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Race in the Bible Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

October 16, 2015

Earlier this summer, when the American Jewish community was in the throes of the Iran controversy, I went looking for another time period in which there was as much controversy within the Jewish community. I found it in the period before the Civil War.

Once the Civil War started, Jews tended to follow the political views of their non-Jewish neighbors. Those Jews who lived in the South, about 25,000 out of a total Jewish population at the time of 150,000, were loyal to the Confederacy and those in the North were loyal to the union. But before the war there was a great deal of controversy particularly in the North. There were some Jews even in the North who were pro-slavery, but there were even more who considered themselves pro-peace and felt that ameliorating slavery over time was a wiser course of action than the abolitionist stance which they considered radical.

Of course, there were those who disagreed. Among the most outspoken opponents of slavery was Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore. He was later forced to flee the city under cover of darkness because of his sermons. One of the issues that Rabbi Einhorn was forced to address, over and over, comes from this week’s Torah portion. It is usually known as the curse of Ham though as we will see it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Historians note that during the 19th century, the belief that the African-American were descendants of Ham was a primary justification for Slavery among Southern Christians.  Even today you will find websites promoting the idea that the Bible supports the view that black people are cursed and intended to be servants to the other races.

In 1861 just as the southern states seceded, Reverend ( as he was called) Morris Raphall of B’nai Jeshurun of New York gave a sermon in which he invoked the story of Noah and his son Ham, and concluded that slavery was “the oldest form of social relationship.” Though in this sermon he also insisted that Hebrew slaves were very different than slavery as practiced in the south, and urged kinder treatment of slaves, still his sermon was a sensation and his words were printed in the New York newspapers as well as copied and distributed by those opposed to abolition.

Raphall’s sermon was criticized by all of the major Jewish religious leaders of his times- including Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, founder of the Reform movement,  and the Rev Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia, the leader of more traditionalist American Jewry, neither of whom were abolitionists as well as by Rabbi Einhorn. Wise criticized his literal reading of the Torah, while Leeser objected to the argument that the black race descended from Ham. The strongest response though was written by a lay leader Michael Heilprin, a Polish Hungarian immigrant and activist.

In particular Heiprin argued that a close reading of the Bible would show that this was not a curse from God, but rather Noah’s curse, which follows upon a night of drunkenness. Why should that be a curse with enduring power?

Others noted that it is not a curse of all of Ham’s descendants, but a curse of Canaan, the fourth of Ham’s sons.  Finally, it was also pointed out that there is significant irony in the Jewish argument for an inherited curse, given that Jews at this time were actively fighting against the idea that all Jews through all generations were cursed for the death of Jesus .

This text from Genesis, though so important in racial argument in the United States, was not originally associated with race. David M Goldenberg, a historian from the University of Pennsylvania who has written a book on The Curse of Ham, concluded that there were no anti-black or racist sentiments in Biblical or post Biblical writings. He believes that the notion of black inferiority developed later. Though now we talk of Jafeth in Europe, Shem in the Middle East and Ham in Africa, that association was still unstable as late as the 12th century.

It was in the Muslim Near East in the Middle Ages that we find the first connection between skin color and slavery as Ethiopians were enslaved in Arabia, and only with the age of exploration in the 15th century that the assignment of areas of the world to Biblical terms stuck. In addition it was not until the 19th century that this text was read as proof that racial distinctions proceed from God.

Modern scholars believe that this curse actually reflects the period of the Davidic Monarchy when the Canaanites were conquered and made slaves, as was the custom in ancient warfare.

I wonder if it was all the arguments about slavery in the Bible that influenced the Orthodox European rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch, whose commentary on this text includes the following:

“They were all, all three sons of Noah, created in the likeness of God and there is no man who could say to another: You are less of a human being than I am: in fact, you cannot even be classified as a man. Because of its importance, this idea is reiterated in the early part of the present chapter.”

While the story of Ham does not actually speak about race, but there are other Biblical texts that mention race more explicitly.

One is the curious story in the Book of Numbers of Miriam and Aaron criticizing Moses’ wife because she is a Cushite, an Ethiopian, and as a result Miriam is struck with leprosy a whitening of the skin. Still it is unclear if the issue here is her skin color, or perhaps her being a second wife taken in addition to Moses’ wife Tzipporah, mentioned in the Book of Exodus,  with whom Miriam and Aaron had a relationship. Other commentaries suggest that this story  was really about the jealousy that Aaron and Miriam felt about their older brother being so much more prominent. After all Miriam and Aaron complain: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?”

Another text that is often mentioned in relation to racial prejudice are the words of the prophet Amos which are found at the beginning of the Haftarah for Parashat Kedoshim, the holiness code. “Halo kivnei kushiim, are you not like the sons of the Ethiopians to Me”. But is the issue here their skin color, or just there being a non-Israelite tribe at some distance?

The  Song of Songs, is usually translated to say: I am black but comely, although actually it is  probably  more correctly translated as I am Black (ve) and beautiful, the author seeing no opposition between the two.

Whether racial prejudice existed in Biblical times or is a later development, recent events have made us all aware of the unconscious bias that exists within us all and the importance of recognizing and compensating for that bias. At a meeting about police training to deal with bias this week, I learned that even today, more than a year after the Ferguson shooting, an African American in the United States is shot every 28 minutes either by the police, security staff personnel or vigilantes.  How unacceptable for a country which claims to embrace the words of our Judeo-Christian heritage: Do we not all have one Parent? Did not one God create us all?

(Malachi 2:10) The Noah take away is not the curse of Canaan, but the idea that all of humanity are the descendants of one family. It is the commentary of Rabbi Hirsch: “No one can say to another- you are less of a human being than I am.”


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