The illustration that inspired this column is by artist Davi Cheng (Copyright Be'Chol Lashon)
I love studying midrashim about what happened at Mount Sinai. The rabbinic imagination leaps in many wonderful directions to describe this central event in our life as a people.
One midrash captured my attention this year: “Rabbi Isaac said, ‘At Mount Sinai the prophets of each and every generation received what they were to prophesy . . .” That is to say, even people who were not yet alive received their portion of the Torah at Sinai. The prophets, who lived much later in time, and even the sages of every generation — “Each and every one of them also received at Sinai the wisdom they were to utter.” (Exodus Rabbah 28:6, cited in “The Book of Legends—Sefer Ha’aggadah”)
Even people who were not yet born received the Torah at Mount Sinai! This refers to the Rabbinic idea that what was revealed at Mount Sinai was both the written Torah as we know it (Torah shebich’tav) and the oral Torah (Torah shebe’al peh) — commentaries, laws and traditions that would be revealed later in time.
This fanciful idea brings me back to the more basic question: Who was there at Sinai?
I recently saw an image of Sinai covered in smoke, with a crowd of people below. A familiar image, except that the faces of the people were all of different hues. Some were white, some olive-skinned, some black, and everything in between.
The image was distributed by Be’chol Lashon, a Bay Area-based organization that works to advance a vision of Jewish community in which Jews of color are fully included and embraced as members of the community.
I have done a lot of work in these past two years to deepen my understanding of the experience of Jews of color in Jewish spaces. Yet, despite all of that thinking and engagement, for me as a white Jew, the image is, unfortunately, still startling. I am embarrassed to say that I probably would not have noticed anything missing from an image in which all the people were of the same race, presumably white or Middle Eastern.
It is urgent in our day for white members of the Jewish community to expand our understanding of who belongs in our community. It is true, according to a 2019 study by the Jews of Color Initiative, that some 85% to 88% of American Jews today are white (in a society that insists on categorizing people by skin color) and Ashkenazi, so that Jews of color are a minority in America.
And it is true that we white Jews have a complex identity, not fully captured by the term “white Jews.” Such Jews, like myself, are undoubtedly afforded the same privileges as other white people in some situations (e.g., in an encounter with the police or with a bank officer or in a grocery store, and often in job interviews). Of course, in other contexts, we are seen as non-white, targets of hatred, dehumanization, and violence (as from Christian nationalists, who view us as definitionally “not white”). But despite our dreadful and terrifying experiences of being treated as other, growing worse in this decade, I know that I will never be followed in a drugstore by a security guard who suspects that I am seeking to shoplift. And I have no fear that my children will die in an encounter with police, because they are white, and such incidents are exceedingly rare.
So while the “white Jewish” identity is complex, it is undoubtedly less problematic in a race-obsessed society than the identity of being Black and Jewish, Latinx and Jewish or Asian-American and Jewish, to name a few. This means that the white Jewish community is obligated to pay much greater attention to the plethora of ways in which Jews of color are treated as “other,” outsiders or curios in the Jewish community.
I have heard far too many stories of what happens when a Jew of color walks into a synagogue, for example. One Black Jewish friend recalls how the security guard always began to approach him as he headed toward the synagogue (where he was a youth group leader) until white Jews began to embrace him with hugs and warm greetings. I know of a Black president of his synagogue who stood at the front door greeting people as they entered, and someone handed him their coat, as if this devoted leader of the congregation was the coat-check person. And a Latina cantor tells the story of sitting with her baby in her lap at Kiddush one day, and was asked whether she was the baby’s nanny.
And many more.
“We” (the white majority) need to radically expand our ideas of what it means to “look Jewish” and who belongs in the Jewish community. Treating Jews of color as other or strange is personally hurtful, and also harmful to the Jewish community itself.
On purely pragmatic terms, do we want to be alienating 12% to 15%of American Jews, a demographic that is sure to increase in the coming age cohort? More importantly, is this who “we” want to be — people who are able to treat as family only those who look like us?
We — regardless of skin tone — were all at Sinai together, and we are still together now. We need to act that way.
A version of this column first appeared at the JWeekly, https://jweekly.com/2023/05/25/mount-sinais-lessons-include-a-powerful-one-about-jews-of-color/