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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת וארא, תש״פ

Parshat Va'eira, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, January 25th, 2020

Remembering Rabbi Mantinband

Last week, as I was doing research on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in preparation for Martin Luther King weekend, I started thinking about another civil rights rabbi with much closer connections to our community. Rabbi Charles Mantinband, grandfather of our very own Dave Ginsburg, was seen as a great and controversial figure for Civil Rights in the South, serving in congregations in Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas in the 1950s and 60s. This past Thursday night, I curled up with a memoir written by his wife, Anna Kest Mantinband, and discovered that the two of them as a couple had a very different civil rights style than those who marched with Dr. King. While Rabbi Mantinband saw boycotts and marches as fruitful to an extent, he and his wife practiced what they preached on a more individual level. They made close friends with, found opportunities for, and sought advice from their African American neighbors, at a time and place in which such behavior instigated public alarm and sometimes even threats of physical harm.

There are two lessons that I had to learn early in my own life,” Rabbi Mantinband once wrote, “and that have stood me in good stead. First, I had to learn - and it was very hard for me, because I am a product of a segregated society - to the degree to which I could exercise control over my attitudes, never to make any distinction between man and man. Anything else would conflict with my religious conviction and my deepest philosophical beliefs. Second - and this came even a little harder - I schooled myself never to sit in the company of people, whether it be in a service club or a church meeting, in a home or in a chamber of commerce meeting, and listen to a word of bigotry spoken in a context of any importance, and by my silence seem to lend approval to the bigoted utterance. Quietly and not always persuasively I make certain that the opposing point of view is heard in that meeting. And it has been interesting and gratifying that whatever this behavior on my part may have cost me in popularity has been more than made up for by the encouragement that it has given to others of like mind to stand up and be counted themselves.

Rabbi Mantinband worked hard never to see himself as any more human than another, and never to hear a discriminatory word without chastising the speaker. And his twofold philosophy extended beyond the Black community and towards whatever individuals he met who needed an extra push; he and Mrs. Mantinband pushed for the independence of and found shelter for individual ex-convicts, women in need of independence, blind community members, and children who had survived the Holocaust. Long before male or abled or white privilege were part of mainstream conversation, Rabbi and Mrs. Mantinband lived out the Talmudic idea we’ve been speaking of for weeks here - that one person’s blood is no redder than anyone else’s.

Rabbi Mantinband’s second conviction matches precisely with one of our most challenging verses in Torah: Lo tisne et akhikha bilvavekha. Hokheah tokhiah et amitekha. Do not hate your neighbor in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your fellow, but do not bring sin upon him… (Leviticus 19:17).When we see another person doing or saying something of which we disapprove, it is our obligation to speak our mind in a way that is respectful and kind. The verse continues, Lo tisa alav heit. Do not incur sin because of him (ibid.). On the one hand, do not reprimand him in a way that is so harsh it’s sinful, and on the other hand, if you do not reprimand him at all, you will be liable for sin on account of your silence. As Rabbi Mantinband admitted himself, these two convictions - to treat all of humankind with the same respect and to reprimand unjust actions or statements - are certainly not easy. However, on this weekend between Martin Luther King Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, now has to be a time to remember our Biblical mandates of human equality and the importance of reprimand.

Eighty years ago, the world turned a blind eye to the mass imprisonment and genocide of European Jewry, alongside Europe’s homosexual, Roma, differently abled, and politically antinomian communities. In the decades afterwards, large swaths of the American community turned a blind eye to the millions of Black citizens who were unable to vote or receive decent healthcare, wages, or education. In Nazi Germany, citizens turned a blind eye from fear of physical and political consequences. The rest of the world turned a blind eye because what happens thousands of miles away need not concern us. Right here in the Deep South in the following decades, Rabbi and Mrs. Mantinband told stories of how frustrated the Jewish community was when they invited African American friends into their home or argued on behalf of their voting rights; the Jewish community was afraid that their voice on behalf of justice would make them targets, too. Yes, the governments and the masses in each of these situations held unimaginable power, and yet, in a sort of pipe dream, I wonder how many people would have been saved from the Holocaust if just a few more Germans had criticized Nazi propoganda in the time leading up to Hitler’s election, if just a few more Americans or Brits had written letters to leadership sooner. I wonder how many lynchings could have been prevented if just a couple more White individuals would have told their friends to watch their language. So often, state-sponsored persecution and segregation of specific peoples is perpetuated by those who are afraid to say something defiant.

Our defiant speech starts small - when a friend speaks of an entire group of people in one negative characterization, we remind that friend lovingly that “the Arabs,” “the Jews,” “the Mexicans” are diverse and deeply human. We do the simple task of noticing when in a conversation we flinch at a slur or stereotype; we ask ourselves whether this might be the time for rebuke. When we do so, we rebuke because we care about both the person who made the comment and the target of the speech. And we walk the talk by inviting the other into our home, by learning from her, by supporting her business, and by voting for her well being.

Sixty years after Rabbi Charles Mantinband rebuked his neighbors, we will each certainly meet others who will scoff at our words. But in just a few minutes, we’re about to read about a man slow of speech who returns to Egypt’s stubborn Pharaoh on ten separate occasions with the same offer of rebuke. That same man, that same Moses, will be the one to rebuke the people Israel when they worship a golden calf and whine about the daily menu in the desert. Moses, our greatest prophet, acts as our model for never ignoring our neighbors’ wrongdoing, even when we have no idea whether our words will have any effect at all.

Although today, there’s little to no political or physical harm to be done when we reprimand on behalf of another human being, we can still be afraid of raising our voices. We encounter the challenge of trying to be kind and loving through criticism. We worry about the toll that criticism will have on our jobs or friendships. We avoid confrontation simply because conflict scares us. And yet, for each of us with Moses’ slow, uncircumcised tongue, living each day as if we had been slaves in Egypt mandates that we remember the well being of the rest of humanity. Being a Jew in the year 2020 must mean making sure that the other is spoken about with the same respect and safety we have prayed for for our past thousands of years. Shabbat Shalom.