Meet Black Judaism
Wentworth Arthur Matthew was the most influential black rabbi of the 20th century. Chief Rabbi Matthew led the historic community of the Commandment Keepers in Harlem, established a rabbinical school, and over the course of a few decades shaped a distinct Jewish practice, known today as Black Judaism. Matthew’s disciples, Black Jews, are all over the country—sometimes interacting with the larger Jewish world, but often living deeply observant lives separate from the mainstream.
Black Judaism is hardly the largest black religious movement to emerge in the last hundred years. There are today fewer than a dozen operating synagogues in New York that trace their spiritual lineage back to Matthew, only a few more nationwide; total synagogue membership is likely only a few thousand. But the late rabbi’s teachings–which built upon those of his Barbadian mentor Rabbi Arnold Josiah Ford—live on in these small pockets.
Matthew, who passed away over forty years ago, was described in loving words by hundreds who gathered to celebrate his birthday over the course of a weekend this July. He was praised as a spiritual visionary, likened to Moses, and described as a father.
Matthew taught a radical, revelatory message: black Americans were not a rootless people, but had biblical ancestry. Many of those Africans captured and sold into slavery during the transatlantic slave trade could trace their families back to the Israelites, Matthew taught, and could return to this ancestral Jewish covenant.
“Without Matthew, we wouldn’t know we could come home. Men like him had to be tough to say we are Israelites, to say we are Jews,” Prince Tzipor, a turbaned elder from Brooklyn’s Sh’ma Yisrael Hebrew Israelite Congregation said, a wooden staff in hand. “No, people didn’t want to hear that.”
Matthew’s grandfather, he said, was an Ethiopian Jew, a cantor from Gondar named Yehuda ben Benjamin. What we know from oral history and other records is this: Matthew’s father, a cobbler named Mose ben Benjamin ben Yehudah, migrated to Nigeria and married a woman there. Her father had been a slave in the West Indies and the young couple later moved to the island of St. Kitts, where Matthew was raised. Matthew’s father died when he was eight and in 1913, at the age of 20, Matthew came to New York City in search of a new life. In Harlem, he found work (at times as a boxer) and encountered a rich spiritual landscape.
Black Israelite religions, which taught that black Americans had biblical history, but also recognized Christian teachings, had been practiced in New York as early as 1899. Matthew’s innovation was to introduce more explicitly Jewish traditions and gestures into his practice––rituals, he said, which had been handed down to him through his family. Matthew founded his temple the Commandment Keepers in 1919. By the ’30s the synagogue had become the epicenter of this emergent Black Judaism. Congregants wore yarmulkes (sometimes turbans), tallit, and nailed mezuzot to their doors. Matthew taught classes in Kaballah and Hebrew, and established a rabbinical academy that ordained dozens.
After Matthew’s passing in December of 1973, a schism formed in the community over the question of succession. One group believed Matthew’s teenage grandson should lead; others wanted an older, more experienced disciple of Matthew’s to take the helm. The dispute was never formally resolved. Though the Israelite Rabbinical Academy still holds classes, today Black Jewish temples each have their own leaders, and slightly different practices of Judaism.
On Friday evening in Queens, and Saturday and Sunday in Brooklyn, hundreds of Black Jews gathered to pray and speak about Matthew. Members came from Beth Elohim Hebrew Congregation, B’nai Adath Kol Beth Yisrael and Beth Shalom, for what was billed as a Unity Week, a time for the Black Jewish temples to put aside their differences and recognize shared history.
Rabbi Baruch Yehuda, the leader of B’nai Adath, stood at the bimah with a microphone in one hand and sang in a deep voice. He wore small rimless glasses, his hair braided. The crowd of more than 400 people joined him in song, standing and swaying with the music. Lyrics were a mix of Hebrew and English; a group of teenage djembe-players carved out a rhythm, and tambourines rattled in the women’s section.
“My brothers and sisters, they were fine with us calling ourselves Baptist, Pentecostal, Holy Church of Zion,” Yehuda said after the music had died down. One man shouted: “That’s right!” “But when we start saying we serve only God,” Yehuda went on, now building to his point, “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that’s when they start squinting their eyes, like ‘Who told you that? Who told you you could say that?’”
“Kane, kane,” one older woman called.
“This is not some sort of act. This is what we do.”
Also in town to honor the legacy of Matthew was Rabbi Capers Funnye, the spiritual leader of a Chicago congregation. He was raised a Christian, and experimented with Islam, before turning to Judaism—unlike some Black Jews, he went through a formal conversion. Funnye is also Michelle Obama’s cousin. While Funnye moves fluidly between Black Jewish communities and normative Judaism in general, temples founded by Matthew or led by rabbis ordained by the Israelite rabbinical school are not recognized by the Conservative, Reform, or Orthodox communities.
Funnye spoke on Sunday afternoon, pacing back and forth on stage with a microphone. “We have to interact with the white Jews,” he said. “And, let me tell you, we have no reason to fear them,” he paused, “as long as we know who we are. We can show them what it meant to be an Israelite.” The crowd applauded.
Funnye wore a suit and a white yarmulke. He serves on Chicago’s Board of Rabbis, and was the associate national director at Be’Chol Lashon, a Jewish organization that works to “serve an expanding Jewish community that embraces its differences.”
“Oh, I got over trying to fit in,” Funnye said. “I used to want those little things,” he twirled a finger at his temple, making the shape of a peyot. “I’d stand in front of the mirror before bed like, ‘please when I wake up, let me have them.’ But in the morning, nothing,” Funnye chuckled, then he dropped his hand down to his side. He sighed. “Oh yes, I got over that a long time ago.”
Matthew’s message is interpreted anew in each generation, sometimes more than once. In the early ’80s, Rabbi Levi ben Levy, a student of Matthew’s, held a beth din, a rabbinical court that makes religious rulings, to eliminate some of the late rabbi’s more idiosyncratic practices from the community. This year Rabbi Judah Moshe has written a siddur, providing halakhic explanations and historic references for Black Jewish practice. While Matthew spoke of Ethiopian ancestry, Benlewi prefers to use what he says is a more accurate title to describe the community: West African Jews of the Diaspora.
During a break in the weekend’s speeches, I spoke with Yehuda in the foyer of B’nai Adath, a community founded by one of Matthew’s star pupils. The building has been a Black Jewish temple since 1967, but was an Orthodox temple before that. The structure is nearly 150 years old and the sanctuary is going through repairs. It’s in better shape now than it was a few years ago, Yehuda told me, because God stepped in.
“A man named Notariyah Yehudah, a congregant in another temple, had three dreams. In the last of the three he woke up in a sweat. He had dreamt that the walls of this synagogue were falling down,” Yehuda said. “He came to me. He said the building would fall without his intervention. He told me he must repair it. And when we stripped back the paint, sure enough, the walls were rotten, crumbling apart. How could he have known? There’s no way he could have known that. None of us knew that.”
“And so he came to fix our temple. He refused payment or help, it was something he just wanted to do.” This man was moved by the Most High, Yehuda said. “You have to understand: I’m a rabbi. I see things differently than some people. I see God’s hand in this world, in what happens and what doesn’t.” A repurposed synagogue, crumbling apart. Without God this Bedford-Stuyvesant temple would have fallen to the ground.
The weekend’s last speaker was the elderly author Rudolph Windsor, respected in the community for his scholarship on Jewish history in Africa. He was slightly unsteady on his feet, holding his speech in one hand and the microphone in the other. But during his speech he asked if someone would hold the mic for him; his hand had begun to shake from the weight. A young congregant stepped up to volunteer.
Windsor grew up in Asbury Park, New Jersey. His path to Judaism is similar to others here: As a teenager he had felt stranded, and was looking for his roots, a sense of belonging. One day, he heard the voice of Abel Respes, a black rabbi, speaking on the radio. Respes said that black Americans not only had biblical roots, but there were many blacks who were still practicing Jews. Windsor recognized in this man’s words something that, deep down, he knew was true, and went on to connect with the Black Jewish community.
Windsor has spent much of his life explaining Black Judaism, defending this ancient story of exile and return. He began practicing the faith as a young man and now is slightly stooped, his eyesight clouded. Windsor finished his talk, looking tired. Would he need a hand stepping off the stage? He tucked his speech into his pocket, straightened his jacket and cleared his throat. In conclusion, he tossed his head back and chanted a niggun, a wordless melody, clapping and stamping his foot.
Sam Kestenbaum is a staff writer at the Jewish Daily Forward. Previously, he worked at The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah, and Beijing. Follow him on Twitter @skestenbaum.