Each session, a Rabbi and a Black minister team up to teach a Biblical text. For the first 20 minutes, they present the text and suggest questions for discussion. They then engage in a conversation with Dr. Mark and Rabbi Jay for about 20 minutes. Finally, the rest of the Black-Jewish community is encouraged to join in. Total time: an hour and a half.
Bishop Garry Tyson and Rabbi Daniel Weiner in conversation with Dr. Mark Jones and Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum
God wants to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Amorah. But God feels God must let Abraham know first, for God expects Abraham and his descendants to stand for what is just and right. Abraham argues with God, questioning God’s justice. After all, says Abraham, “What if there are 50 righteous people in the city? How can You destroy the place and kill innocent people? Won’t you save the cities on account of the righteous people in it?” Among the many questions raised by this passage are: “What was Sodom’s sin?” and “Why would Abraham come to the defense of evil people?”
What was so evil about Sodom? From earlier in the Bible, it is clear that Sodom was very wealthy. But, the citizens didn’t care about the needy. They only cared about their own prosperity. Furthermore, they hated strangers. When a new person came to town, not only did they not welcome them. They abused them. A legend has it that the Sodomites had a bed prepared for every newcomer. If the person was too long, they shrunk him, and if the person was too short, they stretched him. That is, the people of Sodom had no tolerance for difference. So, why would Abraham stand up for people like this? Several answers were proposed.
It was pointed out that the Bible says that a cry went up from Sodom, the cry of the victims of injustice, and this is what moved God to bring the Sodomites to justice. But, if everyone in the city is evil, who is crying? Furthermore, is it possible that, at least in some cases, the cry came from the very people who were victimizing others? After all, people who are in pain may respond by causing pain.
It is significant that God takes a closer look, teaching us not to rush to judgment. But, God allows Abraham to be the real hero of this story. It is Abraham who strenuously resists treating an entire group of people as an indiscriminate mass. Is everybody wicked? Are there extenuating circumstances for bad behavior? Abraham seems torn between two ways of looking at the world. On the one hand, he is filled with righteous indignation at the abusive behavior of the Sodomites. At this moment, there is only right and wrong for Abraham. And, evil must be defeated. On the other hand, Abraham counsels God to have a nuanced understanding of justice. This is not about good vs. evil. Good and evil can be all mixed together in the same person and in the same community. In the throes of indignation, we are in danger of doing rash things. God needed Abraham talk him down. This is the value of partnership. No one of us sees everything. We need others to offer us a different perspective.
What are the implications of this story for our world? First, let’s be careful about judging an entire community indiscriminately. Blacks have been victimized when police and others don’t ‘take a closer look.’ They see only the color of a Black person’s skin and automatically make unwarranted assumptions about that person. This has led to the abuse and death of Black people at the hands of the police.
Second, let’s be careful about rushing to judgment before we ‘take a closer look’ and know a person’s whole story. We used to judge addiction. Now we look at addicts as people in pain. Can people see the pain of a Black man in prison? Do they know the pain he experienced before he went to prison? Can we see white racists as people in pain who are causing pain? Rev. Mike Burden is a Black pastor who befriended a white ex-Klansman, David Kennedy, and took him in when David was rejected by his peers for leaving the Klan. At one point Rev. Burden reflected: “It must be very hard to be a poor white person in the South with no hope and with nothing to comfort you except the belief that you are better than Black people.” This is the voice of Abraham. Is it too high a standard?
Abraham defended Sodom because he believed that if there were even ten righteous people there, they could transform the city. People can change, even people who are causing a lot of pain. Abraham did not give up on people, and neither should we. Even when America was still an enslaving nation, Frederick Douglas appealed to the better angels of America’s nature. He believed in the unrealized moral potential of America. So did Dr. King, when he declared “from every mountaintop, let freedom ring.” America is a moral work in progress. Let’s not give up on each other. Sometimes righteous indignation is called for. But often a better approach is more listening, less judgment, more seeing each other’s humanity, more seeing each other’s pain. How do we do that without drawing a moral equivalence between the victim of cruelty and the perpetrator? That was Abraham’s challenge, and it’s ours, too.
Rabbi Jay and Dr. Mark have done an outstanding job organizing multiple series of powerful Building Beloved Community interactive discussions for the Black and Jewish communities. While each meeting begins with Bible text to create neutral and mutually relatable content, discussions quickly launch into passionate, deeply resonating topics with personal histories, stories, and pleas. Conversations and experiences are shared with truth, emotion, and sincere openness. We lean into the belief that supporting each other will proceed at the speed for which trust and relationships are built. I made a dear new friend through my participation in this group. We’ve met on Zoom once a week for two years since the start of the Pandemic. This group and our growing relationships are a personal inspiration and can serve as a model that would greatly benefit all communities. I hope to see an expansion of this noble and worthwhile mission.
To be in communion with people from Islam, Jewish, and Christian faiths has the potential to step into our brave space to unravel, expose and embrace our contradictions, as we bring committed people together, to create a better understanding of justice , and provide an opportunity to develop coalitions across significant differences in order to imagine , practice and create change together especially for restorative and transformative justice. This is the stuff necessary to build a beloved community across faiths.