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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32 comments to On Racism, Its Costs and Its Causes

  • Mike S

    You focus on the effect of these words on the listeners. You should also consider the effect on the neshoma of the speaker. In the first place, the speaker lessens his respect for the Tzelem Elokim in whole classes of people; in my experience this contemptuous attitude tends to broaden from the original target. This is despite Ben Azzai referring to recognizing that we all descend from Adam and Chava as a central principal (“clal gadol”) of the Torah. Further, the contemptuous attitude often leads to further aveiros in not treating people according to the Torah’s standard of honesty in business, as we have seen. And this contempt spills over into contempt for Jews who the speaker assumes are less devout than he or she. Finally, whenever we assume we are inherently superior to others, we are on the way to gaiveh.

  • michoel halberstam

    As usual you are to be commended for saying what is obviously true and what should not have to be said. And, as usual, the same people who are willing to quote whichever godaol, or semi-godol as having made racist and otherwise non useful remarks wiill question your frum bona fides. Remember that we are with you on this one

  • sarah shapiro

    Thank you, Rabbi Adlerstein.

    Ever since becoming observant more than thirty five years ago, the eagerness on the part of certain of my brethen to indulge unashamedly in a primitive brand of racism is the one feature of the Orthodox world which has consistently caused me to cringe in embarrassment. The zeal with which some of us seize on lines of Torah as license to demean and dehumanize other human beings on the basis of race or racial characteristics is a reliable measure of one thing only: the unrecognized (and therefore malignant) sense of inadequacy to which Rabbi Adlerstein refers.

    For an apparently Torah-observant Jew to derive enjoyment and self-aggrandizement in this manner serves as an indictment of us all. It demeans the speaker far more than it could possibly demean the object`of his scorn, and any sense of tribal solidarity thereby aroused is unkosher, and bogus.

    I’ve noticed through the decades that those who demean others on the basis of race can inevitably be heard denigrating their fellow Jews, for the character traits that make such condescension possible cannot be compartmentalized. I assume that in their heart of hearts, such persons are equally cruel to themselves.

  • Rishona

    This is a very frightening topic to discuss and bring to light; but it is important. What you spoke about in your second paragraph is simply horrifying. I am also bothered by something else (and I am sure there was no malice intended); but how is the fact that she is a “Harvard Law School grad” relevant. The single most relevant fact is that she is a Jew. Rather if she is smart, or pretty, or rich or poor…none of that is relevant — and neither is her race. Simply the fact that she is a member of the nation of Israel.

    The second issue is that “Black people” are NOT a homogenous group. I am described (self and by others) as a “Black” woman. However my father is 1/2 East Indian (ancestors from Calcutta, India); my mother is 1/8 Native American (Cherokee & Creek). Although it’s not true in my case, many Black people have European ancestors. Some of which might even make them 100% halachaic Jews! Let’s also not overlook the fact that many adherents to non-Orthodox sects of Judaism are not halachaic Jews. But their last names are Rubenstein or Goldberg and they “look Jewish” (read “Eastern European”) so they are easier for the frum community to accept.

    This behavior is clearly anti-Torah. What bearing do ancestors have on a person today? Wasn’t Avraham Aveinu the son of an idol worshipper? Didn’t Dovid Ha’Melech decend from the products of incest? Slavery in the Americas (the worst form of slavery that ever existed) thrived on the false notion that “negros” had no souls. Are frum Jews also buying into this horrible myth?

    There is another African-American who just recently made history. Alyssa Stanton is the first African-American woman to become a [Reform] Rabbi. But the tragedy here is that she had an Orthodox conversion. She left because of “acceptance”. What a loss. A halachaic Jew off the derech; and the frum community was partly responsible.

    I thank Hashem that I have found people and a community that make me feel like an equal. Also most of the frum Jews I have met have behaved much better towards me than the secular society at large. My community and my Rabbi are genuinely concerned about my feelings, my life, and my future (something that is key when you don’t have a Jewish family of your own). Sadly, not all Black frum Jews can say this.

  • Gil

    First – Thanks. In a perfect world this should be obvious, but we know it is not. So thank you for speaking up.

    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.

  • Moishe Potemkin

    Rabbi Adlerstein observes that “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.”

    I think he’s exactly right, but I’m wondering whether Rabbi Menken will repeat his claim that asserting that racism exists in Orthodox communities makes one “both a smear-monger and a bigot”.

  • Bob Miller

    1. We don’t need utilitarian reasons for using refined speech at all times. Since when is there a notion of “time off from Torah and mitzvot”? Does a bad habit somehow become acceptable through repetition?

    2. Our role models at home and in school and in shul and at work need to take matters like this seriously, and not to fall back on the well-known excuses for using ethnic racial slurs. The fact that Jews have been kicked around cannot justify vulgarity on our part. Whatever problems exist, our foul speech won’t solve them.

  • Menachem Lipkin

    Magnificent, thank you.

    To the slurs that frum teachers regularly use I would add “goyim”. I know that in a perfect world this word would be perfectly neutral. But this is not a perfect world and many who use it are using it as a slur per the attitude toward non-Jews you described above.

  • Menachem Lipkin

    Magnificent, thank you.

    To the slurs that frum teachers regularly use I would add “goyim”. I know that in a perfect world this word would be perfectly neutral. But this is not a perfect world and many who use it are using it as a slur per the attitude toward non-Jews you described above.

  • Yehoshua Friedman

    I add my small voice to the chorus of amen-sayers to your statement. While I don’t agree with the policies of Mr. Obama (if he has any), I hope that his election will be a signal to Americans of all races to declare the war on racism won and go home. As for Mr. Obama himself, he is a Black American about as much as I am Chinese. He is White American on his mother’s side and part of his paternal family are North African Arabs. Culturally, people like Jesse Jackson who are suspicious of him as not being “one of them” are right. The most significant aspect of Afro-American cultural identity is the heritage of having been a slave brought to America against his/her will. Obama’s ancestors were never slaves, fortunately for them. Some of his maternal ancestors may well have been slave-owners.
    Sort it out, America, I am here in Eretz Yisrael among my people with the usual troubles of our own. But I agree that we need more sensitivity wherever we are. Here in Israel we could use less of the “Rabin heritage” and more of the Carlebach heritage of loving people without condition.

  • Miriam

    I now live in a semi-closed religious neighborhood in Israel. The other day a friend described another friend as having “a non-standard background.” At which point I laughed and replied, “yeah like you, and me, and about half the neighborhood.”

    Unfortunately you’re preaching to the choir (non-Jewish expression sorry ;-) – and the choir seems to get rather intimidated by some hagglers in the pews.

  • shmuel

    While we read Bresishis just a month ago and everyone read along with the baal koreh as he read yhe posuk of “b’telem elokim baro oso”, too few take it seriously . R Ahron Soloveichik z”l refused to use racial epithets but as far as I know he was a lone voice in the frum world including major Roshei Yeshiva. I’m sure there were others (at least I hope so) Yet, the fact that I don’t know that to be true is itself a sad indictment of our community.

  • The Contarian

    I never understood how any one could come to the cocclusion that
    Underscoring “halacha” means that Non-Jewish emmity is a fixed, immutable rule.

    It cannot be a fixed immatable rule for it was stated in the context of an exception to itself.

    Rabbl Shimon Bar Yochai, one of the least Xenophilic of Tanaim, disputed his colleagues negative view of Esav’s actions when he met Yaakov returning to Eretz Canaan. Rabbi Shimon said that even though it is halacha … ,it was not the case here. Esav compassion was aroused by the sight of Yaakov and he warmly hugged and kissed his brother.

    So much for immutability.

  • Charlie Hall

    “many people look down on those who have no issue with racist humor or remarks”

    I am one of those people. I grew up in a segregated part of Maryland. I attended a segregated public elementary school and remember segregated swimming pools. And I was harassed and assaulted both by black bullies and white rednecks.

    Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik z’tz’l, in *Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind* (p. 61) presents the Torah position on racism:

    From the standpoint of the Torah, there can be no distinction between one human being and another on the basis of race or color. Any discrimination shown to a human being on account of the color of his or her skin constitutes loathsome barbarity. It must be conceded that the Torah recognizes a distinction between a Jew 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 the Jews.”

    BTW, everyone should look at Ibn Ezra to this coming Shabat’s parshah as to what happened to the actual descendents of Esav, in particular his comments to chapter 27, verse 40. I think secular historians back up his version.

  • Daniel Shain

    I think that racism in our communities is part of the larger phenomenon of disrespect of all non-Jews. Terms like shegetz and shiktze are disrespectful, and I have heard prominent rabbanim use them. One supported his use of the terms as a geder to prevent intermarriage, so his children would know that the “shiktze” is off limits.

  • yy

    Rabbi A. meritted to pen many powerfully precious lines in this one. I believe they are applicable far beyond the issue of racism. A few of my favorites:

    “The in-group is not so homogenous anymore either”

    “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 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.”

    There are building blocks in these words for a movement of Soul-Refined Judaism!

  • anonymous

    I am grateful to have a couple of decades under my belt in terms of remembering the experiences of my earlier youth.
    Many of the teachers in my school, I believe, feared the black population in my school. These were students who had resentment about being bussed in to my school in an all white neighborhood. They would come into the school, wild and screaming. This, of course, we could not understand because we really did not behave in this way- no ex exageration here. I would get up to use the ladies room and when I would come back I would be told of either my lunch or my wallet being stolen and that the teacher or substitute saw also yet was not going to say anything out of fear from these black students. Since I had been hit upon by these students, I did not dare open my mouth because my wallet was not worth the retaliation of my defense.
    In the hallways there was more wild behavior and foul mouths. The list is endless. I have viewed the way in which the mothers of these children “reprimand” their children for even the littlest annoying behavior. It was abusive…… I looked at them with severe disdain.
    Fast forward about 20 years. I have asked my rav about this behavior and it’s high prevalence in the Black community. The bottom line is that all people come from Adam and color is irrelevant. We all have a spark of Hashem’s holiness and we are all special to Hashem. Do the black people have higher rates of the above mentioned? Yes. This, I believe does not describe the Black people as a whole and I also must note that there are plenty of examples of what we have called “white trash” behavior and this is also unfortunate.
    I have, however heard from black people in various forums that they claim that they have a higher rate of these types of behavior because of their disadvantage in how they have been viewed in the outerlying communities world wide. The only response that I would have is that the Jewish people have also had severe disadvantages and our history is replete with examples of the odds of survival stacked against us, yet we have strived to rise above this. I am sure that our community is not perfect- this is for sure.
    I choose now to view the Black community not as a whole to be a “bad group of people.” I now choose to strive to see this is societal- (both ours and theirs, and also as indiviual issues in each of their families.

  • Esther B.

    Thank you Rabbi Adlerstein! This definitely goes beyond racial slurs to any kind of negative speech towards others. Obviously we should speak appropriately because it’s halacha, but if we need another incentive, you could be personally responsible for turning someone away from halachic Judaism. Whether it’s casual insults about non-Jews or secular Jews (which you said in front of someone who has close relatives that are non-Jews), or screaming at someone who isn’t following a mitzvah exactly right (instead of explaining with kindness), or passionately defending the inappropriate behavior of a “religious” person instead of being very clear that Torah Judaism does not accept this.

  • LOberstein

    Yasher Koach. You brought out the good side of the frum community and the Neanderthal element has chosen not to argue this time. Thee are some reasonable bloggers left.

  • YM

    A few months ago I was having a conversation with man in shul who was living in Eretz Yisroel and attending Kollel there. He was visiting Passaic, where he used to live. At some point in the conversation we were discussing the upcoming election and he used the word schvartze. I was horrified but said nothing. At least one other friend was participating in the conversation and there were others standing nearby.

    What is the correct response? If we have to repremand our fellow frum Yidden, I assume we have to follow the laws concerning giving tochacha? Could I have repremanded him right away in front of the others? Clearly, for this to change, it needs to be socially unacceptible to speak this way.

  • Ori

    YM: At some point in the conversation we were discussing the upcoming election and he used the word schvartze. I was horrified but said nothing.

    Ori: I am not frum, but what if you calmly explained to him that some Jews use that term as a pejorative, so it’s better not to use it? By doing it like this, you imply that he is not racist – that he’s so pure he didn’t even know other people who use this term use it in a racist way?

  • anonymous

    What soes the word ” schvartze” mean literally? Is it an actual derogatory term?

  • Steve Brizel

    Yasher Koach on a wonderful column.

  • Pinchas Giller

    A very eloquent post!

  • Ben

    See Avnei Nezer in Orach Chaim (Megillah) regarding the hatred that Amalek and 7 nations have towards Jews. See also Ramban in Vayishlach who differentiates between our attitude towards Esav (clearly the nation not the individual) and towards Amalek. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was makdim shalom lichol adam, so whatever they think about us we certainly don’t have to show it to them.

  • anonymous

    re: # 21, shwartze means black.
    Yasher koach to R.Adlerstein this article is a breath of fresh air.

  • anonymouse

    So now what?

    Will those who know better continue to keep silent, boil under their skin at someone’s slurs but never rebuke?

    If someone does rebuke, is that the end of their shidduchim prospects for their children (the great dangling threat)?

    What ACTION is needed?

    Yasher koach to R. Alderstein for his kind words.

  • LOberstein

    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 .

  • mycroft

    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 .

  • cvmay

    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.

  • Sholom

    “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.

  • Sholom

    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.