Thursday, October 7, 2010

Can't say that!! “black armband vs “whitewash”, & “Curse of Ham”- Racism II

Thought control is not popular. Is it racist to say that “white men can't jump”?! What about saying, that “the children of Ham are more sensual, less determined to be free” as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88, Germany)1 does in his commentary? It brings to mind this black South African maid who was told by a visiting American Rabbi that she should eat with the family at the Passover Seder when Jews celebrate freedom. She felt so uncomfortable with the silverware and the whole thing, that the following year she asked “is that mad American priest coming again this year?

There are generally differences between cultures, but the differences within cultures and especially taking into account individual choices must be respected. Research found that even complimentary compliments are hurtful, can increase mistrust and can be experienced as being expected to conform to a stereotype rather than being seen as an individual (Czopp 2008)2. When I was a student at Yeshiva (a bochur) the secretary was annoyed with the attitudes of “the bochrim” and was hostile to me because I was a just another “bochir”. While Hirsch rejects disrespect toward blacks and acknowledges differences within “races”, he argues that certain elements “predominate”, which seems to me to “essentialize” the problem in the race, a key component of what is called the New Racism (Paradies et al, 2009)3.

Shem & Yafet Look Away – black armband vs “whitewash”
I love Hirsch, this is not convenient!It would be wrong to hold Hirsch accountable to the latest research, surely “there is nothing for the judge but what his eyes see”, he was explaining this based on available knowledge in 19th century Europe.

In Australia's “history wars”, left-wingers were accused by former Prime Minister Howard of wanting a black armband version of history because of the insistence on recognising the atrocities perpetrated against Indigenous people by early white settlers. Last night I heard a talk by MP Scott Morrison who argued that while the apology for the past was part of the great Australian story we cannot judge the people of the past by present standards, and we should embrace the virtues of the early settlers.

I think Hirsh would agree with that, he comments on two of Noah's sons looking away when he was drunk (Genesis 9:23). "Only where the younger generation stands with respect on the grave of the gone by, draws a cloak over its lapses but takes to itself all that it had of nobility as an inheritance on which to build...blossoms..but as soon as the younger generation gloats over the "nakedness" of their fathers...(Hirsch 1818-1888)

I think in cross-cultural and inter-faith relations there is also a place for looking away from the negatives and focusing on the positive. Not to deny the dangers or challenges but also not to give these more attention than is useful. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe's approach to the idea that Lashon Harah (gossip) “kills 3”, the speaker the listener and the one spoken about because it awakens or strengthens the evil within him. Seeing the good or the bad can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To return to the big question of the curse of Canaan & racism. Thanks to my FaceBook friends Rene L. & Mansheed A.) for a few more sources
  • The Nimrod Proof for a limited curse. Abraham Ibn Ezra: "And the meaning of '[the Curse of Canaan to be salve to his brothers] is to Cush, Egypt, and Put [only- the other families of Ham]. There are those who say that the Cushim [black skinned people] are slaves because Noah cursed Ham, but they forget that the first king after the flood [Nimrod] was a descendant of Cush... this proves that the Cushites, i.e. black skinned people, cannot be under Canaan's curse of slavery.
  • Blackness is not a curse. Ibn Ezra & Abarbanel:4 even though genealogically Zipporah might not have been a Cushite, the Torah still considered her as such because in appearance the Midianites resemble Cushites. They explain that since Cushites live in sunny areas, the power and heat of the sun cause their skin to darken. According to the Vilna Gaon5, skin color was not related to the curse of Noah's son, rather it was relative to one's geographical location and the power of the sun there.

A more important point (thanks FBF Mansheed-), is the idea that the words of Torah are “poor in one place but rich in another”, eg. That we seek guidance from all of the text not one section in isolation. Again in our Parsha in relation to murder, he spills a person’s blood, his blood will be spilt, because in the image of God, man was made6. Not white or black man, Not Jewish man, Gay or straight, all humans.

The Talmud states “therefore man was created alone (with a common ancestor, Adam) so that families will not fight to say my father is greater than your father”7.
The bottom line as above is we should do that which is right and proper (Haemet Vahayasha), and that it includes looking away from others shame, and appointing ourselves to be our own thought police.

1 Hirsch is regarded as the Father of Modern Orthodoxy, this is based on his commentary on parshat Noach.
2Czopp A.M. (2008) When is a compliment not a compliment? Evaluating expressions of positive stereotypes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44 (2008) 413-420.
3Paradies Y, Chadrakumar L, Klocker N, Frere M, Webster K, Burrel M, McLean P (2009) Building on our strengths; a framework to reduce race based discrimination and support diversity in Victoria. Victorian Health Promotion, Melbourne, p.26.
4 Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) and Rabbi Don Yitzchok Abarbanel (1437-1508) In their respective commentaries to Numbers 12:1)
5 Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (1720-1797) (Eliyahu Rabbah to Negaim 2:1)
6 Genesis 9:6
7 Talmud Sanhedrin


  1. Thought provoking again Zalman. The last line about doing what is right and proper and looking away from others shame is important. Too often in our grievances with others we focus on the grievance and the causes rather than on solving the problem between us. We typically end up swapping grievance for grievance and not getting to a peaceful solution

    Maybe we should first solve the problem and make peace between each other and then find peaceful ways of dealing with our grievances

  2. very true Gary. I think that when it is beyond the power of individuals to solve the problem there might be a need to think carefully about how to talk about it.

    Do we show restraint and not jump at the opportunity to show the faults of the other side? Or do we prioritize the need to call attention to the problem even if it is hurtful?

    Each approach has value in certain situations, I think there needs to be careful consideration about the ethics and cost vs benefits, as well as motives. It is just trying to make ourselves feel good by showing how bad the other is? or is there a realistic hope that we might contribute to justice or peace.

  3. A contribution via e-mail from my father.
    "the quote about Loshon Hara is a gemmorah Eirchin 15B.see the Baal Shem Tov`s interpretation in the Yom Yom pg 194 on the 13
    of CHeshvan. "When studying in Eirchin 15b the passage "The third tongue1 kills three persons," the Baal Shem Tov translated and explained: Lashon hara (the evil tongue; slander) kills all three, the inventor of the slander, the one who relates it and the listener. This is all in spiritual terms, which is more severe than physical murder.