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Who are we? Where did we come from? How many of us are there?
The above picture of a black kid eating a slice of Levy’s Jewish Rye was a popular advisement that attempted to convey the message that one does not have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy Jewish Rye. It did this by showing a black person—who everyone knew could not be Jewish—eating a sandwich made with this well-known Jewish bread. I don’t know how successful this advertising campaign was at increasing sales for the sponsoring company, but I do know that it had the effect of further embedding the stereotype that black people are not Jewish; if fact, the very idea that they could be contributed to the advertisement’s irony and subtle humor. Since I was a black Jewish child whose name happened to be Levy, I understood this and similar messages to mean that I did not exist or that my identity was not acknowledged. Like Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man, we became Invisible Jews.
My story is typical and I invite others to share their experiences of living in a world of complex identity with us on various pages of this site. However, this essay is intended to bear witness to true racial diversity that exists within the Jewish world. Though the focus is necessarily on those communities that I am most familiar with, I attempt to give a broader insight and offer some analysis of the unique dynamics that are at work. It is also important to remember that not all of the groups mentioned here accept the terms used to describe them. Some, in fact, reject the term "Jew" precisely because it connotes, in the minds of most people, a white ethnic group. Therefore, the use of this appellation could be misinterpreted as a desire to be white or a denial of African heritage. In either case, its use here could be regarded as an insult by some. The groups who feel this way prefer the term Hebrew or Israelite because they believe it avoids a connection with "whiteness," or conversely, implies a connection with "blackness." It is with these two caveats concerning "race" that I use the term Jew as a de-racialized description of people who are neither Christian nor Muslim but who profess to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. No offense is intended by my choice of terms and I hope that none will be taken. Those who wish to register their opinions about terminology and other matters may do so in the appropriate discussion room on this site.
Estimates for the total number of Black Jews in America range from 40,000, reported by the Encyclopedia of Black America, to 500,000 as stated in a feature story about Black Jews in Ascent magazine. Unfortunately, none of the sources reveal how they arrived at their figures.
The problem of determining a reliable estimate of the number of Black Jews in America is made more complicated by the difficulty of determining who is a "Black Jew." For instance, Arthur Huff Fauset in his pioneering study, Black Gods of the Metropolis, used a Philadelphia-based group called the "Church of God " as the basis for a chapter about "Black Jews." If one simply took an affinity with the Old Testament and the observance of a few customs as a definition of being Jewish, as do Fauset and others, then one's figures could be quite high; though very inaccurate because they would count as Black Jews segments of what is usually considered the Black Church.
On the other hand, if one used Orthodox Jewish Law, called "Halackah," as the basis for defining who is a Jew, one would have to know the religion of the mother of each person; because, by this law, one cannot decide to be a Jew unless one's mother is a Jew. If the person or group claimed to have converted to Judaism, then one would have to know if they underwent certain rituals that involve the taking of special baths, (mikvot) and in the case of a man, the symbolic pricking of his penis.
Halakhic Law offers a very precise definition of who is a Jew. However, since fewer than ten percent of the 5.3 million white Jews in America observe Orthodox Jewish Law, this standard cannot be applied to Black Jews unequivocally, nor could I verify baths or pricked penises if I wanted to. Yet, I am aware of a number of prominent African Americans and one New Jersey congregation that have undergone formal conversion. This, too, is a controversial issue about which there is much debate. We have created a page for the free flow of opinions on this topic. In general, however, I believe that the majority of our communities believe in a doctrine the Torah refers to as Shuvah, the return of lost Jews to their original heritage. Recently, several leaders within our community have advocated undergoing Halakhic conversion (as they have) even though they believe in Shuvah. Their strongest argument seems to be that it makes getting along with white Jews easier if you have such a certificate rather than that it makes them feel more Jewish or brings them close to Hashem (G-d).
My experience and the example of the Ethiopian Jews now living in Israel—many of whom have been coerced into taking a pseudo-conversion euphemistically referred to as “renewal”—reveals that the legitimacy of these Halakhic conversions are frequently questioned depending on which rabbi performed and most importantly depending on the race of the person being converted; i.e. Black converts are always more suspect than the traditionally suspected White convert.
Since the particular Halakhic conversion ceremony in use today is not found in the Torah, nor is it referred to in any of the biblical instances where people joined the Hebrew faith, (Ruth for example), we do not believe that it has the same legal weight as Torah law. Also, we feel that it denies the concept of divine intervention and selection referred to in Isaiah 11:11-12 and Jeremiah 3:14. In these passages the Hebrew prophets state that God will be responsible for the gathering of His people which He shall choose from the "four corners of the earth" and the from "islands of the sea." This process is described as a selection of individuals rather than of groups, "I will take you one from a city, and two from a family, I will bring you to Zion." The fact that Orthodox rabbis hold that they are the sole arbiters of deciding who is a Jew negates the existence or exercise of a divine will that is not channeled through them first. In contrast, the ceremony we use serves as a public acknowledgment of a spiritual transformation that has already taken place within the individual.
Beyond this type of problem, however, there are a number of political reservations that we hold regarding the way that people are "accepted" into Judaism. The Halakhic procedures require recognition of and acquiescence to Orthodox authority. Further, the Halakhic standard conflates membership in a religion (a belief system or way of life accepted on faith) with acceptance or approval of a particular religious body. An appropriate analogy, that comes very close to describing our situation, is that the Pope or Catholic Church can decide who is a Catholic but, he can not decide who is a Christian. [The fact that some have tried notwithstanding.] Similarly, various boards or councils may decide who is an "Orthodox Jew" for instance but they can not presume to act as God in judging the content of a person's heart or the sincerity of one's faith.
Judaism, as many of us understand and practice it, is not a race. If it were, then no one could join it or leave it without being genetically altered. Judaism is a creed; a living culture with an ancient history. Those who practice it belong to communities that often have unique traditions. Though it may not appear as such, most Jews belong to definable communities which have traditions that come out of their own histories. Sadly, some of the more influential communities attempt to exercise a hegemony over the others. Black Jews generally reject the presumptive authority of such groups—though they accept many of their traditions and interpretations on other matters. Because of this, Black Jews exist on the margins of Jewish society though well within the pale of principled disagreement.
Rather than inventing an arbitrary definition or imposing a contested definition of Judaism onto the Black Jewish community, I have chosen instead to discuss those groups that describe themselves as either Black Jews, Hebrews, or Israelites. This approach will allow the reader to understand how we. In this regard, I have found that a variety of very interesting, complex, and still evolving notions of Judaism exist. It is my goal to analyze the major theological, cultural, and political views that circulate within these congregations in order to understand how they are informed by issues of race, religion, and historical circumstances.
Rabbi W.A. Matthew -- The Black Jews of Harlem
My background and most of my information comes from working with those congregations that derive from the late Chief Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew (1892-1973). Rabbi Matthew founded the Commandment Keepers Congregation in Harlem, New York in 1919. He trained and ordained many of the rabbis who later founded synagogues in various places of the United States and the Caribbean. Rabbi Matthew, it turns out, was a close associate of Rabbi Arnold J. Ford who was the musical director of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which was organized by Marcus Garvey in 1911.
The emergence of Judaism among people of African descent in the first half of this century was made possible by a combination of the following factors: (1) A strong religious tradition in the background of the person who became Jewish that embodied Jewish practices from an early but unclear source. When interviewed, many of the older members of this community recall memories of their parents observing certain dietary laws, such as abstaining from pork or salting their meat. Others recall traditions related to observing the Sabbath or festivals such as Passover and Sukkot. In most cases these practices were fragmentary and observed by people who simultaneously practiced Christianity.
The possible origins of these Hebraic traditions could be traced to West Africa were a number of tribes have customs so similar to Judaism that an ancient connection or maybe even descent from one of the "ten lost tribes" is believed. Other possibilities for these well-documented practices are through association with Jewish slave owners and merchants in the Caribbean and North America. In this case, the number of Jewish slave owners is known to have been small, yet it has been shown that Jewish masters, particularly in the Caribbean, attempted to proselytize their slaves just as their Christian counterparts had. Therefore, the three main sources of Judaism for African Africans today are: (1) Indigenous African Ancestry, (2) Conversion during or after slavery, (3) Intermarriage between white Jews and people of African descent, and (4) Shuvah, the conscious reclaiming of Judaism by people of African descent whose ancestors were forced into Christianity.
Many African Americans who practice Judaism today maintain that they have always had a close affinity with the Hebrews of the Old Testament. This is true whether or not they recall particular rites that remind them of the Jewish traditions they now follow. Scholars such as Albert Raboteau have described in books such as Slave Religion that the biblical struggles of the Hebrew people—particularly their slavery and exodus from Egypt—bore a strong similarity to the conditions of African slaves and was therefore of special importance to them. This close identification with the biblical Hebrews is clearly seen in the lyrics of gospel songs such as "Go Down Moses" and remains a favorite theme in the sermons of black clergy today.
What all this proves is that there was a foundation, be it psychological, spiritual, or historical, that made some black people receptive to the direct appeal to Judaism that Rabbi Matthew and others made to them in this century. If black people were fertile ground for the harbingers of Judaism, then the philosophy of Marcus Garvey was the seed that helped to bring it to fruition. Put most simply, Garvey's message was one of Black Nationalism and Pan Africanism. His goal was to instill pride in a people who were being humiliated through institutionalized racism and cultural bigotry. Garvey and Matthew attempted to challenge old stereotypes that either minimized a black presence in history or the bible, or, that completely excised black people from these texts. They argued that such distortions and omissions were harmful to the self-image that many black people had of themselves. They debunked these myths by extolling the contributions that black people made to the development of human civilization. To some extent this meant focusing on the achievements of African societies such as Egypt and Ethiopia in highly rhetorical and romantic way. It also meant attacking the false image that all the people in the bible looked like Europeans. They pointed out that by normative standards the dark hues of the ancient Hebrews would cause them to be classified as black in today's world. This was a revelation to thousands of black people who had previously accepted the all white depictions without question.
Rabbi Ford and Rabbi Matthew took Garvey's philosophy one step further. They reasoned that if many of the ancient Hebrews were black, then Judaism was as much a part of their cultural and religious heritage as is Christianity. In their hearts and minds they were not converting to Judaism, they were reclaiming part of their legacy. This fit very neatly with the biblical prophecies that spoke of the Israelites being scattered all over the world, being carried in slave ships to distant lands, and of being forced to worship alien gods (Deuteronomy 28).
Rabbi Matthew found himself in the peculiar position of having to both justify his small following of black Jews in Harlem, and also to explain the presence of so many white Jews. His position on this subject went through various stages. He always maintained that the "original Jews" were black people-or at least not European; however, he did not deny the existence or legitimacy of white Jews. In fact, as his services, synagogues, and attire show, he deferred to orthodox conventions on many matters. For example, he maintained separate setting for men and women, he used a standard Orthodox siddur (prayer book) to conduct his services, worshippers wore tallitzim and kippot (prayer shawls and yarmulkes), they affixed mezuzot, wore tefillin, used standard texts in their Hebrew and rabbinic schools and read from a Sefer Torah.
Rabbi Matthew believed that although the "original Jews" were black people, white Jews had kept and preserved Judaism over the centuries. Since we, black Jews, were just "returning" to Judaism it was necessary for us to look to white Jews on certain matters—particularly on post-biblical and rabbinic holidays such as Hanukkah which could not be found in the Torah. However, it is important to note that Rabbi Matthew felt free to disagree on matters where he had a strong objection. He also recognized that since many customs, songs, and foods were of European origin, that he had the right to introduce some African, Caribbean, and American traditions into his community. Of course, his right to do this was often challenged, sometimes by Jews who had “Europeanized” Judaism in the past or who were "Americanizing" Judaism in the present. Rabbi Matthew was constantly aware of apparent double standards within Judaism. After decades of trying to find common ground with white Jews by speaking at white synagogues around the county and at B'nai Brith lodges internationally, and after repeated attempts to join the New York Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Matthew concluded that black Jews would never be fully accepted by white Jews and certainly not if they insisted on maintaining a black identity and independent congregations. Since his death in 1973, there has been very little dialog between white and black Jews in America.