The introduction to my speech sounded like an apology.
I was invited to address a memorial held for Nelson Mandela in Montreal, along with several prominent anti-apartheid activists and leaders in the Black community. When the Master of Ceremonies called me to the podium, he began by saying “you might think it’s strange to invite a Rabbi to speak tonight…”. After all, what would a Rabbi have to do with the anti-apartheid movement? So the MC explained that Mandela had a long-standing and deep relationship with the South African Jewish community, (including many Rabbis), and that including a Rabbi on the program was both understandable and fitting.
But the sad thing is, there are many in the Orthodox community who would consider it strange for an Orthodox Rabbi to speak at a memorial for Nelson Mandela. Some have been preoccupied by Mandela’s support for the Palestinian cause. (Although many, including Abe Foxman, have noted Mandela’s connection to Israel and multiple Israeli leaders.) But in other forums another, uglier attitude has bubbled up to the surface. To these views, Mandela was undeserving of any Orthodox Jew’s attention because Mandela was a lowly black.
Racism is a significant issue in the Orthodox community. In the last two weeks, while away on vacation, I got to visit two different synagogues in New York and Florida. In each, I overheard nasty remarks about blacks. (I get to hear more on vacation than in my own synagogue; in my own synagogue, people are much more guarded about what they say when the Rabbi is around.) Sadly, I cannot dismiss these remarks as outliers. While there are no direct studies on anti-black prejudice in the Orthodox community, anecdotally, there are too many examples to be dismissed. Looking around the internet, from comments on blogs, videos of well known lecturers, to Facebook posts, one can see numerous examples of racism in the Orthodox community. David Klinghoffer, who was then an editor for the National Review, wrote a two page letter in 1994 to the journal Tradition recounting multiple instances he heard bigoted remarks in the Orthodox community on the Upper West Side. As he put it, “Orthodox bigots express themselves without the concern that anyone present will disagree enough to take offense”. Sadly, things haven’t improved very much in the last twenty years.
Of course the vast majority of Orthodox Jews bear no prejudice. But the fact that a noisy minority can harbor such views is shocking and intolerable, in particular because Orthodox Jews are the last people on earth who should be racists.
A serious believer in the Torah cannot accept racism. Each human is created in the image of God, and has infinite worth. The Mishnah tells us that the reason why Adam is created alone is in order to teach the lesson of equality, so that no man can say “my father is greater than yours” (Sanhedrin 37a). And of course there is the commandment to “love the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19) which would include a responsibility to any group that is marginalized and oppressed. Rav Ahron Soloveichik summarized the Torah’s attitude when he wrote: “from the standpoint of the Torah…. any discrimination shown to a human being on account of the color of his or her skin constitutes loathsome barbarity.” The religious imperative to treat people of every color and race equally is beyond dispute.
But what worries me in particular about Orthodox racism is how it corrupts the values our community treasures. In our community, where the Yeshiva is the central institution, the intellect is prized and moral sensitivity is treasured. And despite this, people will mindlessly accept something as stupid as racism, the belief that somehow the color of your skin has a correlation to the content of your character. (And if external attributes matter that much, why just skin color? Why not eye color? Or hair color? Or nose size?) And the same people who can appreciate a Torah insight talking about showing moral sensitivity to everything, even inanimate objects, will then go and treat Blacks worse than dirt. Racism undermines our identity as wise and understanding nation.
Racism is very dangerous. It can destroy the lives of those who are the objects of racism; but it can also destroy the souls of those who are racists. And in the Orthodox community, we need to focus on how racism is corrupting our souls.
This is a lesson we can learn from Nelson Mandela. After having sat in prison for 27 years, he refused to respond by hating the white community. He wrote that a “man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness…. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” Prejudice corrupts the soul of the bigot.
Our community needs to take this lesson to heart. Mild racism is not mild at all; it actually undermines the very values Judaism represents. The goal of Judaism is to make a Kiddush Hashem, to sanctify God’s name; but it’s impossible to sanctify God’s name when you mock other human beings for having the wrong skin color.