Jonathan Muskat

Nissim Black and allegations of racism in the orthodox community

Last week, I saw a picture of Hasidic rap singer Nissim Black visiting HaGaon HaRav Chaim Kanievsky in Bnei Brak.  Nissim Black was born Damien Black, and he is a second-generation rapper, son of James Croone of the Emerald Street Boys, considered Seattle’s first hip hop group, and Mia Black of the Emerald Street Girls.  He was raised as a Muslim and he converted to Christianity and eventually converted to Judaism and he and his wife eventually moved to Israel where he’s continued recording music.  However, after six years in Israel, racial discrimination targeting his children led him to seek a meeting with Rav Chaim Kanievsky.  Apparently, schools that fit his religious philosophy have refused to admit his children as students due to their skin color, so he went to Rav Kanievsky, who told him “being black is your mayla (virtue), not a chisaron (something lacking)” and he gave Black a warm bracha.

Someone suggested to me that perhaps Black’s children were not accepted because he has non-Jewish relatives and not because of his skin color and the issue is the religious insularity of the school and not racism.  Maybe that’s true.  However, I recently listened to a “Headlines” podcast hosted by Dovid Lichtenstein, a Yeshivish businessman who is a Talmid Chacham and the topic of the podcast was racism in the frum community.  One of the guests that he had on the show is named Ma Nishtana, a New York based African-American Orthodox Jew born from two African-American Orthodox Jewish parents who is currently earning his second Rabbinical ordination.  Dovid Lichtenstein asked Ma Nishtana if he has experienced racism by frum Jews and Ma Nishtana responded that he did, very often before the perpetrators of this behavior realized that he was Jewish.  Then Dovid Lichtenstein said to him, “You probably experience more racism from the frummer but not from the modern orthodox,” and Ma Nishtana responded, “No.  I experience racist behavior from all types of orthodox Jews, frummer and modern orthodox alike.”  Apparently, Ma Nishtana is an equal opportunity target of racist behavior from the orthodox community.

I’ve often wondered why some devout, God fearing Jews routinely engage in racist behavior.  How can it be that we, a nation that experienced the worst atrocity in history in the form of the Holocaust which was premised on racism, feel comfortable uttering racial and ethnic slurs at the Shabbat table?   I have heard three approaches by those who justify their racist behavior.  First, some say that one can speak contemptuously against non-Jews because, after all, “halacha Esav sonei et Yaakov,” or “Esav hates Yaakov.”  The non-Jews hate us and for thousands of years we’ve been persecuted wherever we’ve been.  Furthermore, there are a number of Talmudic statements that reflect the low moral character of the pagan in Talmudic times who persecuted us, so it is perhaps natural for Jews with that perspective to feel antipathy towards non-Jews even in America.  They will argue that if non-Jews have persecuted us for thousands of years, then we just can’t trust them because their low moral character is in their DNA.

Secondly, I would imagine that some Jews would tend to act in a racist manner if they have a philosophy that is more withdrawn from secular society.  If we as the Jewish people condemn outside culture, then it is not a far leap to condemn the people who represent that culture and make racist and ethnic slurs and speak derisively against those people.  However, for the most part, the modern orthodox community doesn’t believe that our non-Jewish neighbors hate us and hopefully we are sophisticated enough to distinguish between condemning spiritually harmful non-Jewish culture while at the same time respecting non-Jews.  Yet, racist behavior is a problem in modern orthodox communities and yeshivot, as well.

Perhaps there is a third reason why people behave this way and that is because it’s fun to engage in this behavior at someone else’s expense.  It’s clearly halachically forbidden to have fun at the expense of a Jew’s feelings, but you might be able to make an argument that it’s not technically forbidden to have fun at the expense of a non-Jew’s feelings.

I could respond to that argument by debating the halachic technicalities of ona’at devarim and different Talmudic sources about non-Jews and say that discriminatory attitudes towards non-Jews that are recorded in the Talmud applied only during the Talmudic era because the pagans then actually tried to harm us, but to me this line of argument is completely irrelevant.

First, in practice, it’s just not possible to divide common decency between a Jew and a non-Jew.  Does anyone honestly think that he can use ethnic slurs against non-Jewish minorities and not act the same way against Jews who are different than him?  Does anyone honestly think that he can gossip as much as he wants about non-Jews and not gossip against Jews?  Secondly, at the end of the laws of slavery, regarding treatment of non-Jews, the Rambam writes that “cruelty is frequently to be found only among heathens who worship idols. The progeny of our father Abraham, however, the people of Israel upon whom God bestowed the goodness of the Torah, commanding them to keep the laws of goodness, are merciful toward all creatures.”

As we prepare for Rosh Hashana, let us remember that “kol ba’ei olam ovrin lefanecha kivnei maron,” or “the entire world passes before God in judgment.”  If everyone is being judged, Jew and non-Jew alike, then it means that every person, Jew and non-Jew alike, matters and is significant in the eyes of God.  Yes, we believe that “chavivin Yisrael she’nikr’u banim lamakom,” that we are especially beloved because we are called children of God, but we must also remember that “chaviv adam she’nivra b’tzelem.  Every human being is beloved because he was created in the image of God.  Let our unique status in the world not confuse us into thinking that we can disparage the non-Jew.  Yes, we may have been persecuted by non-Jews in the past.  Yes, we condemn much of their culture. But we are also children of Avraham Avinu, so let’s make sure as we approach God for judgment on Rosh Hashana that we represent our ancestor well.


About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.