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. Lewis notes 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 are fit only to be slaves. About Avicenna and the idea of geography and climate, Lewis writes about claims 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 is the context for the blood curdling statement by Maimonides in the Guide about the non-humanity of these same Turkic and sub-Saharan African people. In this respect, it is worth noting that, in Halevy’ Kuzari, the claims about Blackness and human potential belong to the philosopher, not to the Jew, Muslim, or Christian.

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 does not represent isolated dots so much as a meandering vein.

[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). 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. It’s not that the tradition is racist in anything like a straightforward way. But there is simply nothing in Jewish tradition to put a brake on racism and anti-Black racism in Jewish culture today. Apart from a pool of generalizable humanist teachings, there are no ideas or images that would speak directly to the full particular humanity of Black people, their particualr equality in the divine image. 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.

In response to pushback at FB about this post and Melamed’s study, I replied that i picked up Melamed’s book after stumbling upon images of black servant/slaves at the Passover table. And of course there is the infamous passage in Maimonides’ Guide. Melamed’s is a historically and socially contextualized sketch of the figure of Black people as appears in antique, medieval, and early modern Jewish sources, no less and no more. I am not sure why anyone would have expected that this would be a humanizing image or be be anything other than what it is.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Anti-Black & White in Jewish Texts (Abraham Melamed)

  1. dmf says:

    for better or worse SU had played a leading role in the fusing of cultural aesthetics and religion

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