Critical Race Theory vs. Torah

Moses by Michelangelo, (Photo by Pxfuel/Doctored by Marc Kornblatt)

People who rail against critical race theory make me wonder about their stance on the Torah. Scripture is so filled with damaging images of the human race that studying it might leave students feeling wretched about being born.

The negativity starts with the primordial mother who spurns God in favor of a serpent. It moves on to Cain, who murders his brother. Then comes Ham who boasts to his brothers that he saw their dad Noah lying naked in a drunken stupor, followed by Sarah sending off Hagar and Ishmael to die in the desert, Jacob lying to his blind father in order to steal his older brother’s birthright, Reuben standing by while his brothers sell their sibling Joseph to the Ishmaelites, and Simon and Levi massacring the newly circumcised men of Shechem.

And that’s all in Genesis, well before 2 Samuel, 11-24, where King David seduces Bathsheba and orders her husband Uriah to his certain death on the front line of battle. Talk about despicable behavior.

Of course, in the hands of a competent teacher, oh, the lessons one can learn from such negative stories.  

This subject came up with a guy I bumped into recently. We knew each other from New Jersey back in the day. Now we’re both Israelis. While catching up on our lives, I told him that I write for children and recently sold a picture book. His immediate response: “I hope it’s not one of those politically correct ones.” 

He railed against the cancel-culture mentality of liberals, which led me to point out that liberals might advocate removing challenging texts, such as Huckleberry Finn, from suggested reading lists, but conservatives have led the way in the outright banning of books from library shelves. He was unaware that six early titles by Dr. Seuss were not banned by liberals. Rather, they were pulled from publication by the Seuss Foundation for their racist imagery the Foundation feared might compromise Seuss’s reputation. 

Of course, in the hands of a competent teacher, oh, the lessons one can learn from Mark Twain and If I Ran the Circus.

Politicians have sought to score points by vilifying teachers who bring up the subject of racism in their classrooms. They have turned critical race theory into a dog-whistle phrase to shield students from the facts, insisting that they don’t want the white ones to feel guilty about the role slavery played in American history.  Talk about a cancel-culture mentality. When I was a public school teacher, I thought it was important to tackle difficult topics.

Certainly, it is hard for those studying the US Constitution to ignore the loathsome Three-Fifth Clause (Article I, Section 2), which reinforced the belief that slaves were considered not fully human. The same goes for the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, Section 2) that required a slave who escaped from his master to be returned to that master as his rightful property.  

It is also unsettling to learn about the U.S. government’s record of expelling America’s indigenous people from their ancestral lands in the name of Manifest Destiny, signing treaties that provided those expelled people with other lands, and then repeatedly breaking those contracts. 

Teaching about the modern state of Israel’s history can be similarly challenging.  Scholars who have uncovered evidence that the nation’s founders did not stand on pedestals are not enemies of the state. Helping students differentiate between harsh historical facts and glamorous legends is a public service. Educating citizens to blindly follow what their leaders tell them is dangerous. Pedagogy beats demagoguery hands down. 

Viewing the 1948 War from Israeli and Palestinian perspectives is crucial if Israel wants to raise a new generation of critical thinkers who seek to build a better world. Zionism is a concept in need of thoughtful discussion. Avoiding talk about the Nakba and the ascent of Israeli ultra-nationalism is a fool’s folly.

The rise, fall, and possible return of Donald Trump has pushed the US backward toward the era of John Crow. Educators who seek to put America into historical perspective, as a land wrested from the native population and built on the backs of enslaved Africans, are not out to get Uncle Sam. They want to expand their students’ minds.

Teachers in Israel who aren’t afraid to point out that Ben Gurion’s government, sadly, mistreated Palestinians and let the drafting of a constitution fall by the wayside, are trying to accomplish the same thing.

The historical record, like the Torah, is filled with ugly details. Analyzing those details intelligently from multiple perspectives is a sign of good teaching. Isn’t that the kind of work the rabbis of the Talmud did?

About the Author
Filmmaker, playwright, and children's book author Marc Kornblatt is the producer/director of the award-winning documentaries DOSTOEVSKY BEHIND BARS, STILL 60, WHAT I DID IN FIFTH GRADE, and LIFE ON THE LEDGE, among others, and more than 20 web series, including MINUTE MAN, ROCK REGGA, THE NARROW BRIDGE PROJECT, and BLUE & RED, RESPECTFUL ENCOUNTERS OF THE POLITICAL KIND. He and his wife made Aliyah in 2019 and now live in Tel Aviv.
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