Dave Chappelle and the Jews: Ger V'Toshav and a N'see Elokim

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I was thinking about Dave Chappelle’s opening monologue on Saturday Night Live which sparked backlash as being antisemitic. He insinuated that there is a double-standard when it comes to speaking about Jews. He said, “If they’re black, then it’s a gang. If they’re Italian, it’s a mob, but if they’re Jewish, it’s a coincidence and you should never speak about it.” He was hinting that there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood and there is a fear of being silenced by these Jews. Regarding whether Jews run show business, he said, “It’s not a crazy thing to think, but it’s a crazy thing to say out loud.” It sounded like he was saying that we Jews control Hollywood and we can silence you and we can cancel you if you don’t behave. He also referenced Kanye West’s partnership with Adidas and said, “I don’t want a sneaker deal because the minute I say something that makes those people mad, they’re going to take my sneakers away. I hope they don’t take anything away from me, whoever they are.” Here he is hinting again at Jewish control, being the “they” who may exact retribution on Dave Chappelle for his remarks.
He also said, “I know Jewish people have been though horrible things, but you can’t blame that on Black Americans; you can’t. You know what I mean?” There he was asserting that Kanye and Kyrie Irving were targeted for antisemitic speech because they were black, which is, of course, wrong. In a very nuanced manner, I believe that Dave Chappelle was normalizing antisemitic speech, asserting that it should be okay to make the kind of remarks that Kanye made and that it should be okay to promote a Holocaust denying film like the kind Kyrie Irving promoted, and that Kanye and Kyrie were only punished because they were black and the Jews control Hollywood. I was heartened by our nation’s response to Kanye and Kyrie and I was troubled by Chappelle’s remarks, and I think our parsha can help us understand Chappelle’s remarks and how to respond to them.
First of all, the fact that we constantly try to squash antisemitism and nevertheless, it continues to rear its ugly head again and again reinforces what Avraham Avinu innocently told the local inhabitants in the beginning of this week’s parsha that, “Ger v’toshav anochi imachem,” he is both a stranger and a resident. In a rather popular essay, Rav Soloveitchik explained that Avraham Avinu understood that he had a dual status. On the one hand, he was a resident like the other inhabitants of Canaan, sharing a concern for the general welfare of society. However, spiritually Avraham felt like a stranger. He had a different faith and he was governed by truths and observances that set him apart from the larger faith community. Rav Soloveitchik explained that the Jew lives with these two tensions. We are both human and Jewish. We are fully engaged in the outside world, in the arts, in business, in politics, in medicine, in every field imaginable and we do very well. Yet we are distinct in our mitzvot, in our doctrines of faith, and in our future expectations regarding the messianic era and the return to Jerusalem.
Rabbenu Yona explains that Avraham’s negotiations with the local inhabitants for a burial plot for Sarah was a test for him, meaning that Avraham has to deal with discrimination because he a ger, a stranger. On one level, the story reinforces the harsh reality that we will always be a “ger.” We will always be strangers. We will always struggle with discrimination. And what’s fascinating is that we will struggle with discrimination even as we are being honored. The Ramban writes that one of the reasons why we read the story of the burial of Sarah in so much detail is to highlight the respect with which Avraham Avinu was accorded, being called a “n’see Elokim,” a prince of God and being called an “adon,” a master. Avraham is respected, and yet he is a “ger.” He is a stranger and therefore he doesn’t own land and he must strategize how to acquire land to bury his wife. This is the Jew in the best conditions, being a “n’see Elokim,” while at the same time being a “ger.”
What is the conversation that we need to have with Dave Chappelle and many in the black community? The conversation that we need to have is that we can be a “ger” even though we are a “n’see Elokim,” that we can suffer discrimination even as we are powerful and upper-class. I remember a few years ago when I had a conversation with Bishop Isaac Melton, spiritual leader of the Christian Light Missionary Baptist Church in Long Beach, to try to relate the Jewish experiences of antisemitism to the black experience of racism in America. What emerged from our conversation is that there is much antisemitism which we must continue to fight in this country, but, Baruch Hashem, Jews and especially modern orthodox Jew who are engaged in the American scene enjoy a relatively high standard of living. We have a lot of resources and a lot of political connections to achieve we can achieve. However, that is not the case when it comes to the black community. Their standard of living is far lower, with high crime rates in many inner-city minority communities. The mentality of the black community is far more fearful and hopeless than the present-day Jewish community. I am just stating a reality and not dealing with the causes for this difference. However, because of this distinction, I surmise that people like Dave Chappelle and others like him view Jews as a privileged successful community and not as a targeted people. They can’t understand us as being like Avraham Avinu, both a “n’see Elokim” and also a “ger.” They don’t understand that we can be both influential and successful but still suffer from antisemitism. Additionally, Jon Stewart said it well when he said that we need to explain that “being in an industry isn’t the same as having a nefarious controlling interest in that industry and intention.” Yes, there are many Jews in Hollywood, just as there are many Jews in politics, in science, in business, and in law. Yes, we work hard and we succeed and we achieve. Yes, we have an influence disproportionate to our numbers. But that doesn’t mean that we are part of some grand conspiracy to take over the world. It means that we are descendants of Avraham Avinu who was given this blessing of being influential disproportionate to our numbers, and it also means that we are descendants of Avraham Avinu who was a prince of God and also a stranger who struggled with discrimination. These are the kind of conversations that we need to have with Dave Chappelle and people like him.
Yes, the Torah presents the challenge, but the Torah also presents the hope. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks passed away two years ago during the week of Parshat Chayei Sarah. In one of his essays about this parsha, Rabbi Sacks examined the relationship between Avraham and Hagar and between Avraham’s two children, Yitzchak and Yishmael. He wrote that the Torah tells us that Yitzchak was in Be’er Lachai Ro’I, that Avraham married Keturah after Sarah’s death and that Yitzchak and Yishmael buried Avraham together, even after Yishmael had been banished. Chazal filled in the blanks and explained that Sarah banished Hagar and Yishmael, but after Sarah’s death, Yitzchak went to Be’er Lachai Ro’I in search of Hagar, Avraham married Hagar and then Yishmael actually reconciled with Avraham. Rabbi Sacks concluded, “The hidden story of Chayei Sarah has immense consequence for our time. Jews and Muslims both trace their descent from Abraham – Jews through Isaac, Muslims through Ishmael. The fact that both sons stood together at their father’s funeral tells us that they too were reunited.
Beneath the surface of the narrative in Chayei Sarah, the sages read the clues and pieced together a moving story of reconciliation between Abraham and Hagar on the one hand, Isaac and Ishmael on the other. Yes, there was conflict and separation; but that was the beginning, not the end. Between Judaism and Islam there can be friendship and mutual respect. Abraham loved both his sons, and was laid to rest by both. There is hope for the future in this story of the past.”
There is hope for dialogue. There is hope that we can change attitudes and perceptions. It is not going to be easy and we are not going to change everyone, because we are “gerim,” we are strangers, but we can change the perspective of many people. Each one of us can have conversations. Each one of us can have conversations with our colleagues at work and each one of us can have conversations with our non-Jewish neighbors. Antisemitism and discrimination will not go away, but that doesn’t mean that we are completely powerless. And remember, just because we sometimes may feel like a “ger,” like a stranger, if we stick to our principles, we can also feel like a prince of God, as well.