a gay black woman's discovery of her jewish self

Ask Erika-Judaism or Islam?

Posted on: August 5, 2013

I posted a blog from my friend and fellow black, gay Jewish woman (and Rabbi-to-be) Sandra Lawson this weekend. In it, Sandra shared not only her rabbinic journey, but her Jewish journey. In her blog she wrote about the need for Jews to not necessarily proselytize, but to be more open to sharing Judaism with those who are not Jews. I love Sandra and as I’ve said before I do believe that the Jewish community will be better off having people like her as rabbis, but I’m going to have to disagree with my rabbi friend. How very Jewish of me, eh? I do think that Jews need to do a better job of sharing Judaism with the world-not just Jews.

Having grown up in a Baptist/Methodist/Catholic family and school structure I don’t mean proselytize in the preaching on the subway about the goodness of Torah way. I also don’t know if the mikvah tanks that circle NYCs boroughs is the right idea either. I’ve never been stopped by Chabad on Sukkot asking if I’m Jewish and if I want to say the prayers. Clearly, I’m not the kind of Jewish they’re looking for.

What I’m saying is that our communities should be more open to people who are curious about Judaism. Perhaps not as extreme as the Jew in the Box exhibit in Europe, but somewhere in between. Like Goldie Locks I’m looking for proselytism that’s juuust right. Maybe that’s why I invite non-Jews into our home for Shabbat meals on Pesach and for the holiday, maybe the preacher in my mother’s church had a lasting impression, after all. If we’re to remember to stranger and ask them to our table symbolically at Pesach, why don’t we actually do this in practice? Would it be so wrong, say, for synagogues to open their doors once or twice a year to non-Jews curious about Judaism? What would the Jewish community look like if we did that? How rich would we be as a people learning and gleaning from the experiences of others?

Not to mention that we have a history of proselytizing.

I found this on Reform Judaism.com

This suggests that Jews must have been actively proselytizing at the time.

Yes. According to the Jewish historian Salo Baron, in great part because of proselytizing, the number of Jews grew from 150,000 in 586 B.C.E. to eight million in the first century C.E.—at which time they constituted 10% of the Roman Empire! Jews were working very hard then to convert pagans; the Gospel of Matthew reports that Jewish proselytizers traveled over sea and land to make a single proselyte (23:15).

Why, then, did Jews stop proselytizing gentiles?

The cessation was imposed by Roman edicts, not rabbinic rulings. In the fourth century C.E., after the empire adopted Christianity as the state religion, Roman emperors made conversion to Judaism a criminal offense, punishable by death of both the proselytizing Jews and the convert. The code of the Roman Emperor Theodosius declared: Any person who “betakes himself to the nefarious sect of Judaism shall sustain with them the deserved punishment of death…” (Theodosius Code 116.8.1, August 13, 339). The Holy Roman Empire hoped to dismantle the Jewish mission to be “a light to the nations” and thus drive a universal faith into a parochial tribalism.

Then there’s this little snippet from Mi Yodeya and the fun commentary in the comments that follow.

It is often asserted that up until the time of Constantine or so, Judaism was an actively proselytizing religion. This can be contrasted with the common practice today of rejecting potential converts until their utmost sincerity can be determined.

Some groups seek to restart what they see as the lost tradition of proselytizing to non-Jews.

Do traditional Jewish sources address this concept? Is it understood by Chazal that we did in fact seek out converts at one point in time?

This article on My Jewish Learning and this in Jewish Ideas Daily

Perhaps the word proselytizing is scary, foreign and smells of evangelical preachers on street corners, maybe we need to really just embrace our own lingo and truly open up our tents. And it would seem, at least to me, that we did indeed seek to find new converts, either by the sword or because we were obligated to and I, for one, think the practice should be reconsidered. I suppose I do my little part by talking to people who email me about their desire to be come Jews. I, of course, encourage them to follow their hearts, but I also want them to become Jews.

I received the following letter from a woman interested in Judaism. If you have any suggestions for her, please be kind and leave them in the comments.

Hi Erika,

I have been on somewhat of a spiritual journey since high school and recently remembered your blog and wondered if I could come to you for a bit of advice and perspective.  I apologize in advance for the lengthy message!

I was born and raised Roman Catholic and first started having doubts about Christianity when I left my Catholic school and entered my secular high school as a teenager.  Shortly thereafter I met one of my best friends and became close to her family, all of whom were Jewish.  I became quickly enamored with the beauty and tradition of Judaism, as well as the generosity and kindness I experienced in her family.  I began thinking very seriously about eventually converting to Judaism.

After I graduated from high school, however, I started feeling more distance and fear of conversion because of my race.  I was actually really pleased to find your blog because I’m also black and gay, and am eternally curious about how you are able to confidently integrate your race into your Jewish life.  I do not believe that blackness and Judaism are mutually exclusive at all, but it is so discouraging to see constant representation of Jewish people and Jewishness as white.  Although my love and respect of Judaism remains, I find it almost impossible to see myself as Jewish or find a non-white Jewish community.  My religious curiosity and fear of not belonging due to my race also led me to Islam—which I have a very profound love for—but now I fear that I might not be able to live as a Muslim because of some conflicting beliefs.  So, while I was unable to reconcile my personal convictions with Islamic theology, I still do find such comfort in its diverse representation.

Something else that has given me a lot of grief is my stance on Israel and Palestine.  While I do support the idea of a safe homeland for Jewish people, I do not consider myself a Zionist and have lots of issues with the Israeli government.    It’s a complicated situation for me because I fear that if I were to convert to Judaism—after which there would be certain people critical of my Jewishness due to my race and the fact that I converted—would I be even further excluded because of my non-Zionist position?

Gosh, I realize I’ve just unloaded an awful lot of problems onto you, and please know that I do not expect you to answer all of them or give me a super detailed response.  I just feel like I’ve been swimming around in my own thoughts for a long time now and any other perspective would be extremely helpful to me—especially that of a black Jewish woman.

Thank you so much for any help you can give!

Best,

RR

 

Hi -

Thanks so much for taking the time to send me an email!
I totally hear and understand what you’re saying and can honestly say that it is really hard. I find, though, that my love of Judaism and my desire to make the Jewish community a more inclusive place for my future children, InshAllah/Bezrat Hashem, is the driving force behind why I continue to blog long after my conversion, through my work with JMN and the personal work I do.The truth of the matter is that there aren’t any exclusively black synagogues. The Hebrew Israelite and Commandment Keeper communities are all black, but they’re not accepted as Jews by the mainstream Jewish community. In working with JMN’s retreat this year there were a handful of Israelites and the problem that they’re facing is trying to get their kids into Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools. I spoke with many mothers interested in converting to Judaism for the sake of their children.

There is work to be done in the U.S in terms of how people see Jews. I have a lot of theories, but I think a lot of the Jewish/White mash-up is a result of race and Antisemitism when Jews started to immigrate to the United States. I think that some clung to the safety of whiteness and as a result most identify as white and as a result the image of a Jew is usually a white image. Of course, we know that Jews aren’t just white. We know that Ethiopians aren’t the only way that a Jew can be black. We also know that conversion isn’t the only way that a Jew can be black, but because of the perception Jews like you and me and Jews who were born black and Jewish (not to mention Indian Jews, Hispanic and Latino Jews, Asian Jews and biracial/multiethnic Jews) have an uphill battle.
We also have a decision. Do we make ourselves known; Sit in pews of synagogues that make us uncomfortable, join community events, sign up for talks, etc. or do we hide who we are? I know a lot of black Jews who simply are and take the stance that it’s not their job to educate the world on who Jews really are. I have to say that I’m sometimes on that side of the fence-if you see me in synagogue week after week, I’m davening in Hebrew I’m clearly supposed to be here, your racism is your problem. On the other hand, I think that I’m often given the opportunity to educate people and when I have those opportunities I take them. I know many Jews of color who have simply opted out or turned their back on a Judaism that doesn’t accept them.
I think that the Jewish world needs Jews like you and me. Jews who make the choice to be Jewish and take the time to be Jewish. I don’t think it’s our job to always teach, but our presence serves as a teaching tool.
 
In terms of Israel…it’s never going to be easy. I think that most people think that Israel is bad and have no real idea of what that means-like in a real sense. Being there and experiencing it is a lot different than reading about it in the News. You should have your opinions about Israel and be open to always changing them as you learn more. I’m not a Zionist and I struggle with Israel all the time, that said, I love so many things about Israel and find it to be incredibly beautiful and incredibly comfortable. It’s strange, I’ve only been there once and it feels like a second home to me. When I posted pictures about Israel after my trip I said it’s beautiful in so many ways and ugly in many others. It’s breath-taking and it’s unbelievable  It’s spiritually moving and spiritually exhausting. It’s filled with beautiful people both seen and hidden. I know that I love it, but feel conflicted for doing so. I always go back to that because my thoughts and feelings about Israel change almost daily.
 
My best advice to you is to do what you are most comfortable doing; Muslim or Jew it sounds like you have a lot of love, compassion, respect and honor for both faiths and let’s be real-they’re more similar than they are different. As a Jewish woman it’s my job to tell you to be a Jew though :)
 
Good luck and let me know if there’s anything else I can help you figure out. 
 
Erika
 
P.S- if you converted you could keep your name :)
(she has a very Jewish name)
If you’d like to ask me a question you can do so at by emailing me at blackgayandjewish[at]gmail[dot]com

5 Responses to "Ask Erika-Judaism or Islam?"

I’m not completely sure we disagree, I don’t think that we should actively go out and seek people to be part of the Jewish family. In other words evangelizing Judaism but I am fine with sharing our experiences, inviting people to our shuls, shabbat dinner and helping people who want to know more about judaism and helping people who want to convert.

It’s more fun to argue/disagree with rabbis :)

I think we are on the same page…I think :D

We’re totally on the same page :)

I honestly think that the best thing for this person to do would be to spend some time studying in Israel. Why? In Israel, you see Jews of every color, Jews from every country, Jews in every class. The true diversity of our people is only seen in Israel.

Israel is also the best place to learn about Zionism, non-Zionism, anti-Zionism. You can’t avoid those conversations — they are all around you. Some of the least Zionist Jews in the world are ironically found in Israel. Of course, you can also learn about Islam in Israel, so bonus points there.

I don’t think it’s possible to really, deeply, and truly understand that Jews are not a race while on this continent. Only by experiencing a different Jewish reality can you imagine the multiracial Jewish future we could be living here. We are, in fact, a global people. It’s just not visible here yet.

I do think Islam is a unifying force across race, but that does not mean there is no racism in Islam. There is, in fact, deeply rooted racism. As in Judaism, converts are not always truly accepted by those who come from the Muslim world. I have also heard that single Muslim female converts are not always given due respect. The idea is to marry them off as quickly as possible since a single woman is not living a truly Muslim life. The prohibition against homosexuality in Islam is more clearly stated and bypassing it is more theologically difficult. Of course, there are gay Muslims and liberal Muslims, but I think as a gay convert, you may have a hard time.

Another group to consider might be the Bahai’i — another truly multiracial religion that believes in the unity of G-d. There is so much to like and respect in that faith — if I were not a Jew, I would join up immediately. Of course, Bahai’is have their own issues with homosexuality, but I personally think there is room for re-interpretation. Bahai’ism also has a democratic change process and I hope that they will eventually choose to understand the gay people in their community with compassion.

Everyone who converts to Judaism faces the ethnic issue. If you are anything other than of Ashkenazi Eastern European descent, you have problems. A tall, blond, big-boned woman of Lutheran or Nordic heritage faces very similar issues in the Jewish community. However, as intermarriage, adoption, and conversion increase, the idea that people should “look Jewish” is fading.

There are plenty of black adopted children being raised in the Jewish community. Of course, Jews suffer from racism and ignorance, but they are also more likely than other white people to adopt black children. What these growing children want to see, most of all, are adult Jews who look like them.

As we have wandered among all of the people’s of the globe, we have always picked up fellow travelers. Black American culture is dynamic and strong-willed, stubborn, creative, full of seekers of truth, community oriented, aware of its painful history, committed to a better future for all.

People like that do not come along every day. While Black America does not lack and certainly there is nothing it “needs” from us, we should feel rightly honored when people with this yichus (lineage) choose to join our people.

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