Last week I delivered a sermon based on the Torah portion of the week and which compared Moses, the great Jewish redeemer, with Abraham Lincoln, the martyred American emancipator. When I finished, I was approached by an acquaintance who happens to be an Orthodox Jewish engineer. He seemed, up until that time, to be devout, educated, and sophisticated. But what he told me was sacrilegious, ignorant, and primitive.
This gentleman maintained that Lincoln was no hero, seeing as he had freed a people who were the descendants of Ham, the son of Noah, who was cursed for humiliating his father. “Ham’s children are black, and are condemned by God to eternal slavery,” he said. “There was even a rebbe in Poland who predicted that Abraham Lincoln would be shot for liberating a people against God’s wishes.”
I looked this man in the eye and said to him, “I’m confused. Judaism believes that every man is judged according to his actions. Now you are telling me that every black person in the world is cursed for something an ancestor did millennia ago. We Jews don’t believe in Original Sin, and we don’t believe in vertical accountability. So how can you tell me something so abominably racist like the fact that blacks are cursed?”
He responded that I was denying scripture. I told him that his views were repugnant to everything Judaism stood for in terms of the equality of all mankind. And on an angry note, our mini-debate ended.
I would not even mention this unhappy episode if I had not, at times, heard similar sentiments expressed by others purporting to be religious.
The foundation of Judaism is God’s moral law. The cornerstone of the Bible is that every human being is created in God’s image. One cannot call oneself a religious Jew and harbor even the smallest hint of racism.
Which is why it is time for all Jews to forever retire the odious term “shvartza.”
From the time I was a boy I have heard the word shvartza used by many Jews to describe blacks. These were decent people with no intention of causing offense. To them, the term connoted nothing more than the Yiddish word for black. But, truth be told, the term has become one of condescension; a pejorative, a word that incorporates within it a hint of derision.
My children were raised around many black men and women who are close family friends. From Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who is like a brother to me, to Peter Noel, my esteemed colleague and former co-host on America’s oldest black radio station, to countless others, our Shabbos table has been a home away from home for African-Americans whom we have treated as family. So when my children went to a chassidic sleep-away camp one summer and heard the expression shvartza thrown about so loosely, they returned upset and disillusioned.
When they asked me why so many religious Jews used the term, I had no real explanation. The overwhelming majority of religious Jews are committed to the highest humanitarian and ethical standards. Racism, to them, would be utterly unconscionable. So why use the term? There is no excuse. And it must be permanently retired.
I have wanted to write this column ever since my children expressed their indignation, but refrained from doing so for fear it might be misunderstood as implying that there is racism among Orthodox Jews. To be sure, there is racism among all groups, just as there is, unfortunately, anti-Semitism among all groups. It seems that humanity is destined to forever harbor irrational hatred, even as we do our utmost to stamp it out. But of late, I have heard the term shvartza with such frequency that it could no longer be ignored. My children were absolutely right and we must all speak out.
Yes, there may be racism among other groups. But among Jews it is especially reprehensible.
First, because we Jews know what it is like to be hated simply for being what we are.
Second, because Jews and blacks share a common spiritual history that includes slavery and emancipation, followed by discrimination and a shared yearning for entry into a promised land of acceptance and hope. We share also a mutual love for the redemptive utterances of the great Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Micah, which formed the backbone of the most memorable speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.
Third – and this applies to religious Jews even more than to non-observant Jews – because we Jews are entrusted by God with spreading the message that all human beings are God’s children. The first great theological declaration of the Torah is that all people are created in the divine likeness.
I don’t think there is anything as off-putting in a religious person as even a hint of racism. When a businessman wearing a yarmulke uses the word shvartza, he undermines the spiritual integrity for which that yarmulke stands.
I spent the last week reading a book on the Middle Ages. Peter Abelard, the great medieval Catholic thinker, was castrated for his illicit love of Heloise. But he was hated even more for writing, so long ago, that Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus and could not be persecuted as deicides. Christianity had to go through many more centuries before it finally began purging Jew-hatred from its institutional soul.
Likewise, many Muslims are today infected by an irrational hatred of Jews that belies Islamic history and which cannot be accounted for merely by the territorial dispute between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Such racist views are a sin against Islam which subscribes to the biblical belief of the divine character of all humanity.
Religious Jews, especially, must never empower such heretical views by harboring even the slightest hint of bigotry or prejudice.
It is not just the Jewish engineer who told me that blacks were cursed by God. I once heard the same despicable view from the mouth of a teacher in a Jewish day school. Rabbis must be at the forefront of arguing the theological absurdity of such disgusting and ignorant ideas so that a generation of Jewish children grows up to love all humanity with the same fervent intensity of the first Jew, Abraham, whose very name means “the father of many nations.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the host of TLC’s “Shalom in the Home,” the new season of which begins airing on March 4. His upcoming book, named after the TV show, will be released on the same day and is published by Meredith. Rabbi Boteach’s website is www.shmuley.com.