Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Racism, Rambam and the black etrog

I'm confident that Rambam’s reputation will survive, but I really wish he had come up with another way to describe a black citron

The etrog is the inkblot of Jewish ritual objects. No two are exactly alike, so, once you’ve cleared the main halachic hurdles, it comes down to personal taste. Your choice of etrog speaks volumes about you. What’s more important? Cleanliness, symmetry, color, lumpiness, smell, place of origin, stem stability, or size?

I’m a tactile kind of guy, so I like my etrogs lumpy – also, since I’m a guy kind of guy, size does matter, and the smell should remind me of a vintage Lemon Pledge commercial, the one where the voice-over sings the “Lemon Tree” song.

But what of color? It has to have some yellow in it, though some green is acceptable, and it should be free of those nasty dark blotches. Maimonides specifies that an etrog that is inflated, decaying, pickled, cooked, black, white, spotted, or green like a leek is unacceptable.

I was reading through this section regarding the etrog’s color in Maimonides’ “Mishneh Torah” the other day, and a passage (based on the mishnah) jumped out at me:

In places where the etrogim grow naturally with a slight black tinge, it is kosher. However, if [the etrogim] are very black — i.e., like a negro — they are unacceptable everywhere.

Like a Negro?

The Chabad website, where this translation appears, apparently has no issue with the rather politically incorrect phraseology, which, to be fair, also appears in other English versions of the “Mishneh Torah.”

You know, I’m not sure what troubles me more, the fact that a guy who is revered as the greatest Jewish philosopher this side of Moses may have been a not-so-closet racist (the original Hebrew term is “Cushi,” or “Cushite”), or that a much more contemporary English translation thought nothing of using a word that left the English language somewhere around the time George Wallace governed Alabama and James Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss (50 years ago this week).

I can imagine Maimonides sitting on his veranda in Cairo, watching a Nubian servant passing by, and thinking, “Thank God my etrog doesn’t look like that!” In the etrog Rorschach test, Rambam pulls the race card.

What is it about Cushites and people named Moses? In Numbers 12, Miriam and Aaron get into a heap of trouble for gossiping about Moses’s Cushite love interest.

The epitaph on Maimonides’ tombstone states, “From Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses.” Evidently so, at least when it came to infatuation with Cushites.

No disrespect intended, for Maimonides is an all-timer among Jewish philosophers. And were this etrog comment the only quasi-racist thing he ever wrote, I could probably overlook it. After all, at least he didn’t compare the etrog’s shadings of yellow to those of Asian background, or the fruit’s green tint to a Martian, and to my knowledge, he never made reference to the Ace of Spades.

But in Rambam’s magnum opus, the Guide for the Perplexed, there is a passage that makes the etrog gaffe seem as African-friendly as a poem by Maya Angelou, and it has been featured by a number of websites seeking not only to brand Rambam, but Judaism itself, as racist. It’s toward the beginning of chapter 51, here presented in a 1904 translation by M. Friedlander. Maimonides is describing in somewhat elitist terms those groups who lack religion:

…Such are the extreme Turks that wander about in the north, the Cushites who live in the south, and those in our country who are like these. I consider these as irrational beings, and not as human beings; they are below mankind, but above monkeys, since they have the form and shape of man, and a mental faculty above that of the monkey.

Cushites are commonly considered Ethiopians, and in the Hebrew vernacular, Blacks. Maimonides has a Cushite problem. But since Maimonides died eight centuries ago, the real question is, do we have a Maimonides problem? Is it possible to detach a couple of statements with apparent racist overtones from all the brilliance, from his Thirteen Principles of Faith, his patient-sensitive Oath for Physicans (and his selfless devotion to his own patients), his psychologically spot-on Laws of Repentence and his Hilchot Deot, in which he brilliantly charts out a course of moderation in how we care for our bodies and souls? Or has Rambam become our Reverend Jeremiah Wright, respected by many for his life’s work but a tad embarrassing when he goes off on the race thing.

There is a great danger to judging those living in a very different era by our own anachronistic standards, especially given the evolution of our understanding of racism. Only a few decades ago, lunch tables at Woolworth were segregated, US inner cities were called ghettos and their inhabitants were denied the vote.

Oh…some still want to deny them the vote? Never mind.

Thomas Jefferson, the guy who wrote, “All men are created equal,” owned 200 slaves and likely fathered children with one of them. But that didn’t make him a racist, at least not in the post-Holocaust, post-Darwin way we tend to think of racism. But widespread belief in the inferiority of  Africans has been around since Maimonides’ time and before. Can we condemn Rambam simply for being a cultural product of his era?

And is it possible that Cushites — and Turks – were less a race to Rambam than an ethnicity or nationality? The view expressed in the “Guide” is still abhorrent, but at least in this case he would not be speaking of all Africans — just one particular group.

Incidentally, in the case of Moses’s Cushite squeeze, some commentators believe he married and divorced an Ethiopian princess, and Rashi defines Cushite not in ethnic terms but as “beautiful.” Maybe the color of Moses’s gal’s skin was beside the point for Aaron and Miriam; it was all about her exotic attractiveness.

And yes, from this it looks like Rashi may have come up with the equation “black is beautiful,” centuries before Steve Biko popularized it.

Size does matter. Former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri eyes a huge etrog (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)
Size does matter. Former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri eyes a huge etrog (photo credit: Michal Fattal/Flash90)

Finally, we need to understand just what, in Maimonides’ mind, makes those without religion somehow underdeveloped. If you examine closely chapter 51 of the “Guide,” you’ll see that for Maimonides, ever the rationalist, the enlightenment of religion was available to everyone, including Turks and Cushites, and that Jews too can be among those in need of that illumination. The monkey comparison was a spiritual indictment, not a racial one. His ill-advised phrase was, to quote Mitt Romney, “inelegant,” but it’s hard to imagine that the Cushite-monkey analogy was intended to be as malicious as it sounds to our 21st-century ears.

It is unfair to judge any prolific writer on the basis of one or two passages, especially an immortal like Maimonides. But this is exactly what he would be facing were he alive in this unforgiving Internet age. Imagine if he were running for office, how his opponent’s ads would jump all over this. Lucky for Maimonides, he’s dead. He faced serious opposition in his day, too, but at least the arguments were over ideas and not about a “gotcha” passage or two taken out of context. I’m confident that Rambam’s reputation will survive these few inelegant indiscretions.

But, given the fact that the evil of racism still stalks our world — including our Jewish communities — I really wish he had come up with another way to describe the black etrog.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." His Substack column, One One Foot: A Rabbi's Journal, can be found at Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Cobie, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307