I was sitting in a Jewish educational institution, early on in my journey to observance, and a teaching aid was learning a section of Torah with me. She was young, and I had already established, not too bright. She had a very simplistic perspective of the world from our first interactions. But I was assigned to learn with her, so learn I did.
We got to the verse where Abraham puts Sarah in a box when they go to Egypt because she was so beautiful and he was afraid she’d get hurt. The Biblical commentator Rashi explains, “It’s because the Egyptians were black and ugly.” As I broke my teeth to translate this verse from the Hebrew to English, I was immediately appalled.
I looked to the aid in hopes of finding some way to reconcile such a disturbing commentary (read this post for the response) with the idea that every person is created in God’s image. But instead of sharing my turmoil or elucidating a satisfying approach, this teaching aid piled on with her own commentary – something far worse than what I had just read: “It’s because shvartes are ugly. My father said the country would have been better if blacks just knew their purpose was to be slaves, like, Eliezer (Abraham’s slave), knew his was.”
I felt like the room was spinning. What was happening? Who was this woman? I was 18 years old and had never come across anyone so flagrantly racist in my life and certainly never in the Orthodox community. She continued, “They’re strong, that’s why they’re so good at sports.” I don’t remember what words I used, or how I got out of the situation. The ordeal was so troubling, how it ended is a blur, but I told her something to the effect of she was very wrong, and that I was sickened by what she said.
I immediately went to a higher up at the institution to report this horrific “teaching” I was subjected to. The response shocked me. The higher up told me they’d have to move this aid to another group of girls who were more “religious” than I was, because a girl at my level couldn’t handle it.
I didn’t stop there. I went to that administrator’s superior and complained. He told me both of them were wrong and that Rashi was not speaking about modern day black people, only ancient Egyptians, or that it black means ugly. He understood the commentary as two separate ideas: black was one trait of the ancient Egyptians and ugly was another. I was relieved that the head of the institution had a better perspective (though I like Rabbi Abramowitz’s explanation better, which you can see here), but the damage was done.
I got out of that place soon after and never turned back.
Many years later, a donor wanted me to work with an organization whose head had made a racist remark in front of me. The organization head had tried to defend his perspective in Torah sources as I debated him. I told the donor I’d never work with someone who held a worldview like this – one that is so antithetical to Torah teachings. I lost the donor.
While thankfully, those have been my only personal brush-ins with overt racism in the Orthodox community in over 20 years of being part of it (and the vast majority of my interactions have been with good, honest, kind people), there are other creeps in our midst and there are places where racist remarks do happen more frequently and do go unchecked.
There are popular rabbis who openly support convicted abusers. There are teachers of Torah who have a record of publicly saying hateful things about non-orthodox Jews, non-Jews, and minorities. Some have “the gift of prophecy” and make sure to tell the world why bad things have happened.
While these “leaders” are not saying these comments to my face, I don’t want their awful approach or hateful rhetoric in my midst or around others they could hurt. We are told that the Torah is “paths of pleasantness and that its ways are those of peace.”
So when institutions I have a connection with promote or partner with such individuals, I pick up the phone and make sure they know who they’re aligning with. How do schools, shuls, and other organizations not know the full picture, if the information is public and readily available? Not everyone thoroughly vets the people they work with. And maybe someone, somewhere on a committee does know something, but doesn’t feel like they should be the naysayer in the group, so they stay quiet.
The truth is is that it is easier to keep your head down and stay quiet. There is a discomfort in standing up to people who say horrible things in front of you. And there’s a discomfort in picking up the phone and making sure organizations know who they’re working with. I am not one to mince words, and even I feel this discomfort. But the Talmud teaches that shtika k’hodaah – silence is tacit approval. It also teaches, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”
If we don’t want these hurtful ideologies to have a place in our community, we have to be willing to confront them, even if no one else is. We need to rob these ideologies of their platforms, so there will be no acceptable place in our community for leaders to speak and act in such ways. It may seem like an audacious task to confront, but the Talmud also instructs us, “It is not your duty to complete the work. But neither are you free to desist from it.”