Judaism, Race, and Ethics

Judaism, Race, and Ethics

This an excerpt from the introduction to Dr. Crane’s new edited volume, Judaism, Race, and Ethics: Conversations and Questions, recently released by the Penn State University Press.

In his opening address to the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago on January 14, 1963, Abraham Joshua Heschel provocatively challenged the very title of the meeting.

Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a father: to torture his child? How can we hear the word “race” and feel no self-reproach? … Perhaps this Conference should have been called “Religion or Race.” You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse.1

Since they have diametrically opposed impacts on society, it is virtually unintelligible to link religion and race. However much this may be so, it would be ill advised to consider them radically disconnected or as always operating as opposing forces. Indeed, there are as many ways in which religion divides society and race unites as there are ways they mix and mingle categories and communities. Considering race and religion in exclusively disjunctive terms—as either/or—does both a disservice.

To do well by both, then, requires that we consider them simultaneously. It does not mean giving preferential treatment to either one, or putting one before the other sequentially or logically. By examining each in relation with the other, we find that they have a long, complicated, and dynamic relationship. We also realize that they are not perfectly distinct; they overlap in odd and perhaps surprising ways. Theirs is an ethically complex relationship, knotted by long-standing associations, assumptions, and theologies. Disentangling them needs to be done carefully.

The Society of Jewish Ethics hosted its first deliberation on these concerns at its 2014 conference. A panel examined their complex intersection by drawing from fields as diverse as history, philosophy, anthropology, law, and bioethics, as well as from classic and modern Judaic sources, Jewish theology, and Jewish ethics. The original papers presented at the conference stimulated conversations that went well beyond the confines of the panel and keynote lecture. Participants noted the pressing need to better understand Judaism’s many conceptualizations of race, the ethical dimensions of constructing concepts of race in the first place, the ways in which race has affected Judaism and (especially) modern American Jewish identity, and the pragmatic issues of relations between Jews and other minority communities.

The Society welcomed the opportunity to continue the conversation. The Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University offered to host a symposium in the fall of 2015 on the topic of race and Jewish ethics. It brought together the original panelists and added other scholars to the conversation, along with the public. This dynamic two-day symposium increased our appreciation of the complexity of the relationship between race, racism, and religion, and generated enthusiasm about publishing these deliberations.

Few foresaw that the ideas and realities of race, racism, and religion would soon become so emotionally fraught and so hotly debated on a national scale. They became touchstones for political candidates, parties, and communities during the presidential campaign of 2015–16. In those political arenas, however, both religion and race suffered vast oversimplification. Nuance was stripped away in favor of generalization. Charged epithets and verbal abuse replaced civil discussion. The first years of the Trump administration have witnessed a veritable explosion of tension and vitriol about color and religion, racism and anti-Semitism, sometimes degenerating into violence and even fatalities. Such divisiveness demonstrates the pressing necessity that we better understand these complicated topics and lived experiences. The urgent need for the kind of conversation presented in this volume became, it seemed to us, undeniable.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Jonathan K. Crane, PhD, Rabbi, is the Raymond F. Schinazi Scholar in Bioethics and Jewish Thought at the Center for Ethics at Emory University, where he is also an Associate Professor of Medicine and of Religion. He is a member of Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta, GA).

Photo from the collections of the Center for Jewish History


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