Judaism from the Underside

On Scholarly Impartiality in Researching Afro-Judaisms

In the past few decades, the academic field of Jewish studies has vastly and immeasurably increased our understanding of Jewish cultures and identities. Inspired by the wissenschaft des Judentums and assisted by unprecedented philanthropic support, twentieth century scholars of Judaism have powerfully and dramatically committed themselves to the discovery of truth through scientific inquiries of Jewish peoples’ history and religion. Unfortunately however, the academic treatment of African Judaism has been very different from that of European Judaism, and this discrepancy has led to continued questions regarding the relevant scholarship’s commitment to scientific rigor. In short, because scholars of Judaism routinely dismiss and/or deny the existence of Jewish groups embedded in African populations, the entire field of Jewish studies has been weakened and its theoretical allegiance to scholarly objectivity compromised.

Take, for example, the recent NOVA documentary concerning the Lemba communities in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Now it is well known that a number of Lemba wish to have their story as a Jewish people included in contemporary understandings of Jewish ethnicity. Yet in that documentary a Harvard professor and former dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary made the following assertion: “It seems to me the simplest way to understand these [African Jewish] claims is that Westerners come across long lost peoples, native peoples in far-flung places across the globe, and they see them, and they try to interpret them in terms with which they are familiar… If an explorer or a missionary finds that a native people eat some kind of unleavened bread in the springtime or circumcise their sons, for example, or they don’t eat pork, for example, or they don’t do work on a given day of the week, they will automatically interpret that in terms of the Hebrew Bible.”

This scholar’s viewpoint seems to be the most popular one amongst scholars of Judaism. And on its face, it does make some sense. Human beings do tend to interpret new circumstances through symbols and ideas with which they are familiar. The problem with this perspective, however, is its presumption that African Jews assert their identity solely on the basis of what others have claimed them to be. In other words, the popular opinion suggests that if in the 18th century a missionary or other Westerner labeled a group of Africans as “Jews,” then the Africans themselves would have used this label as a basis to assert their Jewish identity. Now even if we ignore the problematic assumption that such assertions are on their face illegitimate, one is still left with the problem of figuring out why this narrative has not matched the historical reality of African Jews’ self-identifications.

We should remember that the initia response of the Western world to the presence of the Ethiopian Jews was virtually identical to that of the scholar’s opinion above. Many European Jews believed that Ethiopian Jews were not a historic part of the Jewish people. However, scholarship since then has demonstrated the opposite-that Jews in Ethiopia existed for centuries before their “discovery” by Westerners. In studying the expansion of the Jewish diaspora, we should learn from the Ethiopian Jews’ example. The story of most Afro-Jewish communities is not that they listened to missionaries tell them who they are. It is in fact the exact opposite. African Jewish communities were calling themselves Jews and Israelites long before Western missionaries ever encountered them. In some cases, this can be attested to by either the local historians of the surrounding non-Jewish ethnic groups or the writings of Arab traders and merchants.

And while a scholarly commitment to scientific rigor would suggest that we academics investigate such evidence before coming to a conclusion about the absence of a significant Jewish presence in Africa, the unfortunate truth is that many scholars dismiss this conclusion outright, presuming that what they have been taught is correct (i.e.-there are no historic Jewish communities in sub- Saharan Africa). As a result, the field of Jewish studies misses out on incredible opportunities to learn about how Judaism evolved in Africa.

To learn more about the Jewish dispersion throughout the world, scholars of Judaism must recommit themselves to an impartial and uncompromisingly scientific vocation of research. In effect, what this means is that the field of Jewish studies cannot refer to itself as such and without contradiction concern itself primarily with European Jews. This principle is one of the compelling and ironic truths that makes the work of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies indebted to the Wissenschaft tradition. Regardless of the many difficulties involved, a true picture of the Jewish people will emerge only when more scholarly ingenuity and scientific resources are devoted toward the study of non-European Jewish populations. Hopefully, a casualty of such efforts will be the uncritical and totally unfounded presumption that Africa has never been the home of entire communities of Jews until the present day.


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