Updated: Feb 18, 2022
It’s radical to read Torah to its roots. When the Kabbalists imagined the Tree of Life, they placed its roots in the world of mundanities, physical objects and material actions, which they believed was the lowest and furthest from the spiritual essence of God. But Adrienne Rich, the Jewish feminist thinker and poet, admonishes them, saying, “Begin with the material.” What happens when we start with bodies?
The body is assigned a role from birth. In Jewish tradition, this might start with a brit mila, simchat bat, or brit shalom: an eight-day-old baby, without a concept of the enormity of the task ahead of them, is formally accepted into Judaism. Our bodies take other roles at birth, as well, voluntarily or not: sex, race, disability, nationality, and some say gender and sexual orientation.
When I was born, I received another role: caste. Since my heritage is mixed, my body is a casted body, a Brahmin body, because it is a Hindu body. But it is also a casted body because it is a Jewish body.
In our parshah, Mosheh speaks with God about the consequences of the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf. Pleading, Mosheh appeals to God’s pride—even if the Israelites strayed, how would God maintain appearances if God freed the Israelites, only for them to have been wiped out in the wilderness? Astonishingly, this brazen appeal to the Divine self-image succeeds, and Mosheh walks down the mountain to his unscathed people.
Hardly a dozen verses later, we read (Shmot 32:26-28):
Mosheh stood up in the gate of the camp and said, “whoever is for ה׳, to me!” And all the children of Levi gathered with him. And he said to them, “Thus says ה׳, the god of Israel: every person put a sword on your thigh, cross and return from gate to gate in the camp. Each person murders their sibling, and each person their friend, and each person the one close to them.” And the children of Levi did as Mosheh said, and on that day three thousand people fell from the people.
This was the beginning of the Jewish caste system. In one fell swoop, Mosheh established a radically new direction for the people of Israel: the nation that emerged from Egypt a “mixed multitude” was now irrevocably partitioned into those who were “for ה׳'' in the moment at the gate and those who were not. Unsurprisingly for a society already divided into lineages, Mosheh’s backers were none other than the Leviim, Mosheh’s genealogical family.
At its essence, any caste system is a social hierarchy that assigns societal roles and privileges based on lineage. In order to control lineage and ensure that people of one caste cannot escape to another, intermarriage between castes is severely limited. In the caste system of the Torah and Talmud, intermarriage between Kohanim and lower castes is forbidden. Like in other caste systems, privileges accrue to the Kohanim and Leviim from the Yisraelim and outcastes: there are places Yisraelim cannot go and things they cannot touch, clothes they cannot wear, and food they cannot eat. Additionally, the Torah establishes a one-way flow of economic resources, in the form of tithes, to the Leviim and Kohanim.
The stark separation between castes hides at the very core of our people’s relationship to God: at the people’s very first encounter with the Divine at Mount Sinai, God calls them a “goy kadosh”, commonly translated as “a holy nation”. But kadosh does not simply mean “holy”, however holiness is experienced. It specifies a holiness that is set apart—so the people of Israel is set apart from the other peoples, and the upper castes are set apart from the lower castes. In Israel, holiness results from division.
Mosheh invokes the power of this holy division when he declares “thus says ה׳”, because, simply put, God never said that. While some commentators claim that for some reason or other, the Torah just left out the part where God commanded Mosheh to commit a tribal massacre, we see a different situation through the lens of caste: Mosheh, the human, elevated himself to God’s level to institute the caste system and seize power and access for his kin.
Finally, we cannot forget that the caste system was forged in violence. The main tool the Leviim used to assert their dominance was mass murder; caste is inherently a system that enacts violence on bodies. By virtue of birth and ancestry, bodies are assigned: this one will do violence, and this one will have violence done to it. So, it’s natural that in the days of the Temple, the Kohanim were called upon to be Israel’s butchers, slaughtering the nation’s livestock and feeding themselves on the compulsory donations of the Leviim and Yisraelim.
What does it mean to live in a casted body as a modern Jew? Certainly less than it once did—no longer are certain foods, locations, and clothes limited to members of one caste or another. After the Temple’s destruction, the Talmud radically limited the caste system’s influence; the rabbis hint that they think the whole system is morally bankrupt. The Talmud rationalizes retaining the Kohanim’s few remaining privileges, such as taking precedence for reading Torah, blessing wine, and giving thanks for meals, by citing darkei shalom, “the ways of peace”—an unsubtle reminder of the massacre at the foot of Sinai.
But living in a multiply casted body, as I do, permits me a different lens from the sages of the Talmud, or even the medieval commentators, who lived in a time before European colonialism and conquest, when the idea of a “Jew of Color” had a dramatically different meaning, or perhaps no meaning at all. Two anecdotes could draw out the analytical power of this lens.
The year is 2008, and I, with a few of my teenaged Hebrew school classmates, walk into an Orthodox shul in Manhattan on a Shabbat morning. A worried-looking gabbai rushes over to the adult in the group, my rabbi, and holds a hushed conference with him, eyes darting between my rabbi’s kind face, and the conspicuously nonwhite members of my Hebrew school class. The conference concludes promptly, and my friends grimace at the prospect of splitting up into our designated sides of the mechitza, but we file into the sanctuary nonetheless, with curiosity and reverence. I later ask my rabbi what the whispering was about, and he responds, “He couldn’t believe you all were Jewish, let alone bar and bat mitzvahs! I had to assure him that I witnessed every one of you reaching Jewish majority. Wild, right?”
Flash forward a half-decade. A dusty white van blasting Hindi showtunes deposits me and my research team by the side of the road in Pakdi, Bihar, a tiny village in the North Indian countryside. We came to observe the village meeting at which staff of a government antipoverty program would conduct a participatory exercise where the villagers mapped the village, showing roads, schools, hospitals, landmarks, and each habitation of the village.
The meeting was to be held in a school adjoining a temple; we sat on the temple steps before the meeting began, as the villagers assembled. As we were sitting, the temple priest approached us and began a conversation with us. His first few questions skirted the topic of caste—“where do you live?” wasn’t very helpful to him, and we knew better than to answer “what are your names?” with accurate responses—like in Judaism, last names are a direct link to your caste. He quickly noticed our evasion, and soon enough, he asked us directly: “what is your caste?” We demurred, and even though he pressed, he never did learn our castes.
The common theme that unifies these two anecdotes is the suspicion that someone is not where—and who—they should be. When our surroundings organize themselves with the principle of kedushah, holy separation, we can always find ourselves in violation of that separation. When the criterion of exclusion is invisible, like one’s surname or one’s Jewish identity, suspicion multiplies and maneuvers around the normal barriers of perception.
A person who’s not used to living in a casted body might protest at the comparison between these two anecdotes. “Sure, sitting at a Hindu temple, caste is definitely relevant,” they might say, “but how is davening in New York a caste issue?” The answer is less uplifting than we might hope.
When British “Orientalists” first visited India, our texts describing the caste system fascinated them, especially the ones that mentioned varna, one of the words that they translated directly to “caste”. Since varna literally means “color”, the British misunderstood as saying that a person’s level in the caste system was identifiable by their skin color.
But now, in an ironic twist, a Jewish casteism that was once defined by lineages stemming from our patriarchs Ya’akov, Levi, and Aharon has expanded to incorporate color, the British misinterpretation of the Hindu caste system. With whiteness seen as the default Jewish skin color, Jews of Color know that our presence can always be met with suspicion that we are breaching holy separation.
Usually, when we show up in Jewish community, we are not indiscriminately slaughtered, as in this week’s parshah. Few community leaders call to their kin to murder their siblings, friends, and close ones. But as the entire Jewish community faces attacks from a world of antisemitism, Jews of Color feel the heat of suspicion—that we are outsiders, separate from the “real Jews”.
While White Jews are fast-tracked to Israeli citizenship, a Black Jew is required to fast in public for six days before an Israeli ministry recognizes his claim to Jewishness. Police and congregants with guns patrol synagogues, vigilant for anyone who seems “out of place”. And racism and casteism intertwine in many communities’ prejudice against converts to Judaism: more than half of Jews of Color say they have been treated like they don’t belong—mistaken for non-Jews, interrogated, barred access. Even after God accepts us, like after the golden calf, upper-caste Jews take their own initiative to exclude us through separation and suspicion.
The casted body reacts to suspicion like a doughnut reacts to icing: first it absorbs, then it coats, then it hardens on the outside. When we read Torah to the roots, we read it as a body, and with our bodies. So when we encounter a text like Ki Tisa, the part of suspicion that lives inside our bodies says, your ancestors died at Sinai. The part that coats says, yes, but I am a Jew, and no one can take that away from me. And the part that hardens says, my difference makes me strong.
Robin Banerji (he/him) is a queer Jew of mixed Ashkenazi and South Asian heritage living in Nacotchtank, more commonly known by its colonized name, Washington, DC. A self-described Boring Queer™, he is a member of SVARA's Street Team, an emerging organizer of folk dance and song, and the new co-lead of the New Synagogue Project's Arts, Culture, and Learning team.