Sunday, 17 January 2010

African Hebrew Israelites: History and Theology

I'm about to leave the community, having been here for a month. I've enjoyed my time here a lot and have learnt a lot as well as had some fairly heated debates. In general I'm left with the impression of something really very good happening here, although I still have some misgivings about the accuracy of their historical narrative.

I have been impressed by the holistic nature of the community. Indeed, everyone says that they are not religious - the lifestyle is completely integrated and not detachable into separate components. Ben Ammi's writings also have this quality. His vision encompasses every aspect of life and history and leaves nothing unexplained. I have been struck with comparisons to Muhammad's community - wrenched from a strife-ridden and unfocussed life and hammered into shape by a charismatic, dedicated and visionary leader who - crucial in the distinction between other cults which have met a sticky end - cares passionately about the salvation of his people from a short, vague and godless existence.

The following I base on my month with the community, discussions and interviews with members, and seminars given during the Writers Conference 2009. I have also worked through 3 of Ben Ammi's texts: God, The Black Man and Truth (1985), Yeshua the Hebrew Messiah or Jesus the Christian Christ? (1996) and The Ascension of the New Adam (2009). While there's plenty more that could be said, my own interests are in theology and history, so that is what I've chosen to focus on. It's also not a definitive assessment, as there are still interviews I haven't listened back to, but I wanted to put something down before I forget.

Foundational Narratives of the Community

I feel that there are two different, but interlinked, ideologies at work in the community. One is very specific, and the other more general, but both deal with the nature and function of the community, providing a foundational narrative for the members. I hear these different ideologies being espoused by different people. The more common, as far as I can tell, is the specific: this ideology focuses on the historical narrative of descent from Israel, and enslavement (in America) as a divine punishment for forsaking the way of the Lord. There's an awful lot of literature out there already about the African American identification with Ancient Hebrews, and every author seems to have created their own set of categorisations to describe the spectrum of black interest and embracing of Jewish or Ancient Hebrew religion, culture, identity or history. These are to be understood as quite distinct from black Americans who have converted to mainstream Judaism. Instead, the spectrum covers a range of beliefs which share the focal root of direct ancestral lineage from the Hebrew or Israelite people of the Bible to African Americans today. As well as the sociological literature on the phenomena, there is a significant quantity of work attempting to substantiate these claims by way of analysing African traditions which show allegedly strong similarity to Hebrew culture, traditions and language. I have yet to embark fully on an analysis of this literature, but the first text I ventured into - Nana Banchie Darkwah PhD's The Africans Who Wrote the Bible (2002), which I borrowed from the village's Institute of Regenerative Truth - was a singularly weak piece of research, lacking in basic knowledge of history, zero connection with the wealth of contemporary literature on Ancient Judaism, but replete with misunderstandings, defective logic, waffle and hyperbole. Aside from his personal knowledge of the African Akan tribe's language and history, his main sources were the Encyclopedia Britannica and a TV documentary called Who Wrote the Bible. I remain bemused as to how someone with a PhD could complete such a disastrously bad work of scholarship. I also skimmed through Rev. Ishkamusa Darashango's text God, The Bible and the Black Man's Destiny (1970), from which I assume Ben Ammi borrowed the title of his own work as well as some theoretical bases. This was much better researched and argued, although his use of scriptural passages to establish that God is literally black left something to be desired theologically. He made good use of references to prophets having 'woolly hair' though, and this did make me stop and think. However, I do have difficulty taking completely seriously someone who made comments about caucasians being "the ultimate expression of evil", resulting from "a strange mishap of nature", and claimed that black holes are "pockets of black power in the cosmos...the dwelling places and operational base from which the spirit of our Black ancestors direct and supervise the struggle". It should be noted that while these texts are present in the library they are not the work of members of the community. Regardless, I nervously look forward to opening the next such title on my list.

I heard Sar Elyakim Ben Yehuda, one of the elders of the community, give an impassioned speech at the end of a heated debate about modern perspectives on the slave trade, where he stated that the real crime was their own separation from God, their language and their traditions - and this is what must be repaired. This was also the line taken at a breakfast/youth seminar during the Writer's Conference. This was - obviously, though we were not informed - in fact a disciplinary session for half a dozen underachieving teenagers. A video was shown of the slave trade, and the speaker gave a strong berating based on Deuteronomy and claimed that the bondage was the result of the curse God had placed on His people lest they drift from righteousness. This curse, he argued, is still in effect today. As evidence he read from a recent HaAretz article on the dismal failure of the Ethiopian Jewish community's integration. I had also read this article while I was staying at the Port Inn in Haifa, and it was indeed quite damning of the situation. He quoted some statistics on the prevalence of crime, drug use and suicide among children of the immigrants. Shockingly, Ethiopians have a suicide rate of 10%. However, he laid the fault ultimately at the feet of the Ethiopians for not striving to keep the laws of God. As Hebrews, they had been entrusted with a duty which they had not worked on preserving. The same fate, it was hammered home, awaited these six children if they did not make the right choices about the direction of their lives. I was quite shocked by the force of the reprimand - but then I would be, given my upbringing. I don't know what effect it had on the children, but I can appreciate the determination in the adults, those who succeeded in escaping a situation in America very much like the Ethiopians' here, and spent decades establishing their community, to make sure their young don't slip into the decadent wastage they have tried so hard to leave behind. One quote I wrote down reads "I guarantee what awaits you if you don't make the right choice is suicide, alcohol, dope, jail, the crazy house...or back in Babylon with a chain around your neck." Like I say, quite strong considering they hadn't even failed their exams but had passed at 56% - a result which apparently made them "functionally illiterate". But then I'm English and unused to fire and brimstone sermons, or heavy-handed discipline.

The second, more general ideology I have heard twice, but it has been implied by other people too. This states that the community has elevated itself to a holy way of life, Yah-mind it has been called, and exists to act as a 'light unto the nations'. This idea focuses less on the historical and more on the ethical principles which have been developed by the community. The difference in focus means a greater emphasis on their leadership role in salvation terms - the saving of humanity, of the environment, etc, and less on salvation of themselves from their own history. The priest I interviewed seemed to take this gentler viewpoint, claiming that although Ben Ammi was this community's messiah, other messiahs would rise up from other communities to guide them, and offer different insights which the Hebrews too would learn from.

This division is even present in the writings of Ben Ammi. While he consistently claims that the Hebrew Israelites are the descendents of Ancient Hebrews, and their enslavement was a fulfilling of the Curse*, he also implies that Israel is not a historical community but a spiritual role which different communities can fulfill at different times. Both the early gentile Christians and early Muslims were attempting to "establish that nation which would be spiritually Israel and thus become the light of the world"; they knew that "the Magna Carter had passed from the hands of ancient Israel and that they were given a historical season to assume the role to become the children of the chosen by the Spirit of God." (God...p27)

*e.g., "Africans...were victims of a cruel plot to control us, an international religious plot that came about as a result of Blacks disobeying the laws and commandments of God." (God...p.7)

The first notion of slavery as punishment is interesting, and serves several functions. In creating this historical narrative (I advise that all historical narratives are creations - ergo I do not intend this statement as a rejection per se of theirs), they have provided a crucial tool in justifying their mission and motivating the continuation and progression of the lifestyle. Without this anchor, it would be difficult to maintain the disciplined community-structure which comes with the firm knowledge of identity. The power of the narrative is obvious from the degree to which they have succeeded in overcoming their previous situation, and continue to attract recruits to their cause. The strictly regimented lifestyle, quite different from what people otherwise experience in western democracies, would likely have ossified quickly without this historical base.

However, this narrative actively competes with another people's. In their attempt to redefine or rediscover history and the heroes of the religious narrative to refocus it on the needs (quite desperate needs in many cases) of the African diaspora, they cannot help but deny the traditional narratives of other sections of society, specifically the traditional Jewish one, a version of which is the one in place in Europe and America. The conflict with the traditional Jewish narrative has already caused controversy and some bad feeling toward the community - although these issues now appear to be resolved, more or less. Regarding the version in place in the west, it would be useless to create a narrative which still accepted or allowed for the validity of existing interpretations which were embedded in the culture and history of abuse. In order to achieve salvation for this community, the competing narratives which have been used by the oppressors have to be dismantled and demonstrated to be incorrect; they must be overthrown. In order to throw off the shackles of the last 400 years, these must be ideologically explained in a way that defuses and disempowers the oppressors' narrative. Hence it was the community's desertion of God which led to the divine punishment of enslavement - not (as the alternative states) the intellect and technological/cultural prowess of the European which allowed them to carry away millions of savages into bondage. It is no longer the white man who is responsible - they have been merely a tool of God's will, which was to punish his chosen people for their misdemeanour. This move places responsibility (and therefore power) in the hands of the Hebrew community instead of making them victim to the European. Their captivity is explained, perhaps even justified, and further utilised as a means to enhance their position now, propelling their community into the forefront of the cosmic drama. Further, it acts to neutralise bitterness towards the aggressors of the past who were also only enacting the divine mandate of the curse, and therefore allows the Hebrews to progress past the victor-victim model (and any implications of revenge it may provoke) and onto the issue of salvation for the entire human race. This is clearly a very powerful development on previous narratives of civil rights and black nationalism, and one which has served to propel the community far beyond mere escape of the past, forward into the creation of the future.

As the people return to the righteous path, God's grace also will return to them. The justification for this is demonstrated in their overcoming of enormous opposition during the first twenty years in order to establish their community, and, now, the very apparent strength and progress of the group and the individuals therein. This argument is very difficult to disagree with - the holiness of the lifestyle is evidenced in their longevity, lack of disease, economic success, and a long list of other benefits they reap. This perhaps is something quite unique about Ben Ammi's community; while depending heavily on scripture, their innovations are not based on the will of the leader but on well-supported lifestyle changes. Any arguments that the community should accept a new revelation which would work against immediate physical health and mental calm would be rejected out of hand. Such is logically incompatible with holiness. The proof is quite evident in the pudding. This is intimately linked to the very immanent theology of the community, to which I will turn shortly.

The newest development in the community's theology is contained in the title of a pamphlet by Ben Ammi: The Ascension of the New Adam. Arguing that the Hebrew Israelites have succeeded in releasing not only the shackles of the last 400 years captivity in America (the 'new Egypt'), but actually reversing the fall of Adam, Ammi claims that we are now in a new historical-spiritual phase. By returning to Biblical precepts and adopting a holy lifestyle, the Hebrews have returned to the primordial state of Adam at creation. Whereas the entire past has been a process of descent, and all humans were considered descendents of Adam, the new phase is one of ascension: the Hebrews have constituted a New Adam, in harmony with the creator and His laws, who is ascending from this pure state into one that has never been known before, and of which no prophecy has yet spoken.

Immanent Theology

I mentioned in the last blog that the praise of choice for God is Yah Khi - God Lives. This is not immediately obvious as a radical statement, but the thinking behind it is very interesting once unwoven. The notion of a living God acts to remove the divine from dry intellectual discourse or dogma. Evidencing this is the lack of interest in creation which the priest demonstrated. God is not thought about but felt - and felt as presence in the living of life. In the same way that Fergus Kerr claimed the phrase "God is love" expresses its intent better when translated into "love is divine", I feel that Yah Khi could be understood as "Living is Godly"; if God is the essence of life, and provides human vitality, then following His laws/acting to please Him is the same as living healthily, promoting ones own vitality, clarity and life-energy. One member told me that there is a significant divide between African and European spirituality. He used a Bob Marley quote to try and explain this: "You cannot understand, but a living God is a living man." Personally, I think I can understand this - to believe in a God who is equated with life and positive energy means that to live well is to praise God. The implication of this dichotomy (we did not reach this side of the conclusion but I think it's a safe bet) is that the European mode of spirituality is either (a) dryly philosophical or (b) impossibly diffuse with a hundred different pagan gods. Or, (c) both. I think Roman Catholic Christianity would easily tick both these boxes, if the full course of its history is taken into account. Of course, and I probably don't need to point this out but, if this is the case then he is fundamentally incorrect: there has always been a current of immanent theology within western religion, and if anything this is currently at its peak. The RAMP survey amply demonstrates this, where a substantial percentage of those polled in all western countries described their religious belief as being in a "God Within" rather than any more transcendent or classically theistic option. However, it could be that he is correct in a smaller way, that 'African spirituality' tends to have more to do with movement and energy than the mind, whereas 'European spirituality' is often essentially contemplative or intellectual. The first portion of this is not my assumption but is stated by Ben Ammi in his God, the Black Man and Truth (his first book) where he claims that "rhythm and movement are inherently in our soul." and that "At its inception, it (dance and music) was a magnificent expression of African creative genius; it was first and foremost a form of prayer through Divine and Holy movement." (God...p.28).

Ben Ammi states emphatically that "The quest for God...has nothing at all to do with fantasy or mysticism or the so-called 'supernatural' world." (God...p36). Ben Ammi discusses satan and argues that he is only real when given bodily form, i.e. through the actions of human beings. The unstated corollary is that the same is true of God. Therefore, there is only the embodied. Purely metaphysical beings have no part of this cosmology. God is in life, in the living. Ammi argues that worship=work and work=worship. Everything we do is worship, and depending on the quality of our actions it is worship of either God or the devil. To act in accordance with the divinely ordained cycles of the universe is to worship God. To act otherwise is to create friction within the otherwise smoothly running cosmos, and this friction will lead ultimately only to one's own demise. Likewise, in order to find God not only must the individual be in tune with the cosmos, but "every aspect of a society must be ethical and righteous" (God...p39). Otherwise it is impossible to escape the impurities of profane living and the corruption which is inextricable from these.

Priest Uzzi Yahu (which by the way is the best name ever for a Priest) told me that God is apparent in creation, but most specifically in human beings. Humans, he claimed, are the fullness of Yah dwelling in creation*. The spirit has its source in another realm, and this appears to be something mental. There is no doctrine of afterlife or an eternal soul - Ben Ammi states he has nothing to say about this, as no one has ever come back to tell us about it. However, the Kingdom of God is a quite realisable concept. It is precisely what the community is doing now: a community where God's rule is respected and his sovereignty brings the benefits it deserves. In fact the community explicitly regards itself as The Kingdom of Yah. Uzzi Yahu claimed that 'truth' equates to "life-giving teachings" (Likewise Ben Ammi states that "Truth consists of those words, doctrines, outlooks and visions which keep man in harmony with the processes that sustain eternal life." (Yeshua...p.39)). This is an interesting point of view, and one I am quite inclined to agree with: the function of theological teachings is to make human life better; to help us live in harmony with the fundamental principles of reality. The truth-value of any doctrine is assessable by how well they improve life, make it more harmonious, richer, and attuned. If the teachings are life-giving or life-enhancing, then they must be true, and if they are not clearly they are false. The teachings of Ben Ammi have demonstrably passed this test, and hence his status is undeniable within the community. He succeeded in not only bringing them to Israel and establishing a base here, but has improved their lives a hundred times over.

* Ben Ammi poses the question how does God reveal Himself and answers with the passage Gen.1:26-27. "You were to see Him in those who were made in His image or likeness - His servants." (God...p24). Likewise, Heaven is demythologised, and cast as an immediately possible reality: "heaven is the reality of the righteous as they live, not a place for spirits after death." (God...p56).

I can hear some of my compatriots grumbling that this is not what truth means (at least, those who have not studied a liberal arts subject to postgraduate level). Scientifically, truth is a literal concept - ideas are 'true' to the extent that they accurately mirror or represent objective facts in the world. To Ben Ammi, if the western 'Euro-gentile' world has pursued the course of literally understanding the world, they have done so to the destruction of all that is beautiful, positive and meaningful about life and humanity. In pursuing an agenda of materialist reductionism the west seems to have lost sight of the far more important meaning in living. A culture which has not "strengthened our families, increased our brotherly love or inspired our honesty" is self-evidently pursuing an incorrect agenda in regard to how humans should live, regardless of whatever other claims to "truth" its depiction of reality may have.

Often, when someone has proposed a radically immanent theology, the religious establishments have condemned them as atheists. This was the case with Maimonides, Paul Tillich, Mordecai Kaplan to name just three. I began to feel much the same during the Sacred Visitation in Jerusalem. During a rigorous debunking of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and some of the traditions it claims, I imagined that Richard Dawkins would pursue similar points with much the same force. The guides delighted in finding inconsistencies and critiquing the narrative presented by the dominant religious institutions, in particular promoting their own claim that Jesus did not die and rise again, but was healed and resuscitated. I remember Sar Amadiel Ben Yehuda remarking to us that rather than believing that the Temple should be rebuilt, the community believes that the body of the faithful are the Temple.

The Power to Define.

A large part of God, the Black Man and Truth is dedicated to reclaiming the Power to Define. This is understood as the ability or right to create the narrative, definitions, terminology, values, concepts and meanings by which a community orients itself and relates to the world. This has already been demonstrated in the community's willingness to rescind the dominant narrative of history provided by Europe-America. The desire does not stop at anything so simple though, it reaches far into the values implicit within society. Because the order of society "was established by men of evil purpose (who) have disdained His cycles, rules and guidelines...Everything in the present order of things must be called into question." (p.52). The Power to Define is crucial to Ben Ammi's project: it is "the essentiality of spiritual warfare" and "one of the greatest weapons that can be used to control men and nations" - in the wrong hands it is disastrous, in the right hands it is the key to salvation.

Ben Ammi is highly critical not just of the lifestyle of the west, but also of its abstract theology. If the western Euro-gentile world is not of God, it therefore is of Satan - "Jesus said that satan was the father of a lie, but what has he been lying about? Since he is the arch enemy of God, we can presume that first and foremost he has been lying about God" (p223). The western metaphysical tradition which separates the divine and the profane into the spiritual and the material commits a fundamental error in isolating God from the action of living and the substance of the world.

I appear to have been wrong about the community's use of the Enoch literature. Uzzi Yahu had not even heard of it when I mentioned it to him, and I have not seen any sign of it in either of the libraries. So why is it one of only half a dozen texts (aside from Ben Ammi's work) offered on their website? To be fair, the metaphysics of Enoch, particularly the eternal soul and judgment after (rather than in) life would be difficult to reconcile with their very immanent theology. However, there would be much they could draw on considering the strong ethical base, the demand to re-attune human actions with cosmic order, and particularly 2Enoch's emphasis on moral duty towards animals, something which it is difficult to find much justification for in the Tanakh. Both make significant comparisons between the ordered harmony of the natural world and celestial bodies, and humanity's refusal to follow the paths preordained for us. However, the Enoch tradition also provides an interesting precursor in terms of the New Adam concept. 2Enoch presents the patriarch Enoch as ascending to heaven and being brought infront of God where he is commanded to "serve in front of my face forever". Upon his 'return' to earth, he is able to mediate not only the redemptive grace of God but also provides an allegorical experience of divine presence through his own physical form. He is claimed to be able to 'carry away the sin of humanity', implying that his new role (and nature) can effect a reparation of the rift between man and God caused by Adam's sin. A similar concept is present in the New Testament, where Jesus is presented as the Last Adam, heralding a new phase in human existence. In all these traditions we see a similar powerful idea being promoted: that of a return to the state of grace which humankind occupied prior to our crucial error in eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

The Enoch tradition's clear division between the righteous and the unrighteous is also reflected in the Hebrew Israelite theology. "there are but two forces which vie for the mind of man – and which control his actions, influence his decisions, and inspire his creations/inventions: good and evil, righteousness and unrighteousness, Yah and satan." (New Adam p.2). However, the Qumran writings do figure relatively prominently in their thought - Ben Ammi utilises the War Scroll's end times prophecy of war between the Sons of Light and sons of Darkness in his argument that there is a coming struggle between the western Euro-gentile world and the righteous (Yeshua p.3). He further argues that because the modern world has ceased to believe in the presence of satan, his presence in the institutions is invisible. Because evil is no longer given form in the minds of men, evil's work is no longer perceived. Instead the rejection of godliness is understood as innocent secularism, and "all attempts to formulate good and evil will be categorized as authoritarian" (Yeshua p.5).

The Hebrew-Hellenic Polarity

A crucial polarity, which is refered to repeatedly, is between Afro-Hebrew thought and Greco-European thought. The intention here is to separate the holy, God- and revelation-centred life from the pursuit of reason. The latter Greek tradition of enquiry has served to embolden man in his own thoughts, and separate him from the creator. However, while this philosophical and scientific approach may reap temporary rewards in material terms, its success will be (and has been) short-lived. Man now stands facing a chasm, where even the earth is rebelling and refusing to process the waste we produce. Because we have lost contact with nature and become trapped in a fantasy dream/nightmare of technology without thought to what effect this is having on the world or ourselves, we have been blind to the damage being inflicted on the environment until it is now impossible to ignore. In his presentation at the Writers Conference, Nasi Aharon ben Israel claimed that this is particularly due to the nature of the languages we are using. While Hebrew is a literal language, one authorised by God and whose essence is shared with the reality it depicts, European languages such as Greek and English are metaphorical and designed by humans, therefore can depict only human ideas. Thinking and communicating in these languages only helps to lead us away from God, and away from the true nature of reality. In order to heal the divide created by Adam's transgression, we should reunify our conceptual approach to the world, and unlearn the knowledge of Good and Evil: "We must move away from the language of dualism and the use of metaphorical language, the language of deception." The way to do this is via language, but also through focussing solely on Good, rather than the choice between Good and Evil. Ben Ammi also claims that "As we start the journey back, we will find our people clothed with ungodly lifestyles, symbols and perverted Euro-gentile wisdom. There has to be an undressing piece by piece until we arrive in Genesis naked (innocent) and pristine before God, that He may redress us in Holiness." (God...p.28). The problems inherent in understanding via languages other than Hebrew could be represented by the literalism with which many people take the religious doctrines. Nasi Aharon gave an interesting example of the term Holy Spirit, which in English appears to describe some kind of ontological being - a thing. Contrarily, in Hebrew the term Ruach HaKodesh gives a more clear understanding of a spirit which is imbued with holiness - not an object, but a spirit with which we approach life. If we imbue our spirits with holiness, then we will live in a godly way.

Similarly, the Living God of the Hebrews is contrasted with the mythical Sky God of the Greeks. Regarding Jesus (or Yeshua as they prefer to call him), they argue that his message was corrupted by the Church, which blended pagan myths into the historical figure and translated him into a new version of the Sun God. While there is an element of truth in this, they appear to lack detailed knowledge of late Second Temple currents which had already begun developing many of the concepts, including the enthroned Son of Man/Youth tradition which fed into early Christology. Of course, these developments could be seen as already under the influence of Hellenism and so would be contrary to the postulated 'authentic' Hebrew theology*. Ben Ammi talks disparagingly of the Pharisees' proto-rabbinic innovations, claiming they "were fashioning a new religion which was in fact directing the Hebrews away from the three primary institutions that were to be the center of their lives: the Holy Scriptures, the Temple and Teaching Priests. The oral law was in fact making redemption impossible" (Yeshua p.27). When I asked Uzzi Yahu whether there was a specific historical point where Hebrew or Jewish religion had begun to go wrong, and prior to which they were attempting to restore the traditions, he answered that the Hebrews had never managed to stay on the true path for long - they slipped quickly into pagan ways at every opportunity. He claimed that "always when there has been a Judaism, it was already off-course". This is why messengers have been sent at frequent intervals - to attempt to guide the people back to God's prescribed way. My question was an attempt to find out which specific Judaism they were attempting to return to. His answer demonstrated that there is not in fact a historical authentic Judaism, but only an ideal one. The community is thus attempting to return to the perceived 'truth' of the Godly way, rather than a previous instantiation of it.

* These doctrines are nascent in the Tanakh - most prominently in Daniel but also Psalms. Their development happened largely in the intertestamental literature - the apocalyptic, apocrypha and pseudepigrapha which were indeed composed during the Hellenic rule - as in fact was Daniel, a text which is repeatedly cited as authoritative.

As I mused in a previous post, any attempt to interpret scripture is a creative act. By idealising the Hebrew faith the community is actively creating a new way to live, in which the resemblance to a previous historical state is largely irrelevant. New 'revelations' such as the dietary restrictions are implemented in response to contemporary issues which affect the people. I have long thought that source material can be bent in an infinite number of directions. In terms of biblical interpretation, people find the meanings to which they personally are attuned - effectively, they read their own psychology into the text. By rooting the community fundamentally in the scriptures, Ben Ammi has been able to creatively address the issues most pressing for his people and over the course of 40 years bring them from a desperate state in America, to one which it would be difficult not to call idyllic, while grounding them in a historical and spiritual narrative which provides a unique sense of identity and purpose.

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