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12/15/2019 11:55:49 AM


“You ain’t a real Jew,” I heard these words on a Manhattan A Train as a university freshman over 20 years ago. A Black Hebrew Israelite spoke them. I ignored the provocation; my Bronx-reared-mother had taught me, “Never engage in unnecessary confrontation.”

I imagine that until this week, the vast majority of people in this room have never heard of this sect.

Allow me to explain who they are: Black Hebrew Israelites believe that we are imposters. The real Jews were black. We are somehow white thieves that came and stole Judaism from them. Like pre-Vatican II Catholicism - this is a form of replacement theology.

For decades, among the many threats facing our people, this group was seen as relatively benign – until two adherents to this philosophy attacked a small kosher shop in Jersey City, after murdering a police officer. This Shabbat, we mourn Mindy Ferencz; Moshe Deutsch; and Douglas Miguel Rodriguez, as well as Detective Joseph Seals.

The Southern Poverty Law Center lists dozens of groups within the Black Hebrew Israelite movement as hate groups, because their worldview and rhetoric are informed by bigotry against whites and Jews. However, it does not recognize the overall movement as a hate group.

Black Hebrew Israelites must be absolutely distinguished from righteous black converts and communities of converts – gerei tzedek - who have with love and devotion joined our people. Judaism has never been and will never be “for whites only.” Judaism does not, in this synagogue or in any synagogue, permit racism.

What does replacement theology try to take from us? A name? Who cares? What’s in a name?

Our parsha describes the name – and it tells us why we should care. Jacob battles an angel to a draw. The angel seeks to disengage. Jacob says, “Bless me.” The angel replies, “Your name will no longer be Jacob but Israel.” What began with a fight remains a fight. It is a fight that we must not give up. Rashi commenting on the change explains, “The angel said, ‘You will no longer be accused of arriving at your blessings through akava – trickery – but instead through serara – authority.’ The angel was not playing a word game. The angel was re-branding Jacob. Branding matters. Jacob’s story would define himself – his family – and an 18-year-old student on a NYC Subway Car thousands of years later. Who are we? Are we thieves – imposters? No – Israel – we are fighters who overcome men and angels to establish an identity and a destiny.

Ironically or providentially – on the same day that the Jersey City murders took place – Jewish identity became the center of a political storm. It was reported that President Trump would sign an executive order to combat anti-Semitism on university campuses. Critics immediately seized on a New York Times report that claimed that the order—whose text it did not cite—would “define Judaism as a nationality, not just a religion.” Quickly, “Judaism” began trending on Twitter. Celebrities and commentators claimed that this was an attempt to define Jews as un-American and suggested it was the first step towards deportation or even a Holocaust. The following day, the text of the executive order was released. The NYT story was false. The order applied the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism to the enforcement of hate laws on university campuses. It was something that we have been advocating for in Canada and around the world. If you consider legislation to protect any hated-minority to be good policy – than an order to protect the most frequently attacked group – is certainly good policy. Yet – we as Jews fought over it. What was our conflict about? The conflict over the executive order exposed the same question of identity – who are we? Are we a nation?

To be a nation means to have a shared story that defines who we are, where we have been and where we are going. It means that I in Toronto – dressed as I am – am connected to a very differently dressed man, be he in Jersey City or in Jerusalem. It was and is this identity that the name Israel creates. When someone claims that I am not an Israelite – he is trying to sever that connection. When someone says that to be Jewish does not involve a national identity – he is trying to sever that connection. Forward author Ari Hoffman made this point:

The denial of the idea of Jewish nationhood — an idea that is exactly as old as Judaism itself — speaks of a fear of Jewish assertion. Do not champion our cause too overtly, it begs those in power. Bless those who curse us, it insists. We are a mere religion with one commandment and that is to repair the world and to help those whose misfortunes outnumber our own, it insists. And for God’s sake, don’t mistake us for those Jews. Or, as someone put it on Twitter, “Our Torah is a book of actions, not a rallying point for mumbling in an ancient tongue while wearing the garb of our grandfathers and gathering for a shtickle herring afterwards.”

And here – we too must take musar. Two points.

One: The line between good and evil passes through the heart of every person. It does not pass along the line between Jews and non-Jews. We have the ability to define the word – yisrael. Will the word Jew or Israel be a synonym for trickery or for nobility? That is our responsibility. By our actions, we can sanctify God’s name or the opposite. Let us make God’s NAME great.

Two. We are Modern Orthodox. We are a bridge, which holds together our people. BUT – we might be tempted to identify with people who do not share our story - because they share our appearance and lifestyle. This too would be a tragic betrayal of our nation. We are Jews. The families and communities that were torn apart in Jersey City were Jews (and those who worked with us). We, too, were torn apart, because we are one people. We need no labels beyond Israel – we are all bnei yisrael. Shema YISRAEL, Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad. Mi k’amecha YISRAEL, goy echad baaretz. ​​​​​​​

Mon, 30 November 2020 14 Kislev 5781