Earlier this month, Rachel Dolezal, an American civil rights activist, was discovered to be an ethnically white person masquerading as ethnically black. Dolezal says that she has seen herself as black since she was five. Nonetheless, Dolezal has faced condemnation, and was forced to resign from her leadership position in the Spokane, Wash. chapter of the NAACP.
What has upset people so powerfully about Dolezal’s actions?
Presumably, part of the problem is the deception involved in hiding her white-skinned heritage for the past eight years. But another theme I have seen expressed repeatedly is that Dolezal took advantage of African-American suffering for her own advancement.
As a college.usatoday.com article put it, “Rachel, you don’t get to put on dark makeup, change your hair and pretend that you’ve lived your life in a society that has rejected people that look like you for hundreds of years. You don’t know what it feels like to grapple with presumed criminality, interpersonal rejection or systematic discrimination… [African-American identity] embodies certain cultural, historical and social experiences that she will never endure in the same way – experience that she has tried to use to her advantage.”
In other words – even had Dolezal acknowledged her true ethnicity, she still would have been rejected from the African-American community, because she has not suffered as they have suffered, and therefore she may not profit from that identity.
I cannot help thinking of an almost-but-not-quite parallel exclusion in Judaism.
We accept conversion into both the Torah’s mitzvot and the Jewish nation’s identity. A 300th-generation Egyptian who converted to Judaism would celebrate Pesach and speak of the matzah “our ancestors ate as they left Egypt”, and a 300th-generation Greek who became Jewish would light the menorah on Chanukah and bless God who “performed miracles for our ancestors.” Not only can anyone adopt our identity, but even our oppressors can adopt our identity. (See Gittin 57b for actual examples.)
However, as in the case of Dolezal, we reject conversion which attempts to co-opt our identity for the sake of advantage. Someone who wants to convert to Judaism for marriage, business connections, or any other benefit – if detected before conversion – is turned away, according to traditional Halachah. So we could just as easily say of someone who attempted to pass as Jewish for profit, “[Jewish identity] embodies certain cultural, historical and social experiences that she will never endure in the same way – experience that she has tried to use to her advantage.”
However, the exclusions are not fully parallel. The exclusion of Dolezal stems from fear of cheapening African-American suffering. On the other hand, the exclusion of the opportunistic convert to Judaism stems from fear of cheapening the Jewish religion.
To me, this distinction matters. The writers I referenced above have seized on suffering as fundamental to African-American identity, over and above many other cultural elements which Dolezal would be embracing. This is natural for a group that has experienced such misery, but it is sad – and many Jews do the same, for our own identity. It is unhealthy for us to buy into the lachrymose theory of Jewish history to such an extent that we would make suffering the essence of Jewish identity. Better for us to see our religion as the core of who we are.
And to take one more step: the Torah (Dvarim 24:21-22) warns us to be motivated by the memory of our own suffering and to aid the stranger. Our suffering should make us more open to others, not less so.
We do exclude those who seek to use Judaism as a tool for personal gain – but let us not make the focus our national suffering. Suffering is a component of our history and our identity, but the Jew should be so much more.
Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner is dean of Yeshiva University Torah MiTzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov (www.torontotorah.com.