Thursday, October 27, 2011

Noah’s Curse of Ham, Slavery, Anti-Black Racism & Understanding Midrash

Photo from Okinawa Soba's photostream.
General Permission granted for non-commercial
I cannot conceive of a God who condones the evil of racism. Still I find it impossible to argue that there are no sources in Judaism that seem to support any prejudicial ideas. One instance of this might be the opinion that blacks are cursed and condemned to slavery because of the actions of Ham the son of Noah. To explore this issue it is useful to understand the role of different types of sacred texts in Judaism and the broader guidance in the Torah on the issue of prejudice.

The Curse in the Torah Text
After the great flood we are told that Noah removed the cover of the Ark and he saw, behold the face of the earth was desolate[i]…Soon he plants a vineyard, then he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside… Noah awoke from his wine, and he knew what his small son had done to him. He said, "Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave of slaves to his brethren.[ii]"

“It’s the Muslims and Christians”
One Jewish article argued that the notion that blacks are cursed is from Islam and Christianity. “That the “sons of Ham” were taken to be Black is a misunderstanding that is first found in the 7th Christian century Christian and Islamic writing, while the very concept is not attested in any canonical Torah book[iii]. (I lack the knowledge to comment on other faiths and I know how easy it is for an outsider to get it wrong. I am saddened that the first spot on a Google search for “Jews and racism against blacks” is something on Radio Islam.)  I will limit by discussion to Jewish sources. While it is true that our most authoritative text, the Torah, does not state that blacks are cursed, the case of lesser texts such as the Midrash (which contains many additional details about Torah stories and other moral messages) and the other commentaries is less clear. Before we examine these texts, we must first clarify how they are to be understood.

The Authority and Place of Midrash
When I was growing up within the Chabad community, I took Midrash as factual. This view of Midrash is reflected in the following statement, ‘the Midrash, fills in the gaps behind the oft-times sketchy, skeletal narrative of the Torah. It adds meat to its bones, telling us things we otherwise would never know, mainly the dialogues between the Torah's figures and details of their lives. As such, the Midrash is a vital, true part of the Oral Torah[iv]’. I was very surprised by the assertion by Dr. Rabbi Pinchas Hayman of Bar Ilan University, ‘that anyone who takes Midrash as being literally factually true needs to have “their head read”[v].  He supported this proposition with the fact that Midrashim often contradict each other.

The case of “Ashur”
One example of this is the range of interpretations of the following verse (in Sidra of Noah). “From that land went Ashur, and he built Nineveh…[vi]. I found 6 different interpretations
1.      Ashur is Noah[vii]
2.      Ashur is Abraham[viii]
3.      Ashur was of the children of Shem[ix]
4.      Ashur was a son of Jafeth[x]
5.      Ashur was probably of the sons of Ham[xi].
6.      Ashur is actually a place, a city called Silak[xii], or Seleucia. It was located along the Tigris River near Babylon. The meaning of the verse is that “from that land Nimrod went to Ashur[xiii]. This fits with the fact that the verse preceding this one discusses Nimrod.  

Beyond the Factual
Chasidim say in the name of the Baal Shem Tov that any of the scholars up until the time of the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles 1555-1631) wrote their commentary with Ruach Hakodesh (the holy spirit). Surely this does not mean that it is factually and literally true in the physical world. Here is one way to explain it. “When studying the Torah, we are meant to go past "what happened" and view the stories as a means for G‑d to convey a lesson for our lives... For, beyond the storyline, each story in the Torah is a glimpse into a higher truth. For example, in our physical world, Moses may have been say, six feet tall. But in a certain world of drash (interpretation), he was 10 Amot (arms- lengths, about 15 feet) tall. A stature of 10 Amot implies that this person is complete in every way—since there are 10 aspects of the human character. That's who Moses really was—a whole and balanced person…[xiv] 

The difference between Midrash and Halacha
It is also important to note that Orthodox Jewish life is regulated by Halacha, Jewish law. Midrash is not about what we must do but is rather about enhancing our appreciation of Torah stories and drawing moral lessons. This context should especially be borne in mind when examining Midrashim that seem to legitimize behaviour that is ethically questionable, in light of other teachings.

General Guidance about Prejudice
Repeatedly in the Torah we are warned about loving the stranger, not mistreating the stranger etc. One reason given for this is that the stranger like the widow and the orphan lacks networks and human protectors and power, those with more power and warned not to abuse this power[xv]. This theme is thundered by the prophets most prominently in the Haftorah of Yom Kippur about those in power who fast but “with a clenched fist of wickedness[xvi]” to exploit the vulnerable. 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[xvii]”. In our Parsha, in relation to murder, it states that “he spills a person’s blood, his blood will be spilt, because in the image of God, man was made[xviii]  Not white or black man, Not Jewish man, Gay or straight, all humans. We are told not to despise any man[xix]. After all this preliminary work, we can get to the guts of the topic, the curse of Ham.

Who is included in the Curse in Midrash & Commentary
In the Torah text it is Canaan, one of Ham’s four children is curse which could be understood to mean that the descendants of Ham’s other sons, Cush (Ethiopia), Mizraim (Egypt) and Put were not included. However, some commentaries see the curse as also including the other children of Ham[xx]. A midrash states that God said (to Ham) you disgraced your fathers nakedness, by your life, I will repay you, so will the king of Assyria lead the captives of Egypt and the Exiles of Ethiopia (Cush), young and old, naked and barefoot. This clearly assumes that the punishment is not limited to Canaan[xxi].

At alternative opinion reject the view “that the reason the Cushim (blacks) are slaves is because Noah cursed Ham but they forget that the first king after the flood was (descended) from Cush[xxii]” (referring to Nimrod, the son of Cush[xxiii]). This view is arguably be shared by other commentators[xxiv]

The Validity of the Curse
An argument is made in an essay on this topic that a curse is different to a command and can be seen as a challenge rather than guidance[xxv]. While I see the merit in the argument and the case made for it, I note a counter view in which the curse is used in a debate by Gviha Ben Pesusa to justify the Jewish conquest of Canaan because Canaan was a slave and therefore his property belongs to his master who descended from Shem[xxvi].    

Was Ham Black?  
The link between Ham and black skin comes from a view that Ham had castrated Noah to prevent him from having another child. The motive is as follows. The world was set to be inherited by Noah three children, but if Noah were to go ahead have a 4th child as he planned, Ham’s share of the world would decline by 8.3% (from 33.3% to 25%). When Noah realised what Ham had done. Noah said, you have prevented me from doing that which is done in the dark, therefore that man should be ugly and “Mefucham[xxvii]” (a variation of the word for “Soot”, the closest way to say this in English is He was “sooted”). At least one supra-commentary makes it clear that this means he would be black[xxviii].   

The changed skin is also attributed to another episode related to ban on Sexual relation while Noah and his family were in the ark because the world was in distress[xxix]. The Torah text tells us how the men and women leave the Ark, Noah and his sons, his wife and his sons wives with him[xxx]. This implies that the men and women continued to stay apart[xxxi] until they are blessed to be fruitful and multiply. A Midrash tells us that despite this requirement, Ham was intimate with his wife in the ark and this was the reason he became black.

If one takes either of these Midrashic statements at face value, it can be taken to mean that blackness is a punishment or ugly. It also positions the father of the black people as a flawed character and links blackness with sin which can further entrench anti-black prejudice. I am very uncomfortable with this admittedly plausible application of these teachings.

However, I hope that the proper understanding of the role of Midrash, will prevent people drawing these conclusions, instead focusing on the Midrahs’s intended messages about not being afraid to share one’s good fortune with prospective new comers, such as we see with some anti-immigration arguments. One should also focus on the message about the need for empathy even with the suffering of any human being even criminals and the destruction of animals and plants, all of which occurred during the flood which is why sexual activity was forbidden.

Ham’s motive
An interesting factor is the circumstances of Ham’s intimacy emerges in another Midrash that tells us that Shamchazael, a fallen angel had intercourse with Ham’s wife and she became pregnant with the giant Sichon who was actually born in the ark. It was for this reason that Ham had intercourse as to cover for his wife, so that she should not be embarrassed[xxxii]. It appears that Ham and his brother had only got married right before entering the Ark[xxxiii] and if not for Ham’s sin his wife would have been terribly humiliated. It appears that this is a case of doing the wrong thing for the right reason.  

I wonder if Ham’s trauma of having been touched by the shame of his wife’s compromise by Shamchazael influences his response to his father’s drunkenness and nakedness in the way that some victims of abuse might themselves one day perpetrate abuse on other. Regardless, I find the earlier story about Shmchazael, Ham’s wife and Ham illuminating.  

An alternative view of Black skin
Ibn Ezra & Abarbanel[xxxiv] In their respective commentaries about the wife of Moses who the Torah tells us was a Chushite, suggest that 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. 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. [xxxv]

The bottom line with all of this in my view is how people act and think in light of the various messages and interpretations of the Torah. When a black person came to my home and someone mumbled something about a curse, that person grasped a superficial aspect of a religious moral message about something else. I would argue that they are disgracing the Torah and disregarding its broader moral guidance. I am saddened and ashamed by this. On the other hand, when Jews fight for human rights regardless of colour or nationality they are drawing on the profound and demanding ethical teachings of Judaism. I cannot deny that I feel proud of those in Australia who stand with our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and those Jews in many places who have shown leadership on so many social justice causes. This is the choice for us, the way of blessing, or the way of the curse.

[i] Genesis 8:13, translation follows the interpretation of Abarbanel, Unkelus and others translate it as the earth was dry.
[ii] Genesis 9:21, 22, 24, 25
[v] Lecture by Rabbi Dr. P Hayman at the ZFA Education conference, Moriah College Sydney, July 1996
[vi] Genesis 10:11
[vii] Rabbi Elyakim, cited in Torah Shlaima, Genesis 10:11, note 37, p.499, Aruch, and Tosaphot Rid, cited on
[viii]  Cited in Torah Shlaima, Genesis 10:11, note 37, p.500
[ix] Ramban
[x] Ibn Ezra
[xi] Radak
[xii] Talmud Yoma 10a, as explained by DIKDUKEI SOFRIM and ARUCH, cited on
[xiii] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
[xiv] Cotlar, R. Yisroel, based on “Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz presents and discusses the classic views concerning the study of Midrash in Shnei Luchot Habrit, Torah Shebaal Peh, 17 (Klal Hadrushim). He refers there to the idealist perspective in Torah that he presents ibid, Toldot Adam, Bayit Acharon. The concept is based upon the words of Rabbi Menachem Azaria of Fano in Assara Maamarot, Maamar Chikur Din, 3:22”.
[xv] Ibn Ezra on Mishpatim
[xvi] Isaiah 58:4
[xvii] Talmud Sanhedrin 38a It is interesting that the Maharsha applies this to Jews. While this fits with the word “families”, it is hard to see how the creation of Adam who is the father of all humans can be a lesson about anything other than the entire human family.
[xviii] Genesis 9:6
[xix] Pirkey Avot, “At T’hi Baz Lchol Adam”
[xx] Daat Zekainim Mebaalei Hatosafot, Bchor Shor, interestingly, the proof for this interpretation is the first phrase in the 10 commandments “I am the Lord Your God who took you out of Egypt, from the house of slaves”. While the translation of Beit Avadim as house of slavery is less accurate than house of slaves, it is hard to see the reference to slaves in that verse as referring to the Egyptian taskmasters who are deemed slaves because of an ancient curse rather than the Jewish slaves.   
[xxi] Beresheet Rabba 36:9
[xxii] Ibn Ezra to Genesis 9:25
[xxiii] Genesis 10:8
[xxiv] Rashi, in 9:25, 26 and 27 repeatedly talks about Canaan alone.
[xxvi] Megilat Taanis chapter 3, brought in Kasher M (1992), Torat Shelaima, Noach 9, #146, page 489
[xxvii] Midrash Rabba 36:11
[xxviii] Matnat Kohanim
[xxix] Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 1:6,  
[xxx] Genesis 8:18
[xxxi] Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima, 8: 71, p 447
[xxxii] Midrash quoted in Rabbenu Bchai end of Chukat and Chemdat Hayamim cited in Torah Shlaima, notes to 8: 71, p 448
[xxxiii] Torah Shlaima based on Sefer Hayashar on Parsha Noah,
[xxxiv] Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) and Rabbi Don Yitzchok Abarbanel (1437-1508) In their respective commentaries to Numbers 12:1)
[xxxv] Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (1720-1797) (Eliyahu Rabbah to Negaim 2:1)

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Un-Calculated. Relating to God & Men, a Synagogue Fire & “Who by Fire?”

On the first night of Rosh Hashanah a Synagogue near my house burned. No, it is not the Synagogue I pray at, it is the one where I don’t usually pray. While thankfully no people were harmed, there was very significant damage to the building and holy books of the Masada Synagogue. Yet, there was a silver lining. Our Chabad Synagogue, which was originally a breakaway from Masada over 20 years ago, provided the Masada community with a place to pray in our spacious hall. We also prayed together on Friday night just after 6:30 pm, the clock stopped at 6:32. It was destined to be.

Rosh Hashanah is a time for thinking about the relationship between us and God. This includes reflection on how we interact with other people, individually and in groups or communities. Others themes relate to accepting God’s sovereignty while He judges us. All of this requires an element of surrender.  Perhaps trying to figure it all out is the opposite of surrender.  

I alluded to the fact that Masada is the Synagogue where I don’t (usually) pray. This is partly due to minor variations in the prayers themselves. It is more about the fact that differences about religious issues have come between the communities alongside competition for patronage.

Masada Rabbi Gad Krebs correctly identified the challenge being that of accommodating diversity while still being united.  I always wondered about how the “Balkanisation” of Judaism into distinct communities could ever be justified. There is a prohibition against becoming separate groups based on the words  לא תתגדדוLo Tisgodedu[i] which in the simple meaning is about not cutting oneself in mourning but it is also interpreted as “do not become (many) groups, groups[ii]. The exact definition of this prohibition might be narrow[iii] but its moral message is that rather than form groups we should be in unity[iv].

There have been well thought out joint projects and celebrations over the years but there remained a strong sense of two separate communities, not merely two parallel facilities with some differences. It took a fire to force the communities into an ad hoc coming together. To their credit, Rabbi Schapiro of Chabad House and Rabbi Krebs agreed to go further and pray together and share a meal. It was an historic and very moving coming together. Hopefully the value of Togetherness will continue to be felt in the relationship between the communities.

For me, the clock stopping is symbolic of the need for less calculation and figuring it out and just going for it.

The idea of letting go is also useful in resetting the relationship with God. This is useful on the day of judgment which on the one hand is conducted with mercy and forgiveness[v], but also with frightful punishments.

Leonard Cohen captures the mood in his contemporary take on the Unesaneh Tokef prayer in his song “Who By Fire”.

And who by fire, who by water,
who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
who in your merry month of may,
who by very slow decay,
and who shall I say is calling?
And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate…

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
who in solitude, who in this mirror,
who by his lady's command, who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains, who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?

The liturgy also refers to a harsh interpretation of an exchange between Abraham and God about the promise that Abraham’s descendants would inherit the land of Canaan.

In the text, Abraham asksבַּמָּה אֵדַע  “How will I know” that I will inherit it[vi]?
God responds that Abraham should carry out a covenant ceremony with animals and then states יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע “you will know” that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years[vii].

Abraham wanted certainty. He wanted to “know”, demonstrating an element of doubt[viii]. (There are other views that reject that Abraham’s faith was less than perfect[ix]) As a punishment God gives him certainty, telling him the painful news[x] about the slavery in Egypt[xi]. God tells him, “Abraham, the whole world stands by my word and you don’t believe in my words, (instead) you say “how will I know?”, by your life!  You will know that your seed will be strangers[xii]

It is impossible to understand divine judgment, of course. Our tradition provides some guidance about elements of this unfathomable, awesome and frightful process that matches a world in which both grace and catastrophe are realities. If we are to reconcile with God and men, we will need to let go of trying to figure everything out.    

[i] Deuteronomy 14:1
[ii] Talmud Yevamot 14a
[iii] There is discussion that essentially concludes that the problem would only apply in a legal sense if there were sustained disagreement on the same religious court but there could be two religious courts in the same city with different views (See Rosh and Ran)
[iv] Haemek Davar
[v] The Machzor liturgy
[vi] Genesis 15:8
[vii] Genesis 15:13
[viii] Midrash Hagadol 9,
הרהר בליבו ואמר: "כיצד ארשנה?!" ולא האמין לדבריו של הקב”ה אלא אמר: "במה אדע כי ארשנה", מלמד שקרא תיגר.
[ix] Breshit Rabba 44. Ramban and others. One creative interpretation is that Abraham was concerned about the practicality of living among the people he will one day need to conquer and that he may feel compelled to make a pact with them. Exile was a way to solve this problem (Tur). Another view has Abraham simply wanting to know when this would happen? Which generation? how much of it? (Bchor Shor)
[x] Klei Yakar
[xi] Talmud Nedarim 32
[xii] Pirkey Drabi Eliezer 48 cited in