ROAMING WITH THE RASTAS
A visit to Jamaica is an education for any American, but especially for a Jew. In a country with no shortage of interesting people the most fascinating are the Rastafarians, who in turn largely model themselves on the Jews. The Rastas believe that Africans are of the lost tribes of Israel, with a special identification with the King David and the tribe of Judah. The Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, whom they worship as the long-promised biblical messiah, is everywhere called “the conquering lion of Judah.” Many Rastas wear the Jewish star of David with a lion in the middle around their necks. Their diet is essentially kosher, bereft as it is of any animal or dairy products. Many Rastas are extraordinarily well-versed in the Bible, especially the book of Psalms. When I was invited into the Marley family compound in Kingston, where the reggae legend’s sons Ziggy and Steven still live, there were verses from the Hebrew Bible painted into the murals on the surrounding walls. While a few areas in Jamaica can be dangerous, one feels an immediate sense of security upon encountering a Rasta, devoted as they are to the ideals of peace and brotherhood championed by the Hebrew prophets. As I pondered the incredible affinity that hundreds of thousands of black Jamaicans felt with the Hebrew Bible and the Jews, I was reminded that they are but a small part of a much larger whole. A billion Christians believe that they too are, in the words of the apostle Paul, “grafted onto the tree of Israel.” Likewise, another billion Muslims believe that they are the true seed of Abraham. The Mormons believe that they are the new Israel and that Utah (or to some Mormons, Missouri) is the Zion. And they refer to all non-Mormons, Jews included, as “Gentiles.” As I dwelt on just how popular the legacy of biblical Judaism is, it struck me that the only ones who seem to take little pride in this heritage are the actual Jews themselves, millions of whom are not biblically literate. IT IS TRUE that most Jews have heard of Abraham and Moses. And they are probably familiar with the most famous biblical stories, like the Garden of Eden and the binding of Isaac. Thanks to Sunday school and, more importantly, Hollywood, they probably also know the story of the splitting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. But beyond that is pushing it. The average Rastafarian’s knowledge of the Bible would probably exceed that of the average Jew. And it’s not just Jewish knowledge which is so lacking among the actual nation of Israel, but Jewish pride as well. Here you have half the world wanting to claim a mantle from which the Jews themselves seem to run. Rastas are instantly recognizable by their flowing dreadlocks; we met some who had not cut their hair in decades. But most Jews find the simple wearing of a yarmulke to be an unimaginable burden. Diaspora Jews often change their names to sound less ethnic. All over Jamaica one can find vegan restaurants to cater to Rastafarians. But in America, one only finds kosher food in the most religious Jewish neighborhoods. This absence of positive Jewish affirmation is a tragedy not just for Jews but, especially, for all these non-Jewish groups who claim the Jewish legacy as their own. Rastas may claim the bloodline of David, and Muslims that of Abraham. But it is Jewish values, rather than Jewish blood, which we most want them to embrace. TO JEWS, our bloodline is not significant and some of the greatest Jews were either converts, like the biblical translator Onkelos, or the children of converts, like the incomparable Rabbi Akiva. But our values are infinitely precious and constitute the principal light which we are meant to impart to the world and which sometimes goes unclaimed by those who wish to be known as the new Israel. Muslims and Christians would benefit tremendously from the Jewish emphasis on multiple pathways to divine truth, and Judaism’s insistence on not being the only true faith. Likewise, Rastafarians lead incredibly authentic spiritual lives devoted to compassion and kindness. But this does not always translate into building strong families. Bob Marley’s music electrified the world with its message of redemption and spiritual purpose. Particularly memorable were his lyrics in “Redemption Song” demanding that we “emancipate [ourselves] from mental slavery.” And he, like all Rastas, loved children, fathering 13 in total. But he did so with eight different women. Many of the Rastafarians we met likewise did not marry the women they had conceived children with. One Rastafarian woman who ran a Rasta restaurant on the side of the road told us that at 22 she had sworn off marriage because she already had two children by two different men who showed too little commitment to raising their children. NOW, ONE can find deadbeat dads from every walk of life, and the Jews are no exception. But in our community a man who behaved this way would earn the contempt of his compatriots because this behavior runs absolutely contrary to Judaism’s insistence on the inviolable nature of the family. Yet, many of the communities who model themselves on the ancient Hebrews do so without emphasizing the values that marked the ancient Hebrews. Catholicism sees marriage among priests as a contradiction to their spiritual vows and, according to Paul, allows marriage because “it is better to marry than to burn.” But Jewish life revolves almost entirely around the family. Judaism does not merely label marriage a sacrament, but an obligation. The Talmud goes so far as to say that a man who has not married by 25 has helped to destroy the world – which might seem like an overstatement until one looks at the lonely and depressing singles scene, so often comprised of womanizing men who use women for their own ends. The Talmud commands a man to dress his wife better than he dresses himself, to pleasure her sexually before he himself is pleasured, and to generally accord her greater respect than he does himself. Everyone on earth has heard of Muhammad and Jesus. But most would be hard-pressed to recall the names of the women associated with them in their Bibles. Not so Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose wives – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – are as famous as they are. The world today desperately requires the shining example of the biblical man of faith who finds God specifically through his devotion to his wife and his commitment to his kids. But it will not do so as long as the Jews themselves, the carriers of this great tradition, duck their responsibility to proudly promote their values to a world that is desperately in need of direction. The writer’s latest book is The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him. On January 28th, he launches a daily national radio show on “Oprah and Friends,” XM Channel 156.