By Rabbi Renée Bauer
February is Black History Month. The month is celebrated with lectures, events at school, and enjoyment of music by Black artists. I would like to suggest that celebrating Black History Month can be a spiritual practice.
Most of us who were raised in this country learned a version of American history that centered white experience. It mostly left out our country’s painful history of white supremacy as well as the creativity and wisdom of many Black Americans. Black History Month beckons us to look at our nation’s history through a different lens that centers Blackness.
I was struck at how jarring this switch can be when I took my then seven-year-old daughter to Independence Mall in Philadelphia a few years ago. I came to this national historic site with my own memories of seeing it for the first time decades earlier-memories of Ben Franklin’s printing shop, the Liberty Bell with its famous crack, and the glass-encased Declaration of Independence. We saw those things but when we got to the site of the original presidential house the perspective shifted in an important way. She pushed one of the video presentations that told the story of the house. The presentation talked about the slaves who worked in that house and the indigenous people who used to live on that land. I was struck that this was not the history I had learned. I had learned about George Washington and John Adams, and the Continental Congress. How different the story looked when the lens shifted perspective!
This shifting of perspective speaks to the theory of Jewish theology that I learned from Dr. David Kraemer, Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, when I was in rabbinical school. Judaism, he argued, does not have a systematic theology, but there is a theology embedded in the Talmud. The Talmud presents not a codification of Jewish law but a compendium of arguments between the rabbis. The debates themselves are important; both majority and minority opinions are recorded.
Why do we have a sacred text that includes minority opinions that will not be followed? Professor Kraemer contends that the structure of the Talmud itself reveals the theology of the ancient rabbis. By including all sides of the arguments they are teaching that no human being can grasp the full truth. Only God, not any human, even the most learned rabbi, knows the full truth. That is why we need to include the voices of those who have different opinions, vantage points from the majority. Part of the Talmudic project is to unsettle the reader’s sense of truth, preventing a sense of certainty.
In our day, when we look at the world from perspectives that are different from our own and that complicate our long-held notions of truth, we are living the lessons of the rabbis and are reaching out to the divine. Black History Month provides us an opportunity for this practice. May each of us embrace the task as we move to bring more holiness into our world.