Black Jews and Hebrew Israelites’ View of “Mainstream” Judaism’s Racism

Is Racism in Judaism against Black people inherent or injected?

After reading a social media post, made about Jews, or more specifically about Black Jews of ‘African American descent’ that proclaimed, “Jews are not real or original Hebrews of the land of inheritance” based upon the fact ”Jews are white” and not ”black”,  I had to bring context to the subject.

As a leader in a Black Jewish community and as a  member who served in an Ashkenazi community in New York and New Jersey (respectively), I not only find the above assertion a misrepresentation of Black Jewish communities that I have served, but it insults others who share our beliefs. It is unfortunate that the perpetuation of negative perceptions against Black Jews are being disseminated and entertained.

Fact: the term ‘Hebrew Israelite’ is a very broad term. Those groups who identify themselves as Black Jews and Hebrew Israelites are not homogeneous . Their ideals and beliefs are not always the same. Generally speaking, Black Jews do not promulgate the idea that Ashkenazi Jews are “not real Jews”, neither do we teach that “all Ashkenazim are converts”. Some Hebrew Israelites share these same views as well.

However, both Hebrew Israelites and Black Jews have expressed their distaste for the Racism and mistreatment of non-White Jews by Jews who classify themselves as “White”. Because of this, we all sympathize and empathize with mistreated people no matter what the reasons may be. Though some haven’t been taught according to the mesorath har Sinai (according to the traditions from Mt. Sinai), many of us love G-d, His Torah and are extremely passionate about speaking up against injustice.

Like every other Jewish sect in Judaism, we are proud of our history and will teach Jewish history according to the traditions given by our rabbis. Just as the Ashkenazim have portrayed Jews of antiquity being the same complexion as they are, we have  also taken the opportunity to express our view of our Jewish ancestors in our likeness.

Nonetheless, the racist mistreatment of non-white Jews does exist within Jewry. Negative propaganda has been used against non-white people, in European Jewish publications which prompted our rabbis to respond as I have. I and other rabbis of our communities have argued rabbinical facts to counter many of the myths of  ‘Mainstream Judaism’ and its attitudes against ‘Blackness’.

One of the myths that has been an issue is the so-called ‘curse of Ham’ and the belief that RaMBaM was a racist, who taught that Black people were ignorant and our intelligence not above that of monkeys.

Many of us have addressed these issues, noting that European Jews have mistranslated and misrepresented the words of our Torah masters. The excerpt they cite most often is from RaMBaM’s Moreh Nevukhim (A Guide for The Perplexed).  Most accusers reference the following passage when making their fallacious claims:

“Such are the extreme Turks that wander about in the north, the KUSHITES 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.” -Chapter 51

What is truly appalling is that, there are at least two other versions of this particular work by RaMBaM, which English translators have chosen, that promote racially misleading undertones  using words like ‘blacks’ and ‘Negroes’, in place of the actual word ‘Kushites’, which they turned into ‘blacks’ and ‘Negroes’.

The word Kushi or Kushite in biblical context, is the name of a nation from Ham’s son Kush, (Bereshith /Genesis 10,6). Notwithstanding, the term ‘Kush’ is now used in Racist context by these dishonest translators to mean ‘black’ or Negroes. Moreover, RaMBaM never used the term ‘Kush’ in the passage in question.  But today, the original term ‘Kush’ has been falsely changed by these translators and replaced with racial-ized terms to communicate that “blacks” or “Negroes” (African people) fit the above negative description.

Now, let’s examine what RaMBaM truly wrote:

“אלתרך אלמתוגלין פי אלשמאל”, ‘Al-Turk al-matujalin fi al-samaal’ (the Turks who wander around the North) “ואלסודאן אלמתוגלין פי אלגנוב” ‘wal-Sudaan al-matujalin fi al-janub’ (the Sudanese who wanderaround the South).”

Moreh Nevukhim (The Guide for The Perplexed 51) 1

It is obvious, that RaMBaM was not commenting about Black people in general, but about particular groups of people who lived in a particular region, and any people who are like them, who do not possess culture, morals or education.

In this case, RaMBaM was referring to both, a group of wandering Turks in the North AND some wandering nomadic Sudanese people in the south, who had no known religion nor written language or civilization (lacking culture).

Initially, the biggest question that initially came to me was, ‘How did these translators come up with words like ‘Kushites’, ‘Blacks’, or ‘Negros’ in place of ‘Sudanese’ and why did they egregiously mis-translate this text? After what I have shared so far, it is perfectly clear.

What’s incredible is that ALL English versions are unanimous in translating the word ‘Al-Turk’ as ‘Turks’ instead of ‘Whites’. There is no good reason that they should not have done the same for the word ‘’wal-Sudaan’ (Sudanese).

Nonetheless, let’s assume that we can equate the word Sudanese as ‘Blacks,Negroes, or Kushite, then one would conclude that RaMBaM was talking about ‘Black people’, then by the same logic, one must conclude that he was also talking about White people, for he mentions the Turks along with the Sudanese as being just above monkeys.

Clearly, it was a gross mis-translation and misrepresentation of RaMBaM’s words, which was taken totally out of context, to fulfill a sinister agenda. We can all see the murder, the slander and the sins that Racism can produce, especially within Jewish communities everywhere. The Torah warns against slandering fellow Jews, and sadly many of us are guilty of this.

As a leader, I have a responsibility to educate all Jews, especially in our communities against the lies which create a sense of low self-esteem and the need for outside validation. I am compelled to teach what our ancient rabbis have taught concerning their complexions. I have cited their words saying:

Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus a son of a Kohen and rabbi who lived between the 1st & 2nd century CE, said,

“ברך נח ולבניו שנא וברך אותם אלהים במתנותיהם את כל הארץ ברך לשם ולבניו שחורים ונאים והנחילם את כל ארץ נושבת ברך לחם ובניו שחורים כעורב והנחילם הוף הים”
“No’ah bought his sons and his grandsons, and he blessed them with their (several) settlements, and he gave them as an inheritance all the earth. He especially blessed Shem and his sons, making them Black and lovely, giving them the habitable earth. He blessed Ham and his sons making them Black like the ravens and he gave them as an inheritance the coast of the sea”. -Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer, 24,1

Rabbi Ishmael said,

” בני ישראל אני כפרתן הרי הן כאשכרוע לא שחורים ולא לבנים אלא בינוניום” For the Children of Israel, I’d like to offer myself as penitence on their behalf, seeing that they are as Buxus (a Boxwood), being neither Black or White, but of shades between them.” -The Mishna, Sefer Taharoth, Neja’im 2,1

Explaining that Even R’ Ishmael didn’t want to use “color” terms, but instead used an object (Boxwood tree), which is obviously dark brown to describe Israel’s general skin complexion two thousand years ago.

R. Lakish who lived between the 2nd and 3rd C.E., acknowledged that Israel should maintain their general height and complexion and taught this regarding their complexion saying,

“לבן לא ישא לבנה שמא יצא מהם בוהק שחור לא ישא שחורה שמא יצא מהן טפוח”
“A white-complexioned man should not marry a white-complexioned woman, lest their offspring will remain white-complexioned. An extremely dark-complexioned man should not marry an equally dark-complexioned woman, lest their offspring remain extremely dark” -Babylonian Talmud, Mas. Berkheroth 45b

Yet, when leaders like myself attempt to educate our communities about historical facts concerning our Jewish ancestors, in order to combat the effects of Racism, some European Jews and Black Jews who identify with them, will label such teachings “Black Nationalist dogma”, rather than dealing with the sources. Trust me, the Black Jewish communities that I represent, are not obsessed with skin color, but are passionate about countering the mistreatment towards us because of it. We would rather not have to address the issue of Racism, but are left without  choice, because we are confronted with it on a daily basis.

Black Jews, like all other Jews, are both ‘left-winged’ and ‘right-winged’ in our views towards the State of Israel. It is not merely an issue of ‘racism’, but a show of our views towards politics, halakha and other philosophies on various fronts.

Shalom uvrakha!

 

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One comment

  1. RabbiKarpov@gmail.com'

    Grateful to be reading this — I teach at an HBCU, and as we approach The Three Weeks (17 Tammuz–9 Av) plus given what’s happening in America and in the world, am grateful for the kindly, well-informed tone that can help promote a better understanding. Shavua Tov.

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