Racism and Judaism is an important topic and therefore one that I would like to address honestly. Now, of course you should expect all topics that I discuss to be addressed honestly, but after perusing the world wide web, I think it’s safe to say that much of the Jewish treatment of this topic is either polemics or apologetics. It’s either Orthodox apologetics cherry-picking Torah sources or it’s Jews of other denominations and sometimes Orthodox Jews blatantly ignoring Torah sources and making up ideas that are not found in our tradition.
I could just get up here, as I imagine some of you thought I would, and say, Judaism does not believe in racism, but some Jews are racist, and be done with. But if we are going to have an honest conversation, then let’s be honest. So I will be sharing sources, some that we are more comfortable with and some, less so.
And with that introduction, let’s begin, is Judaism racist?
I believe the answer is, it depends and it depends.
It depends first and foremost on how you define racism. And it also depends on which school of Jewish thought you identify with.
Let’s begin with a definition of racism. According to the Oxford dictionary, racism can be defined in one of two ways: One, “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”
I do not believe that any Jewish source would endorse that form of racism. As we’ll see, that form of racism would not only not be endorsed but is prohibited on a number of counts.
But there’s another definition, one that is closely related, and that is this: “The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”
So the second definition is a belief that races are different, and maybe even superior to the next; a racial theory. The other, is acting out on those theories, by discriminating or antagonizing other races. And obviously there is a fine line, a dangerously fine line, between those two definitions.
With two working definitions in mind, a theory of race and acting on it, let’s go through our traditional Jewish sources. And let me preface, there are a lot of Jewish sources that say a lot of things. Our tradition though has been one where there are accepted authorities and the minority views have been left to academia alone. So I will be sharing with you classical, mainstream views only.
The first is that of Maimonides, the Rambam. In the final section of the laws of Shmittah, he writes the following moving statement: כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם
Any individual in the world (Earlier in the section he referred to Jews by name. Here, he is clearly speaking about all of humankind.) אשר נדבה רוחו אותו והבינו מדעו להבדל לעמוד לפני יי לשרתו ולעובדו לדעה את יי והלך ישר כמו שעשהו האלהים
Any individual in the world whose spirit awakened them, whose wisdom guided them, to separate themselves, to stand before G-d, to serve G-d, to know G-d, and to grow in an upright fashion, just like G-d created them…
הרי זה נתקדש קדש קדשים ויהיה י”י חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי עולמים ויזכה לו בעה”ז
Such a person is sanctified, kodesh kodoshim, holy of holies. G-d will be his portion in the world to come and in this world…”
The Rambam, quite clearly states, that the highest level of spiritual greatness is achievable by any man or women, of any race and of any background. Kol ish v’ish, anyone at all, can become kodesh kodoshim, holy of holies.
This is a view endorsed in the works of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who whenever the Torah seems like it is discriminating against one race, specifically, the children of Cham, the inhabitants of Canaan, Rav Hirsch creatively interprets each section to be in line with the meritocracy that Rambam is promoting. You are not born into greatness. You must achieve it. And anyone and everyone is welcome to try.
This view is not even talking about conversion and its obvious implication that regardless of race one is accepted fully into the Jewish fold. According to the Rambam, a non-Jew can achieve the highest levels of spiritual superiority. This view is certainly not racist at all.
However, there is another view, in its most extreme form, it is expressed by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, the author of a book known as the Kuzari. He writes (section 1) that the Jewish people possess what I will loosely translate as a ‘spiritual gene’ – some intangible spiritual capacity that gets passed on from generation to generation. We have it, he writes, and non-Jews do not. And because we have it, it sets apart from all nations. We are, according to this view, spiritually superior.1
This view is racist, at least according to the second definition, that racism is the belief that different races have different qualities, especially a belief that deems one race superior to the next. This is it.
But there are two qualifications that must be mentioned. The first is that Rav Yehuda HaLevi is not distinguishing the Jews by race. Race is defined as a group with distinct physical features or a shared set of qualities, history, or language. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s point is that the spiritual gene transcends all of that. Whether you look like this or that, whether you are a practicing Jew or not, whether you know an iota of Jewish history or speak the language, you are a Jew. Judaism, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, is arguing transcends all forms of physical description.
But stating that we have, as Jews, a superior spiritual gene is close enough to racism that we could ignore that last point and still assume his view to be at least related to racism.
But here’s the second point, and this is essential: if we were to ask the author, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, what is the role of the Jewish People in the world? Why did G-d make us spiritually superior? To answer this question, he shares the following analogy (section 1:43) and says, “The Jewish People are the heart of mankind.”
You see, Rav Yehuda HaLevi, in describing the Jewish People as a heart, means to say that we are connected to the other nations; the hands, the legs, the eyes. And in describing the Jewish People as a heart he means to say that we are here to give to the other nations.
So yes, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi believes that Jews are superior. But in the sense that they are tasked with providing life, in this case, spiritual life, to all the nations of the world. This is one of the most original sources that speak of the Jewish People being a light onto the nations. So while he does promote a theory of race, it is the furthest thing possible from a classic example of racism.2
And so is Judaism racist? The answer is yes, with some important qualifications. According to one view, and a view that is promoted by many of the mystically-inclined, and according to one definition of the term, the answer is yes. Judaism, according to this view, does believe that Jews are a superior race. But where this theory differs from every other theory of race is the implication of its superiority. Whereas every racist group who believes they are superior see the other group or groups as undeserving; undeserving of land, undeserving of education, or in the extreme, undeserving of life. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s view of superiority demands of the Jewish People to care more, to give more, and to be more, especially as it relates to others! We are the heart of the human race!
Moving on, are there Biblical sources that indicate that certain skin colors are more beautiful than others? Once again, the answer is, it depends. In one of the most famous episodes that invoke one’s skin color, Moshe’s brother and sister describe Moshe’s wife as being a Kushite, which literally means black. What they mean by that varies widely.
Rashi suggests that ‘black’ is actually a euphemism for ‘beauty.’ Others, such as Chizkiya ben Monoach, the Chizkuni, understand that they were saying the exact opposite. That the color of her skin, the color of her dark skin made her less than attractive.
Now, is it heretical to say that the cultural norms of the commentators’ society influenced their writings? I don’t think so. To say that this commentator, writing in 13th century France, had associated the color of one’s skin with beauty based on the cultural norms of one’s time tells us a lot about him. And even if – even if we were to accept this racist approach as the only approach, it still only informs us of the cultural norms of Moshe’s time and how Miriam perceived black people. It does not tell us in any way how the Torah defines beauty.
As an aside, an important aside, even if the Torah was speaking negatively about black skin, the Torah was certainly not endorsing white beauty! Jewish Caucasians did not exist! If this entire shul would go back in time to the times of the Exodus, those who look like me, pale skin and all, would have a far harder time blending in with the Jewish People than those in this room who are dark-skinned! Let’s be honest here. We don’t have pictures but I am confident that my blonde-haired, green eyed daughter looked nothing like Sarah, Rebbecca, or Rachel.
Either way, I don’t see how the Torah is defining for us, as a universal truth, as to what is beautiful and what is not. At the most, the narrative is to be understood in the context of cultural norms.
And so to recap, does Judaism promote a theory of race? Some say yes, and some say no. The Torah does have laws that distinguish between one race and another, is that predicated on a theory of superiority and inferiority? Some say yes, and some say no. And does the Torah imply that the color of the skin is associated with beauty or the lack thereof? Again, some say yes, and some say no.
But now I want to share with you some things that are agreed upon by all; by every single Jewish authority throughout all of time.
Is one allowed to speak negatively about an individual or a group of people? According to every Torah source, the answer is unequivocally no.
Is one allowed to make a person feel bad, inferior, or unwanted? According to every Torah source, the answer is unequivocally no.
Is one allowed to judge an individual or a group, based on the color of their skin? And again, according to every Torah source, the answer is unequivocally no.
I’m embarrassed that it has to be said, but it has to be said; there is no place for racial comments, for racial slurs (!), and for racial practices in Judaism. And yet, I hear it all the time. Some of the comments are extreme and some of it is “benign” but all of it should be 100% unacceptable. And it’s not. Because let’s be honest, you could make a racist joke among a group of Orthodox Jews and people will either laugh or at the very least, you could get away with it. And that’s unacceptable.
Even according to the most “racist” theory in Jewish thought, the idea is for us to care more, not less!
But let’s get a little more personal and a little more practical.
This Shabbos, we are celebrating Jews of Color. Jews of Color include African-American Jews, Asian Jews, Hispanic Jews and Jews of other non-”white” backgrounds. Some Jews of Color or converts, many, many are not. But it really doesn’t matter3. Because there is nothing in the Torah that defines the look or the culture of a Jew. You could eat kugel or cornbread, you could listen to reggae or k-pop, you could wear a pollera colora or a turban, and still be a Jew.
I am about as Ashkenzai as it gets; I have Polish and Hungarian blood running through me. And I like my culture, I really do; I like the food, I like the music, and I even like the way I look. But it’s a culture and it’s an ethnicity, and that’s really all it is. There is nothing distinctly Jewish about our music, our dress, our food preferences, or our complexion. And us Ashkenazic Jews sometimes forget that. In essence, a Shabbos dedicated to Jews of Color is really just a Shabbos celebrating the Jewish People; a multi-cultural group of people of shared beliefs and/ or shared ancestry.
But let’s get even more personal. There is a crime issue in our immediate community. And as far as I could tell from what I’ve read from police reports, virtually all of those crimes were perpetrated by black youth. Now let’s keep in mind, while let’s just say 95% of those crimes were perpetrated by black youth, not even close to 5% of black people caused those crimes. But let’s just say, you’re walking down the street, it’s late at night, and you see a black man. Do you cross the street to avoid him or do you keep on walking?
To answer that question, let me share with you a personal story. This past Tuesday night there was a rash of violent crimes in the immediate area. In Cross Country, a man entered a home illegally and proceeded to tie the homeowner up so he could rob the house. A little while later, three men attacked two men on the street and took their belongings. The alleged perpetrators were all described as black.
I knew this. I read the news and I was thinking about this Tuesday night before I went to sleep. Wednesday morning I was on my way to shul at approximately 6 AM. It was dark outside and the streets are virtually empty at that time. As I was heading to my car, I saw a tall black man walking my way, and I froze.
I froze for almost a milli-second before I realized that it was my neighbor from down the block who was walking his cute little dog. But you know what, and this hurts me to share it, but I know that he saw me freeze. I could tell from the way he overcompensated with the way he kindly said good morning. I could tell from the look on his face. And that hurt. It hurt him and it hurt me. And that is wrong.
And so I ask you, as a community, how do we balance our security needs, our legitimate security needs, with the Torah’s demand for kindness, for being welcoming, and for being caring?
It goes without saying that racist slurs or putting down entire communities is not only counterproductive but is completely and patently against Jewish law. It is unequivocally forbidden. As Jews, and really as humans, our concern when walking down the street must be not only about when to take out your pepper spray or how quickly you should run away. Our concern when walking down the street must also be to try to say hello, to say good day, to make sure that you are fulfilling your role as a member of the Jewish faith, and maybe even the Jewish race, the role of looking out and care for others, of being the heart of the world.
As a community, our concern cannot be limited to building walls and investing in better and better security. Those things are extremely important but for every dollar we invest into Shomrim or NWCP, should we not be investing a fraction of that for programs that help rehabilitate the youth that are perpetrating these crimes? Should we not be joining hands with the black community in one way or another to bridge the tremendous divide that stands between us? Is that not a true reflection of genuine Jewish values?
I’ve been talking for a while and I’m going to wrap it up and tell you what I hope you take away from my remarks. I hope you walk away from this talk with the following ideas: Yes, there is a strand of thought in normative Judaism that distinguishes between races. But even according to that view, the role of this so called spiritual gene is not a license to be an arrogant or disparaging individual. It is an obligation to be a heart or a light to all people of all walks of life. According to all views speaking negatively, making people uncomfortable, and even judging entire groups of people as one, all of that is blatantly against Jewish Law. And so the next time you hear someone doing so, I really hope you step up and you shut it down.
I hope you walk away from this talk recognizing that culture and religion are not the same thing. It is as compatible to be an American Jew as it is to be an Indian Jew. And historically, it is the Caucasian Jew that is more novel than the dark-skinned Jew and not the other way around.
I hope that after this talk, every time you think about protecting yourself, you also think about how caring you are for others; be it with a hello, or with participation or donations to the many organizations that are looking out for those less fortunate; our neighbors. Or in the words of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, our hands, or feet, or eyes…
But I also hope you walk away with hope. Because despite all the negativity, I am filled with hope. Thank G-d, there have been many who have taken steps in the right direction. To name a few,
Councilman Yitzy Shleifer, who is here with this today – I really got to know Yitzy in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray riots. Yitzy called me and asked me if I wanted to help him distribute food and other essentials to communities impacted by the riots. He was and is finding a balance between security and support.
Former councilwoman, Riki Spector, was beaten a few years ago by two black teenagers. Today, she is an advocate for those same kids. She helped enroll them in U-Empower, one of many programs that empower underprivileged youth in Baltimore by giving them jobs, mentoring them, while ensuring that they stay drug-free and in school.
A group from Shomrim, an essential organization in our community, recently started meeting with a black pastor from downtown to help work together on tackling crime, to share best practices and to create a bond.
And a synagogue in Pikesville decided to dedicate a Shabbos to having open and frank conversations about race, racism, and what it looks like for a Jewish community. (That would be us :) )
And so I am hopeful for a better tomorrow. Because it all starts with a conversation. Studies have shown that the most efficient way to break down walls between groups is through dialogue, getting to know one another. That’s what we’re doing today, and that’s what I hope you continue to do tomorrow.
I’ll conclude (for real) with a story.
A little while ago, one of my children, at the times she was around four years old, was trying to describe Tikvah Womack. My daughter said, “You know, the woman who wears a cool scarf on her hair.” I didn’t know who she was talking about. A number of people wear scarves. “You know, she always smiles.” A lot of people smile. “You know, she has a baby.” Thank G-d, there are a lot of babies here. And finally she said, “You know, her skin is dark.”
That was the fourth attempt she made at describing this person. I do not see this is a reflection of my parenting. I see this is as a reflection of the times. Twenty years ago, ten years ago, I am confident that a child, and certainly a Jewish child, would have first said, they are black and they would have probably used a different word. Whether that word was in English or Yiddish – it’s still derogatory and cannot be used. Thank G-d, we live in a time that that is no longer the case. Our skin color, our culture, is a feature, one of many that make us who we are.
May we merit a day that “people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” May we merit a day when the Biblical and Jewish belief of Tzelem Elokim, of man, of all of mankind, being created in G-d’s image, in its myriad of shapes and colors, is acknowledged and practiced by all.
1Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi suggests that a convert cannot experience prophecy for this reason as he or she is lacking this spiritual gene. The irony, of course, is that his book was written as a dialogue between a potential convert, the King of Kazar, and a rabbi. It’s worth noting that others who identify with this spiritual ‘gene’ understand that at conversion, the convert adopts a spiritual gene. This is mentioned explicitly by the Ohr HaChaim and by the Maharal.
2Ironically, it is the Rambam, in his introduction to Cheilek, where he explains that the world was created for the intellectually elite and the role of those who are not is to provide for the elite. Not a racist theory but an extremely elitist one.
3 Rav Moshe Feinstein, the leading Halachic authority in America in the last century, in the midst of a responsa about the Jewish status of a group from Ethiopia, writes the following: “And I suffered great anguish because I have heard there are those in Israel who are not drawing them close in spiritual matters and are causing, G-d forbid, that they might be lost from Judaism. And it seems to me these people are behaving so only because the color of the Falashas’ skin is black. It is obvious that one must draw them close, not only because they are no worse than the rest of the Jews – because there is no distinction in practical application of the law because they are black …”