This ceremony, meant to be performed before the ritual hand-washing prior to eating bread, encourages people to contemplate issues of race in society, imagine an ideal world, and recognize the things which we cannot wash clean. Structured as a guide for hosts, this ceremony comes from Turn the Tables, a project of Repair the World, an organization that believes in raising complex issues that challenge our vision of a just society. This text was originally posted on Ritualwell, a project of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College that provides a platform for creating new Jewish practices and observances.
Turn the Tables: Until Justice Rolls Down
Traditionally, Shabbat is time set aside at the end of the work week for rest and reflection on both the days that have passed and the days to come. It is also often regarded as an opportunity to return to the metaphorical “Garden of Eden” and imagine the world as it could be, before heading back into the work of creating that ideal in the coming week.
Judaism offers many connections between ritual and water—for marking transitions, welcoming guests, and preparing to eat a meal. The ritual of hand washing before a Shabbat meal, as an extension of the handwashing some engage in before every meal, is intended to help bring about that moment of ideal—to wash away the impurity that exists in the world and provide the opportunity during Shabbat to imagine something better. In the context of the conversation you are about to engage in, there is something incredibly powerful about taking a moment to imagine a world free of racial injustice, and also something incredibly troubling about the notion of “washing one’s hands clean” of an injustice we are all inherently complicit in.
With the “UNTIL JUSTICE ROLLS DOWN LIKE WATER” activity, we encourage you and your guests to start your meal by imagining the ideal AND by recognizing the things we cannot wash clean. With this intention, we prepare ourselves for the conversations we will have tonight and the work we commit to continuing in the days, weeks, and years to come.
In advance of your dinner, read through this activity and set up a pitcher or large cup filled with water alongside a large bowl. At the beginning of the dinner, we encourage you to begin with the Shabbat rituals of lighting candles and making kiddush to set the tone for your Shabbat meal. Feel free to also bring in other Shabbat customs that you or your guests have. A friendly explanation of these rituals, as you understand them, can be informative and useful for the people at the table. Before saying Hamotzi (the blessing over bread) and/or starting your entrée conversation, we encourage you to pause and facilitate the following activity.
NOTE: There is some God language and Jewish ritual in the following activity and blessings. Invite your guests to interpret it in the way that both feels comfortable to them and encourages them to explore different perspectives.
If Shabbat rituals aren’t your thing, feel free to complete the prompts without the hand washing.
Share with guests: Shabbat is traditionally a time set aside at the end of the work week for rest and reflection on the days that have passed and on the days to come. It is also often regarded as an opportunity to return to a metaphorical “Garden of Eden” and imagine the world as it could be, before heading back into the work of creating that ideal in the coming week.
The ritual of hand washing before a Shabbat meal is intended to help bring about that moment of ideal—to wash away the impurity that exists in the world and provide the opportunity during Shabbat to imagine something better. For some, this act is part of a broader Jewish practice of the washing of hands in moments of transition and reflection, such as waking up in the morning or on leaving a cemetery. Each of these frameworks pushes us to recognize what we are both leaving and entering into in that moment.
In the context of the conversation we are about to engage in, there is something incredibly powerful about taking a moment to imagine and dream of a world free of racial injustice, and also something incredibly troubling about the idea of washing away something that we cannot “wash our hands clean” of—an injustice we are all inherently complicit in. To honor that tension, we are going to start our meal by both imagining the ideal AND by recognizing the things we cannot wash clean.
“I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream…” (1963)
Ask guests to go around the table and share two things:
1. A dream they have for a more racially just world; and
2. A brokenness that we cannot wash away as we go into this conversation.
Conclude by inviting guests to each ritually hand-wash using any of the blessings or meditations that resonate with them on the Handwashing Blessings and Meditations sheet. Share that there is a Jewish custom of observing a silence between handwashing and reciting the blessing over the bread/eating the meal. Silence can mean a lot of things. It can reflect a person’s shyness or reticence to raise a difficult point. It can express disengagement or apathy, or even frustration, anger or judgment. It can indicate that those present are taking in the true depth of what has just been shared, weighing their thoughts and feelings, and intentionally considering how to respond. This potential uncertainty about a silence’s meaning can leave us feeling unsettled and uncomfortable, feelings exacerbated by racial overtones of silencing others in public and private conversations.
Encourage guests to lean into this silence as a reminder of the need for allies, in racial or other justice contexts, to temper their own words, to listen to those who experience oppression, and to create spaces where marginalized individuals can tell their own stories.
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