Art Spiegelman’s Maus came out in 1986, and in 1992 it became the first graphic novel ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s parents who survived the Holocaust and emigrated to America, interwoven with the story of Spiegelman himself as an adult drawing forth his father’s stories. If you haven’t read it, I commend it to you. It’s extraordinary.
Last year Maus was banned by school districts in several states, along with several other Holocaust-related titles. Spiegelman has joked, darkly, that schools want “a kinder, gentler, fuzzier Holocaust” to teach to children.
According to PEN America, book bans increased by 28% in American schools during the first half of last year, and most of the books challenged or banned deal with race and history, or have LGBTQ themes or protagonists.
The impact is that books about the Shoah are gone from shelves and curricula in a time when Holocaust distortion and denial are on the rise. And books with LGBTQ themes and protagonists are gone from shelves and curricula in a time when a record number of anti-trans policies are being proposed and implemented around the country. And books about Black life are gone from shelves and curricula in a time when, according to the ADL, white supremacy propaganda has soared to an all-time high.
This summer Florida also banned some Holocaust textbooks, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in part for discussion of “special topics” prohibited by the state, such as “social justice.” Maybe not coincidentally, the Florida state board of education also mandated a new approach to American history. Florida’s new standards say that “students should learn that enslaved people ‘developed skills’ that ‘could be applied for their personal benefit.’” In other words, slavery wasn’t so bad.
Meanwhile, the state legislature passed laws that “forbid teachers from offering instruction that makes students ‘feel guilt’ because of actions committed by others in the past.” And they’re not alone. Several other states have new laws that criminalize making students feel guilt or discomfort. (The Washington Post recently published an in-depth piece about the impacts of such a law on one teacher and her community.)
When I read news stories like these, all I can think is: wow, is that not aligned with Jewish values. We don’t sweep our wrong actions under the rug and pretend they were never there. On the contrary, Judaism calls us to look clearly at our mis-steps and mistakes. Our tradition calls us to always be engaged in the work of teshuvah. And we can’t do that work if we ignore our mistakes in the first place.
This is the opposite of the kind of national teshuvah I wish we could do. Germany, it turns out, has done amazing national teshuvah work. They have faced their nation’s darkest chapter, resolved to learn from it, and sought to reorient their society around what their Nazi history means they now owe to the world. (I learned about this from my friend and colleague R. Daniel Bogard’s Rosh Hashanah sermon Germany, T’shuvah, and the Obligations of our Pasts, also available as a video.)
Granted: Germany is now experiencing a rise in far-right groups, as are we. Which is a good reminder that the work of teshuvah is never one-and-done. But Germany at least made a national generational effort to reckon with their past.
Our nation has yet to collectively grapple with our responsibility to those harmed by slavery. Notice: I’m talking about responsibility rather than guilt. Because leaving aside all the tired jokes about Jewish mothers, I’m not interested in guilt. I think it’s much more productive to focus on responsibility. And Judaism has much to say about our responsibility to make someone whole after harm.
For instance, R. Aryeh Bernstein writes that Jews, having received reparations from Egypt as we fled during the Exodus, must support reparations for others. And R. Sharon Brous cites the dispute between Hillel and Shammai about what to do when a house is built on a stolen beam: do you tear the house down and return the beam, or do you pay money to the original owner?
Though Hillel and Shammai disagree, as always, neither sage argues that the beam wasn’t really stolen, or that stealing it wasn’t so bad, or that it’s already stolen so there’s no point in trying to rectify the situation. Rabbi Brous writes:
Our country was built on a stolen beam. More accurately, several million stolen beams. Only they weren’t beams. They were human beings. The palace they built was magnificent, but they have never been compensated for their labor.
There are conversations we can have about this, as Jews and as Americans. But the erasure of African American history makes it less likely that we’ll have those conversations, much less act on them. Just as the erasure of Jewish history means that nearly two-thirds of young Americans were unaware, when asked in 2020, that six million Jews died in the Holocaust. And the erasure of LGBTQ history and identities – in the words of Jared Fox at the ACLU, “When queer students are denied access to these stories, they lose a piece of their humanity.”
The erasure of our history hits me hard. And I also believe that the clarion call of Jewish tradition asks us to care about book bans and erasure of history even when our own stories aren’t at risk.
That’s part of what it means to love the other as ourself: we must concern ourselves with the needs of others… including their history and lived experience. And when they are suffering, we are responsible to try to alleviate their suffering.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l wrote:
“Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, [and] in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
My family immigrated to this country in the 20th century: none of my ancestors owned slaves. By and large, Jews didn’t cause these harms. But that doesn’t absolve us of our human responsibility to respond to their impacts. As the parent of a white teenager, I’m not worried that he’ll feel “guilty” when he learns American history. Honestly, I hope he’ll feel outraged by our nation’s worst moments, and proud of our best ones, and most of all, responsible to his fellow human beings.
Collective responsibility for and to each other is a core Jewish value. In Talmud (Shevuot 39a) we read, “כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה / Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh” — all Israel is responsible for and to each other. (Shevuot 39a) The word arevim means “mixed.” We’re mixed up in each other. We’re not as separate as we think. In the words of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, “We do not exist independently. We inter-are.”
“All of Israel is responsible for and to each other.” When that text was written, it made sense to say: all Jews are responsible for each other. Life was more insular then. We weren’t allowed to be citizens, we couldn’t own land, we were banned from most trades. Of course our sages were concerned with our responsibility for and to each other within our own community.
But in today’s paradigm, I think we need to expand the sense of “us.” All humanity is bound up together. The whole planet is bound up together. And the biggest challenges that face us know no borders. The climate crisis. White supremacy, Christian nationalism, antisemitism. The sowing of mistrust in elections and in the justice system. The banning of books, the erasure of history, disinformation and misinformation… These impact all communities. But we can respond to them as Jews, with our tradition’s wisdom and our tradition’s tools.
Today is one of our tradition’s best tools for honing and strengthening our sense of responsibility to each other, to ourselves, and to our Source. Every year Yom Kippur offers us a day of reflection and realignment. Where are we not making the right choices, or not doing enough, or falling down on the job?
For places where we miss the mark in our spiritual lives, Yom Kippur atones. Maybe we didn’t take advantage of Shabbat as a weekly day of soul-replenishment. Maybe we thought we were too busy to bless our food with gratitude, or to study Torah and Jewish wisdom. These are missteps between us and our Source, and tradition teaches that this day wipes the slate clean of these mistakes: we get to start over and try again.
For places where we miss the mark in our ethical and interpersonal lives, Yom Kippur does not atone until and unless we do the work of teshuvah. In her stunning book On Repentance and Repair, R. Danya Ruttenberg outlines the five steps of that process, and they are: Name where we’ve caused harm. Start to change. Make restitution as best we can. Apologize. And make better choices next time.
This is lifelong work. It’s meant to be lifelong work. It asks us to carve new grooves of habit. To notice our blind spots and work to overcome them. To do better than we did before.
Making restitution is often where the work gets difficult, because it asks something of us. This is the work of making someone whole after harm. The Hebrew לשלם / l’shalem means to pay what we owe, and it comes from the same root as shalom, wholeness and peace. This isn’t just fiscal; it’s also spiritual.
Notice how many of our prayers tonight are in the plural. “For the sins we have sinned against You by…” The work of repair will also be in the plural: it takes all of us. Not because we ourselves caused the problem — maybe we did, maybe we didn’t — but because we are responsible to each other.
Put plainly: I don’t care who broke it. I want to know who’s going to fix it.
If we’re living our Jewish values, part of the answer has to be “us.” Judaism calls us to love the stranger, help the refugee, feed the hungry. Instead of saying “that’s not my problem,” we embrace our collective responsibility for each other. We cultivate empathy and connection. We make a practice of teshuvah. And we find meaning in making things better for others, however we can and for whomever we can.
The prayer Kol Nidre reminds us that we always make promises we can’t keep. Every year we gather to ask God to see us through gentle eyes and to absolve us of the vows we make that turn out to be beyond our capacity. Even so, I believe it’s worth promising ourselves and each other that we will do what we can. We must do what we can. Even though a year from now we’ll find ways in which we fell down on the job. Even though it won’t be enough. Because the alternative is to shrug and let injustice stand.
In the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King z”l,
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
This sacred day calls us to look with clear eyes at where we’ve missed the mark, and to recommit ourselves to doing better. Even if we ourselves aren’t responsible for the mistakes of the past, or even the mistakes of the present, we’re responsible to each other and to our community and to the stranger and the refugee and to our democracy and to our planet.
What would it feel like to live with full awareness that we are ערבים זה בזה / arevim zeh ba-zeh, mixed up with one another, responsible to one another – to all of one another? What would our teshuvah look like then?
And honestly, isn’t that who we want to be on this earth?
May our prayer and song and fasting and contemplation on this holiest of days galvanize us to live this highest Jewish value in all the days to come.
This is the sermon that Rabbi Rachel offered at Kol Nidre (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)