For the week ending 23 January 2016 / 13 Shevat 5776

Black and White in Judaism

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Ted

Dear Rabbi,

I am Afro-American and Christian. It is my opinion that the Jewish religion is not racist. But I had a conversation with a Jewish friend of mine who pointed out that Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses for marrying an African woman. Is this so? And what is the Torah perspective on Africans in general?

Dear Ted,

There are many scattered references within Jewish sources to Africans or “black-skinned” people. I won’t be able to address them all, but will at least try to clarify the one you cite that refers to Moses’ wife Tziporah as a Cushite, where Cush normally means either Ethiopia in particular or Africa in general.

The Book of Numbers in chapter 12 states, “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. They said, 'Has the L-rd spoken only to Moses? Hasn't He spoken to us too?' And the L-rd heard [and] suddenly said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, 'Go out, all three of you, to the Tent of Meeting!'…He said, 'Listen to My words. If there be prophets among you, [I] will make Myself known to him in a vision; I will speak to him in a dream. Not so is My servant Moses; he is faithful throughout My house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, in a vision and not in riddles, and he beholds the image of the L-rd. So why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?'”

If Tziporah was literally a Cushite, and Moses’ siblings were critical of his marrying her for racial reasons, you see from the verses that G-d actually reprimanded them and defended Moses, such that your friend’s point doesn’t even fit the simple meaning of the verses.

But in fact, even the simple meaning doesn’t make sense. Firstly, the Torah tells us that Tziporah was the daughter of Yitro (Jethro) the Midianite, which means that she wasn’t literally from Cush at all. Secondly, if their criticism was racial, what does it have to do with their complaint that G-d spoke not only to Moses, but also to them? Thirdly, how does G-d’s emphasis on the distinction between Moses’ level and that of the other prophets have anything to do with the Cushite woman he married?

Jewish sources thus explain that the meaning of the verses is not at all “black-and-white”. Rather, it became known to Miriam and Aaron that Moses had separated from intimacy with Tziporah. They disapproved of this separation because they considered her to be outstandingly righteous, as a dark-skinned person stands out among light-skinned people. This is the meaning of the term “Cushite” which is non-pejorative and often used in Jewish sources as a term for someone unique and outstanding. Their complaint was therefore not about the union between Moses and Tzipora, but about their separation.

The only justification they could think of for Moses’ behavior was a need for celibacy in order to maintain his prophetic state. Thus they complained that G-d spoke not only to Moses but also to them, yet they had not separated from their spouses. Here G-d appeared to them suddenly, without their being able to prepare for it, which consumed them with the feeling of burning fire, thereby rebuffing their complaint by demonstrating that Moses was justified, since on his level he had to be prepared at all times for the prophetic influx.

Another oft-misquoted source wrongly associating the Torah with racism is the story of Noach and Ham in Genesis 9:20-27. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 70a) explains that when Noach became drunk and was revealed, his son Ham severely abused him, resulting in Noach’s cursing Ham by committing his son Canaan to the servitude of Ham’s brothers Shem and Yafet. This has been distorted by many non-Jews throughout the ages to justify “Divinely sanctioned” slavery of “morally degenerate” Africans.

This has never been the position of the Torah or Jewish scholarly texts. Firstly, Ham was not African. And even though one of his sons was Cush, who is viewed as the progenitor of the African race, Ham was not. Secondly, neither Ham nor Cush was actually cursed. Rather the Torah singles out another of Ham’s sons, Canaan, identified by Jewish sources as the catalyst for, and an accomplice of, the crime, who was cursed (verse 25).

In fact, the following Midrash (Tanchuma, Emor 6) actually demonstrates the Talmudic view of Africans’ moral superiority over ancient Greece, the most elevated of European cultures at the time:

One of Alexander the Great’s expeditions brought him to Africa where he observed a king presiding over a dispute between two of his subjects. The one claimed, “I bought a field from this man in which I found a buried treasure. Land I bought, a treasure not. Yet he refuses to take it back!” The other litigant claimed in his defense, “A field I sold, and with it gold. The land is yours and the riches too!”

The king turned to the one, “Have you a son?” And then to the other, “Have you a daughter?” When each answered in the affirmative, the king said, “Let the one marry the other and may the treasure be theirs!”

Alexander was shocked by the whole proceeding, and when the king noticed, he queried, “Did I not judge well? How would such a case be judged in your land?” Alexander answered, “You decided very well. But in our realm, such claims would never be made; and even if such a case were ever to be tried, the litigants would both be put to death and the treasure would be confiscated by the State!”

The African king replied to Alexander the Great, “If the sun rises in your land and if there’s rain and material bounty, it must not be in the merit of the people but rather in the merit of the animals!”

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