Rabbi Shmuely Boteach writes:
Last week I delivered a sermon based on the Torah portion of the week and which compared Moses, the great Jewish redeemer, with Abraham Lincoln, the martyred American emancipator. When I finished, I was approached by an acquaintance who happens to be an Orthodox Jewish engineer. He seemed, up until that time, to be devout, educated, and sophisticated. But what he told me was sacrilegious, ignorant, and primitive.
This gentleman maintained that Lincoln was no hero, seeing as he had freed a people who were the descendants of Ham, the son of Noah, who was cursed for humiliating his father. “Ham’s children are black, and are condemned by God to eternal slavery,” he said. “There was even a rebbe in Poland who predicted that Abraham Lincoln would be shot for liberating a people against God’s wishes.”
I looked this man in the eye and said to him, “I’m confused. Judaism believes that every man is judged according to his actions. Now you are telling me that every black person in the world is cursed for something an ancestor did millennia ago. We Jews don’t believe in Original Sin, and we don’t believe in vertical accountability. So how can you tell me something so abominably racist like the fact that blacks are cursed?”
He responded that I was denying scripture. I told him that his views were repugnant to everything Judaism stood for in terms of the equality of all mankind.…
I remember my shock at seeing a book written by Rabbi Ahron Soleveitchik that strongly stated that racism of any kind has no place in Judaism. Why was I shocked? Because every Chabad and haredi rabbi I then knew was profoundly racist.
I was once driving with a head shaliach (the senior rabbi sent by the Chabad Rebbe to a particular area). We passed a bus stop at which a black man was kissing a white woman. The rabbi reacted with disgust. "It’s unnatural!" he screamed. "What is?" I asked. "Schvartes and whites shouldn’t mix. Races shouldn’t mix," he answered. I asked him if that was true even if the "schvartze" had converted. He fumbled for an answer, finally settling on "that depends on the situation." He hastened to add that the black convert would be a full Jew, and really should be able to marry any Jew, regardless of color. "So," I asked him, "would you let your son marry a black convert or the daughter of black converts?" "No!," he said. "Why not?" I asked. "It just wouldn’t be right," he said.
I used to write off this insanity as the side effects of living in or frequenting Crown Heights, with its years of racial tension. But the truth cuts much deeper. Orthodoxy in general and haredim specifically demonize the Other. Nothing is more "Other" than a black man.
I remember another haredi rabbi teaching that tselem elokim, the idea that man is made in God’s image, only applies to Jews. And we have the assertion in the Tanya, the so-called bible of Chabad hasidut, that every kindness a non-Jew does for Jews is only done for selfish reasons; non-Jews are not capable of altruism.
Boteach is right. Racism, as Rabbi Ahron Soleveitchik said, has no place in Judaism. It’s just too bad so many haredim don’t realize this, and that they have not realized it for so long.