Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Ye and We

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.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Don't judge a Jew by their skin color – or name

 About twenty years ago, a man with the surname Murphy stood on the bima of the synagogue that I attended in Connecticut and said, “As of today, Murphy is a Jewish name.”

The occasion was his son’s bar mitzvah service. He himself was a lapsed Catholic; his wife was Jewish.

I thought of that in connection with Mookey Van Orden’s talks to us at the Shabbat Juneteenth services. We are as quick to judge a person’s Jewishness on the basis of a surname as we are on skin color—yet even a person named Murphy could have a Jewish mother and be halachichly Jewish.

Mookey was speaking about the frequent demand that a Jew of color prove their Jewish bona fides every time they enter a Jewish setting. This persists even though one in five Jews in America is a person of color. In the Murphys’ congregation, the shofar-blower was a member of the Apache nation.

The fact is that we very rarely have any need to verify that a person is genuinely Jewish. For attending services, it doesn’t matter at all. For certain ritual roles, it does matter, but there’s no need to be hyper-vigilant. It matters for weddings, because an officiant who performs interfaith ceremonies may structure the ceremony differently when both partners are Jewish, and it matters for burials in some but not all Jewish cemeteries.

In the morning service that Shabbat, I mentioned Rabbi Sandra Lawson’s distress when Jews who meet her immediately demand her full life story. She’s the first Black Lesbian rabbi, but unless you’re hiring her as a rabbi you don’t need proof that she’s a rabbi. If it matters, only one question is needed: where was she ordained?

There is another, more subtle aspect to this. Many of us have a habit of asserting what we think is privileged Jewish status in settings where it doesn’t matter and for reasons that don’t matter. We’re unreasonably proud of having grown up in New York City rather than out here in the midbar (wilderness), having attended Hebrew school three days a week, having grandparents who spoke Yiddish, coming from an Orthodox family… you name it, some of us are proud of it.

Yet none of that makes you more Jewish, or a better Jew, than someone who grew up in Idaho, never went to Hebrew school at all, or is the first-ever Jewish member of their family.

It might mean that you can rattle off traditional prayers with your eyes closed, have fond memories of a certain New York deli, or drop Yiddish words randomly into conversation. So what?

Traditional synagogues try to call a Kohen for the first Torah aliyah and a Levi for the second. Sometimes we do that at Congregation Kol Ami and sometimes we don’t.

I suggest that being “more Jewish” or “a better Jew” comes from how you live. In that congregation in Connecticut, I think of the Navy officer who had no Jewish education as a child but had become quite learned through reading he did during long deployments at sea. I think of his wife, a Jew by choice, who had  assumed responsibility for the Jewish upbringing of their daughter and held office in the Sisterhood.

I think of Jews, including many who don’t like to attend worship services, who devote themselves to tzedakah (justice or charity) and g’milut chasadim (acts of kindness). How they look, where they’re from, or what their surnames are just don’t matter.


Friday, March 11, 2022

One Jewish thing to save the earth

If it would slow climate change and help the environment in general, would you be willing to accept minimal packaging of everything you purchase? For an entire year?

It would, and I think that most people would agree to it. 

Would you agree to doing it for eleven years? What if there's something that would accomplish as much in one year as minimal packaging would in eleven?

Well, there is. Following a vegan diet for one year reduces greenhouse gases by as much as it takes eleven years to accomplish through minimal packaging.

To be honest, there is nothing in halacha—Jewish religious law—that specifically requires or even encourages veganism. There is a general ethical principal called bal tashchit—בל תשחית, "do not destroy"—and it doesn't take a lot of imagination to understand that it prohibits destroying the earth.

The principal stems from an injunction in Deuteronomy not to cut down fruit trees during a war. Early rabbinic law extends it all unnecessary destruction.

But Judaism still does not require veganism, and I'm not endorsing it across the board. What I'm recommending is that we return to the lifestyle of many of our ancestors, who reserved meat for Shabbat and Yom Tov, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. If you could only afford meat about once a week, why not reserve it to honor Shabbat?

That changed with prosperity. It especially changed in North America, where meat, since at least the nineteenth century, has been extraordinarily plentiful. But just because we can eat meat every day, if we want to, doesn't mean that we should.

Think about it: eleven times as much benefit as something you probably wouldn't mind doing. Or, if you have meat about one day a week, 9.4 times as much benefit.

Ye and We

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 re...