A decade ago, in 2013, my oldest son experienced shocking racism within our local Jewish community. The context was a discussion by a Jewish educator about how children, grandchildren, and so on, are punished for the “sins of the father” so to speak. Part and parcel of this was the statement both that Cham ben Noach was the first “Black person” and that his progeny were cursed with both blackness and slavery as a result of Cham’s immodest reaction to his father’s drunken nakedness. The insult to injury, of the incident, was that all of this was said on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. So i took that time to speak on this issue, as well as the broader ramifications this has for our community. This is what i had to say…
In a 2009 video titled Feeling the Hate in Tel Aviv journalist Max Blumenthal recorded Israelis in Tel Aviv using the word “Kushi” derogatorily to refer to US President Barack Obama. One Israeli interviewed, explains that this is essentially the Israeli Hebrew equivalent of the “N” Word, more extreme, in usage, than even the Yiddish “Schwartz” or “black” (at 01:21). The “N” Word itself, comes from a mispronunciation – by ignorant Southern racists – of the Latin “niger,” the masculine adjective for black (feminine nigra, neuter nigrum). As such, it should be no consolation that the origins of the word “Kush” are quiet beautiful in Jewish tradition, as we will see. First, however, a little more preface, and then a discussion of why i am writing on such a topic this Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Ethiopian Jews in Israel have been saying for years, along with many African American Jews who visit Israel, that there is much wider-spread discrimination against them in Medinat Yisrael than in the general population of the United States. Given the history of America, and the high ethical standard that Judaism holds us to – which Southern Jews very often did not live up to in the South – this has always come as a great surprise to me. It has not, however, come as quite as great a surprise to my wife, a Jewish mother of four, whose father is African American.
Similarly, while nearly every “white” Jew I know, reinforced by all the good intentions in the world, has urged me not to write this, or to simply address the matter privately, nearly every African-descended Jew that I know has urged me to do otherwise, and has said that this is a much bigger problem than they often feel comfortably confronting to the predominantly non-African Jewish community. Personally, if I were in my sons’ shoes, I would have zero respect for a father who would try to sweep this matter under the rug, or ignore the broader implications of what happened.
Furthermore, in light of the fact that I am writing this on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, ignoring, or even speaking quietly about this matter would seem to be a slap in the face to the memory of those who spoke out so loudly against racism and injustice in this country. It saddens me that on this occasion of remembrance of such a righteous activist for peace and justice, that I, the father of Jewish children of partial African American background, have to speak out against racism in the Jewish community – even my local Jewish community – which has apparently been allowed to grow like mold swept under a rug and left there to grow worse, as long as it remained out of sight.
What happened, and why it must be addressed to the Jewish community a large, for the purpose of soul-searching, is as follows. I had just gotten back from my PhD residency out of state, yesterday afternoon. The focus of my doctoral work is on reconciliation and bridge-building between Israelis and Palestinians, and Jews and Muslims abroad. The practical aspect of my thesis involves using historical models of medieval Jewish-Sufi collaboration and even co-worship – involving such Jewish spiritual heavyweights as Rabbeinu Bachya and the Maimonidean Dynasty of Nagidim – to guide Jewish and Muslim interactions and reconciliation (hashlamah) today. There is a certain optimism in the work that i do in this program, and in the outgrowth of it in the Hashlamah Project Study Circles which have formed all over the globe. But as optimistic as i might be at times – at most times, in fact – there can always arise occasions like the one in which i am writing about today, where the proverbial wind is taken out of my sails.
It is awful enough to know that such aforementioned ignorance is far more widespread amongst Israelis than it should be. We can sweep it under the rug, or pretend that it isn’t widespread because those of light skin amongst us – with our White Privilege – are not as cognizant of the oppression of our darker Jewish brothers and sisters. But the denial borne of our privilege does not define reality for those who do not feel empowered in our community to speak up about racism. Maybe you do not think this is a problem in the Jewish community. Perhaps you have seen a random “black Jew” (also known as “Jews”), at your synagogue so you think that because they are in attendance, “there isn’t a problem.” Indeed, had there been a Jew of obvious Sub-Saharan appearance in attendance where my son encountered racism yesterday, i don’t doubt that the comments that were made would have in fact been held back. In that regard, i am glad that they were said, so that they could be confronted. Had they not been said, the cancer of racism might not have been detected within our community, and thus, could have been allowed to spread without intervention.
Almost a decade ago, I remember hearing an interview on NPR with author David Goldenberg, about his then new book, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which looks at how a misinterpreted Bible story has been used to justify centuries of African slavery. It seemed odd to me at that time that there would still be such a need for an in depth discussion on the matter. Honestly, I did not think anyone really believed such things anymore. Addressing it seemed about as relevant as a book addressing a Satmar controversy about riding a bicycle. Certainly such discourse applies to rare, relatively isolated communities, but we should not extrapolate from such minority controversies that there is some relevance to the broader community of what is today mainstream forms of Judaism. Yesterday, however, my son encountered this myth from a Jewish educator and my view changed. I suddenly realized why Goldenberg felt the need to write such a book and bring attention to this myth.
I will not go in depth about where this occurred, or who the comments were said by. The point here is not to call out the individual in question, because this is not an individual problem, nor an isolated occurrence. This much is clear, because the individual in question did not exhibit the slightest bit of caution, nor shame in saying what they said. They spoke authoritatively when they said that Cham ben Noach was the “first black person,” evidenced by the connection between “Cham” and “Chum” (an etymology which i will debunk historically), and that because he laughed at his father’s drunken nakedness, Ha’Shem cursed him with blackness and slavery. “This is why,” this individual unabashedly declared, “blacks have been slaves” and why “they are bigger and stronger” than other peoples, “ready for work.”
My son felt humiliated and ridiculed. He didn’t know what to do but come home and tell me. He has never been told of such racism in any segments of Jewish society; this was literally his first exposure to it. The worst part is that this tells me what the individual lay-teaching the class has themselves been indoctrinated with. These ideas were learned from the individual’s own educators, otherwise, they would never have felt such confidence to speak of this from an authoritatively Jewish position.
Having explained the problematic statements which were made, i will explain why these claims are patently absurd, and even in conflict with the teachings of Judaism. This is not a matter of the liberal Jew “ignoring the Orthodox position,” this is a matter of backwards, racist thinking permeating our community and masquerading as Judaism, in contradiction to clear Jewish teachings on the matter that are being ignored, in order to lend support to this racist exegesis.
First and foremost, let us start with the fact that it is a scientific fact that lighter skin is not the original pigmentation of human beings. There is literally no scientifically-minded person who believes otherwise. Human beings originated in Africa. Midrashim tell us of people before Adam who existed before him. But we do not need Midrashim to tell us what science confirms. We do not need a Midrash to tell us that the Earth is round, and we do not need to question whether there are really mermaids just because Rashi seems to think that there were. We do not need the parable of Rabbi Akiva, where the fox cleverly reasons with the fish that he too originated from the water – “why don’t you come out onto the dry land? We’ll live together, as my ancestors lived with your ancestors” – in order to confirm evolution. Scientific inquiry is Jewish, it is not in contrast with Judaism and Halakhah. We know that pale skin did not give rise to more melanin, but instead that as human beings migrated out of Africa, the quantity of melanin lessened. We also know that Ha’Shem is the God of Justice, and does not color-code a people for slavery. It is a moral tragedy that this still needs to be said in this day and age.
Secondly, we know that in the Biblical account, the Torah teaches that Cham ben Noach was not himself cursed, but instead one of his sons was cursed. The reason for this curse was due to his own actions of injustice, as an invader of the Holy Land, who imperialistically expanded beyond that territory which his family had agreed to, as we will see. His curse was, in essence, due to his own personal greed and had no bearing on his brothers, or on his father.
The prophet Amos tells us Ha’Shem asks: “Are you not as the B’nei Kushim to Me, O B’nei of Israel? says Ha’Shem. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?”
What does this mean? Not only does the person who traces their ancestry to the ancient Children of Israel have no superiority over those who trace their ancestry to the Children of Kush, but Amos tells us something else here. The Bavli Talmud (Chullin 60b) explains that the Avvites were the original Philistine people in the days of Abraham and that the Philistines of Moses’ time were descended from the conquering Caphtorites.
Rashi tells us that Amos is explaining that the Philistines of Moses’ time literally descended from an integration of the early Philistines of Abraham’s day with the Caphtorites of the Egyptian line and empire (Eretz Yisrael was under Egyptian control during the Exodus). Jeremiah 47.4 also tells us the Philistines in later times were from Caphtor.
Rashi thus tells us that the enigmatic passage in the Torah “The Canaanite was then in the Land” means that the Canaanite “was in the process of conquering the Land of Israel from the offspring of Shem.” In the same way, we read that when he returns to the Land, Abraham finds that “the Canaanite and the Perizzite were then dwelling in the Land.” This is to indicate that these were not indigenous people, but invaders, whose presence in the Land represented a recent colonial endeavor. We find corroboration for this view in Sefer ha’Yobelim, preserved in various sources, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, and by Ethiopian Jewry.
Ham and his sons went into the land which he had taken, which fell to him by lot in the land of the north (south); and Canaan saw the land of the Lebanon to the canal of Egypt that it was very good, and he did not go into the land of his inheritance to the west of the sea, and dwelt in the land of Lebanon on the coast of the sea.
For the author of Jubilees, Cham ben Noach condemned these actions of Canaan: “Cham his father, and Cush and Mezrem [Mitzrayim], his brothers, said to him: ‘You have settled in a land which is not yours and did not fall to us by lot, you should not do this; for if you do this, then you and your children will fall by condemnation in the land, and as cursed ones by sedition, for by sedition you have settled and by sedition your children will fall and you will be rooted out to eternity.” This emphasizes both that Cham’s entire line was not cursed, and also that Canaan would be rooted out; that they would be removed from the Land, never again to return, “for eternity.”
Thirdly, the Torah itself tells a clear, moralistic tale about anti-black, anti-Kushite racism, in the story of Miriam’s slander against Moses’ Kushite wife. Miriam apparently saw a problem with Moses marrying a Kushite, very dark-skinned woman. We can argue over whether this was because of her appearance or some other reason, just as some apologists for anti-Ethiopian discrimination in Israel claim that this “doesn’t happen anymore” and was “only because of a difference in Minhag.” Nothing could be further from the truth on either count. For Miriam’s prejudice, however, she was cursed with leprosy that made her skin “as white as snow,” indicating both a racial element to her discrimination and also demonstrating that she herself – while lighter than a Kushite – was hardly of a Caucasian skin tone (Bamidbar/Numbers 12.10).
Fourth, a point must be clarified that the historical etymology of the name “Cham” comes from the Egyptian word “Khemet” which is the Egyptian word for the region of the Egyptian Empire. In Ethiopic Ge`ez, a Semitic language, the name for Cham is “Kam,” further corroborating this etymology. Cham was so named not to indicate that he was “Chum” or “brown,” but to indicate the region he was associated with. This should seem a very logical, straightforward explanation, considering that Rashi explains Berashit was a sort of history book for the nations, to explain the context of the rest of the Torah and why it was “just” and “upright” that the Children of Israel were returning to Eretz Yisrael.
Fifth, Rashi explains that BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. In his commentary on Bamidbar, Chapter 12, the preeminent Torah commentator explains why Moses’s wife was called a Kushite, saying: “Scripture teaches that everyone acknowledged her beauty just as everyone acknowledges a Kushite’s blackness.” Furthermore, Rashi adds that: “Kushite, Its numerical [gematric] value that is equal to the phrase ‘beautiful in appearance’.”
Sixth, we see also in the account of Pirqei d’rabbi Eliezer, that both Cham and Shem were in fact black! Like the late, Medieval Kabbalistic texts, such as the Zohar, the received version of Pirqei d’rabbi Eliezer is probably a redacted text, edited together with layers of commentary from many generations, surviving only in recension. The passage in question is followed by a confusing commentary that speaks about the descendants of Cham being destined for slavery, no doubt the teaching that was imparted to my son’s own lay-teacher, who taught rather selectively on this passage. This commentary is at odds, however, with both what it says right before and with the fact that only Canaan, not all the sons of Cham were cursed with slavery. Had Cham ben Noach been “turned black” as a color-code for slavery, we should certainly expect this curse to have been extended to all of his dark-hued progeny. But that is not what we find. We can thus, logically infer a redactive break of these passages into two “layers” of composition. In the earliest layer we read:
He blessed Noach and his sons, as it is said, and God granted them their gifts and bequeathed the entire world to them. He blessed Shem and his sons, black (shehorim) and comely and granted them the entire cultivated world. He blessed Cham and his sons, black (shehorim) as the raven, and granted them the coast of the sea [in East Africa]. He blessed Yafet and his sons, all of them white (levanim) and handsome and granted them deserts and fields.
What we find here is that black is beautiful and white is handsome. All colors are a blessing. No color is a curse. Of course, just as Amos tells us the Children of Israel mixed thoroughly with the Children of Ham – the Kushim – we are told in the Torah that Yaphet would “dwell in the tents of Shem” (Berashit/Genesis 9.27). In the later layer we find the commentary:
…Rabbi Akiva says that they cast off the yoke of heaven and made Nimrod, slave son of a slave, king over them so that the sons of Cham are slaves and woe to the land that is ruled by a slave.
Whoever preserved the text seems to have felt the need to correct the skin color passage by an erroneous reference to the “curse of Ham” from the Torah, which is actually the “curse of Canaan” in the Torah. This seems like a mistake which the original author would not have made, but a mistake that was becoming popular in some circles. Still, it is a misfit with the preceding quote. Had it appeared much later in the document we could perhaps say that the author was at odds with himself on the issue. But the fact that it occurs shortly after makes it seem a “corrective” insertion by a redactor. Such an observation is elementary to historical-critical scholarship.
How do we know? Because here, Pseudo-Akiva is commenting on an earlier comment attributed to Rabbi Akiva’s teacher. This, of course, is not the real Akiva, but the commentator who is trying to explain away the earlier comment, under Rabbi Akiva’s name in Pirqei d’rabbi Eliezer.
This passage might seem problematic in that there is apparently a view that the blackness of the B’nei Shem was beautiful, whereas the blackness of the B’nei Cham was simply “as the raven.” But we see here that being black as the raven was a blessing, not a curse. This demonstrates that the author of the earliest layer did not see Cham being under a curse. This is key to understanding that the earliest layer of this pseudepigraphical account contained an early recollection that black is beautiful and that melanin is a blessing not a curse; furthermore that the earliest Shemites were black, just like Hamites.
So what was the problem with Canaan? As we have seen, Rashi tells us that the enigmatic passage in the Torah “The Canaanite was then in the Land” means that the Canaanite “was in the process of conquering the Land of Israel from the offspring of Shem” (Rashi, Artscroll 119). In the same way, we read that when he returns to the Land, Abraham finds that “the Canaanite and the Perizzite were then dwelling in the Land” (Berashit/Genesis 13.7). This is to indicate that these were not indigenous people, but invaders; as has been discussed in reference to Amos’ comments. Their presence in the Land represented a recent colonial endeavor.
Is there rabbinical debate about Cham being a bad guy? Yes. Certainly there is. There is also rabbinical debate about tattoos being permitted, permitted if the tattoo does not have the Name of Ha’Shem, permitted if it does have the Name of Ha’Shem, but does not have the name of a polytheistic deity, or forbidden across the board. The point is that the Talmud has debates of all sorts of ideas, some of them purely hypothetical. To use a debate about whether Cham castrated and sodomized his father – a debate that sounds ridiculous to nearly every Jew today – in order to justify something as outrageous as slavery, is beyond offensive, and requires more than a simple apology, it requires us to raise our voices against the permeation of such racist ideas into any recesses of the Jewish community.
To suggest, let alone claim authoritatively, that the origin of both Sub Saharan Africans of dark skin, and the enslavement of such people is with the “Curse of Ham” is obscene. It is the sort of thing that i would expect from a backwater racist Church in the Deep South, absolutely not something i ever thought my children would hear in a Jewish context in this day and age, and in the North, in a region with a rich history of Jewish social activism and fighting against injustice. In the end, however, i am glad this was said. i am glad so that my son could see that racism is still a problem, even in the Jewish community, and thus, so that he could understand that we still have a lot of work to do, not just in bringing about equal rights and justice amongst the nations, but also right here in our Jewish community by confronting and combating statements like those he heard yesterday, and also in Medinat Yisrael, in fighting for equal rights and respect for the Ethiopian Jewish community, or the isolated Abayudaya Jews of Uganda whose cries for help at times, and community inclusion at all times, often fall on deaf ears.
 See www.HASHLAMAH.org for more information, and the current chapter list.
 Berashit (Genesis) 13.7
 George Schodde. The Book of Jubilees: From the Ethiopic. (Oberlin: 1888), 33; also within the collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
 For a full discussion of this, see: Dr. Micah Ben David Naziri (Mikhah ben David), Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaqi (Rashi): His Life and Approach to Justice in the Torah (New Dawn Publications: 2009).