Daphne Lazar Price
Daphne Lazar Price

When religion is recklessly racist

Ask me about some of the mind-blowing discoveries I made about Tanakh since my 12 years in Orthodox day schools. Contrary to what we were taught: the story of Abraham smashing the idols appears nowhere in the book of Genesis (but does appear in Genesis Rabbah chapter 38), Rahab from the book of Joshua was not in fact a hotel-keeper (though she did entertain guests), and Esther wasn’t in a beauty contest to win the heart of Ahasuerus. Then there were the passages that were glossed over or skipped altogether: the story of Tamar, Er and Onan (Genesis 38), the rape of Dina (Genesis 34), and of course all of the forbidden sexual liaisons listed in Leviticus. But it’s not just what I (un)learned, it’s when I learned them. I was well into adulthood before I examined these texts myself. This is what I’ve realized: School policies, written and unwritten, “halakhic” guidance and cultural norms, result in controlling the narratives we are taught.

This is what I’ve realized: School policies, written and unwritten, “halakhic” guidance and cultural norms, result in controlling the narratives we are taught.

I have volumes to say about how core Jewish texts are taught (and omitted or elided) in Orthodox settings during formative years. I have much more to say about how some of our texts result in unpleasant attitudes and are sometimes even weaponized to marginalize people in our communities. As an Orthodox woman, I have lived this experience every time someone inserts the out-of-context text from the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 21b) that says “when a man teaches his daughter Torah, it’s as though he is teaching her tiflut [promiscuity].” This explicitly precludes women’s access to learning, thereby structurally confining an Orthodox woman’s power and halakhic autonomy.

One thing is sure: folks who gloss over the text and blithely teach about the curse of Ham through a racial lens do so to perpetuate false tropes and negative stereotypes and cause harm to Black people of all faiths, including our own.

The “curse of Ham,” based in this week’s Torah portion, is another such text utilized to diminish Black people. Ham, the son of Noah, is punished twice. The Rabbis suggest that because of Ham’s having sex while on the ark, he is “struck upon skin.” This affliction is interpreted by Rashi and others as a darkening of his skin. Upon emerging from the ark, the Torah records Ham “seeing his father’s nakedness,” and he is then relegated to being subservient to his brothers. The combination of biblical and rabbinic texts describe Ham’s black skin as an affliction and emphasize his subservient status, leading to the later Jewish validation of holding Black people as slaves. (For a fuller textual analysis, take a look at The Curse of Ham by Ma Nishtana and On Racism, Its Costs and Its Causes, by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein.)

One thing is sure: folks who gloss over the text and blithely teach about the curse of Ham through a racial lens do so to perpetuate false tropes and negative stereotypes and cause harm to Black people of all faiths, including our own.

In the spring of 2020 after George Floyd was publicly murdered by a white police officer on a Minnesota street. Americans threw themselves into a great reckoning, seeking to understand and start reconciling conscious and unconscious biases, and began identifying systemic racial injustices that continue to plague this country. Some Orthodox individuals and institutions issued statements and planned programs. Some were moved to act in support of Black lives, despite the controversy surrounding Jewish endorsement of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. (Much confusion arose when the “BLM movement” was conflated with the organization bearing the same name.) But few were willing to name or interrogate the textual roots of our communal racism, including unavoidably racist Jewish texts, and specific racist choices involved in Orthodox educational environments.

And so about a year ago, around the time that we last read parshat Noah, I posed the following question on my Facebook page:

“Friends who went to day school/yeshiva of any kind: When — if ever — was the first time you learned about the “curse of Ham” and in what context? If this is a novel concept/question for you, feel free to say so — and save the googling for after. (PMs are welcome)”

But for the majority, the lessons of the curse of Ham was “common knowledge” or disseminated to intentionally perpetuate racism against Black people.

The outpouring was immediate. First there was a clear racial divide. To start, a few of my non-Black friends were not familiar with the story or the commentary — and were horrified to learn the details as they read through the thread. Others remembered learning the story but that the core lesson was the importance of respecting one’s parents. But for the majority, the lessons of the curse of Ham was “common knowledge” or disseminated to intentionally perpetuate racism against Black people. Only one Jewish Black friend responded publicly, saying that she did not learn about this painful interpretation until she was well into adulthood.

At the same time, my direct messages blew up with voices of Black friends and relatives. (I am not Black, but ours is a multi-racial family.) And what was evident in each painful message was that this “Torah” was deployed to hurt them and their loved ones. They each remembered who sat them down to inform them about their destiny because of the curses they inherited. How, as Black Jews, they were “less than” their non-Black friends, how their parents would never truly achieve success, and that when it came time for serious relationships, they should expect to be rejected by prospective suitors or family members if they too were not Black. For some, the hurtful words came from peers and counselors while away at camp. Others experienced it in elementary, middle and high school — sometimes in the context of disciplinary action. Some were spared until they studied in gap-year and other post-high school study programs. For each of them it was conveyed that the curse of Ham was both established and inevitable.

To be clear, in driving this discussion, it’s not that I think that people don’t demonstrate racism in other streams of Judaism. After working in non-Orthodox and pluralistic settings for nearly two decades, I know that they most certainly do — but they don’t tend to consciously root their racism in Jewish texts.

Every generation — including our own —  has a responsibility to correct the flaws of our ancestors, not perpetuate them.

I am not suggesting that we cancel or erase Torah, Talmud, and Jewish thinkers’ writings. There are historic sages who demonstrate passion and brilliance on a wide range of topics who can still be flawed because of biases based on geographic context and the era in which they lived. Every generation — including our own —  has a responsibility to correct the flaws of our ancestors, not perpetuate them. Likewise, it is incumbent upon each of us to take a proactive stance and challenge harmful narratives rather than perpetuate false negative tropes and stereotypes that continue to infect our communities and institutions.

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About the Author
Daphne Lazar Price is the Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and an adjunct professor of Jewish Law at Georgetown University Law Center. She is active in the Orthodox community in her hometown of Silver Spring, MD, where she lives with her husband and two children.
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