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Racism

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Tradition is the magazine of the Rabbinical Council of America. Its summer edition opens with a letter from a member of an Orthodox synagogue who says that in his opinion converts are “not Jews like us. . .they may be fine wonderful people but they are simply not like us.” He asks if that makes him a racist.

To dig himself even further into his dirty pit he also says, “Do I want my children to marry a person with such a different background? . . .I would have the same objection to my children marrying Sefardim.”

It took me several readings before I could actually believe my eyes. And then it took me several weeks before I could reconcile myself to the idea that a respected Orthodox journal could actually print such offensive opinions. Even as I write this, weeks later, I am boiling with indignation, frustration, and despair that I could be tarred with the brush of belonging to the same religion as this correspondent and the suspicion that he is certainly not a lone voice.

Who, I wonder, is “us”? Not someone who believes in Torah and the idea that one’s behavior is what differentiates a good person from a bad one, rather than an accident of birth. The writer is certainly is not a Jew like me!!! I wouldn’t want my children to marry anyone like him who would not want a child of his to marry into King David’s family or great rabbis like Shemaya and Avtalyon. He would avoid Rambam, Maimonides, because he is Sefardi. Never mind that he is regarded as the greatest post Talmudic Jewish minds and a spiritual giant. The mere fact that he was born in Cordova instead of Worms makes him a less desirable match? He is not “like us”?

What kind of morality is that? There are Ashkenazim like him who are “different”. Someone brought up in Frankfurt am Main will have very different attitudes, customs, and habits than someone brought up in the Carpathian backwoods. Or what about an Ashkenazi with absolutely no secular education as opposed to one with an Ivy League degree? Clearly his reason for not wanting to marry a Sefardi or a convert cannot be differences of attitude and custom. Of course it’s racist.

Racism is judging a person not by his actions but purely by physical characteristics. An ugly man cannot be a good man. A black man must automatically be inferior to a white man, a Sefardi to an Ashkenazi. That is racism at its most barbarous, intellectually degenerate, and morally corrupt. It is Naziism, “Jews are not like us.”

If I say I want someone who is moral for my son-in-law, or someone who lives a religious life for a daughter-in-law, that is not racist. I am judging people for how they are rather than where they came from, by the depth of their souls rather than the surface of their skins. I would by far prefer my children to marry converts who care about Torah and live ethical lives, than members of the longest genealogical line of Ashkenazim who could not care less about either.

If the man had said, “You know, I would not want my daughter to marry a crook who might have all the outward characteristics of an Orthodox Jew (of any denomination or social group) because I object to corrupt behavior,” then I would of course sympathize. Even so, I would allow for a person to change and repent. But this fine fellow has no room for repentance, for spiritual growth, for religious improvement. If he had said I object to hypocrites, whoever they might be, or wife beaters, I would agree too, so long as he also understood that this has nothing to do with where you were born but how you were brought up.

But to smear a whole group without specifically naming one characteristic, to generalize about them and to pretend that his group is automatically different and superior is precisely what defines a racist.

It is not just amongst the Ashkenazim we have this disease. I am offended that the Syrian community in New York refuses to give honors to converts and children of converts because it believes this is the way to prevent intermarriage. It is like thinking censorship works better than education, that punishment is preferable to rehabilitation. And, frankly, given what they have had to put up with from Ashkenazim, I am secretly glad they retaliate by refusing to accept Ashkenazi sons- or daughters-in-law! How’s that for inconsistency? But still it is all the same problem.

The editor of Tradition, Shalom Carmy, has a reputation as a scholarly, intelligent, and moral man. In replying, he bends over backwards to be understanding and to avoid wiping the floor with such a crude, non-Jewish correspondent (and I mean non-Jewish in the sense of betraying Jewish values). He sees no evidence in the letter of racism, just of a failure in personal spirituality.

Even if we concede, as I would, that over the years many have abused the conversion system, or that occasional rabbinic voices have been raised that question some converts’ motives, or that Sefardim have been more influenced by Islam and Ashkenazim by Christianity, this still does not justify his crass generalizations. A failure in personal development is not the same as tarring whole groups.

This has been the very plague that has dogged us externally and internally throughout our history. It starts with this sort of xenophobia and then goes on to characterize and demonize whole peoples, whole nations and religions without realizing that with them, as with us, there are good ones and bad ones. The one thing we must be intolerant of is intolerance. Shalom Carmy’s public “tolerance” of an intellectually and morally challenged Jew has done Orthodoxy a great disservice.

12 thoughts on “Racism

  1. Apart from the disgusting racism of this man, what does he think about the inbreeding (already, I believe, a problem in some of our communities) this would cause?

    This is really nasty, narrow-minded bigotry.

  2. You are right to condemn this and kol hakavod for speaking out. However think one has to look deeper. The lettter writer would almost certainly esteem Yehuda HaLevi and it is on the basis of his highly particularist view of Judaism in saying that there is an ontological difference between Jew and non-Jew, further developed in kabbala, that such prejudiced views are based.

    There are other views possible and I would suggest that in our day and age (when we have seen the evils of racism spelled out so clearly) an alternative more universal view is necessary. We have no.excuses for misunderstandings when we can travel so freely, communicate so readily and access so many resources about the 'other'

    Publishing this sort of material is an act of moral blindness which is depressing to see and sadly all too common. Whilst he was over the top this gives force to some of the trenchant critiques of orthodoxy BT the late Israel Shahak, as I have argued elsewhere

    Best

    Dan

  3. Frustrating indeed! As a Black convert, it just tears me up inside to read this…even though I know in my heart, these sentiments are very real. It sneaks out and pokes at me from time to time; especially in the area of shidduchim, when people try to scour the world in search of that perfect ger or Black Jewish mate for me. To suggest their own single Ashkenazi sons, brothers, cousins, friends to me….travesty! Even when an Ashkenazi man tries to initate dating me (well to be fair, it's only happened once) then the family and friends start to whisper…"Maybe you need to reconsider this…"

    But let's remove Judaism from the conversation for a moment. Racism is fueled by ignorance. The scary notion is that the Orthodox Jewish community is striving to self-insulate more and more; in contrast to the Orthodox Jewish community of 50 years ago. Yes, the era of striving to be less-Jewish, more gentile was a precarious one; and it was a time when many Jews went off the derech. But it was also a time when Orthodox Jews involved themselves in things and with people who weren't just like them. Just look at the heavy involvement of Jews in the American Civil Rights Movement. Today, the Orthodox Jewish community is largely removed from civil rights and most things that are not of direct benefit for the Orthodox Jewish community. This attitude is beyond distressing! I hear young Orthodox Jewish children talking about "the goyim" in terms that are just unbelievable. It's almost like they are being indoctrinated to look at gentiles with nothing but disguist.

    So how can you explain converts in such a situation. I believe that every ger is really a lost Jewish neshama…that we just happened to be born to non-Jewish mothers, and we had to go through the "conversion process" in order to come home. But if you believe something otherwise….like a convert is a gentile who is trying to be a Jew…then we can never really make the mark. ESPECIALLY when you believe that gentiles are inferior to begin with.

    A dear friend from my community had a halachaic conversion when she was 11 years old. It was very difficult…for her to get up to speed in her Hebrew studies. But she graduated from an Orthodox Jewish Day school, went on to seminary, and B"H, is now married to a newly minted Rabbi. She doesn't downplay the fact that she is a gioyress and people absolutely, positively BALK at the fact that she is a knowledgable, eidel bas yisroel that is marred to a rabbi. And they say this to her face! So unbelievably shameful. It's like nothing else matters…once the knowledge is their that you were a non-Jew…once upon a time!

  4. Jeremy,

    And how did this fine male example of intellectual rigour, moral probity and spiritual strength, first get the idea that distinctions are made, solely based on accidents of birth? Is sexism all right but racism unacceptable? Do you think it possible to have one and not the other?

  5. BR:
    I share your pain and scorn of people who are so mentally challenged. Unfortunately most humans seem to feel the need to feel superior to others without any basis or effort to be a more moral human being. That of course why the Talmud says that God created the human race from Adam to show that we all come from the same source. Too bad most religious people select what they pay attention to from our sources.
    Shavua Tov,
    Jeremy

  6. Lone Voice of Reason:

    A good point and it's true Yehuda HaLevy as well as the Kabbalits in general speak about a Jewish (mystical) soul but the question is whether it is intrinsic or learnable. And the question then is why does the torah seem to encourage the stranger who seeks to join in at several levels and why was Judaism such a strongly proseletysing religion two thousand years ago before Christianity and Islam made it all but impossible for us.

    The simplistic current answer is the poppycock about all converts descending/drinking from Sarah's milk. But theres no shortage of codswallop amongst our co-religionists. I am with the Maimonidean school that says a persons behaviour can have an impact on his or her soul. For better or worse.

    J

  7. Don't see how you can blame either Christianity or Islam not sure we know fully about change but one factor was loss of political power that happened in 63BCE and was fault of.Hasmoneans

    Also those who would take.our view are in a significant minority this needs to be adddressed the status quo is unacceptable

    An interesting aspect of this issue the relates to yesterday's sedra and whether a ger can make.the declaration over bikkurim was this why you wrote this piece for this week?

  8. Honestly, this makes me so angry I don't know where to start!

    One of the greatest (non-liturgical) quotes of all times is the opening words of the United States Declaration of Independence:

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

    Self-evident.

    Nevermind that the founding fathers were a bit confused about slavery and women's suffrage; they got the principle right, and the rest follows over a few generations as a matter of conscience, irrespective of religious outlook. The authors of that statement were wise enough to recognise the "self-evident" nature of everyone's equality.

    Too many times I have heard intellectual and learned jews explore what the Talmud or some other source has to say about converts, non-jews or any other "other" before coming to a conclusion. Even if the conclusion they come to is the same one which I would arrive at without recourse to the rabbis, there should be a recognition that on some things, we in the modern world just know better!

    Unfortunately racism thrives in orthodoxy. Homophobia, all the more so. Those activists who are fighting for gay rights in the US like to position the argument as one of civil liberties too, and they like to draw a lot of parallels with the fight for black rights in the 50s and 60s. Well, one way in which the parallel breaks down completely is in the complete lack of any religious jewish input.

    We have a long way to go, and all bigots, whatever their flavour, should be called out wherever they dare show their faces.

  9. Don't get me wrong I am not supporting the line of the correspondent that you quote but he is the latest in a long line –
    I quote from the introduction to the Khazari

    "26. Al Khazari: If this be so, then your belief is confined to yourselves?
    27. The Rabbi: Yes; but any Gentile who joins us unconditionally shares our good fortune, without, however, being quite equal to us. If the Law were binding on us only because God created us, the white and the black man would be equal, since He created them all. But the Law was given to us because He led us out of Egypt, and remained attached to us, because we are the pick of mankind."

    I could tell you stories – including that this line has been taught at Machon Pardes in Jerusalem & another concerning an institution in Efrata – not the usual hotbeds of the hard right among the orthodox

    Rav Jeremy – you may not like it but orthodox Judaism in none too welcoming to those from outwith the fold

  10. Indeed, the belief that living a life according to the will of God makes one a better person is deep rooted in Judaism but it has to my knowledge never been used by a serious jewish theologian to suggest that this applies regardless of ones behviour or that anyone from any background may not achieve a similar state. At most it might be said to offer a route to God but one still has to travel down it.

    The unique contribution of Yehudah HaLevy is to suggest there is some mystical energy in the people as a corporate body, but that neither makes each one special regardless nor does it prevent others from outside joining in.

    I am deeply saddened and offended that ANY Jewish community should make those who join us feel unwelcome. I would go so far as to say that they cannot be the true seed of Avraham Avinu ( TB Beytza 32b ). To turn some sick theories on their head, they themselves are probably descended somewhere down the line from pagans!!

    Shanah Tova
    Jeremy

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