I was probably in high school before I learned that “Go Down, Moses” wasn’t originally a Jewish song. I had learned it in model seders in religious school, so it seemed Jewish.
It was actually a Black American spiritual, drawing a parallel between our slavery in Egypt and the slavery of Blacks in the United States, expressing their hope for liberation. In the Passover seder, we say that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt, and this was a factor in Jewish support for the civil-rights movement.
This came to mind recently because of the startling, and frightening, tweet by “Ye,” formerly know as Kanye West, that he was “going death con 3 / On JEWISH PEOPLE.”
Most news reports didn’t quote the rest of the tweet. It continued, “The funny thing is I actually can’t be Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew also / You guys have toyed with and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda.” The rapper Kendrick Lamar has made similar statements.
Black anti-Semitism isn't a new thing, but this was a take on it that most of us hadn’t encountered before. It echoes both the beliefs of some Black Hebrews that they are ancestrally Jewish even though there is no evidence. There are others who believe that they are actually Jewish because of their baptism in various obscure Christian denominations.
In addition, the Reform response committee once received a question about a man from the LDS church who wanted to join a Reform congregation without conversion on the grounds that, as a Mormon, he was already Jewish. The committee replied that, if he was sincere about wanting to be Jewish, he would have to complete conversion in the ordinary way.
And some people believe that Native Americans are ancestrally Jewish, although I have never heard this claim from Native Americans, not even when I lived in Oklahoma. Our Hebrew school there did have a few students with tribal membership, but all had Jewish mothers.
My first thoughts about the second part of the tweet had less to do with Black Americans than with the belief that Jews are “God’s chosen people.” I’ve come to feel that this belief is both mistaken and harmful.
Thus, I agree with Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan that we should drop it. The Reconstructionist movement formally disavows it, and has changed prayer texts accordingly. In the blessing before the reading of Torah, instead of asher bachar banu mi kol ha’amim, “who chose us from among all peoples,” it reads asher kervanu la’avodato, “who called us to [His] service. This formulation is acceptable at Congregation Kol Ami and is included, as an option, in our new Torah-blessing cheat sheet.
Reconstructionists also avoid ki vanu vacharta,”who chose us,” in the Kiddush, making it “ki eilenu karata, “who called us.”
What’s wrong with proclaiming our own chosen status is, first, that it’s presumptuous, and second, that it fosters “chosenness envy” that is dangerous for us.
For most its history, Christianity held that God had revoked our chosen status and transferred it to Christians, which contributed to Christian anti-Semitism. Today, many liberal Christians espouse a “dual covenant” that includes both Jews and Christians.
I would go farther and acknowledge the possibility of multiple covenants. We have no information about whether God has made covenants with anyone else. Another option in the first Torah blessing is to say im kol ha’amim, “with all peoples.”
It’s mostly evangelical Christians who talk now about Jews as God’s chosen people, and the envy is palpable. These Christians absolutely love Jews, unfortunately in a way that is not healthful for us.
The Black writer Da’Shawn Mosley, based in the Washington, D.C. area, brings a different reading to the claim that Blacks (and possibly Hispanic and Native Americans) are Jews.
He writes, “As figures of the Bible have mostly been portrayed in our society as white, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar’s rhetoric — drawn from radical Black Hebrew nationalism — attempts to seize from whiteness this esteem. By doing so, though, they completely negate the past and continued oppression of Jewish people.”
Yet another possible reading is that, since Jews are largely accepted as White in American society—although not by everyone—claiming to be Jewish is a way of claiming to deserve White privilege. We could counter that there are many Jews of color, but they aren’t always accepted as Jews, even when they have unquestioned Jewish ancestry or have undergone formal, even Orthodox, conversion.
I don’t know how to respond to West or Lamar. I’m certain, however, that claiming superiority based on ancestry is both mistaken theology and a harmful tactic.
There is, however, a Jewish concept called z’chut avot, “merit of ancestors.” It expresses the idea that God is kind to us even when we don’t deserve it. Theologically, that may mean that God has a soft spot for our ancestors and therefore also for us. It doesn’t, however, make us better than anyone else. Lots of other people had virtuous ancestors, and some of us are descended from scoundrels. If we receive better treatment than we deserve, we can be grateful. That’s all.