On Racism, Its Costs and Its Causes


“Loose lips sink ships,” went the World War II slogan urging Americans to be more discreet about sensitive security matters. Today’s advice to the frum community might be “loose lips kill neshamos.” It is more than clear that the price of using ethnic humor and racial slurs is souls lost to the community of practicing Jews.

She was witty, charming, frum, and a Harvard Law School graduate. She was also black, and living as a single woman in an Orthodox neighborhood. One Purim, she was treated in a local shul to the sight of a young mother with a few children in tow. As her Purim get-up, the mother had chosen to adorn herself and her kids with blackface and thick lips. The connection to Purim was not clear. The black Jewess, recounting to me why she eventually left that community and relocated to another state, outside of a frum area, had this comment. “What was that woman trying to tell me? What was she trying to say?”

In all likelihood, she was saying nothing at all. She probably gave no conscious thought to the message that she broadcast. She did not mean to deliberately offend anyone; it just seemed like a quirky thing to do. Her lack of malice, however, did not reduce the collateral damage of her actions.

This was no isolated incident. Frum teachers in our community use racial and ethnic slurs in the classroom; too many rabbonim still use disparaging language – or words like shvartze – thinking that they are harmless within the “in” group.

They aren’t. There isn’t an in-group anymore. Too much of what begins within quickly finds its way out. The in-group is not so homogenous anymore either. Many of those people wearing black hats have relatives who are not Jewish, and members of some of the minority groups that are mocked. They are hurt, offended, or worse when they hear words they cannot accept from those they are supposed to look up to. The very authority of those people sometimes shrinks in the process. Still more people have joined the community with some of their old sensitivities intact, and are turned off when they hear words that they stopped using in grade school. Yet others have just dropped in for a visit to a shul or a Shabbos table, and are so shocked by the language they hear, that they never, ever return for another visit. (It does not take much to convince someone just testing the waters of the observant community that it is not for them. We should be making it easier for them to stay, not to exit.)

Like it or not, many people look down on those who have no issue with racist humor or remarks. To them, it is the antithesis of the refinement and discernment that they expect to see in an elevated soul. Racial humor is built upon stereotyping, upon ignoring the differences between individuals rather than noting and savoring them. It is about looking at an amorphous collective, rather than respecting individuals as individuals. It is about blaming, rather than understanding. It is about focusing on the negative, and giving little or no credit for the positive. It is suspect of coming from a place of insecurity, where one’s own faults don’t seem so onerous when they can be compared with group that is assumed to be even more blameworthy. Anyone who can take these reactions lightly must have a Torah bookshelf from which the words “chilul Hashem” have been elided.

There is a good chance that the woman in our story harbored no animus towards black people. She had to have realized, however, that people who viewed her would find her appearance humorous. She could safely predict the reaction of people would include people who are not racists, but tolerate racist language.

Why should anything disparaging of others exist in our community? I can think of three reasons, and have probably missed a few more.

One reason is that many of us are still only a generation or two removed from forebears had good reason to despise all non-Jews, and thought – just as their despised non-Jewish neighbors – in terms of the hostilities of different European groups for each other. Much of this has mercifully disappeared in the course of time; much still remains.

Patterns of Jewish settlement provide a second reason. American Orthodox Jews live primarily in larger cities. Within those cities, Jews are often cheek by jowl with other ethnic groups, and often not at the higher end of the socio-economic scale. Part of the Jewish experience therefore has been to relate to populations of deviancy and criminal activity. People too often define groups by their own experience. (Where I grew up in Manhattan, non-Jews were “Catholics,” especially Irish-Catholics. You stayed clear of them, unless you preferred your bones broken rather than whole. All people who spoke Spanish were called Puerto Ricans.) A by-product of the map of Jewish habitation was a dismissive, contemptuous attitude concerning non-Jews.

A third reason can be found in the selective reading and misappropriation of rabbinic texts. Many people “know” that all non-Jews hate all Jews. Chazal said so. הלכה היא בידוע שעשיו שונא את יעקב. Underscoring “halacha” means that this is a fixed, immutable rule.

Just how Esav turned into all non-Jews, rather than just one group of them, is a bit of a mystery. In fact, I have a hard time figuring out how Esav the person turned into Esav the nation. Searching a few Torah databases a few years ago, I could find no source before the end of the 19th century that took Esav to mean a group of people, rather than Esav the biblical figure – who had every reason to hate Yaakov!

Moreover, it is not at all clear whether the word “halacha” belongs there. One source has הלא instead of “halacha.”

Even if we were certain that Chazal meant Esav the nation, rather than Esav the man, would it mean all of his descendants, without exception? Could they ever change? To assume that Chazal meant a fixed, unchanging principle would pit our own experience (where we arguably have met up with some very determined philo-semites) against their word, and force us to mistrust our own senses. We would have to argue that despite what seems real to us, scratch the surface of every friendly non-Jew, and you will find a latent anti-Semite. Furthermore, we would have to ignore works like the Netziv and R. Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, who speak of the reality of times in which Esav (the nation) is moved to compassionate behavior to Klal Yisrael. Is all this really compelling?

More puzzling is the assumption by some of us that Genesis 9:25, 27 consigns all black people to perpetual servitude. This becomes the basis of looking down upon black people. The assumption is perplexing for a number of reasons. It is not at all clear whom Noach meant to curse. He could have meant Canaan, the person, or even Canaan and his descendants. This would still not include many/most black people. (Cush, who is sometimes taken as emblematic of all black people, was a brother of Canaan, not a descendant.) Rav Saadia Gaon does assume that Canaan means his father, Cham, and his progeny. So does Radak. Ibn Ezra considers this, and rejects it. He points out that the very first king mentioned by Chumash after the Noach drinking episode – obviously not a slave – came from Cush! Tosfos, Sanhedrin 70A write that the curse could not have been directed against Cham, because he had been previously blessed, and curses are incompatible with blessings. Chazal, at least in part, seem to extend the curse at least to Canaan’s descendants, since they see Eliezer as caught up in its net.

Even if we were to seize upon one pshat as definitve (I have no way of understanding such a conclusion), we would have to ask the same question we asked above. Would it mean all black people, for all time? (Netziv explicitly denies this, pointing to slaves from all of Noach’s progeny, and very emancipated behavior among Canaan’s descendants.)

Most importantly, isn’t the entire approach antithetical to the way we approach biblical curses? When anesthesia was first made available to women in labor, some church groups resisted, claiming that the curse of Eve demanded that women feel the pain of childbirth. I know of no such attitude in the responsa. If there was such a voice, it was drowned out by others, who apparently held that a curse is a challenge, not a description of reality. Adam’s curse means we generally have to toil to make a living. An heir is under no obligation to force his brow to sweat to keep his part of the bargain; the rest of us are permitted to make working conditions easier for ourselves. Eve’s curse is not prescriptive. It does make it necessary for a woman approaching the end of pregnancy to deal with pain-management plans.

Our job, in general, is to work against the effects of curses, not to accept them. (Some, like the curse of Eve, may be predicted by Kabbalistic sources to wane as we get closer to the days of Moshiach, as Devorah Heshelis outlined in The Moon’s Lost Light.) If we were to assume (and I don’t understand the reasoning for such an assumption) that rabbinic sources saw a black race saddled with the weight of an ancient curse of cultural inferiority, our task, I would think, would be to find ways to educate and refine the unfortunate victims of that curse and allow as many to escape it as possible. The presidential victory of Barack Obama – beyond any political misgivings – would be met with a certain amount of jubilation for his having travelled so far, just as we cheer when Eliezer manages to transcend the curse.

Statements that have been attributed to names in New York and Israel simply elude my comprehension, if there is any truth to them in the first place. Perhaps I am cursed with intellectual dullness. Hopefully, the curse is not irreversible.

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6 years 9 months ago

Rabbi Adlerstein,
I appreciate this article very much. The reality, however, is that many Jews who are inclined to behave this way will never read this article, quite possibly do not even have internet access, and would probably disregard what you have to say anyway.

6 years 9 months ago

“Second – I do agree with commenter #1, though I think you were indicating towards this. But I feel often the focus is on “what others will think/feel.” It seems to me that a push against this should be against racism because of its affect on the people who speak/act on it more than how it might affect others.”

This may be an acceptable ancillary reason, but focusing on the feelings of others is an important, positive trait. Jews should learn to be empathic, and care about the impact of their actions on others.

6 years 10 months ago

Excellent and well done, Rabbi Adlerstein.
Can a change of direction be made in our educational institutions to teach tolerance and engage in studies about human dignity? I am not optimistic but will try anyway.

6 years 10 months ago

Agree with the following for starters
“Yasher Koach on a wonderful column.”

“A very eloquent post!”

I would hope that I could paraphrase two of Rabbi Adlerstein’s comments to an more general comment.

It is more than clear that the price of using humor and slurs is souls lost to the community of practicing Jews.

Frum teachers in our community use ethnic slurs in the classroom; too many rabbonim still use disparaging language thinking that they are harmless .

6 years 10 months ago

At a wedding recently, I was sitting next to a young married student who informed me that there was definitive proof that Obama was a Moslen. He said that he went to a madrassa and attended mosque with his step father in Indonesia. I asked him what age was he when he attended the mosque and he said under 4 years old. A yeshiva rebbe sitting at the table said that at the age of 4 he went to a farbrengen, did that mean he is a Lubavitcher. The anti Obama people just can’t let go, they remind me of a saying from my youth. Save your Confederate dollars, the South will rise again.”
The racism in the orthodox community is so blatant that to deny it is to be living in denial, literally. What is needed is for men and women of sechel to speak out and to not allow the peddlers of prejudice the free rein to dully our community. Racism is a chillul Hashem and as we see in other instances like school segregation in Israel, it is insidious. We live in golus and we have to be very careful of making enemies .