Indifference

Sometime after George Floyd’s murder, I started being the facilitator of a once-a-week virtual hour long session on Jews and race in America. The “class” is through the JCA. The last few weeks we have been reading a speech that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave in 1963 at a Chicago Conference on Race and Religion. It was at that conference that Heschel first met Martin Luther King Jr.

This week we read a section about indifference to evil. “There is an evil most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.”

Heschel’s speech was focused on the evil of segregation and the daily injustices that black people suffered. He was also, subtly, looking back to the overwhelming evil of the Holocaust. Heschel, born in Poland, left Germany in 1940; many members of his family who remained perished.

Reading that passage, the word “indifference” stood out. What is the opposite of indifference? Is it attention, caring, sympathy or empathy? Today’s world seems beset by problems. It can feel overwhelming contemplating how to act.

The song “I Think It is Going to Rain Today,” by Randy Newman also came to mind.

“Human kindness is overflowing
And I think it’s going to rain today

Lonely, lonely
Tin can at my feet
Think I’ll kick it down the street
That’s the way to treat a friend”

In my teenage years I sang that song to myself many times. The somewhat sarcastic or cynical lyrics perfectly summed up my view of the world and its problems.

It is many years later and the song still has a lot of meaning. America has many compelling issues. Climate change, systemic racism, COVID and continuing economic inequality are some of them. It is hard to know where to start.

Heschel wanted his audience to face racism and act to end it. Heschel didn’t just give speeches and sermons about the evils of racism. He was an active participant in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and marched with MLK in Selma.

Jim Crow and segregation did end but racism has not gone away. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his essay, Three Ways of Meeting Oppression, “To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system.” Both King and Heschel fought against indifference to and denial of racism. To act in a way that contradicts indifference to evil requires us to do something, anything. To the best of our ability, we need to stand up and be counted.