Cornel West: On Chesed, Hamlet, and the Jewish Prophet Amos
05/09/2012 - 16:34

You may remember the uproar Cornel West, the Zelig-like black scholar, caused last year when he viciously attacked Obama on the liberal website Truthdig.  The big news was that West—a prominent voice in American public life, but especially within the black community—had turned against the man he spent much of the 2008 campaigning for.  But there was a lesser-noticed quote in that interview that raised many Jewish eyebrows.  Embedded in his criticism that Obama wasn’t quite black enough, he said that Obama seemed “most comfortable with upper-¬middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart.”

The anti-semitic label got thrown around quite a bit then. But a lengthy, damning profile of West in New York magazine this week reveals that he’s no anti-Semite; in fact, he may just be the most Jewish-friendly Christian thinker yet. “When West talks about love, he often invokes the Hebrew word chesed,,” writes the journalist, Lisa Miller, “which in the Jewish tradition means ¬‘loving-kindness.’ ‘Hamlet suffers from the incapacity to love,’ West said at BAM [at a recent talk there]. ‘There’s not a lot of chesed there. He’s not connected to that at all.’”

In fact, the piece brims with Jewish references.  The article is mostly concerned with why West would break so sharply with Obama, and on that front it doesn’t turn up anything new. (Since the Truthdig piece came out last May, it’s been widely reported that West felt slighted that Obama didn’t even thank him for stumping for him in the campaign—some 65 appearances West made for Obama; no small thing. West is convinced, probably accurately, that Obama’s political handlers didn’t want him associating anymore with a polarizing figure like West.) But it does reveal how much Jewish wisdom weighs on West. 

In any event, the real reason he’s become such an Obama-hater, West tells Miller, is that he thinks Obama has forgotten about the poor, and that he’s become a Wall Street crony. But practically speaking, Milller asks, isn’t he better than any Republican alternative; would Romney be much different? 

“What, [West] asked me, leaning across his desk and jabbing his long fingers downward, if the Jews had asked Amos to tone it down a notch?” Miller  writes: “‘Well, Amos,’ West imagines the residents of the Kingdom of Judah, circa 750 B.C., saying in a sort of whiny white-person voice, ‘Don’t talk about justice within the Jewish context, because that’s going to make Jewish people look bad.’ Amos [would] say, ‘What?’ West thundered. ‘Kiss my Jewish behind. My calling is to say, let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”

The echoes of Martin Luther King and Heschel ring loudly here. As is often been noted, it was the social activist and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who alighted King to that translation of Amos during the height of the Civil Rights Movement.  But it’s a revealing instance here of how the Jewish Bible—and West’s oft-remarked notion that he speaks from within “prophetic tradition”—continues to inform West.

There are personal ties West has had with actual Jews recently, too, and not just their tradition.  Though Miller writes  that “West talks a lot about love, but he doesn’t have many close friends,” she goes on about his relation with the California rabbi and writer Michael ¬Lerner. “The founder of Tikkun magazine, [Lerner] worked with West on a book in 1995,” she writes. But Lerner told Rolling Stone that “‘Cornel is a very lonely person. For a long time, I thought I was his best friend … But he had probably about 1,000 best friends. He was best friends with everybody. That made him more isolated.’” 

Of course, it could be that Lerner was nursing his own wounds. But Miller reports convincingly that West is in fact a very isolated person—he’s been divorced three times, has children with most of them, and even recently fathered a girl in 2000, with a Kurdish journalist he met while at Harvard.  Miller is most critical of West’s hypocrisy when it comes to marriage and the merits of raising strong families—which he constantly extols. But even though he appears to be a doting father, he’s husband skills are seriously lacking.

Miller also points out another hypocrisy in West—he’s a vicious critic of bigotry, yet has trouble distancing himself from certain kinds of bigots. Take Louis Farrakhan,  of the Nation of Islam.  “West says he abhors racism and nationalism, yet in a public spat that made headlines in 1999, he refused to concur with Michael Lerner that Louis Farrakhan’s anti-¬Semitic views made him ‘a racist dog,’ preferring instead to call him ‘a xenophobic spokesperson when it comes to dealing with Jewish humanity.’”

Personally, I think West’s language here is more accurate, and honest, than Lerner’s—calling Farrakhan “a racist dog” probably sets back the dialogue between blacks and Jews even more than Farrakhan’s own repellent comments. And yet West’s rhetorical hedging in this case actually reveals that he may just be—contra his critics—the most Jewish friendly black radical since, well…since who?

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The author who wrote about Cornel obviously didn't know much about him. Cornel West co-authored a book on Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin, with me, the editor of Tikkun Magazine. In the countless hours that we worked together, I found Cornel to be a man with a great deal of caring about Jews and the well-being of the Jewish people. Like me, he had many critiques of the policies of the State of Israel and of some American Jewish organizations, critiques that stemmed in part from our joint perspective that these policies would actually in the not-too-long run be destructive to the survival-interests of the Jewish people as well as sullying the image of Judaism, a chillul HaShem.
I should never have said that Farrakhan was "a racist dog," said only once in the context of a very provocative meeting with African American supporters of Farrakan. First of all, doing that was demeaning a human being created in the image of God. Secondly, it is literally true that Farrakhan is a racist, but is not true he is a dog. And as my own sweet dog Chamoodie mentioned to me, he resents my use on that one occasion of the word 'dog' as somehow implying someting fundamentally negative (yes, I'm kidding for those who have no sense of Jewish humor). What I should have said is that Farrakhan is "an unethical and verbally abusive anti-Semite and homophobe," a claim that I backed up on the Tikkun website when critiquing Rev. Wright for his embrace of Farrakhan in 2008.
Although I think Cornel West deeply mistaken about his unwillingness to critique Farrakhan, when looking at this complex human being with any reasonable objectivity one must conclude that he is one of the most significant ethical voices of our time and his generation (be'doro'tav), and deserves not only to be given public honor by those who are ethically sensitive in the Jewish world, but also deserves to have his books carefully studied and his ideas presented to the Jewish world in a coherent way, rather than focusing on his personality or his personal life, the former a great and generous soul, the latter more complex and not easily decipherable. Guard our tongues from speaking evil or spreading rumors! This is a man from whom we Jews still have a lot to learn.
--Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor, Tikkun Magazine and co-founder with Cornel West of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives

"‘a xenophobic spokesperson when it comes to dealing with Jewish humanity"

Shall we refer to all anti-black individuals and hate groups as "xenophobic spokesperson when it comes to dealing with African humanity".
Damn Cornell really works hard to avoid saying it like it is. What happened to speaking the truth? Apparently it took a back seat to racial solidarity.

"Lerner’s—calling Farrakhan “a racist dog” probably sets back the dialogue between blacks and Jews even more than Farrakhan’s own repellent comments."
The idea Jews should turn the other cheek and accept anti-Jewish bigotry from blacks that blacks would not accept from Jews needs to stop. If a prominent and well promoted Jewish leader talked about blacks the way Farrakhan talks about Jews blacks would be calling him worse than a "racist dog" and blacks would not be walking on eggshells to avoid offending Jews by being offended.
I call West (and Smiley, Alice Walker, Jerimiah Wright, etc) out on how they obsess and get on their high horse about the Palestinians yet have never ever protested injustice when it was their people doing it. Crown Heights, LA anti-Korean pogrom, 40 years of hate crimes against Asian students in Philly, the gang rape and death threats against a 11 year old Hispanic girl in Cleveland TX, Puerto Rican Day Parade rapefest, the lynching of a Hispanic man near Austin witnessed by hundreds on black people celebrating Juneteenth, and a simliar Treyvon-like case in Pheonix except the shooter was black and the victim a mentally disabled Hispanic man.
I've heard West and Walker proclaim how they are sick of Obama not treating the life of a Palestinian child and equal to a Jewish Isreali one. Well I'm sick of them treated Emett Till's and James Byrd's murders as a "hate crime" and Yankel Rosenbaum's as a "dispute between communties" 19 of the 20 men involved in Rosenbaum's lynching have never been brought to justice. Are these black civil rights activists working on it? They worked 50 years to bring to justice those who killed Till.

interesting piece. i wrote something around black and Jew relations somewhat recently. it highlights what i think is true, that we ought to all be sensitive to not only our suffering, but others as well check it out here: