Black Jewish Relations

Here’s a report on a former Los Angeles rabbi (at the Conservative shul near LAX) and a very sweet man:

"I am over the moon. I’ve never been happier."

That’s Rabbi Michael Beals, of Congregation Beth Shalom, on Barack Obama and the promise he holds for strengthening Jewish-black relations.

But long before Obama inspired Beals, the rabbi was touched by the appreciation that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had for the Jewish faith.

Respect flowed the other way too. Jewish Freedom Riders were an important part of King’s civil rights movement. In fact, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a leader in the conservative tradition that Beals shares, marched arm in arm with King during the 1968 Selma, Ala., protest.

"I felt my legs were praying," Heschel said.

CHAIM AMALEK EMAILS: "Luke, as one of the few people on this site who has met me, you know that I too, marched with Dr. King (we Jews don’t like limiting him to the Christian honorific "Reverend") in Selma. But since then there has been a falling out between the Jews and the Blacks, to the indifference of the latter but not, mysteriously, the former. Indeed, Jews seem to be the only ethnic group whose religious leaders fret about the state of their relations with Negroes. One never hears Polish Americans so concerned, or the Irish, or the Mexicans, Koreans, etc. Just Jewish Democrats. Why this should be, I simply do not know, even though I was there with them in Selma, fighting for the rights of Mankind as a liberal Jew."


Rabbi Alan Lew, the Rabbi for fourteen years at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom and a leader with Religious Witness With Homeless People, died suddenly on January 12. Lew, a pioneer in the field of Jewish Meditation, collapsed while on a Meditation Retreat. The funeral service will be Thursday at 12:00 pm at Congregation Beth Sholom, 301 14th Avenue. Rabbi Lew told me at a September event honoring Sister Bernie Galvin that he was feeling better than he had felt in some time, though he was not someone to complain about his health. I had the honor of working closely with Rabbi Lew on a number of local and national housing campaigns. He was a giant of our time, a profoundly visionary spiritual leader, a tireless advocate for the homeless, disenfranchised and dispossessed, and a true mensch. His death comes as a terrible shock, and he will be deeply missed.


He’s a prominent Jewish studies professor at Harvard University and Bar-Ilan University, who has authored award-winning scholarship on the Bible, and draws hundreds of students to his classes. And a recent lecture at Stern College which drew roughly 140 YU students proved he was pretty popular at Yeshiva University as well. Kugel’s visit raises an interesting set of questions: should someone with his beliefs on Biblical authorship be allowed to speak at Yeshiva University? Should YU be featuring guest speakers who have publicly identified with principles that may be antithetical to Orthodox or Orthoprax Judaism?

On Thursday, December 11, 2008, gathered at Yagoda Commons at Stern College to hear Dr. James Kugel. He spoke about the development of early Biblical interpretation as seen through several Midrashim in Genesis, as a large crowd of YU undergraduates hungry for knowledge and Shabbas food (the refreshments included three varieties of kugel) listened-on. The event, coordinated and sponsored by the student group TEIQU, spanned over an hour. As the lecture came to an end, Dr. Kugel took students’ questions on topics ranging from discrepancies in particular Midrashim to whether he was a follower of Julius Wellhausen.

The latter question refers to a 19th century German scholar who pioneered modern Biblical criticism, and points to Dr. Kugel’s most recent book, How to Read The Bible, a voluminous digest of the major modern critical interpretations of the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible. Among many other issues, the book presents the documentary hypothesis, a source-critical theory which maintains that the Five Books of Moses is a composite texts authored by several individuals over the course of the late First to early Second Temple periods. Unlike most works of modern Judaic scholarship, this book has had a more pronounced impact on the Orthodox community, partly because Kugel seems to have written it for a larger lay audience and it was reviewed by the New York Times. What is perhaps most controversial about the work is not its heretical subject matter, but rather the epilogue, in which Dr. Kugel briefly presents how he reconciles the various theories of Biblical criticism with Jewish faith and practice.

Since the publication of How to Read the Bible, objections to Dr. Kugel have surfaced in the American Orthodox community. Dr. Kugel joked with the crowd on Thursday night that he would never pray in Teaneck again. Behind the humorous comment lies a real issue in the community, highlighted by a statement from YU alumnus and prominent blogger Rabbi Gil Student: "I believe that Jewish Studies in Yeshiva University should be taught [or lectured] by people full of not only knowledge but also Yiras Shamayim… Studying Jewish Studies is in many ways a fulfillment of the mitzvah to learn Torah and should be treated as the religious experience that we expect it to be." When asked about the importance of diversity of discourse, Rabbi Student said, "Our religious outlook certainly includes the existence of multiple, valid views under the rubric of Eilu Va-Eilu. However, they must still be within the framework of Orthodox beliefs and not attempt to undermine Divrei Elokim Chayim."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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