Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Black Jewish or Hebrew Israelite Community

The Black Jewish or Hebrew Israelite Community
By Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy


This essay, and indeed this homepage, attempts to bear witness to true diversity that exists within the Jewish world. Though the focus is necessarily on those communities that I am most family with, I attempt to give a broader insight and offer some analysis of the unique dynamics that are at work. It is also important to remember that not all of these groups accept the terms used to describe them. Some, in fact, reject the term "Jew" precisely because it connotes, in the minds of most people, a white ethnic group. Therefore, the use of this appellation could be misinterpreted as a desire to be white or a denial of African heritage. In either case, its application could be regarded as an affront by some. The groups who feel this way prefer the term Hebrew or Israelite because they believe it avoids a connection with "whiteness," or conversely, implies a connection with "blackness." It is with these two caveats concerning "race" that I use the term Jew as a de-racialized description of people who are neither Christian nor Muslim but who profess to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. No offense is intended by my choice of terms and I hope that none will be taken. I offer a fuller exploration of the "racial question" in Judaism elsewhere on this homepage. The information that follows comes from my dissertation research at Columbia University and from my personal knowledge as a rabbi in one of the oldest and largest communities of Black Jews in America.

Estimates for the total number of Black Jews in America range from 40,000, reported by the Encyclopedia of Black America, to 500,000 as stated in a feature story about Black Jews in Ascent magazine. Unfortunately, none of the sources reveal how they arrived at their figures.

The problem of determining a reliable estimate of the number of Black Jews in America is made more complicated by the difficulty of determining who is a "Black Jew." For instance, Arthur Huff Fauset in his pioneering study, Black Gods of the Metropolis, used a Philadelphia-based group called the "Church of God" as the basis for a chapter about "Black Jews." If one simply took an affinity with the Old Testament and the observance of a few customs as a definition of being Jewish, as do Fauset and others, then one's figures could be quite high; though very inaccurate because they would count as Black Jews segments of what is usually considered the Black Church.

On the other hand, if one used Orthodox Jewish Law, called "Halackah," as the basis for defining who is a Jew, one would have to know the religion of the mother of each person; because, by this law, one cannot decide to be a Jew unless one's mother is a Jew. If the person or group claimed to have converted to Judaism, then one would have to know if they underwent certain rituals that involve the taking of special baths, (mikvot) and in the case of a man, the symbolic pricking of his penis.

Halakhic Law offers a very precise definition of who is a Jew. However, since fewer than ten percent of the 5.3 million white Jews in America observe Orthodox Jewish Law, this standard cannot be applied to Black Jews, nor could I verify baths or pricked penises if I wanted to. In addition, I am aware of a number of African American individuals and one New Jersey congregation that have undergone formal conversion only to find that the "legitimacy" of their conversion was not universally accepted.

Since the particular Halakhic ceremony described above is not found in the Torah, nor is it referred to in any of the biblical instances where people joined the Hebrew faith, (Ruth for example), we do not believe that it has the weight of law. Also, we feel that it denies the concept of divine intervention and selection referred to in Isaiah 11:11-12 and Jeremiah 3:14. In these passages the Hebrew prophets state that God will be responsible for the gathering of His people which He shall choose from the "four corners of the earth" and the from "islands of the sea." This process is described as a selection of individuals rather than of groups, "I will take you one from a city, and two from a family, I will bring you to Zion." The fact that Orthodox rabbis hold that they are the sole arbiters of deciding who is a Jew negates the existence or exercise of a divine will that is not channeled through them first. In contrast, the ceremony we use serves as a public acknowledgment of a spiritual transformation that has already taken place within the individual.

Beyond this type of problem, however, there are a number of political reservations that we hold regarding the way that people are "accepted" into Judaism. The Halakhic procedures require recognition of and acquiescence to Orthodox authority. Further, the Halakhic standard conflates membership in a religion (a belief system or way of life accepted on faith) with acceptance or approval of a particular religious body. An appropriate analogy, that comes very close to describing our situation, is that the Pope or Catholic Church can decide who is a Catholic but, he can not decide who is a Christian. [The fact that some have tried notwithstanding.] Similarly, various boards or councils may decide who is an "Orthodox Jew" for instance but, they can not presume to act as God in judging the content of a person's heart or the sincerity of one's faith.

Judaism, as many of us understand and practice it, is not a race. If it were, then no one could join it or leave it without being genetically altered. Judaism is a creed; a living culture with an ancient history. Those who practice it belong to communities that often have unique traditions. Though it may not appear as such, most Jews belong to definable communities which have traditions that come out of their own histories. Sadly, some of the more influential communities attempt to exercise a hegemony over the others. Black Jews generally reject the presumptive authority of such groups--though they accept many of their traditions and interpretations on other matters. Because of this, Black Jews exist on the margins of Jewish society though well within the pale of principled disagreement.

Rather than inventing an arbitrary definition or imposing a contested definition of Judaism onto the Black Jewish community, I have chosen instead to discuss those groups that describe themselves as either Black Jews, Hebrews, or Israelites. This approach will allow the reader to understand how they, the subjects of this study, define Judaism and practice it. In this regard, I have found that a variety of very interesting, complex, and still evolving notions of Judaism exist. It is my goal to analyze the major theological, cultural, and political views that circulate within these congregations in order to understand how they are informed by issues of race, religion, and historical circumstances.

Rabbi W.A. Matthew -- The Black Jews of Harlem

My background and most of my data come from working with those congregations that derive from the late Chief Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew (1892-1973). Rabbi Matthew founded the Commandment Keepers Congregation in Harlem, New York in 1919. He trained and ordained many of the rabbis who later founded synagogues in various places of the United States and the Caribbean. Rabbi Matthew, it turns out, was a close associate of Rabbi Arnold J. Ford who was the musical director of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which was organized by Marcus Garvey in 1911.

The emergence of Judaism among people of African descent in the first half of this century was made possible by a combination of the following factors: (1) A strong religious tradition in the background of the person who became Jewish that embodied Jewish practices from an early but unclear source. When interviewed, many of the older members of this community recall memories of their parents observing certain dietary laws, such as abstaining from pork or salting their meat. Others recall traditions related to observing the Sabbath or festivals such as Passover and Sukkot. In most cases these practices were fragmentary and observed by people who simultaneously practiced Christianity.

The possible origins of these Hebraic traditions could be traced to West Africa were a number of tribes have customs so similar to Judaism that an ancient connection or maybe even descent from one of the "ten lost tribes" is believed. Other possibilities for these well-documented practices are through association with Jewish slave owners and merchants in the Caribbean and North America. In this case, the number of Jewish slave owners is known to have been small and proselytizing by Jews was not common. Yet, these Jews can not be excluded as one possible source either through isolated conversions, intermarriage, or providing an opportunity for observation.

Many African Americans who practice Judaism today maintain that they have always had a close affinity with the Hebrews of the Old Testament. This is true whether or not they recall particular rites that remind them of the Jewish traditions they now follow. Scholars such as Albert Raboteau have described in books such as Slave Religion that the biblical struggles of the Hebrew people--particularly their slavery and exodus from Egypt--bore a strong similarity to the conditions of African slaves and was therefore of special importance to them. This close identification with the biblical Hebrews is clearly seen in the lyrics of gospel songs such as "Go Down Moses" and remains a favorite theme in the sermons of black clergy today.

What all this proves is that there was a foundation, be it psychological, spiritual, or historical, that made some black people receptive to the direct appeal to Judaism that Rabbi Matthew and others made to them in this century. If black people were fertile ground for the harbingers of Judaism, then the philosophy of Marcus Garvey was the seed that helped to bring it to fruition. Put most simply, Garvey's message was one of Black Nationalism and Pan Africanism. His goal was to instill pride in a people who were being humiliated through institutionalized racism and cultural bigotry. Garvey and Matthew attempted to challenge old stereotypes that either minimized a black presence in history or the bible, or, that completely excised black people from these texts. They argued that such distortions and omissions were harmful to the self-image that many black people had of themselves. They debunked these myths by extolling the contributions that black people made to the development of human civilization. To some extent this meant focusing on the achievements of African societies such as Egypt and Ethiopia in highly rhetorical and romantic way. It also meant attacking the false image that all the people in the bible looked like Europeans. They pointed out that by normative standards the dark hues of the ancient Hebrews would cause them to be classified as black in today's world. This was a revelation to thousands of black people who had previously accepted the all white depictions without question.

Rabbi Ford and Rabbi Matthew took Garvey's philosophy one step further. They reasoned that if many of the ancient Hebrews were black, then Judaism was as much a part of their cultural and religious heritage as is Christianity. In their hearts and minds they were not converting to Judaism, they were reclaiming part of their legacy. This fit very neatly with the biblical prophecies that spoke of the Israelites being scattered all over the world, being carried in slave ships to distant lands, and of being forced to worship alien Gods. (Deut 28)

Rabbi Matthew found himself in the peculiar position of having to both justify his small following of black Jews in Harlem, and also to explain the presence of so many white Jews. His position on this subject went through various stages. He always maintained that the "original Jews" were black people-or at least not European; however, he did not deny the existence or legitimacy of white Jews. In fact, as his services, synagogues, and attire show, he deferred to orthodox conventions on many matters. For example, he maintained separate setting for men and women, he used a standard siddur (prayer book) to conduct his services, worshippers wore tallitzim and kippot (prayer shawls and yarmulkes), they affixed mezuzot, wore tefillin, used standard texts in their Hebrew and rabbinic schools and read from a Sefer Torah.

Rabbi Matthew believed that although the "original Jews" were black people, white Jews had kept and preserved Judaism over the centuries. Since we, black Jews, were just "returning" to Judaism it was necessary for us to look to white Jews on certain matters--particularly on post-biblical and rabbinic holidays such as Hanukkah which could not be found in the Torah. However, it is important to note that Rabbi Matthew felt free to disagree on matters where he had a strong objection. He also recognized that since many customs, songs, and foods were of European origin, that he had the right to introduce some African, Caribbean, and American traditions into his community. Of course, his right to do this was often challenged, sometimes by Jews who were "Americanizing" Judaism themselves. Rabbi Matthew was constantly aware of apparent double standards within Judaism. After decades of trying to find common ground with white Jews by speaking at white synagogues around the county and at B'nai Brith lodges internationally, and after repeated attempts to join the New York Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Matthew concluded that black Jews would never be fully accepted by white Jews and certainly not if they insisted on maintaining a black identity and independent congregations. Since his death in 1973, there has been virtually no dialog between white and black Jews in America.

Brief Description of Other Communities

Other Israelite sects that exist within the United States but are not affiliated with the community founded by Rabbi Matthew are: The Church of God, founded by Prophet Cherry in Philadelphia; the Church of God, founded by Elder William S. Crowdy in Kansas in 1896; the Nation of Yahweh, a black nationalist group founded by Yahweh Ben Yahweh in Florida; the Kingdom of God, founded by Ben Ammi Carter in Chicago in the 1960s (this group is now in Israel); Rastafarians, who originated in Jamaica in 1935 (today this group is most known for creating Reggae music, but their religious beliefs have caused some to associate them with Judaism; the Nubian Islamic Hebrews, formerly located in Brooklyn, New York who have a blend of Islamic, Judaic, and black nationalist beliefs; and the Israeli School of Universal Practical Knowledge, also known as the Twelve Tribes, a paramilitary group located in Harlem [Ed: The Church 12 Tribes of Israel is not associated with the ICPUK in any way]. These groups differ widely on issues of religious practice, cultural dress, and political views. There is no umbrella organization that unites them, but most consider themselves to be Black Jews, Hebrews, or Israelites.

A detailed description of these communities and an exhaustive bibliography is available on Etz Chaim, our BBS.


Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy
Beth Elohim Hebrew Congregation
189-31 Linden Boulevard
Saint Albans, New York 11412-3344

Rabbi Levy@AOL.Com
Etz Chaim, BBS (910) 822-9567 Office Phone: (718) 712-4874

Photo: Rabbi Shlomo Ben Levi, courtesy of

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