Anti-Black & White in Jewish Texts (Abraham Melamed)

Abraham Melamed’s The Image of the Black in Judaism was first published in Hebrew in 2002 and then translated into English in 2003. While the title does little to recommend itself and the theoretical apparatus is dated, the data are excellent. This is a long-arc study of the image of Black people in Jewish thought and letters: Bible, rabbinics, Islamicate (medieval) Jewish thought, ending in the early modern period in Christian Europe. The material create a larger frame for contemporary discussions of Jews, Judaism and race in their American context while framing writing by Jonathan Schorsch and others about Jews and the African slave trade. Melamed traces the vein of anti-Blackness in Jewish tradition. And he makes the case that, yes, “Jews” are white. They always saw themselves in relation to and against Black Africans.

Even if the exact terms “race” and “racism” are contestable (being modern pseudo-scientific terms for ideas about immutable genetic differences), these Jewish traditions are inarguably “anti-Black.” In the Bible, Black people are from faraway. Melamed suggests that the Bible is neutral in this respect. It’s in the rabbinic, medieval, and modern materials where we begin to see what we can call anti-Blackness. Associated with the slave trade, the stereotypes are nightmarish and brutal. Blacks are ugly, bestial, sexual, violent, thoughtless, not really “human.” Jews are not too white, not too black (m.Negaim 2:1) and then, later, simply white.

Two things surprised me, suggesting the need to reorient thinking about race and Judaism and Jewishness. To date and still, these discussions are too narrowly focused upon the European and American experience; the context is too modern, and too freighted by the phenomena of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Assumed still is the outsider status of Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness in relation to Christian society. In Melamed’s study, there is relatively little of this. To be sure, he argues the notion that the Jewish other turns on the other-other in order to mirror Jewishness in relation to the majority dominant. But there is really no need for that psycho-social analysis to explain the “image of the Black in Jewish culture.” Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness are very much inside the dominant discourse in relation to anti-Blackness.

[1] The first thing to note is the systemic scale of anti-Blackness in Jewish sources. Anti-Blackness in the late antique, medieval and early modern worlds and in Judaism is aesthetic, social, pseudo-scientific, and textual. (The word “aesthetic” appears 54x in Melamed’s book). Anti-Blackness is not a structural feature of Jewishness like the Israel-Jew/Esau-Rome-goy differential without which it is hard to imagine Jewishness and Judaism. The anti-Black strain in Judaism is more like background noise. It is not at the foreground and not ubiquitous. It is not everywhere you look, and is relatively easy to ignore if you wanted. But anti-foreign and anti-Black ideas were in wide circulation in Hellenistic and Roman society and then in Islamic society. It’s there that the institutions of the slave trade and slavery mingled with ideas about the impact of climate –i.e. the superiority of temperate versus the inferiority of intemperate zones that are too cold and too hot– upon human potential and intellectual.

Students of medieval Jewish philosophy should note with interest the argument by Bernard Lewis in his 1993 book Race and Slavery in the Middle East: A Historical Inquiry about the influence of Aristotle and in al-Farabi relating to the notion that some people are by their very nature fit to be free and some to be slaves. About Avicenna, Lewis writes about the notion that, “in regions of great heat or great cold, peoples who were by their very nature slaves, and incapable of higher things—“for there must be masters and slaves.” Such were the Turks and their neighbors in the North and the blacks in Africa” (Lewis, pp.54-6). This influence explains the blood curdling statement by Maimonides in the Guide about the non-humanity of these same Turkic and sub-Saharan African people. In this same respect, it is worth noting that, in Halevy’ Kuzari, the claims about Blackness and human potential belongs to the philosopher.

Not simply a foreign social-cultural import, Melamed insists that anti-Blackness is also internal to the Jewish religious source material. In the Bible, Black people are from faraway and are even fascinating. The stigma against Black people begins to show in the rabbinic textual material, in part in relation to the institution of slavery. Anti-Blackness in Judaism has a stubborn place there in the rabbinic and medieval sources from which it wends its way into the early modern sources. It is easy to find if you know where to look, especially in the interpretation of key Biblical texts –the so-called curse of Ham, Sarah in Egypt, Moses’ Black wife, the Shulamite (“black, yet comely”) as picked up in rabbinic aggadah. There are more or less isolated passages in Ibn Ezra, Halevy, Maimonides, pronounced in Abravanel, travel literature (Benjamin of Tudela), biblical commentaries, Manasseh ben Israel, and early modern editing of rabbinic texts.  

Anti-Black source in Jewish culture do not represent isolated dots so much as a meandering line or thread.

[2] What really surprised me was the whiteness. I thought that the white-Jewish theme was a late modern thing in postwar America. But it’s more complicated and runs more deeply. Here I’ll simply quote Melamed:

“This assumption that the Jews were originally white and therefore handsome finds different forms of expression in the course of Jewish cultural history. The desirable woman in Song of Songs is ‘fair as the sun, clear as the moon’ (6: 10) while her beloved is described as ‘white [and ruddy]’ (5: 10).60 A story in BT Sanhedrin 92b relates that the young men of Israel going into exile were so handsome that the wives of the gentiles lost control of themselves, and the men had to be killed. In a Midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah 13: 10, we find: ‘“Thou art all fair, my love, and there is no spot in thee” (Song of Songs 4: 7) which speaks of Israel.’ Not by chance did Abarbanel understand that this beauty meant a white skin. In his commentary on Genesis 12: 11 on the descent of Abraham and Sarah into Egypt, following the Sages, he explains Abraham’s description of Sarah as ‘fair to look upon’ as ‘a woman fair to look upon … because her appearance was her whiteness (ha-loven shela)’. That is why Abraham feared lest the ugly, black Egyptians would kill him and take her. As it happens, this commentary has a much earlier predecessor that Abarbanel could not have known about. The apocrypha on Genesis found in the Dead Sea Scrolls describes the praise of Pharaoh’s ministers for Sarah’s beauty. Here too it is identified with white skin: ‘How beautiful her eyes are, how charming her nose and the whole radiance of her countenance. … How beautiful her bosom and how fine all her whiteness is.’ There are parallel Midrashim in the Aggadah (Bereshit Rabbah 40: 4).61 It turns out, then, that a long tradition associated Sarah’s beauty with light skin” (p.35, emphasis in bold is mine).

For more on lavnut (whiteness) in the early modern period with reference to a ms. edition of Pikrei de Rabbi Eliezer 24:

As early as the thirteenth century, a manuscript described Shem as white. In the Venetian edition (second printing, 1544) and in the second Venetian edition (1608) the original version appears in the body of the text. In the table of contents, however, we find ‘blessed Shem and Japheth with whiteness (lavnut) … and Ham with blackness (shaharut)’. Shem becomes white in all respects, and instead of the dangerous common denominator with black Ham, he gets to resemble the attractive white Japheth. In parallel fashion, Japheth’s whiteness becomes more positive in the early printed versions (Constantinople 1514, Venice 1544 and Sabbioneta 1567), when the adjective ‘handsome’ (yafeh) is added to ‘white’. Furthermore, the ambiguous description given of Ham as ‘black as the raven’ is replaced instead by the unequivocal ‘black and ugly’. Jews were trying to resemble the fair white Japheth, i.e. the European identified as the model to emulate, and thus more handsome and ‘cultured’, a process discerned elsewhere as well” (p.213).

The anti-Black and white-Jewish pieces are persistent. Today, they look like horrid Baroque objects, like old folio pages placed into a special portfolio made of paste-paper boards. With enough historical distance, one can take them more or less for granted; view them individually and as a group. Nothing commits contemporary Jews to these antiquarian sources. Most liberal Jews today don’t read Rashi or Abravanel, if they read the Bible at all. But there is a harsh conclusion that Melamed does not make, except by way of a quick reference to Abraham Isaac Kook. There is simply nothing in Jewish tradition to put a brake on racism and anti-Black racism in Jewish culture today. In conservative Orthodox communities, leaning more and more to the political right nowadays, the anti-Black and white-Jewish theme is not simply dead cultural tissue. Racism especially in the orthodox world is a social phenomenon, just like everywhere, but more worked into the form of intentionally lived tradition.

The image from the Venice Haggadah (1609), a baroque Jewish artifact, I’ve never seen before having just read about it in Melamed’s study.

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His Head, His legs, Your legs, Your head (Rashi Song of Songs)

Commenting on Song of Songs (7:2), this is a most refined physicality and supple anthropomorphism brought by Rashi to the close drawing together between God and Israel. His head, his legs, your legs, your head. Again it’s the case, with Rashi on Song of Songs, the allegory loses none of the original fragrance of the peshat.

The work of a craftsman. The hands of the Holy One, Blessed Is He, as explained in Maseches Sukkah. [49a.] אָמָּן is the same as אוּמָן [craftsman].The praise of the Holy One, Blessed Is He, that the [Bnei] Yisroel praise Him [is] from top to bottom. They begin with, “His head is [like] finest gold,” and continuously descend to, “His legs are like pillars of marble,” because they come to appease Him, to draw down His Divine Presence from the heavenly abodes to the earthly abodes. But, He enumerates their praise from bottom to top, starting with, “How fair were your feet פְּעָמַיִךְ,” these are the feet, and He continues and enumerates until, “that which is upon your head is like Mount Carmel,” until He comes to draw them to Him.

[from Sefaria]

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(Rashi Song of Songs) Israel is the Mother of God and Sister of Angels

Unlike the terse commentaries to Torah and Talmud, the commentary by Rashi to the Song of Songs is effusive and full-throated. Not a miscellany, it sustains its own independent theme running alongside the biblical love poem. A precis of  Rashi’s religious conception. An allegory for slavery in Egypt, off to desert, love and affections of youth, suffering and exile. At no point does Rashi forget the scents and smells and look and feel of the sensual peshat. The strong link between peshat and dersah/allegory is beauty. This allows religious allegory in the commentary to meet up with the natural beauty evoked in the biblical Song of Songs, its pungent visual feel and fragrance. Quite frequently, the commentary does not include an allegory. This only highlights and heightens the straight-up sensual aesthetic register of the religious allegory. Unlike Barry Dov Walfish here, I am not persuaded that the pehsat is simply subservient to the allegory; because, in my estimation, the one infuses the other with its scent. In the allegory, place is primary, the place of exile being one of desert exposure to intense heat and the place of the Tabernacle as a bed. At the end of the commentary, Israel is angelic in kind, but the entire spiritual ambience is steeped in nature. For Rashi, the hero/ine of the story is the Shulamite-Israel, not God.

A quick note as to how I put this post together: I went through the English translation at Sefaria and picked out direct selections there to create something by way of a chapter by chapter synopsis. In doing this, I wanted to share primary source material in such a way as to clarify what I think is, in essence, that theological argument about Israel, her vindication, her affection for God in exile and her attachment to Temple place. I did not include chapter and verse so as not to interfere with the flow of exposition, while adding some guideposts to help make sense of it. The manuscript page illuminating the top of the post is from Rashi’s commentary. The image of the French countryside in bloom is by Pissaro. I am not omitting the “I am black but comely” passage in chapter 1, but I am not including all of it.


About peshat and derash, plain reading and allegorical reading, the opening comment by Rashi (translated by Walfish) appears in chapter 1

“One thing God has spoken, two things have we (MT: I) heard” [Ps 62:12].  One verse may have several meanings, but in the end the literal meaning[7] may never be overlooked. And even though the prophets spoke their words in figures, the figures must be resolved according to their form and order, as the verses are ordered one after the other.I have seen many aggadic interpretations for this book, some arranged in a single midrash for the entire book, others scattered over several books, but they do not fit properly with the language of Scripture and the order of the verses. And I resolved to grasp the literal meaning of the verses and set down their meaning in order. As for the midrashic interpretations—our rabbis have set them down, each one in its place.

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 in the Rashi is mostly in the voice of or about the Shulamite-Israel. The Tabernacle bed makes its first appearance in the commentary to this chapter.

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. She recites this song with her mouth in her exile and in her widowhood, “If only King Shlomo would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth as of yore,”7“With the kisses of his mouth” is obviously superfluous, therefore Rashi explains that it refers to the days of yore. (Sifsei Chachomim) because in some places they kiss on the back of the hand or on the shoulder, “but I desire and wish that he behave with me as his original behavior, like a bridegroom with a bride, mouth to mouth.” [Your name] is like flowing oil. Your name is thus called. It is said about you that “you are [like] oil that is constantly being poured forth so that your fragrance goes forth to a distance.” For such is the nature of fragrant oil, as long as it is in a sealed bottle, its fragrance does not diffuse. If one opens it and pours its oil into another vessel, its fragrance diffuses. We recall your love. Even today, in living widowhood, I always recall your first love [for me] more than any banquet of pleasure and joy. They loved you sincerely. A strong love, a straightforward love, without deceit or intrigue, (in accordance with the expression of the verse, “and the crooked will become straight and heights will become a valley” that my ancestors and I loved you in those days. This is its simple meaning according to its context. According to its allegorical meaning: They mention before Him the loving kindness of [their] youth, the love of [their] nuptials, their following Him in the wilderness, a land of drought and darkness, and they did not even prepare provisions for themselves, but they believed in Him and in His messenger. And they did not say, “How can we go out into the wilderness, which is neither a land of seed nor food?”But they followed Him, and He brought them into the midst of the chambers of the envelopment of His clouds. With this, they are still joyful today and happy with Him despite their afflictions and distress; and they delight in the Torah, and there they recall His love more than wine, and the sincerity of their love for Him.I am black but comely, etc. You, my friends, let me not be light in your eyes. Even if my husband has left me because of my blackness, for I am black because of the tanning of the sun, but I am comely with the shape of beautiful limbs. Though I am black like the tents of Keidar, which are blackened because of the rains, for they are always spread out in the wilderness, I am easily cleansed to become like the curtains of Shlomo. The allegory is: The congregation of Yisroel says to the nations, “I am black in my deeds [i.e., sins], but I am comely by virtue of the deeds of my ancestors, and even some of my deeds are comely. If I bear the iniquity of the [golden] calf, I can offset it with the merit of the acceptance of the Torah.” Tell me, you whom my soul loves. The Holy Spirit now repeatedly compares her to sheep that is endeared to the shepherd. The congregation of Yisroel says to Him, as a woman to her husband, “Tell me, You Whom my soul loves, where do You pasture Your flock [i.e., Bnei Yisroel] among these wolvesin whose midst they are? And where will You rest them at noon, in this exile, which is a distressful time for them, like noon, which is a distressful time28Because of its intense heat. for the flock?” While the king was at his table. The congregation of Yisroel replies and says, “All this is true. You bestowed good upon me, but I repaid You with evil, for while the King was still at the table of His wedding banquet…” A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me. My beloved has become to me as one who has a bundle of myrrh in his bosom, and he said to him, “Here, [take] this bundle, which will give a more fragrant aroma than the first one that you lost.” So, was the Holy One, Blessed Is He, appeased by Yisroel for the incident of the [golden] calf and found them an atonement for their iniquity and said, “Donate to the Tabernacle, and let the gold of the Tabernacle atone for the gold of the calf.” Between my breasts he shall lie. Even though I betrayed Him, He said He would dwell there. In the vineyards of Ein-Gedi. [Ein-Gedi is] the name of a place, and there it is common. I saw in Aggadah that those vineyards produce fruits four or five times a year. And this is an allegory of the many atonements and forgiveness that the Holy One, Blessed Is He, forgave them for the numerous trials with which they tried Him in the wilderness. God calls Israel beautiful but S. calls God the handsome one. Most handsome. For You overlooked my transgressions and caused Your Shechinah to rest in our midst. This is the praiseof the descent of the fire, “and all the people saw and shouted for joy.” Indeed our bed is fresh. Through your pleasantness, behold our couch is fresh with our sons and daughters, all of whom gather unto You here, as it is said, “and the assembly was gathered, etc.”The Tabernacle is called a bed, as it is stated, “Behold the bed of Shlomo,”and similarly, the [Beis] Hamikdosh is called a bed, as it is said concerning Yo’ash, “in the bed chamber” which was in the “House of God,”because they are the source of Yisroel’s fruitfulness and procreation.

Chapter 2

Israel is a rose among the nations.

As a rose among the thorns. Which prick it, but it constantly retains its beauty and its redness, “so is my beloved among the daughters.” Theyentice her [i.e., Bnei Yisroel] to pursue them, to stray, as they do, after other gods, but she remains steadfast in her faith.As an apple tree. When an apple tree is among trees that do not bear fruit, it is more precious than all of them, for its fruit is good both in taste and in fragrance. To the banqueting-house. The Tent of Meeting, where the details and the explanations of the Torah were given. Refresh my bed. Spread my bed around me with apples for a good fragrance, in the manner of [treating] the sick, for I am sick for His love, for I thirst for Him here in my exile. “רְפִידָה” is an expression of a couch, as in, “where he lies יִרְפַּד on jagged rocks as if upon mud.”8My beloved resembles a gazelle. In the swiftness of His running, for He hastened to come like a gazelle and like a young hart. “עֹפֶר” is a young male hart. Behold, he stands, etc. I had expected to remain detained for many more days, and behold, he informed [me] that He was standing and peering through the windows of heaven at what was being done to me, as it is stated, “I have indeed seen the affliction of My people, etc.” Spoke. is] an expression of answering and an expression of a loud cry, The following is the precedent for them all, “And the Levi’im are to respond […in a loud voice].”: And said to me. Rise up. “I will bring you up from the affliction of Egypt.” Blooming nature and chirping birds in month of Nisan. The blossoms have appeared on the land. Behold Moshe and Aharon are available for you to fulfill all your needs. The time of singing has come. For you are destined to recite a song by the [Reed] Sea. My beloved is mine, and I am his. He demanded all His needs from me. He commanded only me, to make the Pesach sacrifice, sanctify the firstborn, make a Tabernacle, sacrifice burnt offerings; and He did not demand [these things] of any other nation. And I am his. All my needs I requested of Him, and not of other gods.Who pastures. His sheep. Among the roses. In a good, pleasant, and beautiful pasture.

Chapter 3

The Shulamite-Israel searches for the Beloved and tells the nations to stay out of her business on her wedding day: I grasped him and would not let him go. I did not loosen my grasp on Him until I brought Him to the Tabernacle at Shiloh because of all this that He had done for me. I bind you under oath. The nations, while I was exiled among you. That you do not cause hatred nor disturb the love of my beloved from me through seduction or enticement, to forsake him and to turn away from following him. While it still pleases. As long as I still desire his love.

The nations are astonished: Who is this ascending from the wilderness. When I was traveling in the wilderness and the pillar of fire and the cloud were going before me, killing snakes and scorpions and burning the thorns and thistles to make a straight path, and [when] the cloud and the smoke were ascending, the nations saw them, and marveled at my greatness, and they would say, “Who is this?” i.e., “How great is she [Bnei Yisroel] who is ascending from the wilderness, etc.!” With palm-like pillars of smoke. Tall and erect as a palm tree.  In a cloud of myrrh. [It is so called] because the cloud of incense which would rise straight up from the inner altar . Behold the bed of Shlomo. The Tent of Meeting and the Ark,which they carried in the wilderness. On the day of his wedding. The day of the giving of the Torah,when they crowned Him as their King and accepted His yoke. And on the day his heart rejoiced. This is the eighth day of the installation,on which the Tabernacle was dedicated in the wilderness.

Chapter 4,

The beauty of the Shulamite-Israel is revealed in this chapter. Protected from the intense heat of the spreading sun. Israel will go with God into exile, and God will come back with her. God’s love for Israel, for the adornments of her commandments, compared to necklaces with which Israel is distinguished.

your hair is like a flock of goats. This praise is allegorized as the praise of a woman beloved by her bridegroom [who says to her], “Within your kerchief, your hair is beautiful and shines with brilliance and whiteness, like the hair of white goats descending from the mountains, and whose hair shines from a distance.” And the allegory with which he compares the congregation of Yisroel is as follows: From within your camps and your dwelling places, even the empty ones among you are as dear to Me as Yaakov and his sons, who trailed down from Mount Gilad when Lavan overtook them there. Your teeth. Are fine and white and arranged in their proper order like wool and like the order of a flock of ewes, selected from the rest of the flock by count and number,and are assigned to a clever and capable shepherd to be careful with their wool, because they make them into fine woolen garments. They watch them from the time of birth, that the wool should not become soiled, and they wash them daily. All of which are perfect. An expression of perfection, [as in,] “There is no perfection מְתם in my flesh,”i.e., “whole” תְּמִימוֹת=מַתְאִימוֹת, entires in O.F. Lips, mouth, neck, breasts. How beautiful is your love. Every place where you showed me affection is beautiful in My eyes; Gilgal, Shiloh, Nov, Givon, and the eternal Temple. That is what the [poet] from Bavel composed, “A resting place and other meeting places,” “resting place” refers to Yerusholayim, and “other meeting places” refers to each place where the Divine Presence met with Yisroel. And the fragrance of your oils. Your good name. Honey. [Which is] sweet. Your lips drip. [With] explanations of Torah. And the fragrance of your garments. The proper commandments pertaining to your garments; ritual fringes, blue thread, the garments of a kohein, and the prohibition of sha’atnez [=wool and linen].גַּן נָעוּל. עַל שֵׁם צְנִיעוּת בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁאֵין פְּרוּצוֹת בַּעֲרָיוֹת: A locked garden. This refers to the modesty of the daughters of Yisroel, who are not of loose morals.

Chapter  5,

In this chapter, Rashi reads the Shulamite’s delay at the door as betrayal followed by punishment, the destruction of the Temple. The discourse turns midway on behalf of the Shulamite’s fidelity, the handsomeness of God and the vegetal beauty of Torah.

I have come to my garden. In the days of the dedication of the Beis Hamikdosh. Sugar, milk, wine. Drink and become intoxicated [my] beloved ones. These are the Israelites who ate the flesh of the peace offerings that they sacrificed for the dedication of the altar. She asleep, her heart awake. His approach to the door, her delay, calamity. They stripped my ornament. The Beis Hamikdosh. [Even] the guards of the walls. Even the ministering angels, who were guarding its walls, as the matter is stated: “On your walls, O Yerusholayim [I posted guards], etc.”They ignited the fire upon it, as the matter is stated, “From above He has hurled fire, etc.” She stands by own righteousness; When you find my beloved. In the future, on the Day of Judgement, when it will be requested of you to testify about me, as the matter is stated, “Let them present their witnesses, and they will be vindicated.” What will you tell him. You will testify on my behalf that because of love for Him, I suffered harsh afflictions among you. Let Nevuchadnetzar come and testify, let Eliphaz and Tzophar and all the prophets of the nations come and testify about me that I fulfilled the Torah. And when nations demand to know from her, she will testify to His beauty. His head. Shines like the finest gold. ‘כֶּתֶם’is a term referring to the treasures of kings which they store in their treasure houses, and similarly, “the finest gold כֶּתֶם has changed,”and similarly, “and fine gold וְלַכֶּתֶם I called my security,”and similarly, “and an ornament of fine gold כֶּתֶם. לְשׁוֹן תְּלוּיִים, פנדלויי”ש בְּלַעַ”ז: His locks hang. תַּלְתַּלִּים is] is an expression of hanging תְּלוּיִים, pendelojes in O.F. שְׁחֹרוֹת כָּעוֹרֵב. כָּל אֵלֶּה נוֹי לְבָחוּר: They are raven-black. All these are handsomeness for a young man. His eyes are like doves upon brooks of water. His eyes by brooks of water are as beautiful as doves’ eyes. Brooks of water are pleasant to behold, and the young men go there to swim. And so the poet praises the eyes of “my beloved,” when he gazes upon the brooks of water, they resemble the beauty of the eyes of doves.רֹחֲצוֹת. עֵינֵי דוֹדִי בֶּחָלָב: Bathed. [I.e.,] the eyes of my beloved in milk, and so on. His cheeks like rolls of gold, sparkling gems, white ivory. Legs like marble and cedar. Sweet and pleasant words. Power of judgemnet, beauty of Torah. His appearance is like Levanon. Whoever reflects and ponders over His words finds in them blossoms and sprouts, like a blooming forest. So are the words of Torah, whoever meditates over them constantly discovers new explanations in them.

Chapter 6

The nations taunt Israel. Where is your Beloved? She answers: My beloved has gone down to his garden. He commanded us to build His Temple, and He will be there with us.לַעֲרוּגוֹת הַבֹּשֶׂם. מְקוֹם מִקְטַר הַקְּטֹרֶת: To the beds of spices. The place where the incense is burned. To graze in the gardens. And further, He has gone to graze His sheep in the gardens where they were scattered, [i.e.,] those who did not come up from the exile, He rests His Divine Presence upon them in the synagogues and in the study halls. If the pomegranates had sprouted. Those who fulfill the commandments are full of merits. Why are [Bnei] Yisroel compared to a nut? Just as this nut, you see it entirely of wood [shell], and what is inside is not discernible, and you crack it and find it full of compartments of edible food, so are the [Bnei] Yisroel modest and humble in their deeds, and the students among them are not discernible, and they do not boast by announcing their own praise. But if you examine him, you find him full of wisdom. There are many additional Midrashic interpretations of this matter. Just as if this nut falls into mud, its inside does not become sullied, so are the [Bnei] Yisroel exiled among the nations and they suffer many blows, but their deeds do not become sullied.

Chapter 7

I am breaking up my selection of material in this chapter to give a better indication of the separate voices speaking here: Israel and the Nations and God.

The nations speak to Israel: Turn back, turn back [you] perfect one. They say to me, “Turn back, turn back” from following the Omnipresent. הַשּׁוּלַמִּית. הַשְּׁלֵמָה בֶאֱמוּנָתֵךְ עִמּוֹ, שׁוּבִי שׁוּבִי אֵלֵינוּ: Perfect one. You who are perfectin your faith with Him, “turn back, turn back”2How fair were your feet in sandals. They say to her, “We want you to cleave to us because of the beauty and prominence that we saw in you when you were still beautiful.”…..How beautiful and pleasant are you. After having praised each limb in detail, Scripture includes everything [in one phrase], “How beautiful” in your entirety, “and [how] pleasant are you” to cleave to you with a love that is proper to delight in.

God now responds speaking to Israel: And now let your breasts.. And now, make true My words, that you will not be enticed to follow the nations, and may the good and wise among you be steadfast in their faith, to retort to those who entice them, so that the lesser ones among you will learn from them.

Israel responds? It flows for my beloved in sincerity. I am careful to answer them that I will remain steadfast in my faith, and my speech will go before my Beloved with sincere love, which comes from the heart, and not with deceit and guile…..Like good wine. Which makes the lips of the sleeping murmur. Even my ancestors in the grave will rejoice with me and give thanks for their lot. “דּוֹבֵב” [means] causing to move, fromier in O.F. and its root, is an expression of speech. And this is the answer, “I am my Beloved’s and He longs for me. Let us lodge in the villages. Let us lodge among the disbelievers [=כּוֹפְרִים. Come and I will show You Eisav’s descendants, upon whom You have lavished prosperity, but who do not believe in You. Let us rise early for the vineyards. These are the synagogues and the study halls. Let us see if the vine has blossomed. These are those who are versed in Scripture. If the pomegranates are in bloom. When they are ripe, and the flower around them falls off; “הֵנֵצוּ” means “its flower falls off.” He compares those versed in the Talmud to them, for they are at the level of maturity in [Torah] wisdom that is worthy to teach.

Chapter 8

I am again breaking up my selection of sources to better convey the multiple  voices. The Shulamite-Israel complains that God is not a brother, but she is the mother of God and sister of angels.

Israel to God, a complaint? If only you were a brother to me. That you would come to comfort me in the manner that Yoseif did to his brothers,who did evil to him, and it is stated concerning him, “and he comforted them. When I would find you outside I would kiss you. I would find Your prophets speaking in Your Name, and I would embrace them and kiss them; I also know that “no one would scorn me,” for Your love is worthy that Your beloved should go about in search of it. To my mother’s house. The Beis Hamikdosh. That you should teach me. As You were accustomed to do in the Tent of Meeting. I would give you spiced wine to drink. Libations.

Israel to the nations:  I bind you under oath. Now the congregation of Yisroel addresses the nations, “Even though I complain and lament, my Beloved holds my hand, and He is my support in my exile; therefore, ‘I bind you under oath.’” Why should you cause hatred or disturb. For it will be of no avail.

God and the heavenly tribunal: Who is she. The Holy One, Blessed Is He, and His Tribunal, say about the congregation of Yisroel, “Who is she?” How very worthy she is, who was ascended from the wilderness with all the good gifts. There she became elevated at the giving of the Torah and cleaving to the Divine Presence, and her love was visible to all, and while still in her exile

Israel reminds God: Beneath the apple tree I aroused you. So she says as she seeks the affection of her Beloved; “Beneath the apple tree I aroused You.” Remember that under Mount Sinai, which was suspended over my head like an apple,there “I aroused You.” This is an expression of the affection of the wife of one’s youth, who arouses her beloved at night when he is asleep on his bed, and she embraces him and kisses him. There [your mother] had birth pains. We have already stated that the Holy One, Blessed Is He, called her [Yisroel] His mother.4Above 3:11. There she became to You as a mother. Set me as a seal. For the sake of that love, seal me upon Your heart,so that You do not forget me, and You will see. For love is as strong as death. The extent of my love that I loved You is to me equal to my death, for I am killed for Your sake.My love to You is so strong that I would choose death before relinquishing my love for You. (Metzudas Dovid)  Jealousy is as harsh as the grave. The quarrel that the nations were jealous and quarreled with me because of You. “קִנְאָה” every place [in Scripture] means enprenment in O.F., an expression of conveying feelings to wreak vengeance. Many waters cannot quench the love. Since he refers to them with an expression of coals, the term “cannot quench” is appropriate for them.8The pain and suffering that Bnei Yisroel endured throughout its many exiles, “cannot quench the love [for God],” which remains intact. (Sefer Dudaim) Many waters. The nations. And rivers. Their princes and their kings. Cannot drown it. Through force or terror, or even through enticement and seduction.

The heavenly tribunal speaks up for Israel: We have a [little] sister. In the earthly abode, who unites, joins and desires to be with us, and she is little and humbles herself more than all the nations, as the matter is stated, “Not because you are more numerous, etc.”for they humble themselves. A [little] sister. אָחוֹת is] an expression of joining, [as in,] “These are the rends that may not be sewn up completely מִתְאַחִין.”But she has no breasts. As the matter is stated concerning the exile of Egypt, “[Her] breasts were developed,”when the time of the redemption arrived, but this one, “she has no breasts;” her time has not yet arrived for the time of love. What shall we do for our sister on the day she is spoken for. When the nations whisper about her to destroy her, as the matter is stated, “Come, let us destroy them from being a nation.”If she be a wall. If she is strong in her faith and in her fear of God, to be against them like a copper wall, that they should not enter her midst, meaning that she will not intermarry with them, and they will not intermingle with her, and she will not be seduced by them.: We will build upon her a fortress of silver. We will become for her a fortified city and for a crown and beauty, and we will build for her the Holy City and the Temple.

Israel insists: I am a wall. Strong in the love of my Beloved. And my bosom is like towers. These are the synagogues and the study halls, which nurture Yisroel with words of Torah.

God to Israel: You who sit in the gardens. The Holy One, Blessed Is He, says to the congregation of Yisroel, “You, who are scattered in exile, grazing in the gardens of strangers and sitting in synagogues and study halls.”: Companions listen to your voice. The ministering angels your friends, children of God like you, hearken and come to listen to your voice in the synagogues. Let me hear [your voice]. And afterwards, they will sanctify [My Name], as it is stated, “When the morning stars sing together.”These are the Israelites, and afterwards, “and all the angels of God shout praise.” Flee my beloved. From this exile, and redeem us from among them. And be like a gazelle. To hasten the redemption, and to cause Your Divine Presence to rest—Upon the mountains of spices. This is Mount Moriyah and the Beis Hamikdosh, may it be rebuilt speedily and in our days, Amen.

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Trans-Torah (Dubbs Weinblatt)

In this short-form reflection by Dubbs Weinblatt on Torah and Trans Jewishness, an emerging sense of awareness is brought to bear vis-a-vis an ancient text-tradition, one that has done so much harm to LGBT Jews and continues to challenge. What’s modern is in the free act of sorting and self-certainty. Their questions and doubts sift through the psychic refuse created by the complex binary code. Weinblatt rejects the demand to choose between all or nothing. The non-binary form is simple and rational. Weinblatt self-orients at the very root of the system: the stubborn, cosmic sense of deep inner self that lies in the notion that all human beings are in the image of God, b’zelem elohim. Originally published at Alma, the essay was republished at the mainstream Forward.

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Slaves at the Passover Seder (2 Images)

Here are two mages reflecting the place of an African slave at the Passover Seder. The first is from the so-called Sarajevo Haggadah, produced in Barcelona in the 14th C. The other is from Ceremonies et Coutumes Religieuses de tous les Peuples du Monde, a multi-volume work by Bernard Picart, a leading engraver in the 18th C., illumining what we today call “world religions” (About Picart’s work see more here). In both cases the general milieu is Iberian Jewish

About the social and legal status of African slaves in the Portuguese Jewish community in 17th C. Amsterdam, this piece here is of interest. On the topic of Sephardic Jews and the slave trade, see scholarly works by Eli Faber, Jonathan Shcorsch, and Aviva Ben-Ur.

About the two images, there is the cozy elegance of the early bourgeois scene. The man at the far left is Picart himself, observing the scene. The African “servant” is presumably a slave; he seems busy at work. He is at the table from which he turns, at his task making sure that the ceremony is conducted without a hitch. More curious is that the African woman, presumably and most definitely a slave, at the seder table in the Sarajevo Haggadah.

On the image of this young woman, Sonja Drimmer forwarded me this link here to “Freedom and Slavery in the Sarajevo Haggadah” by Adam Cohen. A PDF is here.

On the one hand, Cohen, argues, the diminutive figure of the African slave in the Sarajevo Haggadah might be a visual prop made to exemplify the negative difference between freedom and slavery. Cohen cites the Babylonian Talmud and from Maimonides where slaves are pointed at in relation to the seder to highlight the distinction between freedom and slavery. Indeed, her position at the front of the table lines her face up along the same line as the table ritual objects. Cohen suggests also that she may, in fact, be a metonym for the bread of the affliction, the very matzah that she holds in her hand? Would she then be a like “object” at the table to which the pater familias would point?

On the other hand, Cohen also notes that her presence at the table is not one of serving guests (like in other Iberian Haggadot and in the image by Picart). Clearly nothing for modern liberal Jews to celebrate as a token of inclusion, she would seem, nevertheless, to be a more active participant in the family ritual. From her end of the table hierarchy. She is both with the family, but set apart from the family. Thinking who knows what, her gaze is not abject or downturned. Her gaze looks forward, is involved, and fixed on the rite.

Eli Rosenblatt is recommending Jewish Artists and Images of Black Africans in Renaissance Venice by Paul H.D. Kaplan, 2005.

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(One Little Goat) Chad Gadya (El Lissitzy)

The 1919 Chad Gadya of El Lissitzky is a violent masterpiece that reveals, uniquely and as if once and for all, the brutal visual core at the Jewish world of this dark Passover classic, sung to this day in Aramaic, the language of sitra achra. In this animal world and on the verge of abstraction, everything kills everything until God kills death. The goat, the cat, the dog, the stick, the fire, the water, the ox, the butcher, the Angel of Death. You can see and show in electronic facsimile the complete set of images here. In tension with the expressionist avant-garde brio, the physical object itself is a rare and rarified item, “on thick cream wove paper, from the edition of 75, the colours fresh…mounted on linen, matted, framed and glazed,” as per the site at Christies, which auctioned it. Note that the first images come last in this facsimile version. When you click on the link, it will take you to the bottom which is the opening cover of this left to right Yiiddish book. Utterly bizarre, fire takes the form of a red-hot and angry rooster.

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Bourgeois Passover (Domestic Judaism)

Setting aside all that theo-political stuff, all the high-minded talk and ideas that lend themselves to the public performance and moral didacticism, the social form of the actual Passover seder is intimate; a small scale familial rite, familiar and inward-looking in essence. Make of it what you will, but it’s probably a mistake to pretend it is anything much more than that. While I don’t exactly remember if he put women at the table and I’m assuming he did not, Rosenzweig understood at least that much in the Star of Redemption. The simple image here is from the Barcelona Haggadah, Spain (Catalonia), c. 1340. It says a lot about “Jewishness” or “Judaism.” Not really universal, it’s a modest table-thing.

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(Post-Diasporist) Poyln (Alter Kacyzne)

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What are we looking at when we look at photographs by Alter Kacyzne of Jewish life in interwar Poland and then reproduced in the 1999 photo-album Poyln: Jewish Life in the Old Country? With what kind of affect? There are other collections like this –the 1987 Image before My Eyes collected by Lucjan Dobroszycki, and of course the photographic reliquary from the late 1930s, just before the war, A Vanished World by Roman VIshnaic, published in 1947 and then republished in 1983. Neither not vanished nor preserved in amber, this world and these Jews are very much alive in this body of work.

To get a sense of these photographs I went to the chapter on him and Moshe Vorobeichic in Carol Zemel’s Looking Jewish: Visual Culture and Modern Diaspora. Zemel describes her own book as being about “image production as a signifying practice of Jewish diasporic life” (p.4). Zemel includes chapters on Bruno Schultz, Vishnaic, R.B. Kitay, Ben Katchor, and Vera Frenkel.
What are these pictures about? Zemel argues against what Michael Andre Bernstein called “backshadowing.” Looked at in their own terms, the images have no direct relation to Auschwitz. Zemel sets aside the sense of impending doom that readers come to these kinds of artifacts after the Holocaust (pp.20-1). What I would only add to this is that, photographs are about time, but not just about time. What stands out in the photographs by Kacyzne is the tension between social motion and social stasis in relation to place. These photographic subjects (objects?) are etched individual figures out of a collectivist social mass. The people are more ordinary and actual than iconic. 

About the origin of this body of photographic work, Zemel explains, “From 1923 to 1930, Cahan commissioned Kacyzne to provide images of Eastern European Jewish life for the weekly rotogravure or ‘Art Section’ of the paper; they appeared there as photo essays with titles like ‘The Principal Streets of Grodno, Poland’ (December 30, 1923) or ‘Pictures of Jewish Life and Characters’ (December 5, 1923) (figure 1.8). In an ongoing exchange of letters, Cahan and Kacyzne voiced the differences in their outlook. For Cahan, who described the photo essays as contributions from ‘our traveling photographer,’ and ‘our special artist photographer,’ and who encouraged representation of shtetl types and habits, the pictures enabled the conjoining of two diasporas—the Eastern European and the American—with the distinct impression that the pictured conditions of the old country meant it was better ‘over here.’ Kacyzne, seems to have agreed, at least in part, though he complained about the lack of variety in shtetl subjects and Cahan’s lack of interest in his own ideas—both literary and pictorial—for the project. His itinerary, he reminded the Forverts editor, was shaped by his own lecture tours and cultural projects, and as a poster for his lecture on ‘Literature, A National Treasure’ in the background of a picture of Tshortkev (Ukraine) shows, Kacyzne actively promoted modern Jewish nationhood to old-country audiences as well” (p.31).

In short, as Zemel notes, for Cahn, the photographic interest was nostalgia on the part of Yiddish language Jewish immigrants in America, more or less recently arrived. For Kacyzne, it was a changing society that caught his eye. About this contention I am a little unsure. I am not sure I agree with Zemel that the photographs “[differentiate], and [re-vision] the possibility of a new diasporic home” (p.42). Nor am I sure that they are even “diasporic” as theorized in academic diasporist scholarship. These Jews are at once at home in dispersal, but with one foot out the door. But there is nothing to say that these Polish Jews were ambivalent, particularly doubled, or even minoritarian, as per Zemel’s formulation in the introduction to Looking Jewish. Being part of a large social mass, they are Jews very much in their own skin.

About how these photographs look today, already almost a quarter of a century after their original re-publication in 1999 –Zemel notes that unlike the original cheap quality newspaper prints at the Forverts circa 1920s, the lavish, art-book presentation of the fine prints highlights the aesthetic qualities of Kacyzne’s work (p.20). It allows us to view them as such, at a critical distance.

Citing Marxist photo-theorist John Tagg, Zemel points out that the original viewers were “[subject-participants] in the pictured space” (p.30). But what about viewers like ourselves and much younger now approaching these photographs one hundred years or so after their original, non-glossy publication? Bracketing idealism and nostalgia, Zemel comments, “Looking at these images, the viewer is generally aligned with the photographer, as someone separate from but nevertheless interested in the pictured sight” (p.30). Except that we later viewers are non-aligned. Certainly, we today are now longer subject participants.

What Zemel calls the “pictured sight” is a pictured site. In the photographs, Poyln is not dreamy, not timeless, not utopian. Poyln is locative. The photographs come out to us, they emanate from their own distinct place and time. The emanations are then modified and re-modified in their production and production.

What does Poyln “mean” today? What do and what can these photographs signify? In the early 21st century, the photographs are no longer news from back home, no longer just over there and no longer just from a few moments ago. There is, in our own viewing today, a shift from “news” to “art.” The finely finished black and white intensifies the effect of our own looking. What’s interesting is a saturated social weirdness. The photographs are motley and full of life. But they are no longer dirty. They capture no shtetl dirt or leave no schmutz of old newspaper ink on your hands. I think if I showed only the Poyln photographs to my students, what would they see and feel? I’m betting no tug of “nostalgia.” For that I would have to introduce that very concept as an apriori thinking grid. Domesticated, but no longer familiar, the brightly reproduced photographs are both lovely and curious. Is this sort of what Poyln maybe looked like?

Nostalgia has to be lived to be nostalgic. To be honest and speaking personally, my own sense of lived nostalgia would form around the memory of felt object-places like Baltimore and Labor Zionist summer camp circa 1979 and Israel in the 1980s. The basic-group structure of modern Jewish nostalgia remains remarkably consistent. “Once upon a time there we were all together and it felt like this.” But if Zemel would allow me, I would say that, today, about Europe and about Poland, Jews are both post-nostalgic and post-diasporic. Jews are no longer there and not for a long time already, not actually.

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Religion Politics Grift

I wasn’t sure how to do this without inciting against ultra-orthodox Jews. But the problem is actually bigger than the one reported here in the NYT and it’s best not to be sentimental. The detailed investigative report is about the special access of leaders of semi-autonomous religious communities to political power. This story is bad for the public good, bad for democracy, bad for religion, and bad for the Jews. Over the last several years, we have seen the larger story especially pronounced in the non-education of Haredi youth and the flouting of Coronavirus and other public health regulations. It’s as if community leaders, their machers and rabbis, do not care about civil society. This particular report concerns the Aleph Institute and the Tzedek Association, charitable organizations ostensibly committed to prison-sentencing reform, and how “efforts to seek clemency for…wealthy or well-connected people benefited from their social, political, or financial ties to a loose collection of lawyers, lobbyists, activists and Orthodox Jewish leaders who had worked with Trump administration officials on criminal justice legislation championed by Jared Kushner.” As Joshua Shanes writes here, the relation between orthodox Judaism and reactionary politics is not new in modern times. And still, this story here in all its transactional brazenness is unique to New York City and the Trump “era.” At this historical moment, this kind of religion getting close to this kind of political power with this kind of money invites this kind of white collar, criminal grift.

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(Israel) Has Changed Its Face (Judaism)


The best part in this article here about Merav Michaeli is when, with characteristic bluntness, she tells leftists to stop whining about Mizrachim in Sederot voting Likud. They at least have an effective political home. In this political ad, the Labor Party speaks to the point. “I will not be silent for my country has changed its face.” And this piece here by Bradley Burston speaks to something parallel, i.e.  the changing face of Judaism, no longer a social democratic form, no longer a humanist tradition, but something corrupt and morally horrid. 

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