Friday, April 8, 2011

Segregation, contagion, & preservation and the new “racism”

I am sitting in LA airport about to embark on the last leg of my round the world trip. I am reflecting on segregation.

In the UK, I met the Three Faiths Forum bringing people together, saw a photo of my Moroccan ancestor at the home of my great aunt, but I also heard a story about a man unable to enrol his children at a very religious school. Next stop was “Enemy territory”, Lakewood New Jersey, home of the Mitnagdim the sworn opponents of the Hasidim. There, at the back of a synagogue an argument is put to me about the merits of segregation. Landing in Sydney on Tuesday, the newspaper tells of a controversy involving pre-school teachers being allowed to isolate “naughty children”[1] and more on the “failure of multiculturalism”. The weekly Torah portion is also about someone who is sent away from the rest of the community.

Scenario 1 – Segregation between Sephardi and Ashekanzi[2] Jewish school children
A Sefardic Israeli man told me the following matter-of-factly, which I should try to verify before taking as fact but I still think this report is worth discussing.
“A wealthy Syrian-American Jew moved to Israel and tried to enrol his children in an Ashkenazi religious school. The school was prepared to accept his children, on condition that he changed his name to sound Ashkenazi. They had filled their (maximum) quota for Sephardic children in their school, which they kept below 10-12%. (I am telling Heshi[3] at the back of a Synagogue in Lakewood, that this is disgusting.  He thinks the policy has merit. “They have different values to us”, he asserts and suggests that if the Ashkenazi schools let in too many Sephardim then the Ashkenazi students will be influenced. “It’s better for them to have their own schools”.

Protection from being “infected”
Heshi, is presenting a two pronged arguments for segregation; protection of the majority from the influence of the minority and preservation of diversity. 

The justification of isolating someone with a contagious disease is seen in some interpretations of
the law of the “Metzorah”. A range of changes to skin or hair appearance are declared “impure” and the affected person is isolated[4].  Some commentaries explain the isolation as being about protecting others from infection[5].  While Judaism does not simply sacrifice the individual for the needs of the group, there are cases when the greater good takes precedence over the needs of the individual.  

“Difference” in the new racism
Seeking to be “nice” or politically correct can stifle legitimate discussion about what values and standards a community wants to organise itself around. The more important question is about the assumption of some kind of spiritual harm that would result from the presence of Sefardim. I concede that there may be certain stringent interpretations of law or custom that would be practiced in one community but not in another and there is merit in seeking to organize the peer influence that a child will be exposed to.  Perhaps this was the case in the controversy over segregation in the town of Emanuel. Yet, the blanket assumption of different values and using that as justification for separation raises red flags for me. 

Scholars studying prejudice have noticed what some might call a ‘new racism’ based on the ‘insurmountability of cultural differences’[6]. Thus ethnic minorities are no longer viewed as inferior; rather they are differentiated as threats to ‘social cohesion’ and ‘national unity’, that is, to the cultural values and integrity of the dominant (Anglo-Celtic) ‘host’ society[7] .

Secular wisdom- for ethical decision making?
I am using secular sources to make a religious point, which is not universally embraced. There is some resistance to considering secular wisdom in questions of how to live our lives, with some thinking about non-religious wisdom as being more about technology than moral guidance[8]. I think this is wrong, consider the following teaching. "If a person tells you there is wisdom among the nations of the world, believe him. If a person tells you there is Torah among the nations of the world, do not believe him[9]". The clearest example of this is when the non-Jewish Jethro tells Moses how to organise the guidance and judgement of the Jews[10]. Before I got married my grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Yehudah Blau OBM told me to read “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus”, because it could give me good advice about how to be a good husband. It would be a shame if the knowledge about prejudice from secular sources is not considered by religious authorities.

Diversity & Sectarianism
Diversity adds vitality to Judaism. A beautiful memory I have from summer camp was of a Yemenite Jew singing the Haftorah in a way I never heard before. These customs must be preserved, and in some cases it might be useful for Sefardim to create schools to immerse students in these traditions. Yet, efforts at preservation of diversity should also consider the problem of forming sperate groups within Judaism. In a play on words, the Torah’s prohibition on cutting oneself in mourning[11] which is written as Lo Titgodedu, is interpreted as “do not become groups, groups[12].

When I was in Yeshivah in Sydney, we had a Singaporean Sefardi student and we accommodated him by me studying the (Sefardic) Ben Ish Chai with him every day. This might not always be the right approach and I would support Sefardim who create Sefardi oriented schools to preserve their heritage but excluding Sefardic students from Ashkenazi schools or vice versa would not seem to be in keeping with these teachings.

Isolation as punishment
Writings about the isolation of the Metzorah, also shed some light on the nature of isolation itself. Many consider these “diseases” as entirely supernatural and punitive. There are various sins that are thought to bring on these conditions including gossip, or speaking badly about others[13]. Most prominent examples of this are when Moses' hand turns white[14] after he suggests that the Jews would not believe him and Mirriam is struck with “tzaraat”[15] after she speaks badly about Moses and the “black wife he took”. What I think is most useful to our discussion though, is the way in which this punishment is discussed.

We are told that the afflicted person must sit alone[16], Because he caused conflict between people and caused them to sit this one alone and that one alone[17]. The Torah states, he is a “Tzarua” rather than the condition is Tzaraat, (This links the problem with the identity of the affected person). This is because God himself is demeaning him to such an extent that this condition is seen on his head or forehead because his impurity is greater than others that would be in a hidden place. God (normally) is concerned with the dignity of people, yet this one, his actions prove that he is despised in the eyes of God who is punishing him like this…[18].

There is great harshness in this condition which is linked to the sin[19] and punishment of isolation. When teachers were forbidden to physically slap children, an alternative was found with plenty of sting: issolation. To what extent this is useful for a “naughty” child is one question, but the effects of segregation of whole communities should not be under-estimated.

Conclusion- Doing what is right and just
While there is merit in protecting certain values and ways of life, ugly prejudice can easily be disguised as being about this benign effort. If I had accepted Heshi’s approach to difference, I would not have bothered having the conversation with him. I would simply stick with my old biases about how different the Mitnaged people in Lakewood are to me. The truth is that while I strongly disagree with Hershi, I found his argumentativeness, calm logic and Brooklyn accent eerily familiar. Mitnaged or Hasid, he is a member of my tribe. The core experience of finding commonality was not dissimilar to meeting the interfaith team at Three Faiths Forum in London or knowing Mohamed, Sheiks Haisam or Ahmad here in Australia, except that the latter experiences were more enjoyable. The “cultural values” differences are usually exaggerated, the efforts to address these, while at times justified or even too meek, are more often excessive.

[2] Jews originally of Spanish and Arabic lands are called Sephardi which literally means Spanish, also referred to as Mizrahi which literally means Eastern, while Jews of Central or Eastern European origin are referred to as Ashkenazi, which means German
[3]  Not his real name
[4] Lerviticus 13
[5]  Daat Zekainim Mbaalei Tosafot, on Leviticus 13:44, Bchor Shor and others
[6] Markus 2001, cited in Dunn Dr K. M., Forrest, J, Burnley, I,  McDonald, A, (2004) Australian Journal of Social Issues Vol.39 No.4 November 2004
[7]  Jayasuriya, L. (2002) “Understanding Australian Racism”, Australian Universities, Review, 45 (1), 40-44, also cited in Dunn et al.
[9] Eichah Rabbah 2:13
[10] Exodus, discussed by Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan, citing the Ohr Hachayim
[11]  Deuteronomy 14:1
[12]  Talmud Yevamot 13b, it points out that for the simple meaning of prohibiting cutting, it could simply say, Lot Tegodedu, which would mean do not cut, Titgodedu, implies becoming something and allows for an additional meaning. There is discussion of the technical implications of this teaching, with a distinction between having different customs or religious courts in the same place which is more problematic and in different places which could be ok (Talmud Yevamot 14a). Still there is a broader message here about the community not being divided (Rashi for example cites Lo Tisgodedu in a different context altogether in Talmud Sukka 44a. For more on this see
[13] Talmud Arachin 16a, Vayikra Rabba 16:1
[14] Exodus 4:6
[15] Numbers 12:10
[16] Leviticus 13:46
[17] Baal Haturim
[18] Ohr Hachayim on Leviticus 13:44
[19] This is taken further in the affected person being forbidden to engage in marital relations with his wife, and this is understood to be measure for measure in that he separated men from their wives through his tale-bearing


  1. How does the Burkah ban in France fit in to all of this?

  2. thanks for posting, Bro :)
    My limited knowledge of why people cover their face (called the Niqab)is that it relates to modesty. I don't think the French really need to worry about what clothing women wear.
    If people advocate violence against others or reject the authority of the rule of law that is a much more legitimate concern than fabric on the face.

  3. Very interesting and well written. Truly impressive that you managed to write this while waiting for your flight at LA airport. You sure don't waste your waiting time. You must carry a lot of reference books. Do you check them in or take them as hand-luggage?

    You clearly have inherited great gifts. It doesn't surprise that your grand-father was awarded an OBM by the Queen.

    Also not surprised that the bloke in the shul was prejudiced. I find all religious people (yourself excepted) extremely prejudiced. They always generalise about others - something I find particularly abhorrent - and I have yet to meet an unprejudiced one. I stay well clear of these despicable people. They have a complete inability to tolerate difference. No concept of embracing "otherness". They should all be locked up!... For ever!


  4. Jeff, thanks for posting. You make me laugh. No, I did not write all of this at the airport. Only that part of it. Other bits written on flights and at home. OBM is of Blessed Memory.

    Dear readers: Jeff's anti-religious rant is (at least mostly) tounge in cheek.

  5. Interesting post. I would just like to question your note about the words 'Sephardi' and 'Mizrachi'. You say that these are "Jews originally of Spanish and Arabic lands... Mizrahi which literally means Eastern." I think it is is important to note (and more correct to say) that these are in fact Jews originally from the Land of Israel, who ended up in the East (Mizrach) and in Spain because they were expelled from the Land of Israel by the Babylonians after they destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 586BCE.

  6. Thanks for the post. Some of us think of our origins in terms of a few generations. In my own case, parents from US/China, Grandparents, US, Ukraine, Lithuania, Slovakia/Germany, go back further and there is Morroco, Denmark, Poland and Spain. Perhaps if Jews thought back to our common origins in the land of Israel we could lessen the significance of the more recent shtetl "origin". Or as the Talmud suggests in Sanhedrin, we all descend from Adam so families should not say my ancestor is greater than yours.