Here’s an interesting little footnote of a story, from Haaretz.
Apparently, Michelle Obama’s first cousin once removed is Rabbi Capers Funnye, the chief rabbi at the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in southwest Chicago.
The story of the Black Hebrew Israelites is fascinating stuff, if you’re interested in sectariana. The story starts in the late 19th/early 20th Century, and shares certain traits with other new religious which emerged in post-slavery black society, including the Nation of Islam. Neither the BHI or the NoI movement, as originally founded, had very much in common with Judaism or Islam. In particular, the doctrine of BHI groups typically teaches that only the BHI are the “true” Jews of the Bible: while white/beige Jews are impostors, descended from Edomites and Khazars.
One BHI group, the Black Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, moved to Israel from Chicago, where after a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing, they ended up with permanent residence status, and have served in the Israeli Army, as well as representing their country in other fields.
The BHI movement is far from monolithic. Although there are many BHI groups which are extremely cultish and zany, and mix and match between Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and an eccentric home-grown black theology, some groups are more recognisably Jewish. Just as a few NoI members ultimately ended up making a transition to mainstream Sunni Islam, there are those in the BHI that are converging with traditional Judaism.
Rabbi Funnye is one of those BHI Jews. Born a Methodist, Funnye went through a Conservative conversion ceremony: although he follows the traditional BHI teaching that Black Israelites are “reverts“, who originally were Jews, before they were enslaved and brought to America. What sets Funnye apart from most BHIs, is that he accepts that it is quite possible that Eastern European Jews are also descended from Biblical Jews. He has met with Farrakhan, and has challenged his racism: on the basis that Farrakhan does not accept that Jews could be black. Funnye’s synagogue has adopted many traditional Jewish practices, and isn’t a million miles away from a Conservative or Reform synagogue. He serves on the ecumenical Chicago Board of Rabbis and on the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the American Jewish Congress.
There’s something distinctly zany about even the watered down version of BHI Judaism that Funnye follows and teaches. But in the great scheme of things, it isn’t really that more absurd than the sort of stuff that members of ‘mainstream’ religious accept as their religious truth. Many religious traditions contain offensive and nasty teachings. However, there are always those who are capable of transcending the worst that faith has to offer, and instead, cling to the best.
Rather a Rabbi like Funnye, than a Minister like Jeremiah Wright.