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"Mommy, are there really Jews with light skin?"

11/04/2021 09:24:52 AM


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Yesterday morning, the first email I read was from “My Jewish Learning.”  In it, I learned that Wednesday evening of this week is Sigd, the Ethiopian Jewish observance that falls 50 days after Yom Kippur.  Sigd means “prostration,” and with its celebration of the revelation of the Torah, prayers for a return to Zion, a partial day fast, and a festive gathering, it feels a lot like Shavuot.  But this tradition of the Ethiopian Jews is older than the Talmud!  Yes, indeed, there have always been Jews of every color of the rainbow. 

One of the most profound notions offered by the Torah are the words “erev rav,” which are most often translated as “mixed multitude.”  “Erev rav” is how the Torah describes those who left Egypt at the moment of liberation (Exodus 12:38).  Now, much of rabbinic tradition doesn’t see this concept through rose colored glasses.  For quite a few commentators, this “mixed multitude,” consisting of “the true Jews” – those genetically descended from Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, as well as those who were from enslaved and powerless populations in ancient Egypt--isn’t seen as a net positive for the Jewish people.  Some describe these “others” as the ones who engage in the Golden Calf incident, the “riffraff who caused US trouble;” while other commentators identify the term “erev” as a counterpart of “arov,” the fourth plague defined as wild beasts or swarms of bugs in our Passover Seder observance.  Whether turf or insects, this characterization of those who threw their lot in with the Israelites in this grandly mythical moment of liberation that truly defines the trajectory not only of the Torah but Judaism writ large, isn’t fair or justified.  Given our history, though, perhaps it’s not difficult to understand.  

Thank goodness we’re not shackled by our history.  For the great lesson of this moment is that indeed it was an erev rav-- a multitude of people whose unique origins were apparent in their diverse skin color, native language, and cultural heritage, who escaped from Egypt and slavery-- that defines the multitudinous-ness of Jewish identity.  This past Sunday morning, a Journey student, maybe 8 or 9 years old, asked me why I thought the Jews have been so constantly hated throughout history.  Our Journey kids are quite well behaved, but this really got their attention.  And while not an explicit curricular goal for the morning, I told them that Jews believe that there is no king or queen or belief or place or moment that is bigger than God; and that standing up against bullies who try to use their power to control others’ lives is what the Torah teaches us to stand up against most of all...and that maybe that has gotten us into a heck of a lot of hot water over the years.

But sometimes, we fill and boil the pot ourselves.  The Torah is clear:  WE were an erev rav, a  mixed multitude that left Egypt and slavery.  The Torah teaches that the Israelites were slaves for 400 years; and anybody who has done a cursory study of slavery in modern or ancient times knows that one of the most primary elements of slavery is that not only can the slave not claim his resources or possessions, nor his spouse or his children, but the slave cannot even lay claim to his own body.  Thus, if the Torah wishes to make clear that Israel were slaves for 400 years, it is also making clear that those “Israelites” who exited Egypt were no longer the genetic progeny of Abraham and Sarah (no matter what color their skin actually was).

Jewish people have always been ethnically and culturally diverse.  There are, and have been for centuries, Jewish communities in China, and Ethiopia, and India, just to name a few, which are not, and never were, composed of Ashkenazi or Sephardi transplants from other parts of the world.  Sometime between the first and fifth centuries CE, some Jews made their way to Ethiopia where they lived as Jews until the 1950’s when they were lifted “on eagle’s wings” to fulfill the prayers of their ancestors, to one day return to Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.  For it was there too, in Ethiopia, where dark skinned Ethiopian Jews, who despite any access or contact with the rest of the Jewish world, were also identified as “other,” and therefore worthy of persecution. Why? I believe for the stated reason above – we Jews just cannot abide bullies. And inevitably, bullies come along throughout history, in every land and epoch, who seek to impose their power.  But Judaism, at its root, demands that we resist this influence, for we know better.  We know that there is no more Divine representation of God than what we can find in each other.  

We are an erev rav, and that’s not an accident of history.  If anything can be called “the divine plan,” this is it: Judaism’s portability and applicability, its iconoclastic nature, its commitment to the revealing of the Divine in the face of the other, all others, is what makes it matter and also a potential challenge to the “powers that be.” And this revolutionary notion spreads to all people, all places, all things; there are no borders or boundaries that can keep it quiet; it’s based upon the insistence that everything we see is a refraction of light through one Divine prism.  And everything, everyone, is in it.  That is why Judaism has gotten us Jews into trouble (including some good trouble), and why the “powers that be” would rather we go away.

To learn more about Sigd, click here:

Mon, November 28 2022 4 Kislev 5783