Not too long ago, a friend and I were speaking of racial issues. She asked me to comment on a rabbinic citation she had seen in literature concerned with racial relationships between African-Americans and Jews.
The citation attributed Africans with punishment from heaven, and defamed black people as reprobate. She did not have the quote at hand, and I was not familiar with it. I did not deny that such remark may have been uttered, but claimed never to have read such a thing. In any event, if such remarks existed, we would have to consider the times during which the speaker lived. Or perhaps the articles citing the remark had misquoted, or mistranslated the rabbis. Again, if such a thing existed, it was surely not dominant in the tradition. In any event, such nonsense is not widely accepted among Jews. Besides, so few Jews even knew their own literature...
Even as I responded, my series of denials and qualifications sounded shallow, unnourishing, unmusical.
A few days later, in a favorite bookstore, I browsed. I was erasing time. I reached for the book called Stony the Road We Trod: African-American Biblical Interpretation., edited by Cain Hope Felder. I flipped open the covers. Page 148 greeted me, an article by Charles B. Copher entitled, "The Black Presence in the Old Testament."
R. Huna said in R. Joseph's name (Noah declared), "you have prevented me from begetting a fourth son, therefore I curse your fourth son." R. Huna also said in R. Joseph's name: "you have prevented me from doing something in the dark (...co-habitation), therefore your seed will be ugly and dark-skinned." R. Hiyya said: "Ham and the dog copulated in the Ark, therefore Ham came forth black- skinned while the dog publicly exposes his copulation.
The words existed. The insulting words existed.
My rabbi one day, giving a lesson on ethical behavior, make the stunning remark that there is no reason to think of the rabbis as overly noble people. They were, he said, people. There was no reason to think they were any more, or less, fallible than we. Most of the congregants who were present were outraged. How can our rabbi, who most of the congregants were pleased to nag, or criticize, or talk about both to his face and behind his back, how can he possibly suggest rabbis were anything less than immaculate? We are forced to recognize that our rabbis uttered some stunningly pristine and cogent remarks. Our rabbis also uttered some nonsense.
Among the spectacular, incorruptible remarks the rabbis asserted and repeated is the following:
All of humanity derived from a single set of parents so that no person can claim, "My lineage is better than your lineage, my father better than your father."
How sad to recognize that some Jews, maybe even some rabbis,
self-righteously cite Shylock that Jews are exactly like everyone else in terms of the commonality and do, perhaps, not give sufficient redence to the commonality of another.
Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same Winter and Summer...?
--Shakespeare, "The Merchant of Venice", III:i
Do black people and African-Americans have eyes? Instead, we read this:
Moreover, because they twisted your head around to see my nakedness, your grandchildren's hair shall be twisted into kinks, and their eyes red; again, because your lips jested at my misfortune, theirs shall swell; and because inflected my nakedness, they shall go naked, and their male members shall be shamefully elongated. Men of this race are called Negroes.
--Tanhuman Noah, cited in Felder, p. 148
One wants to rail that such investment in kinky hair, red eyes and bulging lips, is a disservice not only to Africans and their descendants, but to Jews!
We know for a fact that African communities and Jewish communities composed themselves of all types of people. We know for a fact that there were African's among Jewish communities and Jews among African communities! We know for a fact that each community had and has a number of skills and attributes which need never countenance a discussion of hair or eyes, lips or flesh. These dimensions Shakespeare spoke about, attributes (in the philosophical sense) are givens, and of little philosophical or moral interest. What matters is what we do with our hair (finding resonance with Absalom or Mary, the sister of Martha?), what we do with our eyes (do we seek ugliness, or do we look for beauty?), and what we do with our lips (do we bless, or do we curse?).
The most wicked people we read about in Torah are not spoken about in terms of diversity and multiplicity. The Amalakites are known basically for being a cowardly warrior class. The Moabites are basically known for being capitulating idolaters. The Canaanites are fundamentally known for being immoralists. They were not holy, but single dimensional, and therefore did not act in terms of intelligent, creative activity as we know both the Jewish and the African peoples were continually engaged in doing.
Limitations to appearances are nonsensical, prejudicial and racist. They are offensive and belligerent, ignorant and abusive. I am sorry it exists in my holy literature. All Jews should be sorry. I believe it detracts from some of the very holiness of the literature. I cannot believe the same rabbis who said that every man, woman, and child has a common lineage can have uttered this nonsense, much less have codified it in our secondary literature. It is bunk.
I am sorry I know of its existence; sorry I read it; sorry people will be reading it for generations to come. I grieve that it offends black people; and grieve that it stands as a nervous partition between black people and Jewish people. From the moment it was uttered, until who knows when, all black people have been stigmatized under the erasure of being black.
We who believe in, commune with, or seek the limitless and profound -- whether we call it God or human dignity -- would quickly dismiss such arrogance and supremacy.
We cannot erase nonsensical, hurtful, remarks whether canonized in holy literature or canonized in the prejudices of contemporary fellows. We cannot erase such remarks through immediate denial, nor neglect, nor benign dismissal. The caricature of a people by way of their lips, their hair texture, their appearance in general will continually be found, resuscitated, and brandied about. If not by us, then by our common enemy. So it is written; so it shall be until ... as we Jews say, until the messiah comes.
Nonsense can only be erased through excellent sense.
It does not even seem fit to call the nonsense uttered above Midrashim. Midrash is not a noun but a verb; not a cut-and-dried pronouncement of eternally valid remarks, but an enthusiastic retrieval of the essence of religiosity. The essence of religiosity is the behavior which reflects the essence of God as
...merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in
goodness and truth, keeping mercy into the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin;
by no means clearing the guilty... (Exodus 34:6-7)
The above citations are guilty of slander, or malicious gossip, of character assassination, of epistemological, and perhaps cultural, annihilation, of ignorance, of misplaced supremacy. And where is a well-placed supremacy?
Preferable are the remark of Amos:
Are you not as the children of the Ethiopians to Me,
O, children of Israel? sayth the Lord
The black and white of it all is that blackness and whiteness do not matter a whit to the pursuit of holiness.
It seems even rabbinic remarks say more about the speaker of the remarks than they do about Torah which they portend to be interpreting. This is tantamount to saying that a majority, but not all, utterances do not interpret Torah. They interpret the speaker. No doubt some comments more or less properly interpret Torah; that is, elucidate a particular meaning.
My hypothesis implies there are two manners of reading. One manner of reading is reading from my situation. A second manner of reading is the kind of reading which "perceives" beyond my historical conditions. The second, ecstatic readings, are legitimate recontextualizations which read the will of the Holy One.
Every human being, the rabbis said, ought to carry around two slips of paper. One should say: I am dust and ashes. The other should say: The world was created for my sake. Each human being ought to carry around two slips of paper, and know when each applies. And when the human beings want to feel a bit more like the crown of creation than the dust of earth, he or she should act in a rational, creative manner. Acting in a rational, creative manner is the beginning of holiness.
When racist Midrashim were uttered, the scroll which said, "Dust of earth" was unraveled.
The notion that blackness is a punishment, or yellowness a disease, redness a sign of eternal embarrassment, or whiteness of "purity" or cowardice, are remarks made of mud, not ruach. The holiness of all nations, both Jew and non-Jew, are in the future. The givens, being merely given, ought to be used to affect the future according to what we envision. Of course, if we envision mud and error, then the future will be mud and error. But if we envision a kingdom of heaven...
The readings which are made of ruach suggest human behavior will act to end the frustrations which disfigure society. At their ecstatic best, the rabbis spoke as if, in the face of misery and defeat, we ought certainly not add to the anguish, but evoke the face of justice and compassion through our every thought and deed. The rabbis did not recommend we live an illusory idyllic existence, but their overall agenda was to teach the distinctions which would enable human beings to adhere to the biblical challenge to choose the good.
In contemporary terms, the rabbinic concern to repair broken, wounded existence would have us evoke our personal responsibility in the face of disrepair.
Forgive me for every timeless moment of selfishness and arrogance. Forgive me for every shallow shelf of seething sea within. Forgive me for every unfurrowed field.
Evoke in me more music. Evoke in me more depth and clarity. Evoke in me the labor of the plow, the discipline of the sowing, and the expectation of the harvest in my life. Allow me to earn the beneficence and sustenance distributed so freely.
Forgive me for attempting to erase you by tacit neglect. Forgive me for treating you as less than human, less than loving, less than inspiring and creative. Forgive me for not boasting your talents and intelligence, kindness and wisdom, your dignity louder, and louder still so that I, too, might find my voice of righteous respect, my own dignity, our shared humanity within radical change culminating in cheerfulness.
Evoke in me the will and ability to erase nonsense and provide rational, creative activity.