Obama’s rabbinic relative shows our diversity

By David Toube, September 19, 2008

Michelle Obama's cousin is a rabbi who says biblical Jews were black. That's not much odder than many of our beliefs.

The news emerged this month that Barack Obama's wife has a rabbi in the family. Michelle Obama's cousin is Rabbi Capers Funnye.

As you might imagine, Rabbi Funnye is of African descent. That is no longer the novelty that once it was. Along with the Beta Israel, there are an impressive number of Jewish communities across the continent of Africa, whose members are neither white, nor beige. Some groups, like the Lemba in the south, appear to share some genetic heritage with the greater part of the Jews of the world. Others started off as proselytes to Christianity, who gradually lost faith in the New Testament.

The Abayudaya of Uganda became Jewish as the result of what might be described as a fit of pique, after the territorial and political ambitions of their Chief were thwarted by the British.

Rabbi Funnye's synagogue revels in the rather impressive name of the Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation. The Rabbi's immediate roots, however, are in North America, not North-East Africa.

His was not the traditional path to Judaism. Capers Funnye was born into the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but later fell in with the Hebrew Israelites in Chicago.

The Hebrew Israelite movement is a relatively new religion, which arose in North America during the theologically fertile period that straddled the beginning of the last century, and the one that preceded it.

Within a few years of each other, the Hebrew Israelites emerged alongside similar syncretic faiths, including the Nation of Islam and Rastafarianism, that combined elements of Judaism, Islam and Christianity with Marcus Garvey's black-identity politics. Indeed, some of these sects are notorious for preaching that "Caucasian" Jews are frauds and impostors, because all real Jews are black.

Funnye reportedly also thinks that the Jews of the Old Testament were black. That tradition originated with Wentworth Arthur Matthew's "Commandment Keepers", who also teach that they, like the Beta Israel of Ethiopia, are the product of the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

That is admittedly an eccentric view, although no odder than much that is accepted as biblical fact.

owever, unlike the separatists within the Black Israelite tradition, Funnye has a conciliatory explanation for the physiognomic diversity of the world's Jews: "The Jews that wound up in Poland look like Poles, the Jews in Ethiopia look like Ethiopians. So why couldn't Jews that wound up in other parts of Africa look like Africans?... Some scholars say there's no evidence, but as someone said, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Abraham had no evidence, but he had faith."

That seems fair enough. In the diaspora, regional Jewish communities were both homogenous, and noticeably separate from those who surrounded them. With the reuniting of the world's Jewish communities in Israel, the true diversity of Judaism is evident.

As Rabbi Funnye told the Jerusalem Report, "It's not about race, it's about righteousness, about the covenant between the people of Israel and God." It is not difficult to see why the story of bondage and redemption might have a special resonance for an American of African descent.

There is something of the tzaddik about Rabbi Funnye. He serves on the ecumenical Chicago Board of Rabbis, on the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and on the American Jewish Congress. He also participates in outreach programmes to Jewish communities in Africa, with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. If you are traditionally minded, you will be pleased to hear that Rabbi Funnye underwent a conversion ceremony, overseen by Orthodox and Conservative rabbis.

Rabbi Funnye would probably regard himself as a "revert" to his ancestral faith, rather than a proselyte. Nevertheless, if religions operated like businesses, Rabbi Funnye would be precisely the sort of man whom you would want to headhunt.

In any case, wouldn't you prefer that Barack Obama counted Rabbi Funnye, rather than the firebrand pastor Rev Jeremiah Wright, among his advisers?

David Toube blogs at hurryupharry.org

    Last updated: 10:46am, October 6 2008



    Thu, 09/18/2008 - 20:15

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    Most candidates can only say, 'Some of my best friends ---' Obama can say ,'Some of my cousins-in-law...' Somehow that doesn't seem enough to make up for decades of membership in Rev Jeemiah Wright's church!