Your Article in the Jewish Week: An Open Letter

letter-447577_1280

To: Ernest Adams
From: Yaakov Menken
Subject: Your article in the Jewish Week
Date: Mon, 03 Sep 2007 14:18:00 -0400

Dear Mr. Adams,

I was quite intrigued by your article [“Straddling the Color Barrier,” Aug. 31] in the NY Jewish Week, and thought to email you once I found your address at the bottom. Your sincerity and thoughtful attitude are obvious in your words, and for this reason I thought it especially worth corresponding with you when a few passages struck a disconsonant chord.

In particular, your friends’ warnings that the Orthodox “are rigid and racist” caught my eye. You repeat it twice, but then go on to recount your personal experience as you began dating: “Orthodox rabbis and congregants were veritably welcoming, with one prominent Orthodox rabbi promising to find me a wife as he encouraged me to move into his Brooklyn community.”

My expectation, at that point, was that you would reflect at least momentarily upon the disparity between the misinformation you were universally given about the Orthodox by non-Orthodox friends, and your own first-person experience with Orthodox Jews themselves. [I must add that the other black Jews with whom I am acquainted all share similar positive experiences.]

Instead, you dampened the impact of this important correction, by exploring an issue entirely unrelated to the matter of race. Your next sentence was, “Then, an unexpected sentiment: some Orthodox consider non-Orthodox as ‘not real Jews.'”

This, unfortunately, is an accusation no less cancerous than the assertion that all Orthodox Jews are racists. Fortunately, as you celebrate in your article, many cancers can be treated and even cured.

The history is this: the Talmud details requirements for a conversion to Judaism. These same requirements are codified by Maimonides, Rav Yosef Karo, and others, in their respective legal codes. First and foremost among these requirements is that the prospective convert undertake to observe the Mitzvos — all of traditional Jewish law.

The Reform movement declared from the first that the “Talmud possesses for us no authority, from either the dogmatic or the practical standpoint” [Declaration of Principles, the Society of Reformers, Frankfurt, Germany, 1843]. It consciously vacated traditional Jewish Law across the board — including in the area of conversion. As the movement itself rejected the authority of traditional Jewish law, it would be foolish and contradictory for the movement to demand fealty to it from prospective converts.

The Conservative movement, at least since the 1940’s, has similarly ceased to expect observance from both its rabbis and prospective converts. When Rabbi Matalon was prepared to convert you, and asked how you would deal with racism in the community, did he also ask if you accepted the authority of all 613 Commandments, and would undertake to observe them as your knowledge of Judaism continued to grow?

So as I said, the assertion that “some Orthodox consider non-Orthodox as ‘not real Jews'” is entirely inaccurate. Your wife, and therefore your children, are Jews under Jewish law. The defect is found neither in the average non-Orthodox Jew, nor in the sincere individual (such as yourself) who truly wishes to join the Jewish People — but in the non-Orthodox rabbis and the philosophies that they represent.

The Orthodox do not reject non-Orthodox Jews; rather, non-Orthodox Rabbis reject Jewish Law and fail to perform conversions as per Jewish Law. The “rejection” of conversions which intentionally do not meet traditional standards is a regrettable yet obvious consequence of the choices made by non-Orthodox Rabbis — who, for this reason, have every motivation to propagate the myth that the Orthodox “reject” all non-Orthodox Jews, diverting attention from the true source of the conflict.

This is doubly regrettable in your case, as your attention was diverted at the very moment that you could have put a tad more energy into popping the bubble of the first myth to which you were exposed: that the Orthodox are racists. I hope that you will consider this as you move forward with your upcoming memoir, which I for one look forward to reading.

I am a participant in Cross-Currents, an online journal written by an array of Orthodox Jewish writers. I have published this letter as an open response to your thoughtful and reflective article, and hope that others will chime in on this issue in the comments. If you so choose, I hope that you yourself will visit http://www.cross-currents.com/ and join the conversation.

Yours truly,

Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Director, Project Genesis
Baltimore, MD

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21 Responses

  1. Sholom says:

    Orthodox consider non-Orthodox as ‘not real Jews.’?

    Perhaps we also need to recall that Reform considers secularists as “not real Jews”.

    How many Jews must exist in the US who have/had a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father? (Some of them are related to me)

    These people are considered Jews by the Orthodox, but not Jewish by Reform, if they were raised in a secular or non-Jewish environment.

    Hmmm, so it seems both Reform and Orthodox have rules about “who is a Jew” and who is not….

  2. Mark says:

    Jo,
    “maybe the campaign should be fix those terms and sentiments, rather than damage control of those observers who have formed “incorrect” judgments based on what they saw.”

    We’re working on it. Please remember – according to the well-meaning commenters on this site we’ve got a long list of things we’ve got to get in order. Someone’s got to let us know which things come first as well. ;>)

  3. Mark says:

    Amanda,

    “I think that, if we take the attitude that it’s not racism as long as it’s not acted upon to its logical conclusion, then we would have to give anti-semites the same quarter”

    Correct. Count me among those who don’t tar and feather every person who utters something that could be mildly anti-semitic. I also think there’s room to distinguish between a public statement to that effect and privately expressed sentiment.

    “I don’t think it would tarnish the community, and here I speak of the entire Jewish community, to admit that we have racists among us just as every other gbroup does, and to admit that some correction is in order.”

    I don’t think anyone’s done that. My response to JO was that his example was not necessarily a proof of that but I’m not blind to the reality that racism is present in our society as it is elsewhere.

  4. Amanda Rush says:

    Re: comment 15. I think that, if we take the attitude that it’s not racism as long as it’s not acted upon to its logical conclusion, then we would have to give anti-semites the same quarter, (I.E., it’s not anti-semitism until it’s acted upon), and that’s not what happens at all. If someone makes an anti-semitic comment, even if they didn’t intend to be anti-semitic, then that individual gets branded an anti-semite. I don’t think it would tarnish the community, and here I speak of the entire Jewish community, to admit that we have racists among us just as every other gbroup does, and to admit that some correction is in order.

  5. Jewish Observer says:

    “I often find certain terms and sentiments expressed by people in the frum community that aren’t completely indicative of what they really feel”

    – maybe the campaign should be fix those terms and sentiments, rather than damage control of those observers who have formed “incorrect” judgments based on what they saw.

  6. Mark says:

    “intimidated”
    should read “intimated”

  7. Mark says:

    JO,

    “Even with all the terutzim, Rabbi Menken’s outrage at Orthodox being suspected racism is misplaced, given the facts that we are all agreeing to”

    Two points:
    1 – I didn’t detect “rage” on YM’s part. I detected an interest in refuting the assertion that “Orthodox Jews are racists” often made by those on the secular left that make it seem as if we’re unusually proficient in that area. Are there racists among us? Of course [as there are among every group]. However, it’s not nearly to the degree intimidated by our ideological opponents. That was his point if I’m not mistaken.

    2 – Racism is a very difficult label to pin on a person on the merit of words [or even attitudes] alone. If we were to do so, I don’t think there’s a single person who can’t be included in that category. Actions are a far better indicator of “racism” in my humble opinion.
    (It’s not that different than sin. If I think to myself that I’d like to commit a specific aveirah, I’m still not a transgressor. Even if I express it, I’m still not a transgressor until I actually commit the sin in question.)
    The reason this is important is because I often find certain terms and sentiments expressed by people in the frum community that aren’t completely indicative of what they really feel. There’s sometimes a bluster and bravado that is indicative of an overactive imagination more than reality. Give ’em a few years and you’ll be amazed at what emerges. It’s similar in my mind to Israeli’s who by and large are hostile and combative when initially approached. Deep inside however, there’s a tenderness and sensitivity that is hard to rival.

  8. Nathan says:

    I once asked a resident of Lakewood, would he rather his daughter married a white non-Jew, or a black Jew. He responded that’s it’s a difficult question, and started to ponder. Then he yelled ‘What am I saying? Of course I would prefer she marries the black Jew. It’s not even a question.’
    The power of the Jews is the ability to overcome our inclinations, and do what is right. The man’s hesitancy and answer reflected that power.

  9. Jewish Observer says:

    Mark,

    I don’t disagree with the thrust of your comment. You took a difficult to defend comment (I didn’t say it was impossible to defend, just hard) you didn’t deny it out of hand, and framed it in a nuanced, thoughtful fashion so that the comment is not as bad as it had seemed. This is an intelligent – not knee jerk PC type – approach for which you should be commended.

    I think my point still stands, though: Even with all the terutzim, Rabbi Menken’s outrage at Orthodox being suspected racism is misplaced, given the facts that we are all agreeing to.

  10. Effie says:

    Anonymous wrote:
    “…When you are trying to be part of the community, you want people to like you, not to make a point of acting neighborly.”

    This is a great point, because it is this that people often (not in all cases) mistakenly label as friendship, respect and acceptance toward geirim and JOC’s.

    “Our conservativeness and slowness at changing values has aided us greatly in many ways. However in this case, we are behind general Western society at correcting a fault.”

    This is emes. We m’kibud ourselves thinking how much better we have it over the goyim when it comes to societal ills. We much prefer to only recognize an issue until it becomes too big to ignore (think teens at risk, drug/alcohol abuse, the singles, etc.) It may be long off, but this subject may be added to the long list of “crises” we love so much.

  11. Mark says:

    JO,

    It is true that I could have heard that from a rebbe or two growing up, but I don’t believe that statement was meant the way you’re portraying it. It was certainly not meant as a compliment, but the denigration was not due to their skin color [similar analogies were used to describe football players as “chayos smashing into one another – trying to kill each other” where the skin color was irrelevant.
    These very same rebbeim treated the black custodians with great respect and ensured that we did the same.
    What is/was rejected, was the behavior and lifestyle common among bball players and what they represent, which is strongly at odds with what a Torah Jew should be interested in, let along cheering for at the top of his lungs. In all my years in yeshivah, the only time such an idea was expressed, was to point out how wrong it is to follow sports in the obsessive manner that many boys do. I don’t recall ever hearing rebbeim denigrate blacks in ordinary conversation. Your example is far from telling IMO.

    Nevertheless, I do agree that a black ger will have a very hard time assimilating in the community by virtue of the fact that the more “right” one moves, the more conformance there is and different skin color makes it THAT much harder to conform. In EY where there are many frum Ethiopians and Sefardim who are dark skinned, it’s definitely easier. I greatly admire anyone who has the courage to be mekabel geirus, and my respect increases ten-fold for a dark skinned person who does so. Secharam Harbeh Meod!

  12. Anonymous says:

    My son once described himself as “Jewish by birth, and black by birth too”. He lost most of the friends he had since he was three when a rebbe called him “nigger” and he “opened their eyes”. We were compelled to pull him out of the school.

    The Jew of Color living in the Orthodox world often has a hard time making friends, as he is more often treated as a “cheftzah shel mitzvah” for the mitzvah of chessed (an object necessary for doing the mitzvah of being kind to others) rather than as a peer “judged not for the color of their skin, but for the content of their character”. When you are trying to be part of the community, you want people to like you, not to make a point of acting neighborly.

    Our conservativeness and slowness at changing values has aided us greatly in many ways. However in this case, we are behind general Western society at correcting a fault. The earlier commenters are right — there is an embarrassing amount of racism in our community, to the extent that we are unaware of much of it. The same son was in a group who were given the “shvartzes running around in their underwear” speech!

    (Some people may know who I am, and who the son in question is, but since I can not ask his permission to write this, I ask that this comment be accepted as an anonymous submission rather than spreading things further.)

  13. Charles B. Hall says:

    RaBBI Ahron Soloveichik z’tz’l said it best:

    “From the standpoint of the Torah, there can be no distinction between one human being and another on the basis or race or color. Any discrimination shown to a human being on account of the color of his skin constitutes loathsome barbarity. It must be conceded that the Torah recognized a distinction between a Jea and a non-Jew. This distinction, however, is not based upon race, origin or color, but rather upon *k’dushah*, the holiness endowed by having been given and having accepted the Torah. Furthermore, the distinction between Jew and non-Jew does not involve any concept of inferiority but is based primarily upon the unique and special burdens that are incumbent upon Jews” — *Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind*, page 61.

    May we all meet Rabbi Soloveichik’s standard.

  14. Yaakov Menken says:

    I, for one, never heard a similar “mussar shmuez.” Perhaps this is because I never went to a yeshiva high school, but most of my friends in Baltimore shun racism regardless of background. Most of us have black neighbors, and make it a point to be neighborly. [My next-door neighbor up the hill, though he moved away a year ago, was a neurosurgeon.]

    What I would dare term “benign” ethno-centricity exists in every community, and that includes disparaging comments about others. Ever heard Tom Lehrer’s “National Brotherhood Week?” There is also the infamous song in the “Borat” film, evidence of latent anti-Semitism that never manifests itself in a reluctance to interact or do business or act fairly with regards to Jews. There are plenty of blacks with limited respect for “crackers” and Jews in particular.

    By and large, the term “shvartzeh” has been reserved for the same citizens that our black neighbors call “home-boys” or “homeys.” Should it be avoided? Of course. Is there room for improvement? Of course. But we are already doing as well as, or better than, our neighbors (of all races and ethnic backgrounds) — and a discussion of this nature is off-topic.

    Precisely because the barriers to conversion are so high in the Orthodox world, few doubt the sincerity of Geirei Tzedek. The black convert, in particular, is volunteering for a life of sticking out in a crowd. For a person to convert to Torah Judaism reflects a truly admirable commitment to G-d and Torah, and in the case of a black person it is even more evident. So only a truly crass individual would overlook all of that and disrespect that convert because of his or her race.

  15. Bob Miller says:

    Interestingly, many players in the earliest days of the NBA were Jewish! Also some of the greatest NBA coaches since then.

  16. SephardiLady says:

    I’m with Lawrence Kaplan. Knocking others down doesn’t bring anyone up, only debases the speaker.

  17. Effie says:

    “a bunch of shvartzes running around in their underwear”

    Barzilai,

    What “concept” does the above comment attempt to convey and it “adjusts” flaws of listener in what way?

    While I agree with you that not all Orthodox yidden are racists, however, the number of racists among us is too large. I am always amazed at the intellectual, emotional and religious gymnastics that are used to justify and excuse such sentiments.

  18. lawrence kaplan says:

    Barzilai: Your point about Orthodox racists holds true as well for ”decent” antisemites. They don’t like Jews in general, who have too much power and influence, etc., but my Jewish neighbor or the local Jewish doctor, etc. are very fine fellows.

    Further, why should the rebbe in his mussar shmooze ”in order to get his idea across” have to refer to black basetball players as ”shvartzes running around in their underwear.” Is appealing to the students’ racial prejudices a legitimate form of hashpaah?!

  19. joel rich says:

    Barzilai,
    Unforunately that subtelty can be lost on the students.
    KVCT

  20. Barzilai says:

    Please, JO, don’t commit the sin you condemn. There are racists among Orthodox Jews; Not all Orthodox Jews are racist. Among those that are racist, an amazing and instant change of heart takes place when they meet an individual from that group who shows character traits that we admire.

    Furthermore, in the ‘mussar shmuessen’ you describe, what you see as the disparagement of groups is simply a means of addressing and adjusting character and theological flaws in the listeners. The phrases used are hypotheticals, mesholim, concepts, not racial slurs. The subject of the Shmuess, and its proper focus, is the talmidim, the students who are listening. Everything else is dicta, tools and methods of getting an idea across.

  21. Jewish Observer says:

    “Orthodox are rigid and racist”

    – If we want credibility, let’s be honest about this topic.

    On the one hand … who among us hasn’t been exposed to a mussar shmuess from our high school rebbi in which the institution of pro basketball is referred to as “a bunch of shvartzes running around in their underwear”. This is not so easy to defend.

    On the other hand … I think that crass articulation does not represent what how most orthodox feel in their hearts. Though these expressions are prevalant, I think it is not real racism, not coming from a place of malice.