Kol Nidre 5781: “Are We Failing the Great Human Experiment?”

In March of 1964, in Kew Gardens, Queens in New York City, a 28-year-old woman named Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered outside her apartment. She had returned in the early morning hours to her home after leaving the bar where she worked, and parked her car as she usually did in the Kew Gardens Long Island Railroad station parking lot, which was right outside the entrance to her apartment. As she made her way to the alleyway entrance, she was approached by an assailant who attacked her with a knife.

She made her way to the front of her building, he followed, overtook her and stabbed her twice. She called out for help, one person yelled out, scaring him off. Genovese made her way back to the alleyway entrance, when he returned, stabbing her again, raping her, robbing her, and running away.

Two weeks later, the New York Times ran a front page article that would define this case for decades to come. Under the headline: “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police,” reporter Martin Gansberg wrote, “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice their chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.” So ran the lede in the New York Times article.

The case set off a furor, and prompted social psychological research into what has become known as “the bystander effect.” The name “Kitty Genovese” became synonymous with this research, which has determined that people are less likely to get involved in a situation or offer help if there are many people around. The case and the research has become standard in the field of psychology and particularly in Introduction to Psychology classes where I was introduced to it 30 years ago as an undergrad in college.

There is only one problem with all of this. It wasn’t true.

The story wasn’t true. And I only learned this a few weeks ago when I read the obituary of one Sophia Farrar. Farrar, Kitty Genovese’s neighbor, had gone out and comforted Kitty, held her as help arrived. Genovese had later died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Farrar just passed away a few weeks ago, in her 90s.

Later reporting uncovered other concealed truths about the story: the number of witnesses originally reported may have been inflated, none really saw the attack, and if they did, they thought it was an argument and not an assault, and some actually did call the police.

So this story, which became synonymous with apathy, with indifference, with “not getting involved,” was not truthfully reported when it first came out.

So why? I asked myself. Why was it written this way? One could say sensationalism, that it made for a more interesting and impactful story to be able to claim that Genovese was murdered in front of 38 witnesses. But it was only sensationalist because it was believable. Because we can believe that a group of people can watch someone be stabbed and raped and robbed and not do anything. We want to read that story. The story of helping, is not as interesting. And that story stood for so long because it was so believable that people would act in this way, even though it wasn’t truthful.

Earlier this year, we lost a giant, Rep. John Lewis. Lewis was unwavering in his fight for civil rights, from leading the march from Selma to Montgomery over the Edmund Pettus bridge, to becoming known as “the conscience of the Congress.” In his last days, Lewis, a man who dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice, left a final message published that as an op-ed on the day he died. In it, Lewis wrote, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

In this country, in our country, we often speak of the Great American Experiment—a nation founded on particular ideals enshrined in documents that speak of divine-given rights and human equality. And while at the time they were written those words did not include everyone, we are continually living into those words and interpreting them to create, as the documents attest, a more perfect union.

The way we do that over time, is by creating institutions and norms that uphold and preserve them. And Lewis’s final words are so poignant, for we are seeing in our time the threat to those institutions unlike anything in recent history.

Today we are seeing the separation of powers and oversight authority scoffed at and ignored.

Today we are seeing office-holders using their office to enrich themselves and their families.

Today we are seeing false claims and misinformation being used to discredit free and fair elections.

Today we are seeing the deliberate disenfranchisement of citizens through legal loopholes.

Today we are seeing hypocrisy for the sake of political expediency.

Today we are seeing targeted obfuscation and gaslighting.

Today we are seeing governance by whim and instinct rather than by process and research.

Today we are seeing government promote the interest of the one over the interest of the many.

But I also fear, as we stand here on this Yom Kippur, that it is something more, that it is not only the Great American Experiment that is being tested, but the Great Human Experiment. For all of these challenges are failures not only of our system of government, but at the core, they are human failures. They are the failures that made us want to understand the Kitty Genovese story one way. They are demonstrations of an attitude that promotes self over the other, the individual over the community, the part over the whole. They are demonstrations that we are naturally competitive, that helping and needing help is a sign of weakness, that personal freedom can come at the expense of another.

And if the Great American Experiment is enshrined in our Constitution and other founding documents, setting forth a vision for a country and social contract, then, I would suggest, that the Great Human Experiment is what is enshrined in our Torah, setting forth a vision for how we as humans are to be in the world generally and the values by which we are to live.

That sacred text, our Torah, as we know, begins with a story of creation of the world. All of existence, all matter, is “formless and void”—tohu v’vohu—until the spirit of God hovers over. God then begins to create the structures of life—light and darkness, sun and moon, earth and water, plant and animal—over the course of six days. The final act of creation, just before resting, is the creation of humans.

A classic Jewish exegetical question asks, why does the Torah start with Creation? The medieval French commentator Rashi states, “…The Torah which is the Law book of Israel should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:2) ‘This month shall be unto you the first of the months’ because this is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation? Because,” Rashi answers, “of the thought expressed in the text (Psalms 111:6) “God declared to the people the strength of God’s works (i.e. He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order to give them the heritage of the nations.”

In other words, the rest of the Torah is propped up by the story of creation, for if you learn the power and might of God as the one who created the world, then you can not doubt God in giving the Torah and establishing the covenant with Israel. The story of creation is meant, therefore, to inspire awe and pride in being the ones who carry God’s covenant. This is the answer of Rashi.

But I want to read this story a little differently, as a story of humility. That beginning the Torah with Creation is not meant to just establish divine power in order to elevate the inheritors of God’s covenant, but to humble us by saying, simply, this world does not start with you. There was a time, when this world existed, and you didn’t. We tell the story of creation first to remind ourselves that this world is perfectly capable of existing without us. We are not the most important things in the universe.

And not only that, after the story of the creation of humanity, look at those early stories of Genesis: Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah—we have lying, deceit, manipulation, jealously, envy, favoritism, murder, exile, violence.

In the narrative of the Torah, these stories happened before the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. They came before the mass shared experience of redemption, and the coalescing around shared agreement and law. It is as if the Torah is telling us something about our nature prior to the act of covenenting. And that the Great Human Experiment, therefore, is to see if we are able to transcend these natural human tendencies.

There is a text in the Talmud, one of the many arguments between the schools of two great sages, Hillel and Shammai—it’s a text I shared with you two years ago during Yom Kippur as part of a study session: “The Sages taught: For two and a half years, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel disagreed. One said: It would have been preferable had humans not been created rather than been created. And the other said: It is preferable for humans to have been created rather than not been created. Ultimately,” the text reads, “they were counted and concluded: It would have been preferable had humans not been created rather than been created. However, now that they have been created, they should examine their actions…They should investigate their actions.”

What a surprising and humbling text. The great sages of Jewish tradition voting, and declaring that it would have been better that we had not been created. It would have been better if humans did not exist.

And yet we are here. And that is part of the Great Human Experiment. Can we, as the text teaches, since we are here, “examine and investigate our actions?” Can we continue to live as if we deserve to be here?

And right now we are presented with a gift, we are being presented with an opportunity. As Rev. William Barber said earlier this June as part of the Poor People’s Campaign Moral Assembly, “We know that there is a plan that is higher than our plans. There is a timing that supersedes our time. And in the long arc of human history there are moments when the Universe itself groans, and declares, it’s time.”

The Universe is groaning. The universe is telling us, it’s time. We are presented with the gift and opportunity of learning how we have been failing the Great Human Experiment.

That experiment, as embodied in the Torah, begins with the story of the creation of humanity. As we read in Genesis 2, if we go back to that beginning, the text reads: “God formed human from the dust of the earth, blowing into their nostrils the breath of life, and human became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)

So what gives us life? What gives us life, what gives us vitality, what gives us spirit and soul? The divine breath. The divine breath. And right now, it is through breath that we are being tested.

We are in the midst of a pandemic, of a new, mysterious and deadly disease that strikes at the lungs. At the beginning all the talk was the need for ventilators, the inability to breathe on one’s own. The coronavirus spread to such a point that the only response that made sense was to shut everything down and, as you know, stop public gatherings. A disease that affected our ability to breathe.

The necessary shutting down of the economy and the massive job loss that followed was a reminder, or unveiled for us, of how little of a social safety net we have in this country; at one point the government simply mailed a check to everyone. And since health insurance is so often tied to employment, losing your job also meant losing health insurance—in the midst of a pandemic. And the fact that the pandemic is affecting people of color disproportionally reveals the disparities in wealth and access to health care. Lack of child care makes the closing of the schools an even greater hardship for many, and those who can not afford to stay at home are thus put in a more difficult and dangerous position.

The choking off of breath, in this case, reminds us of the economic disparity that exists in this country.

And while this was going on the plague of police brutality and violence struck again and again, coalescing around the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, who was held down on the ground by the police with a knee to the neck, and as he struggled for air, struggled to speak, struggled to live—he echoed the words spoken by Eric Garner previously in another incident, “I can’t breathe.” “I can’t breathe.” Those words became a clarion call not only about the excessive use of force by the police, but about the implicit and explicit racist policies, procedures and attitudes that affect the police, governments, and the population at large. George Floyd’s murder, along with that of Breonna Taylor and many others, is forcing a reckoning with history, privilege, power, and race. “I can’t breathe.”

The choking off of breath, in this case, reminds us of the need for racial justice in our country.

And just two weeks ago, our breathing, all of our breathing, was impeded by the smoke from wildfires that travelled hundreds of miles, fires that devastated large sections of the west coast. We all needed to stay inside, close all the windows. And if we did need to venture out, we needed to wear masks outdoors just as we had been doing in public indoors. Whether those fires were started by humans or other causes, the conditions are such that year after year these fires continue to get worse and worse due to changes in climate, and these fires will continue to cost lives and livelihoods, property and possessions. And we can expect increased devastation by natural forces all over.

The choking off of breath, in this case, reminds us of our need for environmental stewardship in this country.

Each one of these instances represents a failure of the Great Human Experiment. Each one of these instances represents a failure to embody that divine breath that lives within us. So the question is, can we, can we, as Hillel and Shammai say, examine and investigate our deeds?

Can we uphold the values, enshrined in our sacred text, that teach that we are not individual actors with rights, but communal beings with responsibilities?

Can we assert that the most important time of life is not before birth and after death but between birth and death?

Can we recognize that the reason the Torah is written like a history book is because we are meant to know and to confront our history?

Can we affirm that we have an obligation to “till and tend” the earth, and act responsibly towards the environment?

Can we remember to “not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin,” to work to ensure that everyone’s basic needs of housing, and health care, and child care, and economic support are met?

Can we assert that “you must not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” and stand up when community members are brutalized by hatred?

Can we say, as the midrash teaches, that the most important verse in the Torah is “These are the generations of Adam,” because it teaches that no one, no one is more important than another, that we are all related, that we all contain within us that precious, sacred, divine breath?

And can we be humbled by the knowledge that if we do not live up to these, then the world is perfectly capable of going on without us?

If we can do this, we can overcome our current challenges. If we can do this, then we will emerge stronger and better than we were before, and not just revert to some imagined past normal. If we do this, then we can create that more perfect union, the beloved community, reach the Promised Land.

This is a time of great fear and anxiety, I know, I feel it too. But it is not a time without agency. I’ve been to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It is an arch bridge, standing on one side you can not see the other. When John Lewis stood at the foot of that bridge, he could not see the other side. But he knew that he would not be able to bring his vision of justice into creation without taking that step into the unknown.

We, too, in this new year, take our own step.

In these past few months, we lost a great hero in John Lewis. But let us not forget, that we also lost a great hero in Sophia Farrar. She proved that when the newspapers were content to report, and readers were content to believe, that Kitty Genovese could be murdered in front of 38 witnesses, the truth was more affirming. She proved that we have the capacity to overcome indifference and individualism then as we must now. She proved that if a story told and believed for 56 years can and must be rewritten, then we can continue to revisit and renew our stories.

Sophia Farrar proved that we can pass the Great Human Experiment. In her passing, she proved, through her life that there is hope for us all.

4 responses to “Kol Nidre 5781: “Are We Failing the Great Human Experiment?””

  1. LDK Avatar

    Great post, Seth. I grew up in Kew Gardens in the 1960s. I have long known that the public account of the murder was wrong. We had ongoing problems with 911 operators and local police response, but that was not reported. That said, I really appreciate the way you drew on this story to create a call for changing a public narrative. Shana Tova. – Laura Duhan-Kaplan


    1. Rabbi360 Avatar

      Thanks Laura! And shana tova to you as well!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Beanzblues Avatar

    Best drash in recent memory. Thanks for the thoughtful words Seth.


    1. Rabbi360 Avatar

      Thanks, Tom! Shana tova!


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