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On Racism, Its Costs And Its Causes


It doesn’t take very much to lose a neshamah.

The young woman was witty, charming, frum, and a Harvard Law School graduate. She was also black, and lived in an Orthodox neighborhood. One Purim, she was treated in a neighborhood shul to the sight of a young mother with a few children in tow. As her Purim get-up, the mother had chosen to adorn herself and her kids with blackface and thick lips. The connection to Purim was not clear.

The black young woman, recounting to me why she eventually left that community and relocated to another state – outside of a frum area – had this comment. “What was that woman trying to tell me? What was she trying to say?”

This was no isolated incident. Teachers in our community too often use racial and ethnic slurs in the classroom; too many rabbonim still use disparaging language – or words like “shvartze” or “goy”– thinking that they are harmless within the “in” group.

They aren’t. There isn’t an in-group anymore. Today, almost everything that starts off within our walls quickly finds its way out. The in-group is not so homogenous anymore either. Many people wearing black hats have relatives who are members of the minority groups that are mocked. They are hurt, offended, or worse when they hear words they cannot accept from those to whom they are supposed to look up. The very authority of those people sometimes shrinks in the process.

(Pointing out that some of those words are actually quite neutral in their original meaning will not prove an effective defense. Whatever the origin of those words, they are today considered pejorative and offensive to too many people.)

Still more people have joined our community with some of their old sensitivities intact. They are turned off when they hear words they stopped using in grade school.

And then there are those who have been enticed to drop by – sometimes for the first time in their lives – to a shul or a Shabbos table, and are so shocked by the language they hear that they never return for another visit.

It does not take much to convince someone just testing the waters of the observant community that it is not for them. We should be making it easier for them to stay, not to exit.

Like it or not, many people look down on those who use racist humor or language. To them, it is the antithesis of the refinement and discernment they expect to see in an elevated soul. Racial humor is built upon stereotyping, upon ignoring the differences between individuals within a larger group rather than noting and savoring them. It is about looking at an amorphous collective, rather than respecting individuals as individuals. It is about blaming, rather than understanding. It is about focusing on the negative, and giving little or no credit for the positive.

It is thought to come from a place of insecurity, where one’s own faults don’t seem so onerous when they can be compared with group that is assumed to be even more blameworthy. Anyone who can take these reactions lightly must have a Torah vocabulary from which the term “chillul Hashem” has been omitted.

Why haven’t racial stereotypes completely disappeared from our community?

Three reasons come to mind quickly.

Many of us are still only a generation or two removed from forebears who had good reason to despise all non-Jews, and thought – just as did their despised non-Jewish neighbors – in terms of the hostility that groups had for each other. Much of this has mercifully disappeared in the course of time; much still remains.

Patterns of Jewish settlement provide a second reason. American Orthodox Jews live primarily in larger cities. Within those cities, Jews are often cheek by jowl with other ethnic groups, and often not with those at the higher end of the socio-economic scale. Many Jews, therefore, have been forced to interact with elements of the population given to higher rates of deviant and criminal behavior.

People too often define groups by their own experience. (Where I grew up in Manhattan, non-Jews were “Catholics,” especially Irish-Catholics. You stayed clear of them, unless you preferred your bones broken. All people who spoke Spanish were called Puerto Ricans.) A byproduct of the map of Jewish habitation was a dismissive, contemptuous attitude concerning non-Jews.

A third reason can be found in the selective reading and misappropriation of rabbinic texts. Many people “know” that all non-Jews hate all Jews. Chazal said so, as they comment on Esav’s seemingly loving reception of the brother who had fled from him decades before. One opinion tells us that it is a “halacha” and well-known that Esav hates Yaakov. At that moment, his mercy moved him to display compassion, but don’t expect that too often. Underscoring “halacha” means, to some people’s thinking, that this is a fixed, immutable rule about all non-Jews.

Just how Esav turned into all non-Jews, rather than just one group of them, is a bit of a mystery. In fact, I have a hard time figuring out how Esav the person turned into Esav the nation. Searching some Torah databases a few years ago, I could find no source before the end of the 19th century that took Esav (at least in this application) to mean a group of people, rather than Esav the biblical figure – who had good reason to hate Yaakov!

Moreover, it is not at all clear whether the word “halacha” belongs there. One source has “ha-lo” instead of halacha.

Even if we were certain that Chazal meant Esav the nation rather than Esav the man, would it mean all of his descendants, without exception? Could they ever change? To assume that Chazal meant an unchanging principle would pit our own experience (where we arguably have met up with some very determined philo-Semites) against their word, and force us to mistrust our own senses.

We would have to argue that despite what seems real to us, scratch the surface of every friendly non-Jew and you will find a latent anti-Semite. Further, we would have to ignore works from the likes of the Netziv and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, who speak of the reality of times in which Esav (the nation) is moved to compassionate behavior toward Klal Yisrael.

Is there really a compelling argument to assume the worst about all non-Jews?

More puzzling is the assumption by some of us that Genesis 9:25, 27 consigns all black people to perpetual servitude, which then becomes the basis of looking down upon them. The assumption is perplexing for a number of reasons. It is not at all clear whom Noach meant to curse. He could have meant Canaan, the person, or even Canaan and his descendants. This would still not include many/most black people. (Cush, who is sometimes taken as emblematic of all black people, was a brother of Canaan, not a descendant.)

Rav Saadia Gaon does assume that Canaan means his father, Cham, and his progeny. So does Radak. Ibn Ezra considers this and rejects it. He points out that the very first king mentioned in the Chumash after the Noach drinking episode – obviously not a slave – came from Cush. According to Tosafos (Sanhedrin 70a), the curse could not have been directed against Cham, because he had been previously blessed and curses are incompatible with blessings.

The Sages of the Talmud, at least in part, seem to extend the curse at least to Canaan’s descendants, since they see Eliezer as caught up in its net – but they see him escaping the curse through his own good deeds.

Even if we were to seize upon one approach as definitive (I have no way of understanding such a conclusion), we would have to ask the same question we asked above. Would it mean all black people, for all time? (Netziv explicitly denies this, pointing to slaves from other parts of Noach’s progeny, and very emancipated behavior among Canaan’s descendants.)

Most importantly, isn’t the entire approach antithetical to the way we approach biblical curses? When anesthesia was first made available to women in labor, some church groups resisted, claiming the curse of Eve demanded that women feel the pain of childbirth. I know of no such attitude in our responsa. If there was such a voice, it was drowned out by others, who apparently held that a curse is a challenge, not a description of reality.

Adam’s curse means we generally have to toil to make a living. An heir is under no obligation to force his brow to sweat to keep his part of the bargain; the rest of us are permitted to make working conditions easier for ourselves. Eve’s curse is not prescriptive. It does make it necessary for a woman approaching the end of pregnancy to deal with pain-management plans, but not to accept it.

Our job, in general, is to work against the effects of curses, not to accept them. If we were to assume – and I don’t understand the reasoning for such an assumption – that rabbinic sources saw a black race saddled with the weight of an ancient curse of cultural inferiority, our task, I would think, would be to find ways to educate and refine the unfortunate bearers of that curse and allow as many to escape it as possible. The presidential victory of Barack Obama – beyond any political misgivings – would be met with a certain amount of jubilation, rather than smirks, for his having traveled so far, just as we cheer when Eliezer manages to transcend the curse that hounded him.

Most Jews who use racial humor or epithets are not racists. They should stop and consider, however, what impact their behavior has on many other people. It is hard to believe that they would even take a remote chance in losing neshamos for the observant community.

Some people, regrettably, are racist in the true sense of the word. Perhaps they should devote more study to the fullness of Torah concepts like tzelem Elokim – the image of God – and the robust nature of individuality. They should have another look at the Netziv’s introduction to Bereishis, where he opines that it is called Sefer Hayashar – the Book of the Upright – because of Avraham’s treatment of even the most despicable of his contemporaries. Despite his rejection of their ways, “he dealt with them with love, and was concerned for their well-being.”

For the true racists, the neshamos they should worry about are their own.

About the Author: Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Affairs of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the Sydney M Irmas adjunct chair, Jewish Law and Ethics, Loyola Law School.


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