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Growing up in England, I saw much more racism against Pakistanis and other groups than I saw against blacks. But I saw racism against blacks in my frum high school, where boys would make jokes about "shvartzers." It bothered me intensely. My parents raised me to be staunchly anti-racist. My school assigned us to read "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry," about the experiences of a black girl growing up in Mississippi in the 1930s, and it had a profound impact on me. It made me the weird kid in yet another way - not only was I the kid who was nuts about strange animals, not only was I the only kid whose family voted Labour, I was also the only kid who would never, ever use the word "shvartzer."
Nor was I quiet about my beliefs. I would get into heated arguments with my classmates about racism. But they had a trump card, backed up by one of the rebbes. They said that black people are descended from Cham (Ham), who was cursed, and therefore it was legitimate to view them as inferior.
At the time, I had no comeback to that. But when I started yeshivah gedolah, and learned how to learn, I searched for a yeshivish response - and found one. I published it in a book that I wrote 23 years ago, called Second Focus. There's a lot of material in that book which I regret. But I'm still proud of the chapter that I wrote against frum racism, which took quite some courage to write when I was at that stage of my life and in that sub-culture. Here it is:
BLACK AND WHITE
Last week’s essay discussed kavod Elokim haster, the concept of keeping quiet about sections of Torah that may cause misunderstandings and result in a blow to the honor of Torah. Sometimes, however, it is important to bring a topic to the forefront of public attention because of serious sins that people are committing out of misunderstanding the issue. This may have to be done even if it causes pain and resentment in the process. This week’s essay discusses one such issue. At the end, there is a true and tragic story that resulted from a lack of awareness on this, which is the reason why it is necessary to raise this unpleasant point. I have tried my best to be as sensitive as possible with this extremely delicate matter.
Quite frequently during my school years I would find myself involved in an argument with my classmates over their derogatory comments about blacks. I claimed that they were being racist and cruel. They retorted that Noach’s son Cham was cursed and turned black, and they therefore deserve it. I had no reply at the time, but in the intervening years I have studied Torah sources on the matter, and following are the results of my research.
The story itself is quite complex and there are disputes in the commentaries about what exactly happened and what the punishment was. Basically, Cham and his son Cana’an jointly committed a grave sin, for which they received a curse of slavery and their skin is blackened.
To deal with the slavery issue first, the Netziv raises the question that not all descendants of Cham are slaves and not all slaves are descendants of Cham. He therefore explains that the curse was not that they should or would be slaves, but rather that those who did find themselves in that capacity would be more at ease with it, having inherited it from their ancestor. Other people, however, would have a strong drive to fight for freedom.
With regard to the skin color, one of the commentaries on the Midrash points out that the reason why Africans have black skin is that they have increased levels of melanin which protect them against the fierce sunlight of their country. However, it was Noach’s curse which brought them to live in such climates.
To sum up: all the Torah tells us is that Cham and Cana’an committed a sin, as a result of which their descendants came to live in a hot country that darkened their skin, and were hampered in their efforts to resist slavery.
Some people seem to be working with the idea that since Noach cursed Cham, it is up to us to enhance that curse. Well, like it or not, we’re all cursed in one way or another. Chava was cursed with labor pains, but we do not try to increase those for women. Nor should we try to enhance the “sweat of our brow” with which man was cursed to support himself. Nor is there any mitzvah to inflict pain upon snakes because of their curse. If G-d, or Noach, curses someone, then that’s their business, not ours.
So much for being on the defensive against racist slurs. It should be clear that if people want to be racially offensive, they cannot claim that they are doing it for Torah reasons. Now let’s take the offensive. The Gemara (Taanis 20a) relates a story which, according to the explanation of the Maharsha (who says that it was referring to a black person), is a revealing lesson in race relations.
The Gemara relates that Rabbi Eleazar was riding on his donkey one day, feeling happy and proud of himself after a successful period of study. A black man walking along greeted him, but Rabbi Elazar did not return the greeting.
“Raika!” he called out (a derogatory term which roughly means “good-for-nothing”). “Is everyone in your village as ugly as you?”
“I don’t know (if I am allowed to answer that question,)” replied the black man. “Why don’t you go and tell the Craftsman Who made me?”
Rabbi Eleazar was instantly torn with apology. “Please forgive me!” he begged.
“Not until you go and tell the Craftsman Who made me,” replied the black man. He continued home to his village, with Rabbi Eleazar following contritely behind. When he arrived at the village, he was astonished to see his fellow townsfolk greeting Rabbi Eleazar with respect.
“If he is a Rabbi,” said the black man, “then let there not be more like him in Israel!”
“Why?” asked the townsfolk. The man related what Rabbi Eleazar had said to him. They pressed upon him to forgive Rabbi Eleazar, and he consented to do so, on condition that he would not act in such a way again.
Thus ends the story. The Maharsha spells out the lesson for us to learn from it. If you see something that you consider ugly, it is not your place to mention it. Doing so is attributing a deficiency to Creation. Making derogatory comments about black people is effectively saying that G-d messed up, chas v’shalom.
The story also implies that Rabbi Eleazar’s unpleasant comment was caused by excessive feelings of pride. Bigotry stems from arrogance. Whatever has happened in Crown Heights is totally irrelevant to this. With the frequently heard but undoubtedly offensive word “shvartzer,” one might be stacking up a serious slew of sins, as we see in the following case, related by Sarah Shapiro, that took place in Jerusalem recently.
A non-Jewish black youth by the name of Matt, who grew up in America, found himself strangely attracted to Judaism. He eventually found his way to a proper conversion to true Torah Judaism, and began to study at a ba’al teshuvah yeshivah in Jerusalem. Although he found fulfillment in his new way of life, he was experiencing a distressing problem. He would constantly be the subject of taunts and ridicule by the religious children of the neighborhood. One can only imagine what effect this had on that which he had been taught about Jews being kind and sympathetic people. He struggled on for a while, but eventually it became too much to bear, and he went back.
As Sarah Shapiro concludes: “Shall we attribute his departure to our country’s children behaving like children? Or to Israeli parents’ gross failure to passionately inculcate the most basic of Jewish values: respect for the other, who was also created by G-d – the other, who is not like you.
“Where are you now, Matt? And who in the world do you think we are?”
Bereishis Rabbah 36:7 and Yefeh To’ar ad loc.
Ta’anis 20a and Maharsha ad loc.
Sarah Shapiro, Don’t You Know It’s A Perfect World?, Targum Press 1998
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