohammed honestly did something similar, and centuries later Martin Luther, with Protestantism, tried it as well. Borrowed some language, shared some of the stories, characters, and locations, and connected some concepts together so it would feel similar… and then tried to annihilate us for not migrating over, for not accepting their software updates of Version 2.0, 3.0, and 18.0. We’ve been here before! This is a scary line of questioning for us, and even though we personally didn’t experience those moments, and some of you may not have even KNOWN about all the details, our DNA knows it, and the hairs on the backs of our heads stands up when we hear it repeated again and again. “I borrow your story; I take ownership of OUR story; now it is MY story alone.”
Are you starting to see where I’m going with all this? One path is saying, “I have no history. It was stolen from me. Right now - in this moment - I need to create a new story and feel grounded in it, because my people are being destroyed and we are destroying ourselves, because we are so lost and alone. Can’t you see that?” And the other path is saying, “You can’t borrow my history. Or if you do, you can’t say “I am the true Jew,” because that erases ME! Others have done that before, and it leads to genocide, expulsions, pogroms, and concentration camps. Can’t you see that??” Well, maybe now we see: “What we’ve got here… is failure to communicate.” We are both afraid, both defensive, and both groups feel they’re fighting for their survival.
My theme this morning is “Hoveh,” the present. And what I want to say to us all is, let’s not shy away from this moment. Let’s not withdraw, each to our corner of the boxing ring, preparing for the next round. Be Here Now. Are there grievances on each side? Yes. I know Farrakhan uses hateful language, and that the Nation of Islam put out a book called “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews,” which falsely suggests Jews were central players in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and/or owned slaves at a higher rate than other white Southerners. I know that. It’s awful. And unfair. But are we also willing to admit that there WERE Jewish slave owners? Or that a century later, some Jews DID minimize their ethnic differences to become more “white,” to “fit in,” and in doing so, sometimes DID push down other minorities, like the African-Americans, to climb a little higher? And our boxing gloves come snapping back in place: “Well, you did this! Your people didn’t do that. And what about the Palestinians???” I don’t mean to excuse some of the vitriol, and all the times that Jewish students on college campuses have felt attacked for supporting Israel. I can’t and won’t excuse any of that. But let’s talk. Let’s put our weapons and accusations aside… and dialogue. Now, this is hard. I KNOW that! Just listen for a moment: For A LOT of people around the world, when they look at the political situation in Israel today, they do see a majority of Israelis, often with Eastern European (a.k.a. WHITE) roots, oppressing a minority of darker-skinned Palestinians.
I know this is wrong! You know that I know this is wrong. That it’s ignoring millennia of oppression, then the Balfour Declaration, then 1948, 1967, 1973, Intifadas, Oslo Accords, and on and on. But not everyone knows that! And maybe, just maybe, it isn’t fair of us to insist they SHOULD know that. We love to point out how few Jews there really are in the world, right? Believe it or not, there are only 14.7 million of us GLOBALLY. And, side note, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, that number is actually STILL lower than the pre-WW2 Jewish population of 16.6 million! We haven’t recovered yet. Many of us also find it HILARIOUS to point out how small a percentage we are of the US population (somewhere around 2%)... but then we are OUTRAGED when people don’t know our story, or understand what Israel had to go through to become a nation! That doesn’t make sense. That is ALSO a failure to communicate.
When Khalid el-Hakim, Professor Griff, and I were interviewed by the Forward, Feldman, the reporter, asked Griff if he could identify what he had said that was so offensive to Jews. And it was heart-breaking FOR ME to hear his answer; I wanted to cry for my new friend, Professor Griff. He said, honestly, and I believe him 100%: (and I’m paraphrasing) “No. I don’t see it. I don’t understand why, when I tried to speak up for my people and give them a sense of pride in themselves, that I offended this other group, and now I’m branded a hater.” Then he added, “But I want to know. Tell me! Explain what I said and why it’s so hurtful.” And do you know what? For 30 years, when he would say that, people’s response - from the media, fellow celebrities and musicians, and people in the Jewish community - was to say, “You’re not remorseful. You don’t even realize why it was so terrible.” Zero communication.
Two years ago, for the first time since 1989, someone said to him, “Can I tell you how that makes me feel, as a Jew?” And that happened to be me. So what I am trying to explain to you all is, THIS is Teshuva. This is repentance, reconciliation, and repair… because it starts with TALKING. It absolutely MUST begin in the here and now, in the Hoveh, the present moment, by saying this is who I am. This is what my history looks like - or lack thereof - and this is what I’m trying to do and say. It sounds so ridiculously simple and obvious… but it’s incredibly hard.
I’m telling you all of this, and making it the central message of my sermon, not because I want to prop myself up, or keep doggedly insisting on making every sermon about race, but because I want us all to think about how we ARE, and how we can BE. How barriers that seem huge and insurmountable may just be the products of total and utter “failure to communicate.” And the road back may “only” require us to be open, honest, humble, vulnerable, willing to listen, and ready to concede - just maybe - that our version isn’t the right and true and ONLY version. I believe this applies to EVERY level of interaction between humans; whether family members, friends, political adversaries, protesters on either side of a fence, or even among nations.
In Feldman’s article in the Forward, he quoted me, actually, as saying: “...it is very difficult to be in a relationship and ask somebody else for the vulnerability of being open and honest about things that they said and apologize, if we’re not willing to be open and honest and vulnerable ourselves.” That is our task. That is what it means to be present, to be connected, and to genuinely seek to be better in the year to come. Come, walk this path with me, and let us fail to communicate no more.