We White Jews Must Also #TakeTheKnee Against White Supremacy

When we kneel in shul once a year on Yom Kippur we feel vulnerable. That’s how African Americans feel every day. And we Jews still aren’t doing enough to dismantle the American race privilege that we benefit from

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Buffalo Bills players kneel during the American National anthem before an NFL game against the Denver Broncos on September 24, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York
Buffalo Bills players kneel during the American National anthem before an NFL game against the Denver Broncos on September 24, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York.Credit: BRETT CARLSEN/AFP
Rabbi Michael Rothbaum
Michael Rothbaum

There’s no "taking a knee" in Judaism.

Well, at least not literally.

As you probably know, last week Donald Trump used an expletive to describe professional athletes who take a knee during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, in protest of racism and police brutality. 

The protest began last year when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick explained that he refused to "stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." Kaepernick was emphatic.  Even "if they take football away, my endorsements from me," he declared, "I know that I stood up for what is right."

Since Trump’s inflammatory remarks, dozens of other athletes have taken Kaepernick’s lead. Even non-sports people have followed suit. Like numerous musicians and performers, a 97-year-old Word War II veteran, and even a Minneapolis rabbi.

Watching this unfold, I wondered: is there a fitting expression of solidarity that the Jewish community could make with the athletes that Trump has targeted?

Tiffany Lepa participates in the Rally Against White Supremacy at City Hall in Austin, Texas, on Saturday Aug.19, 2017.Credit: Jay Janner/AP

While, like I said above, there is no literal "taking a knee" in Judaism, there is in fact a literal "knee" connection in the Jewish liturgical word Barchu. Jews bend at the knee and bow during the Barchu prayer as an act of respect and honor to God. A little etymological digging reveals that the word barchu is related to the word berech - which means "knee." One could argue that, in bowing to God, we are acknowledging a Force greater than white supremacy, hate - or even "flag and country."

But the Barchu is a call to a community unified in prayer. To me, it doesn’t properly express the distress often signified by the act of taking a knee.

In a practice, taking a knee indicates that special attention needs to be paid. On the football field, it indicates trouble, as when a player is seriously hurt. While trainers and coaches attend to the injured player, members of each team often go to the sideline, take off their helmets and get down on one knee until the injured player leaves the field.

In other words, it often means something has gone terribly wrong.

Both for concerned teammates and for Kaepernick, the act of kneeling is not arbitrary. For Kaepernick’s teammate Eric Reid, who joined him in the original protest, to take a knee is to assume a diminished posture - in Reid’s words, "like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy."

The flag reference seems especially fitting. In times of distress and grief, symbols of pride too are diminished. Indeed, for many of Kaepernick’s critics, it is this diminishment of the flag that has aroused the most acute anger. Regardless of our politics, they contend, refusing to stand for the flag is a grave insult.

Trump calls for boycott of the NFL. Pictured: Donald Trump speaks during rally for Alabama state Republican Senator Luther Strange at the Von Braun Civic Center September 22, 2017Credit: AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski

The clearest analogue in Judaism, to me, is the Torah scroll. Jewish practice requires us to stand when the ark is open, and when the scroll is carried.  The comprehensive Jewish law code, the Shulchan Aruch, states, "one who sees a Torah scroll being transported is obligated to stand before it [until] it reaches its resting place, or is covered from being seen."

The one glaring exception to this practice is the Aleinu, recited during Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The prayer’s words declare that we literally take it "upon ourselves" to honor God and God’s creation. While it’s common to bow during the Aleinu throughout the rest of the year, during the high holidays we do something Jews don’t do at any other time. We bow down, all the way to the floor, in physical submission to God.

We do this in front of the ark, in front of all our Torah scrolls - an act that would be disrespectful at any other time of year.

We do so because, like competitors taking a knee before a seriously injured player, we know we are in the presence of danger. We know our souls are being judged. In the words of the High Holiday liturgy, ein banu ma'asim, we are lacking in righteous action. Our physical prostration is an act of vulnerability and submission.

Activists take part in the "Rise and Resist Against WhiteSupremacy" march in Manhattan, New York, U.S. September 18, 2017.Credit: JEENAH MOON/REUTERS

African-Americans don’t need to bow in shul to feel vulnerable to danger. To be black in America is to feel danger not just once a year, but all year, every year.

Many white Jews like to think of ourselves as evolved and progressive - as good people. But if we’re honest, we need to acknowledge that we’re really not doing enough to take on white supremacy. We need to acknowledge that we benefit from institutions, from schools to banks to workplaces to courtrooms to jails - that are stacked against African Americans. 

Which means that they give unearned privilege to white people. Yes, even white Jews.

And so this year, in solidarity with athletes of color who are taking a knee, I will invite my congregants to bow down, to be open and exposed and vulnerable during the Aleinu. To acknowledge our complicity in American white supremacy.

In front of the open ark, in front of the Torah scrolls, in front of the community.  In front of God.

Because, in the words of the Aleinu, it’s upon us as Jews to dismantle American race privilege. During the High Holiday season. During football season. In every season.

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum serves Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, Massachusetts. He lives with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell, in Concord. Twitter: @rav_mike

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