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Black People in Jewish Tradition: Eliminating Racism Requires Honesty

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Meylekh (PV) Viswanath

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Black People in Jewish Tradition: Eliminating Racism Requires Honesty

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Black People in Jewish Tradition: Eliminating Racism Requires Honesty

Like many traditions with a long historical pedigree, Judaism has inherited its share of texts with racial bias. Failure to acknowledge this is one reason for prevalent conscious and subconscious racist views that can be found in the American Orthodox Jewish community—the community of which I am a part—which sometimes reveal themselves in overt statements and actions.

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Black People in Jewish Tradition: Eliminating Racism Requires Honesty

Religious leaders of the Ethiopian Jews, prepare for the Sigd prayers - Oct 31, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. 123rf

The Image of God

Judaism’s core text, the Torah, begins with the lofty claim that all people derive from the people God created on day six, and as such, all human are created in the image of God:

בראשית א:כז וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.
Gen 1:27 And God created humanity in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.[1]

In the next creation story (Gen 2:4b–3:24), we hear that all human beings descend from Adam and Eve, the first couple. In dealing with the very touchy subject of racism in Jewish society, it is easy to point to the lofty sentiment of the first story and the mytho-historic claims of the second as evidence that prejudice against any group of human beings on any basis, including the basis of color or ethnicity, has no place in Judaism. If all human beings are created in God’s image, and all of us are descended from the same primordial couple, how can the idea that one group of humans is inherently superior to another even be considered?

While this argument is true in theory, in practice religions are complex, and the reality is that Judaism has its share of traditions and texts that express negative views about certain groups, including black people. This is in spite of the fact that Jews themselves, over the centuries, have experienced racism and been the target of racial stereotyping. This connects to the recent trend among many Jews over the past half century or so, in particular American Jews, to see themselves as racially white, not realizing that their (partial and tentative) acceptance as white is a recent phenomenon.[2]

This self-identification with the majority culture seems to have intensified negative attitudes towards people of color. As a non-white South Asian Jew (with, nevertheless, a relatively privileged background), I am sensitive to explicit and implicit racism in our core texts – where other mainstream Jews may overlook it.

Blackness

The Hebrew Bible itself does not seem to have negative tropes about black people.[3] References to African Kush (the area of modern Sudan or Ethiopia) or Kushites do not come with negative evaluations or tropes. In fact, Moses marries a Kushite woman, and Miriam is punished for speaking negatively about this. Rabbinic literature, however, does contain negative tropes and stereotypes about black people.

Wide Feet

A rather benign example is a text that engages in stereotypical racial speculation about black Africans among other groups. The Babylonian Talmud (3rd–7th cent. C.E.) records a story in which a man bets 400 zuz (double the amount of a standard marital contract) that he can annoy the great sage Hillel by asking him silly questions right before Shabbat, as Hillel was having his hair washed. All three questions, which Hillel answers are about ethnic stereotypes.[4] The third is about black Africans (b. Shabbat 31b):

הלך והמתין שעה אחת, חזר ואמר: מי כאן הלל? מי כאן הלל? נתעטף ויצא לקראתו. אמר לו: בני, מה אתה מבקש? - אמר לו: שאלה יש לי לשאול. - אמר לו: שאל בני, שאל! - מפני מה רגליהם של אפרקיים רחבות? - אמר לו: בני, שאלה גדולה שאלת - מפני שדרין בין בצעי המים.
He left and waited an hour, then came back and said: “Who here is Hillel? Who here is Hillel?” [Hillel] wrapped himself and came out to him. He said to him: “My son, what do you seek?” He said: “I have a question to ask.” He said to him: “Ask, my son, ask.” “Why are the feet of Africans so wide?” He said to him: “My son, you have asked a great question. It is because they live in marshes.”

The story ends, of course, with the man admitting to Hillel that he was just trying to annoy him, and cursing him for making him lose 400 zuz. While this text seems to subscribe to a host of racial stereotypes that may have been common in that period, it is also meant to be a collection of unimportant observations, that Hillel takes seriously because he is a man of infinite patience. The point of the story might have been to showcase Hillel’s long-suffering nature, the stereotype of the black Africans that is presented is unflattering and underscores their otherness.

Drunkenness

A more problematic example appears in another passage in the Babylonian Talmud, which contains a list of 14 positive and negative sayings about a host of places and peoples. It begins unsurprisingly with praise for Jews and Israel (b. Kiddushin 49b):

עשרה קבים חכמה ירדו לעולם, תשעה נטלה ארץ ישראל, ואחד כל העולם כולו.
Ten kavim[5] of wisdom came down to the world; the land of Israel took nine and the rest of the world took one.
עשרה קבים יופי ירדו לעולם, תשעה נטלה ירושלים, ואחד כל העולם כולו.
Ten kavim of beauty came down to the world; Jerusalem took nine and the rest of the world took one.

The text then continues by discussing other groups of people (and one species of animal). Besides the Romans, who are said to be wealthy,[6] and Persians, who are said to be brave,[7] the other the groups are given pejorative characteristics: Babylonians are poor, Elamites are crass, Medes are lice-ridden, Egyptians are sorcerers, pigs are diseased, Arabians are licentious, people from Meishan (a town near Babylon) are brazen, women are chattery, and slaves are sleepy.[8] The pejorative about Kushites reads:

עשרה קבים שכרות ירדו לעולם, תשעה נטלו כושים [ואחד נטלו כל העולם כולו].
Ten kavim of drunkenness descended to the world; the Kushites took nine [and the rest of the world took one].

Though the Talmud here uses Kushites, the term likely refers to black people in general and not just Ethiopians.[9] These unflattering descriptions of women, black people, and enslaved people attests to a certain amount of racial prejudice.[10]

Unattractive

The Tosefta, explaining the reasons for making various blessings, clarifies how the rabbis thought of black-skinned people as unusual and less aesthetically pleasing than light skinned people (t. Berakhot 6:3–4):

הרואה את הכושי ואת הבוריק ואת הגיחור ואת הלוקין ואת הכיפיח ואת הננס... או' ברוך משנה הבריות.
One who sees a negro, or an albino, or [a man] red-spotted in the face, or [a man] white spotted in the face…, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, says “Praised be He who creates such varied creatures.”
את הקיטע ואת החיגר ואת הסומא ואת מוכי שחין או' ברוך דיין האמת.
[One who sees] an amputee, or a lame man, or a blind man, or a man afflicted with boils says, “Praised be the true judge.”
הרואה בני אדם נאין ואילנות נאות או' ברוך מי שככה לו בריות נאות.
One who sees attractive people or beautiful trees says “Praised be He who has made such attractive creations.”[11]

On one hand, the black-skinned person is not considered unfortunate, like a person with a disability, who gets the “righteous judge” blessing, but neither is the black-skinned person considered attractive.

Another place where rabbinic texts express an aesthetic preference of light skin over dark skin[12] is in Genesis Rabbah, explaining Abram’s strange statement to Sarai on their way to Egypt, הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת מַרְאֶה אָתְּ “now I know that you are a beautiful woman” (Gen 12:11). Didn’t Abram know this before now? One of the answers is that (Gen Rab, Lekh Lekha 40, Theodor-Albeck ed.):

ר' עזריא מש' ר' יודה בר' סימון הילכנו בארם נהרים ובארם נחור ולא מצינו אשה יפה כמותך, עכשיו שאנו נכנסים למקום כאורים ושחורים אמרי נא אחותי את למען ייטב לי בעבורך וגו
R. Azariah in the name of R. Judah be-Rabbi Simon: “[Abram said to her:] ‘We have travelled through Aram-naharaim and Aram-nahor, and [although we have seen beautiful women] we haven’t found a woman as beautiful as you. Now that we are going to a place of people who are ugly and black, “say that you are my sister so that they will be kind to me on your account…” (Gen 12:13).’”

A similar implication about the relative beauty of white and black people appears in the Talmud’s interpretation of Numbers 5:28, which states that an innocent woman, who is accused of adultery and forced to drink of the Sotah waters, וְנִקְּתָה וְנִזְרְעָה זָרַע “will be cleansed and have children” (b. Berakhot 31b):

אם היתה יולדת בצער יולדת בריוח, נקבות - יולדת זכרים, שחורים - יולדת לבנים, קצרים - יולדת ארוכים.
If she was accustomed to giving birth with pain, she will give birth will ease; if girls, she will give birth to boys; if dark-skinned, she will give birth to light-skinned; if short, she will give birth to tall.

Another text which implies that blackness is less attractive then whiteness appears in j. Taanit 1:6, which claims that Ham’s son Noah was punished by being turned black for sinning on the ark:

חם כלב ועורב קילקלו מעשיהן חם יצא מפוחם כלב יצא מפורצם בתשמישו עורב יצא משונה מן הבריות.
Ham, dog, and raven behaved badly (=they had sex with their partners on the ark while all others, human and animal, were celibate). Ham left [the ark] darkened (mefucham, a play on his name), the dog left as a public spectacle in his intercourse (they have sex in public), and the raven left as different from all other creatures.[13]

How are we to think about such texts?

Bigotry and Symbolism

It is clear that the rabbis are relating to black people as the other, in uncomplimentary ways. One might argue that the texts don’t have any focused animus against black people, but simply reflect an in-group’s parochial dismissal of foreigners and outsiders. Nevertheless, such an argument is problematic.

Numerous pejorative statements about non-Jews can be found in Jewish texts, and most of these, are general in nature. The texts surveyed above, however, and others like them, single out a specific group for opprobrium by virtue of their skin color. Thus, Abraham Melamed, professor of Philosophy at the University of Haifa, writes in his monograph, The Image of the Black in Jewish Culture,:

In rabbinic literature the black appears for the first time in Jewish cultural history as not only other and different, but as a consequence, inferior too, and in this light the Bible texts about the black were expounded. For generations, these commentaries determined the image of the black in Jewish thought.[14]

Thus, Melamed argues, in these and other texts in the Talmudic period, we can see the beginnings of prejudice against black people in Jewish literature. In contrast, David Goldenberg of the University of Pennsylvania, in his book The Curse of Ham, argues that these negative depictions are not about real black people per se, but are simply playing off of the trope that the black represents the forces of darkness:

Apparently, the Greco-Roman writers, Philo, the Rabbis, and the church fathers drew on the universal symbol and independently applied it to the Ethiopian. We cannot say that application of blackness-as-evil metaphor to scriptural Ethiopians necessarily implies a derogatory view of real Ethiopians. Unless we have evidence to the contrary, we cannot assume that such allegorical exegesis reflects an antipathy toward black Africans.[15]

Even if true, this argument has limited relevance since the point is that “black” to the rabbis is something negative. This prepares the ground for racism even if the rabbis themselves did not think through the natural consequences of their statements.

Medieval Philosophical Bigotry

Whether one accepts Melamed’s or Goldenberg’s reading of the rabbinic period texts, clear prejudiced views of black people can be seen in the works of Jewish medieval philosophers, who were part of the Greco-Arabic philosophical tradition, and shared the negative views this tradition expressed for black people.[16]

For example, in his Kuzari (1.1), written in Judeo-Arabic, Judah HaLevi (1075–1141) lays out the philosopher’s approach to religion and says as follows:

Every individual on earth has his completing causes; consequently an individual with perfect causes becomes perfect, and another with imperfect causes remains imperfect, as the negro (אלחבשי, lit. “Abyssinian,” modern day Ethiopia and Eritrea) who is able to receive nothing more than the human shape and speech in its least developed form. The philosopher, however, who is equipped with the highest capacity, receives through it the advantages of disposition, intelligence and active power, so that he wants nothing to make him perfect.[17]

Here we are presented with a racial theory, placing black people at the bottom of the human “gene pool.” While one could argue that R. Judah Halevi is describing the philosopher’s view and not his own, this answer will not work when we turn to the most respected of all medieval Jewish philosophers, Moses Maimonides (1138–1204), who in his Guide of the Perplexed, (3:51), also written in Judea-Arabic, adopts this view as his own:

Those who are outside the city are all human individuals who have no doctrinal belief, neither one based on speculation nor one that accepts the authority of tradition: such individuals as the furthermost Turks found in the remote North, the Negroes found in the remote South, and those who resemble them from among them that are with us in these climes. The status of those is like that of irrational animals. To my mind they do not have the rank of men, but have among the beings a rank lower than the rank of man but higher than the rank of the apes. For they have the external shape and lineaments of a man and a faculty of discernment that is superior to that of the apes.[18]

This is a difficult text for us to read, and it is disturbing to think how far off Maimonides was in his understanding of race. While it is true that this appears to be abstract speculation as opposed to a policy statement, this does not change the fact that Maimonides apparently held racial views prejudiced against black people.

Moreover, as noted above in the discussion of Goldenberg’s reading of the rabbinic sources, the issue for us is not only the academic question of what these statements and beliefs about black people may have meant in their historical context—though this is important—but how they can be understood and have been understood in later generations. In fact, the idea of black inferiority would feed into the rationale for black slavery, when this became a major institution in early modern times.

Jews, Slaves, and Slavery

Jews owned slaves and participated in the slave trade over the centuries in more or less the same way as their non-Jewish counterparts. From Palestine and Babylonia in the rabbinic and Geonic periods, to the Mediterranean basin countries of North Africa, Spain, Greece, Turkey in the 13th century to the 17th centuries, to the New World from the 16th to the 19th centuries, textual evidence depicts Jewish slave trading and slave ownership.[19] But an important shift took place over time.

In the Talmud and the earlier medieval sources, slaves referred to peoples of all different races. In the Roman period, for instance, people captured in war, or by pirates on the seas, could be kept or sold as slaves, as could debtors and prisoners. People could become slaves for all kinds of reasons, and slavery was not limited to a given race. Moreover, the institution of slavery was not defended by pointing to the racial superiority of one group over another; it was just a normal human condition for a percentage of the unlucky.

In medieval times, there were often some limitations on slave ownership—Christian countries would often not allow Christian slaves, Muslim countries would often not allow Muslim slaves—but slavery was still not limited to a given ethnicity. However, with the European discovery of the New World, and the establishment of plantations ruled by a small number of European whites working a large amount of black slaves kidnapped from Africa, slowly but surely “slave” began to equal “black” and vice versa. To understand how such a move was rationalized in Jewish slave-owning circles, we need to look at two sets of sources that discuss gentile slavery.

1. Slavery in the Bible and Jewish Tradition

On one level, the Torah and Jewish tradition has an anti-slavery thrust. The defining moment of Israel’s history is the exodus from Egypt, in which God brings us from slavery to freedom. Many mitzvot, from the yearly Passover festival, to the third paragraph of the twice daily Shema, are designed to remind us that we were once slaves in Egypt.

Other mitzvot, such as the requirement to treat the stranger living among you with fairness and compassion, are explained as being because Israel were strangers in Egypt and were mistreated, and thus they should understand the plight of the other and be sympathetic. The Torah even has a law against returning a runaway slave to his master (Deut 23:16).

In addition, the Hebrew slave laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy require freeing one’s slave after six years of service. Leviticus, which has a different system, requires freeing the slave on the jubilee year, and moreover, avoids using the term slave at all, preferring the term “your brother.”

ויקרא כה:לט וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ וְנִמְכַּר לָךְ לֹא תַעֲבֹד בּוֹ עֲבֹדַת עָבֶד. כה:מ כְּשָׂכִיר כְּתוֹשָׁב יִהְיֶה עִמָּךְ עַד שְׁנַת הַיֹּבֵל יַעֲבֹד עִמָּךְ. כה:מא וְיָצָא מֵעִמָּךְ הוּא וּבָנָיו עִמּוֹ וְשָׁב אֶל מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ וְאֶל אֲחֻזַּת אֲבֹתָיו יָשׁוּב. כה:מב כִּי עֲבָדַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם לֹא יִמָּכְרוּ מִמְכֶּרֶת עָבֶד. כה:מג לֹא תִרְדֶּה בוֹ בְּפָרֶךְ וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ.
Lev 25:39 If your kinsman under you continues in straits and must give himself over to you, do not subject him to the treatment of a slave. 25:40 He shall remain with you as a hired or bound laborer; he shall serve with you only until the jubilee year. 25:41 Then he and his children with him shall be free of your authority; he shall go back to his family and return to his ancestral holding.—25:42 For they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt; they may not give themselves over into servitude.—25:43 You shall not rule over him ruthlessly; you shall fear your God.

This is all true, of course, but it masks the following unpleasant fact: The Hebrew slave rule applies only to fellow Israelites. Non-Israelite slaves are an entirely different matter. This is made clear in the very next verses of the passage in Leviticus:

ויקרא כה:מד וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ אֲשֶׁר יִהְיוּ לָךְ מֵאֵת הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתֵיכֶם מֵהֶם תִּקְנוּ עֶבֶד וְאָמָה. כה:מה וְגַם מִבְּנֵי הַתּוֹשָׁבִים הַגָּרִים עִמָּכֶם מֵהֶם תִּקְנוּ וּמִמִּשְׁפַּחְתָּם אֲשֶׁר עִמָּכֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹלִידוּ בְּאַרְצְכֶם וְהָיוּ לָכֶם לַאֲחֻזָּה. כה:מו וְהִתְנַחֲלְתֶּם אֹתָם לִבְנֵיכֶם אַחֲרֵיכֶם לָרֶשֶׁת אֲחֻזָּה לְעֹלָם בָּהֶם תַּעֲבֹדוּ וּבְאַחֵיכֶם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ בְּאָחִיו לֹא תִרְדֶּה בוֹ בְּפָרֶךְ.  
Lev 25:44 But such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. 25:45 You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property: 25:46 you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, you may work them for all time. Such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsmen, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other.

Celebrating Freedom with Slaves

This juxtaposition of Jewish and gentile slavery is stark. As pointed out by Hakham Isaac Sassoon in his “Did Israel Celebrate Their Freedom While Owning Slaves?” (TheTorah 2015), perhaps the most poignant expression of the dissonance between the freedom ethos in the Torah and the acceptance of gentile slavery appears in the Priestly Passover law in Exodus:

שמות יב:מג ...זֹאת חֻקַּת הַפָּסַח כָּל בֶּן נֵכָר לֹא יֹאכַל בּוֹ. יב:מד וְכָל עֶבֶד אִישׁ מִקְנַת כָּסֶף וּמַלְתָּה אֹתוֹ אָז יֹאכַל בּוֹ.
Exod 12:43 …This is the law of the passover offering: No foreigner shall eat of it. 12:44 But any slave a man has bought may eat of it once he has been circumcised.

The gentile slave is thus permitted to celebrate his master’s freedom with him, though he will not have the opportunity to experience that freedom himself since, as the Leviticus slave law states, gentile slaves may be kept forever.

Working them Forever

The Talmud records a debate among the tannaim (rabbis from the period of the Mishnah, 1st–2nd cent. C.E.) about how to read Leviticus 25:46, which speaks of keeping foreign slaves “for all time” (b. Sotah 3b; b. Gittin 38b):

לעולם בהם תעבודו - רשות, דברי רבי ישמעאל, ר' עקיבא אומר: חובה.
“You may work them for all time”—“It is optional,” these are the words of R. Ishmael. R. Akiva says: “It is an obligation.”

Whereas R. Ishmael reads the verse as permitting people to keep their gentile slaves forever, R. Akiva reads it as “you must work them for all time,” meaning that it is an obligation to keep them as slaves. This position was adopted by the first generation Babylonian Amora Shmuel, and his student R. Yehudah (b. Gittin 38b):

אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל: כל המשחרר עבדו עובר בעשה, שנאמר: לעולם בהם תעבודו.
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel: “Anyone who frees his slave violates a positive commandment, as it says: ‘you must work them for all time.’”

The Rambam codifies this into Jewish Law:

...אסור לאדם לשחרר עבד כנעני וכל המשחררו עובר בעשה שנאמר לעולם בהם תעבודו...
…It is forbidden for a person to free a Canaanite slave. Anyone who frees such a slave violates a positive commandment, for it states (Lev 25:46): “And you shall have them work for you forever.” [20]

Thus, while a number of well-meaning Jewish apologists argue that slavery should be seen as a less than ideal concession to ancient mores, this is clearly not how certain Talmudic rabbis interpreted these texts.[21] Even if the idea that slaves should be kept forever was not designed with racial theories in mind other than the parochial Jew/non-Jew divide, it can easily be marshalled to defend the institution of black slavery.

2. “Hamitic” Slavery

The classic source marshalled to support black slavery, and one which has been written about extensively, is a specific interpretation of the curse of Canaan. After Noah awakens from his drunken stupor, and learns what his youngest son did—ostensibly a reference to Ham looking at him naked and not assisting him or perhaps worse—Noah issues the following curse:

בראשית ט:כה אָרוּר כְּנָעַן עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים יִהְיֶה לְאֶחָיו.
Gen 9:25 Cursed be Canaan; The lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.

Noah continues by blessing Shem and Japheth, both of whom covered his naked body without looking at him, and part of this blessing is the promise that the descendants of Canaan will be their slaves. Why Canaan is being punished for his father’s sin is unclear, but many interpreters seem to understand his appearance here as a metonymy or synecdoche for Ham, whose descendants are thus “supposed” to be slaves.

Three out of four of Ham’s sons, Cush, Egypt, and Put (Libya?), refer to North African peoples. The equation of Hamites with black people was not made by the rabbis,[22] but during the Middle Ages, the equation of Ham=Africa=black began to emerge. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167), in his gloss on Noah’s curse, responds to this equation:

ויש אומרים: שהכושים הם העבדים בעבור שקילל נח את חם. והנה שכחו, כי המלך הראשון אחר המבול היה מכוש, וכן כתוב: ותהי ראשית ממלכתו בבל (בראשית י':י').
There are those who say that black people are enslaved because Noah cursed Ham. But they have forgotten that the first king after the flood was from Kush (=Nimrod), “and the beginning of his kingdom was Babylon” (Gen 10:10).

In other words, ibn Ezra claims, all Kushites cannot be destined for slavery since powerful Nimrod was descended from Kush. The appearance of the idea at this time connects to the rise in the use of African slaves already in this period.[23] The connection was further solidified when slavery in the New World became exclusively limited to black people. In this context, the curse text was used to defend the claim that black slavery to whites is somehow “natural.”

Jews for the most part had the same attitudes and practices when it came to slaves as the majority culture in which they lived. Thus, when we speak about the slave trade in the Muslim countries during the medieval period, or in Ottoman Turkey, European enslavement of black people in the New World, Jews were willing participants.

This is also true for the American south, and even the confederacy; southern Jews owned slaves and participated in the slave trade, and even marshalled some of the same texts, such as the curse of Canaan, to support the south’s “peculiar institution.” Perhaps the most famous example is the discourse delivered from the pulpit of B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan in 1861—and soon after published as a pamphlet titled “The Bible View of Slavery”—by Rabbi Dr. Morris J. Raphall (1798–1868), arguing that slavery is not against the Torah, and bringing up the curse of Ham explicitly.[24]

Racism in the Post-Slavery Era

Since the Emancipation Proclamation, and especially the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, black chattel-slavery has ended. Moreover, since the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, discriminating against black people has been illegal. Doesn’t that mean that the survey of Jewish attitudes towards black people and enslaved people in classical sources conducted above is merely of academic interest? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding no.

The involvement of the Jewish community in the American civil rights in the sixties is often offered as a proof that Jewish tradition abhors racism and is in the vanguard of the fight to eliminate it. This is true but it is not the whole truth. Sadly, racism is alive and well in certain parts of the Jewish community,[25] including well-known Orthodox rabbis, such as an influential YU rosh yeshiva who referred to black people using racist language when addressing other rabbis at a conference.[26] One of the sources for this racism is the Jewish textual tradition surveyed above.

While these sources come from a different cultural context than that which produced New World black slavery, modern readers, especially young students, are unlikely to consider sophisticated arguments as to the context in which the rabbis might have made apparently racist statements. And, as such, we need to be sensitive to the danger of the readers of these texts developing racist attitudes, as a result.

Some apologists attempt to excuse such shortcomings in our tradition through favorable comparisons with selective quoting of other traditions, such considerations, true or false, are really irrelevant; we must examine our heritage and behavior, as it is, and deal appropriately with it, where necessary.

Certainly, racism against black people was not created by or practiced primarily by Jews. Nevertheless, once the idea that black people were natural-born slaves took hold, many classical sources, that viewed black people negatively, were used to justify the image of black people as destined for slavery.[27]

This problem exists for all Jews, who are the inheritors of this tradition, but the problem is especially severe for religious Jews, and especially for impressionable young yeshiva bokhurim (students), who study these classical rabbinic texts: They imbibe the values of the religious texts that they study daily, and even from some of their rebbeim (rabbinic teachers), who learned it when they were in yeshiva, and this feeds into the racism that they see and hear in the general population.

An Honest Look at Our Tradition: A Step Forward

What can we do to reduce the racist impact of Jewish texts on our children studying in yeshivot? Jewish texts teach us many valuable lessons – indeed, the essence of the Jewish community is Torah. The answer is not to stop teaching Torah. The message of God to the Jewish people is not racist. Nevertheless, Jewish texts do have explicit racist content. What should we do?

I believe we need to be honest about problematic Jewish traditions by teaching these texts within their proper historical context, and stating explicitly that they are harmful, and do not reflect contemporary Jewish mores. This requires us to admit that, like all texts, Jewish texts are a product of their times, but it will also allow the young Jewish student to recognize that not all statements made in the Talmud are equally applicable to modern times and sensibilities.

If we are not to imbibe historical prejudices and preconceptions, we need to take history into account when learning Jewish texts.[28] If we believe that that the ways of Torah are pleasant, we need to act according to our own moral impulses to condemn all forms of slavery and racism.

Published

June 23, 2020

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Last Updated

July 12, 2020

Footnotes

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Prof. Meylekh (PV) Viswanath teaches finance at Pace University, New York, NY. He has a Ph.D. in Finance and Economics from the University of Chicago and is interested in how ancient economies intersected with religion. One recent publications is, “Could What You Don’t Know Hurt You? Information Asymmetry in Land Markets in Late Antiquity,” in The Oxford Handbook of Judaism and Economics.