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The Ubuntu Moment

by Rabbi David J. Cooper

[August 15 Chai Shabbat is also an “Ubuntu” Shabbat. But what is Ubuntu?]

     Ubuntu is a bantu word from southern Africa. It defies simple translation. Of course since ntu means human, and ubu transforms a noun into an abstraction, one is tempted to say that it simply means “humanity.” Not so fast. Connotation counts and especially for this word which Archbishop Desmond Tutu has done so much to teach the world.

The term Ubuntu rejects the idea that humanity is a collection of individual people. It connotes that my personhood is obtained through my connectedness to others. Not only is humanity more than the sum of its parts, but conversely I cannot be defined simply as a single unit of humankind – the edges of my personhood are not bordered by my skin, but it permeates those around me as they, in turn, permeate me. My meaningfulness comes neither from within side myself alone nor is it imposed from a transcendent definer. Rather, I have meaning insofar as my personal reality is enmeshed with those around me and with humanity as a whole. (Arguably it extends to other species.) In English, we need at least a paragraph; in Bantu, three syllables do the trick.

I write of it now for several reasons. It is a term that captures a spiritual and social necessity in this moment of resistance against racism, triumphalism, exploitation and inequity; it’s a term that Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) is using as a centerpiece of the social action of its constituent congregations (of which Kehilla is one); it is a word that subverts the impoverished individualism of capitalist ideology; and lastly, words and speech are a theme of our High Holy Days. (And did I mention that our Chai Shabbat on August 15 is part of an Ubuntu process among OCO congregations?)

Ubuntu and BlackLivesMatter
In this last year, the BlackLivesMatter has surged forward as an expression of public outrage at the killing of black people by police and others in authority, and also in the wake of acts of terrorism against black communities not only evidenced by the murders in Charleston, but also by the burning down of ten black churches in the days since the horror at Mother Emanuel.

Some people have wanted to change the name of this effort to “All lives matter” but this use of words has the effect of watering down the specific and unique experience of oppression by African Americans. But more than that, when we do name the specific challenge of one part of the larger community and then take action as allies because the challenge to them is experienced as a challenge to ourselves, that is Ubuntu. That we act in response to anti-black racism is not a denial of anti-Latino racism or of homophobia or of antisemitism or of Islamophobia. But it does not mean that I who am white and Jewish can relate to the oppression of black people as if it is somehow the same as the particular oppressions I experience. In this context Ubuntu means I recognize that part of who I am is defined by how I engage with your reality and that my mobilization is not due to my reducing your struggle to a generic reality affecting us all the same.

Ubuntu and Coalition
During my 16 years as rabbi in Kehilla, I have been involved with several different local activist groups such as East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), OCO, East Bay Housing Organization, and others. Each of these I experienced as having separate focuses and purposes. There was some overlapping. But in the last 18 months, these groups are cooperating with each other to a degree I have not seen until now. Ubuntu whether or not by that name is operating here. My issue pertains to your issue. Mass incarceration at the Richmond Detention Center is not the same as at San Quentin, but these are interpenetrating issues.

Ubuntu and Joint Worship
OCO activists in July came together in recognition of this Ubuntu moment. Yes, Ubuntu is our theme and it is behind how we operate. But how are we to bring it forward, lift up this word and understand it and experience it in this organization which is a community of communities? They proposed that one thing to do is to invite each other to come join the other as we worship each in our own unique way. Kehilla will be the first experiment in this effort. Likely we will start slowly with only a few folks trying on this process from other congregations. But Kehilla is not inexperienced at being the first to try out something new. Of course we can’t do it alone, but isn’t that what Ubuntu is all about?

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