Retire forever the word ‘shvartza’

Retire forever the word ‘shvartza’

Last week I delivered a sermon that was based on the Torah portion of the week and that compared Moses, the great Jewish redeemer, with Abraham Lincoln, the martyred American emancipator. When I finished, I was approached by an Orthodox Jewish engineer who is an acquaintance. He seemed, up until that time, to be devout, educated, and sophisticated. But what he told me was sacrilegious, ignorant, and primitive. He 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 sexually 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 his or her ancestor did millennia ago. We Jews don’t believe in original sin, a cornerstone of the Catholic faith, 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 told me 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. And on an angry note, our mini-debate ended.

I would not even mention this unhappy episode if I have not, at times, heard similar sentiments expressed by others purporting to be religious.

The foundation of Judaism is God’s moral law. The cornerstone of the Bible is that every human being is created in God’s image. One cannot call oneself a religious Jew and harbor even the smallest hint of racism. Which is why it is time for all Jews to forever retire the odious term "shvartza."

From the time I was a boy I heard the word "shvartza" used by many Jews to describe blacks. These were decent people with no intention of causing offense. To them, the term connoted nothing more than the Yiddish word for black. But, truth be told, the term has become one of condescension — a pejorative, a term that incorporates within it a hint of derision.

My children were raised around many black men and women who are close family friends. From Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, who is like a brother to me, to Peter Noel, my esteemed colleague and former co-host on America’s oldest black radio station, to countless others, our Shabbos table has always been filled with African-Americans whom we have treated as family. So when my children went to a chasidic sleepaway camp one summer and heard the expression "shvartza" thrown about so loosely, they returned upset and disillusioned. When they asked me why so many religious Jews used the term, I had no real explanation. The overwhelming majority of religious Jews are committed to the highest humanitarian and ethical standards. Racism, to them, would be utterly unconscionable. So why use the term? There is no excuse. And it must be permanently retired.

I have wanted to write this column ever since my children expressed that righteous indignation, but refrained from doing so for fear that it might be misunderstood as implying that there is racism among Orthodox Jews. To be sure, there is racism among all groups, just as there is, unfortunately, anti-Semitism among all groups. It seems that humanity is destined to forever harbor irrational hatred, even as we do our utmost to stamp it out. But of late, I have heard the term "shvartza" with such frequency that it could no longer be ignored. My children were absolutely right and we must all speak out.

Yes, there may be racism among other groups. But among Jews it is especially reprehensible. Firstly, because we Jews know what it is like to be hated for our very being. Second, because Jews and blacks share a spiritual history that includes slavery and emancipation followed by discrimination and a shared yearning for entry into a promised land of acceptance and hope. We share also a mutual love for the redemptive utterances of the great Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Micah, which formed the backbone of the most memorable speeches of Martin Luther, King Jr. And third — and this applies to religious Jews even more than non-observant Jews — because we Jews are entrusted by God with spreading the message that all humanity are God’s children. The first great theological declaration of the Torah is that all people are created in the divine likeness.

I don’t think there is anything as off-putting in a religious person as even a hint of racism. When a businessman wearing a yarmulke uses the word "shvartza," he undermines the spiritual integrity for which that yarmulke stands.

I spent the last week reading a book on the Middle Ages. Peter Abelard, the great medieval Catholic thinker, was castrated for his illicit love of Heloise. But he was hated even more for writing a millennium ago that Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus and could not be persecuted as deicides. Christianity had to go through many centuries to finally purge Jew-hatred from its soul and has emerged today as a great and Godly faith as a result.

Likewise, many of our Muslim brothers and sisters are today infected by an irrational hatred of the Jewish people that belies Islamic history and that cannot be accounted for merely by the territorial dispute between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Such racist views are a sin against Islam, which subscribes to the biblical belief of the divine character of all humanity. And religious Jews, especially, must never be part of such heretical views by harboring even the slightest hint of bigotry or prejudice.

It is not just the Jewish engineer who told me that blacks were cursed by God. I once heard the same despicable view from the mouth of a teacher in a Jewish day school. Rabbis must be at the forefront of arguing the theological absurdity of such disgusting and ignorant ideas, so that a generation of Jewish children grows up to love all humanity with the same fervent intensity of the first Jew, Abraham, whose very name means "the father of many nations."

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the host of TLC’s "Shalom in the Home," whose new season begins airing on March 4. His new book, published by Meredith and named after the TV show, will be released on the same day. He lives in Englewood.