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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Black Judaism

Black Judaism: Story of a an American Movement by James E. Landing (Carolina Academic Press) Throughout most black societies today there are Jews that are not accepted by the world‑wide community of Rabbinic Jews in any manner. They are known as Black Jews, and the movement they represent is known as Black Judaism. Originating in the post‑Civil War Jim Crow southern states, the early leaders were motivated by oppression and racism to hold out a hand to the white community, a biracial offering that was immediately rejected. As members migrated to northern cities, they came into contact with Rabbinic Jews, and the Judaism they represented became known to them, especially in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. There was curiosity, but little deep interest, and Black Jews and Black Judaism were once again rejected, and it is this rejection that has united the various groups into an indistinct form of unity. Making contact with black Africans studying in Virginia and other southern states Black Judaism spread into the continent of Africa where it became an integral part of the Independent Black Church Movement, especially the "Zionist" type, and was an active component of the various struggles for independence. From New York it spread into Latin America, especially the West Indies, and is known there in its most varied form as "Rastafarianism." In the urban centers of the United States Black Jews developed a form of militant nationalism and unique cultural expression that established the social model on which the more well known black movements of the Moorish Americans, the Black Copts, and the Black Muslims were modeled. An uneasy alliance developed between some Black Jews and some Rabbinic Jews during the turbulent days of the Civil Rights era, but rejection soon followed once again, and the role of some Black Jewish immigrants to Israel, claiming the "right of return" played a role in that rejection. After thirty years the Black Hebrews, many from Chicago, still reside in Israel. Black Judaism has never been a large movement in numbers of adherents, but its influence far exceeded its numbers and it should be recognized as one of the most important social movements in Afro‑American history.

Excerpt: There was great social ferment in the United States in the last half of the nineteenth century. In the South it was marked by the development of the virulently antiblack Jim Crow period, the gradual establishment of independent black churches freed from white control, the development of separate Protestant bible‑study colleges, an active search for Holiness, and the presence of forerunners of the Pentecostal Movement. Among the many religious topics considered during this time was the matter of the imminence and importance of the millennium in accordance with the teachings of the prophets and the New Testament. One of the many beliefs in which the world was to end was that the Jews would have to be returned to the Holy Land before the prophecies could be fulfilled.

Such belief gave rise to many splintered attempts to find the lost tribes of Israel, since it had to be known where they were before they could be gathered into Israel. There was great effort to convert Jews to Christianity since many Protestants believed that the remnant of the Jews could only be returned to the Holy Land "in belief," which meant that they could return to Israel only if they became Christians. Another search for the lost tribes claimed to have found them based on certain biblical passages, and the most well known of these searches became known as "Anglo­-Israelism," a belief that the Angles and Saxons of the British Isles represented the lost descendants of Israel and so, as a result of migration, were their descendants in North America.

The return of the Jews to Israel and the speculations that surrounded it became a pillar of religious belief and a part of white religious movements, whether accepted or not, and through these developments it became part of the independent black churches as well.

By turning "Anglo‑Israelism" into "black‑Israelism" the early Black Jews made themselves the Jews that would have to be returned to the Holy Land: therefore an indispensable part of the divine plan. In other regards the early direct descendants of ancient Israel, thus they were imitating all Christian bodies in treating the exegesis of the Bible. Seldom do interpretations always agree.

Having found their role in the Christian eschatology as a "chosen people," early Black Jews requested that all Christians worship together and appealed for racial harmony, a direct outgrowth of black oppression during the Jim Crow period. Although white churches rejected this invitation and the belief in "black‑Israelism," early Black Jews were an important force in making apparent to white Christian churches the inconsistency of their lives given the plight of their fellow black Christians in the American South.

From the small beginnings of Chief William Christian in Arkansas and Prophet Crowdy in Kansas, Black Judaism spread rapidly throughout the rural black communities, and by 1900 Prophet Crowdy had Black Jewish ministers in nearly all the large cities in the Eastern United States. Today, "Christian Judaism" remains the most common form of Black Judaism in North America and Africa.

In outlining their role in the divine Christian plan the early Black Jews set forth a black manifesto that was articulated by blacks for blacks, based on black experience. The attachment to Judaism came largely from Old Testament literature and was a biblical form of Judaism and, as much as contemporary Jews might think otherwise, was not based on any expectancy of becoming Jews, an admiration for living the way Jews did, or an effort to emulate Jewish economic success. In fact, the early Black Jewish leaders had no contact with Jews or Judaism other than what they read in the Old Testament.

Significant changes, however, began to appear in Black Judaism in the larger cities once it became established there. Chicago and New York City became the diffusion centers for "orthodox" Black Judaism, which was an attempt to adopt Jewish cultural practices, rituals, and ceremony, often accompanied with an antiChristian bias and the exclusion of basic Christian beliefs. Many factors accounted for this change. In the cities there was a fertile mix of black immigrants, not only from the South and West, but from the West Indies and Africa. The West Indians, in particular, provided many members of a burgeoning Black Jewish population. There was also the fact that blacks now found themselves in close proximity to large Askenazic populations, and in their belief they were direct descendants of ancient Israel. Some thought that they should demonstrate this fact by adopting certain aspects of the Jewish way of life. There were now two distinct forms of Black Judaism. The followers of Chief Christian and Prophet Crowdy adhered to the form of "Christian" Black Judaism, whereas many of the urban groups began to practice "Orthodox" Black Judaism. Jewish explanations for this change vary among authors, but the fact that all Jewish efforts to integrate Black Jews into daily Jewish life have failed indicates that Black Jews had motives other than simply becoming Jews. In this respect Black Judaism became a truly indigenous form of Afro‑American religion.

 In the last nineteenth century the Church of God and Saints of Christ began sending missionaries to Africa. The timing of this activity coincided with the rapid development of independent black churches in Africa. It is difficult to know how Black Judaism figured in this African experience, but the central role of the Black Jewish teachings and its belief in the divine role of blacks and their relationship to ancient Israel has reverberated throughout the independent African church movement, black Ethiopianism, black Zionism, and the eventual search for black national independence from colonial control.

And more recently, the appearance of Black Jews in Israel, and their gradual accommodation with Israeli authorities, after a quarter century of efforts, must be ranked as the most successful black emigration from the United States since the settlement of Liberia. Although the impact of Black Judaism on Latin American society has not been on the scale of that in Africa, one of the most vibrant social movements in the region has been the recent rise and spread of Rastafarianism, which shares much of Black Jewish teaching and has made efforts to incorporate Black Jews in Latin America into their body.

Another manner in which Black Judaism has had great impact on society was in its initial emphasis on black beauty, black pride, and black solidarity. This expression of religious cultural black nationalism was the forerunner in belief and rhetoric of the various forms that have followed and has set a tone that was widely imitated during the Civil Rights era. The impact of Black Judaism and its relationship to Moorish‑Americans, Black Muslims, and Black Copts reveals the closeness the latter three groups have had with Black Judaism in belief, rhetoric, and style. The various forms of Black Islam are more well known than Black Judaism because of the larger scale of militancy they displayed and the consequent threat to the white community these forces brought attention to their actions. Their basic belief patterns and styles can be better understood historically if one understands that Black Islam did not appear from a vacuum but was based on models previously established by Black Jews.

Black Judaism should not be judged by the number of adherents that have been congregants over the years or their perceived militancy toward whites evident in early Black Islamic groups, but by its impact on the larger society. Based on that criteria, Black Judaism should be placed among important Afro‑American movements in history.

What does the future hold for Black Judaism? Is it, as Ruth Landes said, "Rooted in confusion" and therefore doomed to failure? This will certainly not be the case for Hebrew Israelites in Israel, nor for the Rastafarians who have now spread their creed to all continents. Even in the United States there is a present tendency among the remaining Black Jewish congregations to closer ally themselves with one of those two groups. The Hebrew Israelites have developed a form of Black Judaism over the years that is as unique and distinct as that of Rastafarianism. As these two movements become more well known and widespread they will undoubtedly be the forms of Black Judaism to receive the most attention. "Orthodox" Black Judaism is barely recognizable today and is being maintained by by a devoted few.

At this time in history, Black Judaism, like other forms of black protest movements, have somewhat receded into the background. But if the studies on black nationalism have any degree of accuracy, then Black Judaism will flourish again.

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