Even before Senator Barack Obama unequivocally denounced Reverend Jeremiah Wright as the loon he is, I was willing to take the senator’s word for the fact that his erstwhile pastor’s rantings about America, the Middle-East, the September 11 attacks, Louis Farrakhan, AIDS and white people do not reflect Mr. Obama’s own feelings.
What pained me then, though, and still does, is the tragic subtext of Pastorgate – that the sort of rank idiocy that was spewed from the pulpit at Chicago’s Trinity Church may not be unusual in churches that cater to African-Americans. Senator Obama’s statement, back when he still sought to preserve some of his pastor’s dignity, was telling. “I can no more disown [Wright],” he said, “than I can disown the black community.” Did he mean to in some way equate the two?
Well, Wright certainly did. On his talk-show vanity tour, he boasted that “This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It is an attack on the black church.” The same sentiment was expressed by Wright’s successor at the church, Reverend Otis Moss 3rd, who said: “You cannot caricature Rev. Wright. This is an attack on the collective black church.” The first assertion, although in a sense Mr. Moss may not have meant, is undoubtedly true; no caricature could convey Wright’s lunacy more vividly than the thing itself. As to the second, we can only hope it is not so.
That the Detroit NAACP – a branch of an organization traditionally empowered by mainstream civil rights advocates, including many religious men and women – saw fit to invite Wright to address its recent forum is not encouraging.
I spent my childhood in a racially mixed neighborhood; one of my best friends was a black boy a bit older than I. Junie and I would wrestle, play ball and ride our bikes on the rocky hills near where we lived in Baltimore. We had “kid to kid” conversations, too. He learned a lot about how religious Jews lived, and I learned things from him too. (Quite the critical thinker, he once knit his brow when we passed a local synagogue advertising the availability of High Holiday seats for purchase, and asked me incredulously, “You gotta PAY to PRAY?” It was a good point.)
Another black presence in my formative years was Lucille, our “cleaning lady.” She would come to my parents’ modest home once or twice a week and help my mother with ironing and housekeeping. We children, following our parents’ example, always treated Lucille with great respect, and, not to be cliché, she really was in many ways part of the family. My mother, may her memory be a blessing, would serve her lunch each day she came. And when Lucille grew older and unable to do any real work, my mother, mindful of our housekeeper’s financial neediness, made a point of continuing her “employment,” having her come over and wipe off a counter or two, so that she could be given her wages – and lunch, of course – as compensation, not charity.
Then there was Dhanna, the librarian in Providence, where my wife and I raised our children, who was so kind to them during their frequent visits to the public library, always smiling at them, helping them find what they were looking for and proudly placing the artwork they produced for her on her desk for all to see. And Desi, our own young daughters’ friend from those years, who became quite conversant with the laws of kashrut and Shabbat.
To be sure, I have had unpleasant encounters with blacks. Like in my youth, when a group of boys who had asked my classmates and me to join our baseball game, once at bat, decided to turn the Louisville Sluggers on us. Or the “Heil Hitler” that one teenager delighted in shouting at my father and me when we walked to the synagogue. Even today, I come across the occasional anti-Semite of color.
But more than the occasional pale-faced one too. There are good and bad people in every population. Mindful of the Talmudic imperative to judge “all men favorably” (Avot, 1:6), I have never measured any human being by any yardstick other than his own words or deeds. And my wife and I always sought – and I think successfully – to instill that attitude in our children.
Mere months ago, I would have imagined that preachers in black churches speak to their flocks about serving G-d and living moral lives, about humility, self-respect and love. And maybe most do. But the current presidential campaign’s sideshow of “Wright stuff” has been sadly educational. If even a minority of black church leaders are of the Trinity mold (both the word’s senses intended), feeding their congregants the sweet poison of suspicion and hatred, the dream of a truly color-blind society will have been set back a century – even if an African-American is elected to the very highest office in the land.
And, of course, as elsewhere in the world, the general anti-American and anti-white ravings of black religious leaders like Wright and Farrakhan exhibit an undercurrent of anti-Israel sentiment – today’s “respectable” proxy for anti-Semitism. The latter famously sneered at Israel’s “dirty religion” (he meant Zionism, he later clarified helpfully). And the former, pairing Israel with South Africa, charged that both countries “worked on an ethnic bomb that killed Blacks and Arabs.”
I can’t imagine Junie or Dhanna or Desi sitting through such tripe. What anguishes me is that, for all I know, their children or grandchildren may be.
© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]