Black History Month D’var Torah
This paper is a combined version of two separate sermons both delivered during Black History Month at Black led services for Kehillah North London on 24th and 30th October 2020 by Michael Lomotey, Ba’al Tefillah.
We have talked about Blackness for the whole month and within the Jewish community it has been warming to see BHM embraced with vigour this year. Kol HaKavod, all the honour to you, to us
I’ve just written a lecture for some masters students which I entitled, How long ‘til Black futures month? I took the name from an essay and a collection of short stories by the Black Afrofuture author N.K. Jemisin. In her essay Jemisin explains why we should avoid taking only a historical racial lens to look at society. There is an importance of envisioning futures for those who are currently oppressed as well as dealing with our own current situation.
But before the future, we must start with history. We know about Noah and his ark, the floods and the covenant of the rainbow. The 40 days and 40 nights. But Noah plants a vineyard and gets drunk. Whilst drunk, one of his sons did something to him that caused Noah to deliver a curse. We can’t say for certainty exactly what he did to get cursed. But we do know that the ramifications are great. There is a train of thought that these verses are responsible for the horrors of racism throughout history. It is a terrifying concept.
Maybe we can compare some parallels of good things that have a darker side.
Parallels like light entertainment can give us respite from the daily drudge. Entertainment can give us employment and creativity.
Parallels like the rest of Torah bringing a concept of a moral history of the world. Ethical teaching.
Parallels like in science Marie Curie pioneered cancer treatment.
But Curie also discovered radium which led directly to invention of the atomic bomb and the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki being incinerated and burned alive.
Light entertainment gave us reality TV and subsequently the current leader of the free world. I jest not about this, as a Black person, I feel his politics could lead to a return of the burning of Strange Fruits.
But whilst religion has immeasurable value it also stands accused of facilitating probably the most heinous horror ever.
I’m speaking of what has been called the Curse of Ham.
The alleged curse is used to argue that Black Africans are punished and cursed to be slaves, and that they, we, are a lower class of humans and to be subjugated.
I feel it is a series of untruths that have terrorised history. Claims were made during the 1960s that anti-Black racism:
- has its roots in rabbinic statements;
- It’s a clear Talmudic view;
- Is responsible for the western concept of Black inferiority and is driven by the rabbis.
The accusation is that Judaism is the source for all racism, the rabbis were anti-Black and Jewish literature shows this.
What we saw in the 60s can only be called a show of poor enquiry, taking up a baton of crap scholarship and passing it around in a kind of Mobius loop, perpetuating a falsehood as the next writer picked it up passed it on.
The verses say:
“When Noah woke up from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; The lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”
Where is the falsehood? Canaan was cursed, Noah’s grandson was cursed. The text gives no reasons why so how to understand it?
We use critical enquiry and hermeneutics – hermeneutics is how we interpret biblical texts.
Hermeneutics differs in Judaism from other religions. We take an interpretation of certain words, words and letters, numerical value of words which lead to a logical deduction for halakah, Jewish Law. Not so with others where a literal, moral or allegorical reading comes much more to the front. Therefore, it’s easier for those others to reach a ruling on scripture that suits a political or commercial end.
Hermeneutics in other religions are very different. Let’s just say that almost anything can be interpreted in some quarters (dot dot dot).
But even a literal reading couldn’t get it so wrong, it had to have been calculated and contrived for other means, not for moral teaching.
Canaan was cursed, not Ham. We know from the rest of the chapter that Canaan relates to groupings of nations around the levant in that era.
Noah had about seventeen grandsons, of which four were sons of Ham. They are Cush, Mizraim, Put and Canaan which in turn became nations.
Canaanites roughly make up the nation states in the area around the modern State of Israel, areas to the north, west and south of that region. So we have the Phoenicians, Philistines, western Palestine, Nineveh, Assyrians and Sumerians.
None of these are not what we would recognise as people representing the African typology we know today.
Remember it is significant that Canaan was cursed, not the other son Cush who has been linked to Ethiopia, Sudan and Africa.
From that original list, Mizraim probably still exists as Egypt, but the other nations were subsumed or died out. Cush is interesting as I say, it potentially refers to Africa as represented by Ethiopia.
This verse does not appear to be about race.
So how did it all come about?
A grossly incorrect interpretation of Noah’s curse and some crafty hermeneutics brought two unrelated themes, black skin and a relegation of Canaan to subhuman slaves.
Ham linked to Cush/ Africa/Ethiopia, can refer to people which have a particular colour. It’s a long stretch to link, sons, uncles and grandsons into a curse and extrapolate it into Black skin, equals slaves.
Maybe it’s a twist on how aetiology was used. What is aetiology? It’s a way of describing a difference or circumstance for example, the serpent in Genesis is cursed to go on its belly, that’s why the snake has no legs. Aetiology was common in ancient societies and cultures for explaining difference, we see it all over the world.
San Bush people of the Kalahari have a myth that says people have different colour skin because the creator made them from different coloured clays, white clay, red and dark.
We have aetiology stories in Ghana featuring Kwaku Anansie, the trickster spider. One explains why the crows has a white breast. Crow finds and steals a missionaries trunk and wore the dog collar, henceforward crows in Ghana have white colouring on their breast.
What this actually reflects is a reality that the ancient societies tended to have a lack of race bias attributed to colour. At the time Noah was written there was no apparent race bias. A preference for different looks maybe but not racism.
On the contrary, Homer, in the lliad and Odyssey speaks of the Ethiopian, not in any derogatory way but as an adjacent nation. He writes about the “Blameless Ethiopians, who are of physical or moral perfection”. Herodotus, called Ethiopians, the most handsome people on earth. Philodemus, extolled Black African beauty. Asclepiades, said of his black lover, “gazing at her beauty I melt like fire”.
However, your own characteristics were accepted as the norm or the ideal form. Greeks preferred their own colour over the white Germanic paleness and darker African. It was about an ideal.
It gets bad for Africa when these parts of early socio cultural traditions became mixed with a bad interpretation and used to justify the subjugation of Black Africans.
It appears the twisting of the curse was first used was by Arabs who traded heavily in enslaved Africans. The interpretation of Noah’s curse as bringing two unrelated themes, black skin and relegation to subhuman slaves first appeared in Arab literature.
Some of the earliest writings containing the curse are from Christian Arabs including a 9th century bishop of Hdatta, Ishodad of Merv. Hdatta no longer exists but was a part of the Sasanian empire which stretched from Iran/Iraq, eastern med, Egyptus and Judea and as far as Pakistan. It was during and within the Sasanian empire that the Babylonian Talmud was written. It even had a Jewish Queen Shushandukht, who is linked with the tomb of Ester and Mordecai in modern Iran.
Moroccan historian and religion scholar Chouki El Hamoud speaks clearly of a culture of silence that continues in the Arab world on enslavement of Black Africans. El Hamoud, Bruce Hall and Eve Troutt Powell have all written extensively that Black Africans were enslaved on a huge scale by north Africa and the Arabic world and in has continued, right up to modern times.
I encourage you to read the memoirs “I was a slave” by Salim C Wilson. Salim was captured as a child by Arab slavers and freed in 1879. He spent possibly two decades enslaved but after being liberated travelled to England where he became a missionary and a priest. Salim spoke nationally about the abolition of Arab slavery and I was amazed to find he made repeated visits to speak in Hull in the 1920s at Thornton Hall which stood on the same road that my family house is on.
The story of Josephine Bakhita, is also very poignant. Josephine was captured and enslaved by Arab traders in 1877 at just 7 years old. Josephine who was massively abused and bore 144 scars, spent 12 years as a slave but was emancipated by Italian courts and joined a convent in Vicenza, Italy where she lived for 40 years. In the year 2000 due to her work to raise awareness of slavery in the Arab world, and because of her gentleness and forgiveness, Josephine was beatified and made a catholic saint, the patron saint of survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking.
I am certainly not setting out a position here, but want to make a strictly academic observation, that it is interesting the nuance when some parts of BLM movement comment on Israel/ Palestinian conflict, whilst we have very clear evidence of strong Arab racism against Black Africans and shocking racism by the Israeli state against its own Black citizens. Something to be explored maybe at another time if anyone is interested.
This dual curse appears to have first popped up in Europe around 15th century with one of the first citings by Francisco de la Cruz (d. 1578). This is when we see Christian hermeneutic tradition more actively promoting the dual curse. Around this time were published the infamous papal bulls.
Papal bulls are official announcements or decrees from the pope. Dum Diversas 1442, condemned Africans to perpetual servitude. Romanus Pontifex 1454, decreed the enslavement of people especially in West Africa by the Portuguese and the notorious inter Caetera of 1493 allowed enslavement, subjugation and genocide of Turtle Island and Abya Yala, places we call now the Americas, north, central and south.
Add to these 18th century United States, doctrine of Manifest Destiny as a divinely ordained claim to push west and destroy the savages, and you have it all. 500 years of carnage. Are they all a result of just two verses in Noah?
So Arab then Christian countries, all which had an active involvement in enslavement of Africans, used a fake interpretation to justify their behaviour. To justify accumulating wealth.
Sadly as David Goldenberg says about the false Curse of Ham, “the European slave Holocaust is a direct result of that pervasive thinking”.
And it does not exonerate later periods of taking it on as a cultural norm.
How does progressive Judaism apply a lens reconciling modern morals, considering how social norms of the time play out. Does the responsibility lay on our shoulders? How hard is it to even mention this? Who bears the burden?
We hear the call Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, Justice, justice shall ye pursue. Action is the call, not training or learning how to identify wrongs, but taking action to redress them. We don’t need protest, we need organisers. We need to grasp our ethics to alleviate suffering, especially of the mind, but also of the persons.
Rabbi Lamm, American anti-racism campaigner spoke of having the freedom and power to act. Power and privilege. Symptomatic benefits.
Remember the argument for apartheid? Separate cultures develop better, which sounded appealing to those white minorities wishing to maintain the status quo. Keep their jobs and their boer culture. Lazy. It was lazy social behaviour which ignored suffering and hardship for selfish reasons.
Led to apartheid becoming politically entrenched in law. The horrors of apartheid include intersectional impacts on women who suffered greatly, more so than is often apparent or made clear. E.g. classed as dependents women couldn’t get travel permits or a work allowance.
Vhavaykha AdoShen Eloheykha El Haaretz asher yarshu, return to the land of your ancestors. Don’t read this as a physical act but as an act of faith. Return to the position of ethics it should say. Apartheid was symptomatic of sitting within a comfort zone.
Race construct is still a central problem in society where it is structural. A comfort zone for many.
It has been argued that western modernity, or rather European modernity from the Renaissance and using the Curse of Ham, dominated and extracted wealth from the world.
It has as its goal, an aim of power over nature, culture, wealth, women, and relied on expansion of these aims. It ran for hundreds of years until empire and imperialisms closing overture around the time of WW1.
The gap was filled by a particularly evil man who decided not to centre Europe’s premise of superiority over the rest of the uncivilised world, but to centre the white aryan man as superior and he created industrial slaughter, revisiting empire’s darkest side. The impacts of the fake interpretation of Noah are immense.
So I ask, what are we going to do for our future? What about white supremacy? For Black Jews who may feel doubly impacted?
I ask again as I started, we are in Black history month, but how long until Black future month? When will our society make earnest change?
In 1955, Aime Césaire, the poet from Martinique said in his powerful Discourse on Colonialism:
- “A civilisation that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilisation.
- A civilisation that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilisation.”
I want to finish my own Midrash, an interpretation of the story of Phinehas, Pinchas, the high priest.
Numbers 25,11 reads Pinhehas, Son of Eleazar the high priest has turned back My wrath from the sons of Israel because he was zealous with My zeal. Therefore, says G-d, “behold I give to him My covenant of peace: and it shall be to him and his descendants after him an eternal covenant of priesthood.”
I’ve been intrigued by the name of the Kohen Gadol Pinchas/Phineas and have always wondered about. In some Torah books it tells us his name means “child of dark complexion” that’s in Hertz Chumash (p.234). In Plaut (p. 1060) it says it means “Nubian or negro”. Rabbi Shai (the MahNishtana) says there’s a lot of opinions around the meaning but it certainly could be Nubian or dark coloured, meaning Nubia, Africa.
Let’s say in my Midrash that his name does mean Nubian, African. We would then read the portion as this:
The African, Son of Eleazar the high priest has turned back My wrath because he was zealous with My zeal. Therefore, says G-d, “behold I give to the African My covenant of peace: and it shall be to the Nubian and his descendants after him an eternal covenant.”
The time is now to realise that covenant and bring peace to all people of African descent.
We don’t know all of the names of every victim of racism and the victims of the Curse of Ham, but when you recite kaddish this weekend, maybe you could have them all in mind and say it for them also, may their memories be for a blessing.
Has there ever been a greater call for a peace on Shabbat?
Césaire, A. (1955) ‘Discourse on Colonialism, Discours sur le Colonialisme.’, Editions Prescence Africaine, Translated by Joan Pinkham for Monthly Review Press 1972, p. 31.
Derashot Shedarashti: Sermons of Rabbi Norman Lamm Z”L (2020). Available at: https://bit.ly/3mlLwZO
Goldenberg, D. (2003) ‘The Image of the Black in Jewish Culture, a review’, Jewish Quarterly Review, Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania, 93.
Goldenberg, D. M. (2017) Black and Slave: The Origins and History of the Curse of Ham. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG.
Goody, J. (1992) ‘Animals, Men and Gods In Northern Ghana’, Cambridge Anthropology, 16(3), pp. 46–60.
Hall, R. E. (2005) ‘From Psychology of Race to Issue of Skin Color: Western Trivialization and Peoples of African Descent’, International Journal of Psychology and Pyschological Therapy, 5(2), pp. 125–134.
Hamel, C. E. (2013) Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam. Cambridge University Press.
Indigenous Values, (2018) Papal Bulls, Doctrine of Discovery. Available at: https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/papal-bulls
Jemisin, N. K. (2013) How Long ’til Black Future Month?, Epiphany 2.0. Available at: http://nkjemisin.com/2013/09/how-long-til-black-future-month
Lucas Van Rompay (2011), “Ishoʿdad of Merv,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay, https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Ishodad-of-Merv
Powell, E. M. T. (2012) Tell This in My Memory: Stories of Enslavement from Egypt, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire. Stanford University Press.
Snowden, F. M. (1970) Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience. Harvard University Press.