Judaism, Race, and Ethics

Conversations and Questions

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Jonathan K. Crane
  • University Park, PA: 
    Penn State University Press
    , April
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Judaism, Race and Ethics: Conversations and Questions contains articles from American scholars of different disciplines on the topic of Judaism, race, and racism. After President Donald Trump period with its racist, divisive policy and “alternative facts,” this publication is timely. Movements such as “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name” and slogans such as “I can’t breathe” have drawn the attention to White power and White privilege at the expense of Black people. One criticizes police brutality and police killing of Black Americans and problematizes the term self-defense. The book under review answers the question where Jews stand and how they look at Black people. It deals with gazes: how Black Americans see Jews and vice versa. It discusses how Jews define themselves, as an ethnic group or as a religion. Multiple ways of identifying are explored, including a dynamic, performative approach to Jewish identity, which goes against an approach of Judaism as a mere ethnic community. Finally, the book investigates how Jews deal with the Shoa and other genocides.    

Many authors in the book under review use critical race theory in order to analyze current White power politics. Already in the 1960s, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cried out for a change and contributed to reconciliation. As may be expected, their names recur in several chapters. Heschel identified with the prophets as sympathetic with the pathos of God, who cares for the downtrodden, the persecuted and the discriminated.  In his famous speech “Religion and Race,” held in Chicago in 1963, he stated that the exodus began but is far from having been completed. Racial prejudice was “an eye disease, a cancer of the soul.” By marching at the side of King, he felt his legs were praying. Public humiliation was a form of oppression, worse than physical injury or economic privation. Also, Martin Luther King with his active nonviolence and his 1963 speech “I Have a Dream” denounced the discriminating White gaze to Black bodies and pleaded for equality. Heschel’s and King’s antiracist reading of the Bible was a remedy for a too frequent use of the Bible to justify slavery and oppression. They developed an ethical hermeneutics of biblical material in order to fight inequality and discrimination.

This collection of articles focuses upon the situation in America. A study on Jews, race, and racism could have taken into account other continents. There could have been, for instance, an investigation of the attitude of Jews to racism in South Africa. One could have explored the behaviour of Jews towards colored people in the time of the Apartheid, or earlier, during the time of Mahatma Gandhi and the British imperium. Neither is there a contribution to the question of racism or solidarity with non-White people in Israel. A chapter on the attitude towards Ethiopian Jews in Israel, for instance, would have enriched the volume.

Throughout history, Judaism and racism sometimes went together. In other times, Jews supported human rights movements and protested against America as a house of bondage. Jews also interpreted the exodus in light of the liberation of all and they remembered to love the stranger, because they themselves were strangers in Egypt and know the suffering. 

The book is a critique of Whiteness and a plea for relational thinking. It is an invitation to leave the focus upon the collective self in favor of solidarity and an emphatic gaze to the Black community. In the multiform approach to the topic of Judaism, race, and racism, the volume suggests the development of solidarity with oppressed and persecuted people and a relatedness to marginalized groups.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ephraim Meir is professor emeritus of Jewish philosophy at Bar Ilan University.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jonathan K. Crane is Raymond F. Schinazi Scholar in Bioethics and Jewish Thought at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, Associate Professor of Medicine at Emory School of Medicine, and Associate Professor of Religion at Emory College. He is the founder and coeditor-in-chief of the Journal of Jewish Ethics.



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