Congressman Julius Kahn is now remembered in part for his vociferous anti-Asian racism.
Congressman Julius Kahn is now remembered in part for his vociferous anti-Asian racism.

We Jews cannot look away from the ugly parts of our past

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Leviticus 25:127:34

In the pages of this newspaper in the year 1919, Julius Kahn, a U.S. senator and leader of the local Jewish community, distilled into one sentence the sense of joy many feel about being Jewish in the Bay Area.

“For me the United States is my Zion and San Francisco is my Jerusalem,” he wrote.

I discovered Kahn’s words when I was doing a research project for rabbinical school. I was excited to find this quote, but I was horrified as I read the rest of the article. Kahn’s piece included bigotry on many levels. And a 2022 tweet from J. reminded me that Kahn also had a troubling history of racism, especially against people of Asian descent.

This offered an important moment of reflection. In my research project, I had been studying the history of how Bay Area Jews have responded to fears over losing their Jewish identities. As I scrolled through the digitized pages of this newspaper, I found a diverse set of sometimes insightful, sometimes anachronistic, sometimes prescient insights into how to maintain Jewish life in the Bay Area. It was encouraging to see how much energy and creativity has gone into sustaining Judaism here.

But also sprinkled into the pages of this publication was racism. In 1905, a local civic leader casually included anti-Black racism as he made a point about synagogue life. In 1899, Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger, this publication’s editor, disparaged Chinese immigrants for not conforming to “occidental society.”

This week’s double portion of Torah, Behar-Bechukotai, also contains both inspirational ideas and ethically troubling passages.

We learn about the laws of shmita and yovel, two concepts that are agricultural in origin but offer insights we can apply today.

As a Jewish community, when we read the Torah, we read every sentence, including those that we find bothersome and even hurtful.

In shmita, we are taught that every seven years, “the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of Adonai.” (Leviticus 25:4) Shmita originates as a time of agricultural rest and renewal, and we can extrapolate from it about the importance of caring for the environment and the need to pump the brakes on our extractive, consumerist society.

Yovel is the climax of the shmita cycle, occurring every 50 years, after seven shmita cycles of seven years. According to our portion, “You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to their family.” (Leviticus 25:10) The Torah proclaims the jubilee year to be one of joy and rejuvenation. As we face environmental degradation and other pressures of our economic system, the Torah teaches us to stop this cycle and turn to spiritual celebration and renewal.

However, the Torah does not intend the shmita to apply to everyone. In Leviticus 25:6, the Torah tells us, “You may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce — you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you.” The implication here is that shmita does not function for the entire society: This is a practice for people who own slaves.

This is surely not the only troubling passage in our sacred texts. As a Jewish community, when we read the Torah, we read every sentence, including those that we find bothersome and even hurtful.

It seems to me that this practice of reading every word can inform how we as a Bay Area Jewish community can perform teshuvah (repentance) regarding our history of racism.

Just as there are insightful and beautiful parts of the Torah to which we gravitate naturally, such as the laws of shmita and yovel, there is much to be proud of in the history of our local Jewish community. But in keeping with the way we don’t excise the problematic passages of the Torah, we should remember the entirety of the history of the Jewish Bay Area. This includes our community’s history of racism.

We have a lot to be proud of in Bay Area Jewish history. At the same time, we can learn from the way we read our sacred texts that we have to acknowledge and reckon with the troublesome parts of our collective history.

Rabbi George Altshuler
Rabbi George Altshuler

Rabbi George Altshuler is the assistant rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, where he grew up. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and writer in J.’s newsroom.