On Racism, Its Costs and Its Causes

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32 Responses

  1. Mike S says:

    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.

  2. michoel halberstam says:

    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

  3. sarah shapiro says:

    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.

  4. Rishona says:

    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.

  5. Gil says:

    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.

  6. Moishe Potemkin says:

    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”.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    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.

  8. Menachem Lipkin says:

    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.

  9. Menachem Lipkin says:

    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.

  10. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    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.

  11. Miriam says:

    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.

  12. shmuel says:

    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.

  13. The Contarian says:

    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.

  14. Charlie Hall says:

    “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.

  15. Daniel Shain says:

    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.

  16. yy says:

    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!

  17. anonymous says:

    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.

  18. Esther B. says:

    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.

  19. LOberstein says:

    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.

  20. YM says:

    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.

  21. Ori says:

    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?

  22. anonymous says:

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

  23. Steve Brizel says:

    Yasher Koach on a wonderful column.

  24. Pinchas Giller says:

    A very eloquent post!

  25. Ben says:

    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.

  26. anonymous says:

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

  27. anonymouse says:

    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.

  28. LOberstein says:

    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 .

  29. mycroft says:

    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 .

  30. cvmay says:

    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.

  31. Sholom says:

    “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.

  32. Sholom says:

    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.

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