The Jewish World
Rabbi Capers Funnye: He is a first cousin once removed to First Lady Michelle Obama. Kestenbaum writes:“Today Funnye’s synagogue, the largest Israelite congregation of its kind, has regular pulpit exchanges with other Jewish synagogues in the city. He sees his community as an entry point; congregants have the Jewish literacy to worship anywhere. ‘Now wherever they go, they are grounded and steeped in Torah,’ ” Funnye said.
Photo Credit: Darchei Noam PR
His role and title raises all the old questions of what it means to be a Jew, and who has the authority to decide such an important matter of recognition and validation. Judaism has never been a monolith, and that there are multiple branches of Judaism explains that as much as anything else. That Hebrew Israelites want to become a recognized sect of Judaism is equally understandable.
In “Can Michelle Obama’s cousin make Hebrew Israelites mainstream?” (July 17, 2015), Kestenbaum writes:
Like synagogues in many old neighborhoods, the walls of Mount Horeb in the Bronx are lined with the framed photos of esteemed elders who have passed on. There is a faded photo, too, of the Western Wall, and Stars of David.
But at this Bronx synagogue, an Ethiopian flag also hangs above a series of aged newspaper clippings, chronicling the history of the devout African-American community that congregates here, one whose story has unfolded on the margins of the Jewish world. This particular weekend, the crowd at Mount Horeb — some in dashikis, turbans and knit caps; others with three-piece suits and yarmulkes — have come to hear from a leader-in-waiting who promises to move his community, known as the Hebrew Israelites, at least somewhat closer to the center of mainstream Jewish life.
Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. has already risen to prominence in the Jewish world as a charismatic cleric, a first cousin once removed to First Lady Michelle Obama and the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, with a synagogue — Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation — listed on the Guide to Jewish Living website of the local Jewish federation. At the same time, he is vice president of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, the only rabbinical body in the separate world of the Hebrew Israelites.
Around 200 members gathered at Mount Horeb on June 27 to hear Funnye; to honor a cherished patriarch, Chief Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew, and to celebrate 96 years of history. It was, among other things, a chance for the New York community to listen to Funnye, who was nominated last October to assume the long-vacant title that Matthew once held. A statement from the board announced that Funnye had successfully “passed the penultimate step to becoming the first Black Chief Rabbi of the 21st century.” The final decision on his elevation, the board noted, will be made at a conclave of rabbis in the fall.
There have been only two other chief rabbis in the community’s history, and the position has been vacant for 16 years.No longer; and the matter of the Hebrew Israelites fits into the broader questions of 1) who is a Jew? 2) who decides such matters? and 3) what are the requirements for conversion, or giyur in Hebrew (גיור,)? These are not easy questions to answer, and they have always been controversial and laden with emotion. One can, however, look to the Jewish Bible (the Tanakh) for answers, giving a historical perspective. There are two notable examples: Zipporah, a Midianite, who was the wife of Moses, considered Judaism’s greatest spiritual leader; and Ruth, a Moabite women, who was the great-grandmother of King David, considered Judaism’s greatest monarch? Did these women go through a formal conversion? Or is this a modern requirement?
Nonprofessionals, that is, non-rabbis, tend to simplify the question to one: Is it sufficient that an individual wants to join the Jewish People to be made a member of the “House of David”? to be considered a Jew? Or, are the rabbinate of orthodox Judaism right to say that they ought to have the final say on such matters, that the bar needs to be raised high to ensure Judaism’s continuity and preservation? That it requires education, training and, even, discouragement? This is the case in the State of Israel, where Orthodox Judaism maintains exclusive control on such matters. Outside Israel, this is not the case.
This needs further discussion. Some, from the other sects of mainstream Judaism, including Conservative and Reform, would argue otherwise; and, accordingly, each has instituted a set of standards and procedures for conversion that are less stringent and more open to modern ideas. It is true that their arguments have some validity, particularly if Judaism is to grow in numbers and become more inclusive. Concomitant to this is acceptance, particularly of those who do not fit the “model” of a Jew. (Is a long tallit and the wearing of tzitzit necessary? the right kind of yarmulke or kippa? the right caftan or bekishe? Does this improve prayer? Do these make you a better Jew? a better person?) How much is attributed to culture?
Apart from any theological or ontological reservations related to the existence of God, many Jews born as Jews do not attend religious services on a regular basis, nor do they have a desire to do so—for want of a better word, such individuals are called unaffiliated Jews. What other generations found familiar and comforting, “the unaffiliated” today find foreign and confusing. One argument is that ancient traditions are not relevant to the modern world, that the prayers are incomprehensible and dated. Then there is the matter of reading and understanding biblical Hebrew, which, in Orthodox congregations, is the only language used. If you can’t read or understand Hebrew, you are lost, forever trying to find the page on the siddur, or prayer book.
Such are not idle concerns, but very valid and real ones voiced by Jews who want no part of organized religious Judaism in any shape or form. There might have an inner need for community, but not at the cost to conformity. There is a growing trend among young people, so-called millennials, in particular, to resist top-down institutional authority and who as a group embrace sharing, empathy and collaboration, and in working side-by-side (figuratively, that is) on causes. Perhaps nothing traditional would satisfy such individuals, and they are happy to set themselves apart from traditional religious practices, viewing these as an imposition to modern life. Many still view themselves as Jewish, but either as secular or cultural Jews.
What is not in doubt, however, is that Jewish identity is shifting in America, according to a Pew Survey (“A Portrait of Jewish Americans;” 2013), where “62% say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture.” So, one way to counteract such a trend is to add more people to the religious fold, and in particular to the affiliated. It would seem like a rational and sagacious move to accept persons who, although not born as Jews, self-identify as Jews. Although a recognized and formal ritual of conversion is likely necessary, it should not be overly burdensome and onerous as to be an impediment or discouragement. The important point, I would argue, is to view and welcome such individuals as bona fide Jews and as members of mainstream Judaism.
Such individuals, after all, have a great desire and want to become part of Judaism, want to adhere to the tenets of Torah and Talmud, want to maintain tradition, and want to both draw from and to devote themselves to Judaism’s long history. They feel Jewish. It would seem that the Hebrew Israelites fit such a description and ought to be warmly welcomed into the community.
Something to think about.