Without a doubt, we are living in what many would describe as “the best of times, and the worst of times”, (to use Charles Dickens words, written at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities). Try as I might, I cannot find any more sufficient way to capture how I feel than Dickens’ phrase. As I survey the landscape of our world and particularly these United States of America, I cannot help but feel a sense of promise as it relates to the progressive possibilities of the future and the present, and yet, at the same time feel extremely discouraged by the continuing cultural conflict that continues to tear humanity further a part from itself.
For example, just this past week, the US media with its propensity for hyperbolic hogwash, transported our national discourse back into the back alley’s of white men are insensitive bigots, assertive women are bitches, and US minorities are planning a secret takeover of the world. All this we heard as President Obama announced that his pick to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat was a Hispanic, Ivy League educated, and assertive lady judge named Sonia Sotomayor . What is most discouraging about this is it proves that our public discourse has not matured to the point that we can discuss and dissect important social issues without resulting to rhetorical knife fights that are centered around which political party’s penis is bigger. As a result, the weightier issues of the law, the court, and justice in this country continue to be publicly thoroughly under-examined and overshadowed by the more media sexy twin topics of cultural war and identity politics. This I contend is a sad commentary and one that must be changed if this democratic experiment is ever to reach its potential.
However, on the other hand, while the corporate owned media was steeped deep in its own created feces of foolishness, something beautiful was left largely unreported. The news I speak of is the coming ordination of our nation’s first black female rabbi. Yes, you read that correctly, our country will have its first black female rabbi and her name is Alysa Stanton . I cannot overemphasis the profound implications of this event for mainstream Judaism in particular and Jewish and Black relations in general. It is no secret that Jews and Blacks in this country have historically maintained a relationship of suspicion and animosity that has only recently been eclipsed by the coming of a third major minority group, which of course is the Hispanic community. Rabbi Michael Lerner and Dr. Cornel West have written extensively on the subject of contentious Black and Jewish relations, much of which is contained in their 1996 book Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America. I will have much more to say about this subject in a later post but for now I will just refer those unfamiliar with this subject to the Lerner/West text aforementioned.
As it relates to mainstream Judaism and its first black female rabbi, the implications are without question quite significant. There are only about 150, 000 African Americans who currently practice Judaism in the US which accounts for effectively less than 1% of the overall 40.7 million African Americans in the US. This statistic accentuates the fact that of the three monotheistic faiths (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) the Jewish faith is by far the most under practiced by African Americans with Islam ranking second having 14.6% of all African Americans as adherents.
This paucity of religious adherence to mainstream Judaism has led to an unfortunate collective ignorance of modern Judaism among African American. In fact, if the truth be told, most of what is known and perceived to be true about Judaism in the African American community is learned from the movie screens and church pulpits. This in and of its self is troubling. Neither Hollywood or Christendom can be trusted to be the sole distributors of info about Judaism or any other faith for that matter. Every faith should have the opportunity to be heard on its own terms. For this cause, I hope the ordination of Rabbi Alysa Stanton will do something to remedy this marginalization and ignorance—or if nothing else get some good discussion going about what it means to be black and a rabbi.
What is most interesting to me about Rabbi Stanton is that she practiced various Eastern religions and Charismatic Christianity before she discovered Reform Judaism and went on to study at the prestigious Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. Rabbi Stanton’s diverse religious background places her in the growing camp of African Americans who have been and are a part of various non- traditional Christian faith traditions. For those interested in learning more about these groups they can read Professor Anthony Pinn's seminal text Varieties of African American Religious Experience. My hope is that Stanton's ordination will spark more conversation about the multiplicity of ways African American culture expresses itself religiously. I guess only time will tell.
Whatever the case, the critical cleric salutes soon to be Rabbi Alysa Stanton for becoming the first African American woman to be ordained in mainstream Judaism.
I will have provide a full post about her and the ordination in the coming month. Until then, stay tuned.
Compassionately and Critically Yours, Billy Michael Honor Jr.