American Orthodoxy

On Racism and the Torah

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Elli Fischer

“Is the Mishnah racist?”

This is the question my son asked me when we studied Nega’im together, and which later became part of the speech he gave several months later, when we celebrated his becoming a bar mitzvah and his completion of all six orders of the Mishnah. The question was provoked by the following mishnah:

A bright blotch on a German (Germani) appears dim, and a dim blotch on an African (Kushi) appears bright.

Rabbi Yishmael says: Israelites, may I be their atonement, are like boxwood, neither black nor white, but in the middle.

Rabbi Akiva said: Painters have pigments with which they paint forms black or white or intermediate. One brings an intermediate pigment and paints around [the blotch] from outside, and it is viewed within the intermediate.

Rabbi Yehudah says: The shades of the blotches create leniency but not stringency; it should be viewed when on a German on his skin, for the sake of leniency, and when on an African within the intermediate [paint], for the sake of leniency. The sages say: both within the intermediate [paint] (Mishnah Nega’im 2:2).

At issue here is the diagnosis of tzara’at, the biblical skin condition often translated as “leprosy.” A kohen views the affected skin, and if he determines that it is, or may be, tzara’at, the patient is declared impure and quarantined. Among the characteristics that the kohen looks at is color: to be rendered impure, tzara’at of the skin must have a requisite degree of whiteness (Vayikra 13:1-3). The question of this mishnah is whether the whiteness of tzara’at is evaluated objectively, or in contrast to the patient’s skin color.

The initial anonymous opinion maintains that it is indeed evaluated subjectively: a white patch that appears on the light skin of a German will not be diagnosed as tzara’at, whereas the same patch on the dark skin of an African will be rendered impure. (I translate “Kushi” as “African” because both, in different contexts, are geographical terms that imply skin color; similarly, Rashi, as well as German and other translations of Yirmiyahu 13:23, render “Kushi” as “Moor.”)

The implication of Rabbi Yishmael’s statement about the skin color of Israelites is somewhat ambiguous. According to the twelfth-century scholar, Rabbi Shimshon of Sens, it means that all tzara’at is viewed the same way, as though it was on the skin of a neither-black-nor-white Israelite. According to his contemporary, Ra’avad of Posquières, in Rabbi Yishmael’s view, neither a German nor an African can ever be diagnosed with tzara’at of the skin, as it is impossible to truly determine whether the affected area is sufficiently white.

Rabbi Akiva addresses this problem by suggesting a way for the kohen to view the affected skin “objectively;” one must simply paint around the blotch with boxwood-colored dye. Rabbi Yehudah advocates this technique in the case of an African patient, but is willing to let the German patient keep the leniency of having a blotch appear dimmer next to his white skin. The sages, however, apply Rabbi Akiva’s technique in all cases; according to them, all are equal before the law of tzara’at, regardless of skin color.

So is this mishnah racist, as my son suspected?

I answered him that, no, this mishnah is not racist. Firstly, the idea of “race” was developed long after the Mishnah was completed. More importantly, however, the mishnah’s concern with skin color is purely clinical: how is tzara’at diagnosed in comparison with various shades of skin? The very next mishnah addresses the very same question but with respect to conditions prevailing outside: “Affected skin is not viewed early in the morning, nor late in the afternoon, nor indoors, nor on a cloudy day, for the dim will appear bright; nor at midday, for the bright appears dim” (Mishnah Nega’im 2:2).

In fact, the Torah seems to take a stand against judging people based on the color of their skin, using some of the same terminology that we encountered in our mishnah. When Miriam spoke ill about the African woman that her brother, Moshe, married, God’s punishment was swift: she developed tzara’at, and her skin immediately turned snow white.

Though the Torah does not explicitly state that Miriam’s punishment had anything to do with her sister-in-law’s skin color (and indeed, several exegetes interpret this description of Moshe’s wife metaphorically or euphemistically), punishment in the Torah usually fits the crime.

It is true that, as Chaim Trachtman wrote recently, some early Jewish texts speak disparagingly of dark-skinned people and, borrowing a page from Aristotle (Politics 1:5), deems them naturally predisposed to be slaves. It is true that such texts have been used to justify slavery until well into the modern period, even until today.

Moreover, there is no doubt that racism persists within Jewish communities. I often encountered racist attitudes among members of the Jewish community where I grew up, and to this day I struggle to eliminate the prejudices I absorbed from that environment.

Still, as the sources above indicate, the Jewish tradition is multivocal: we need not resort to a creative interpretation of the duty to rebuke a fellow in order to find the strains of our tradition that tell us that people should “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” In my experience, the best way to combat racism in our communities is by creating opportunities for people to encounter one another. Essentialist views are hard to maintain when one is constantly encountering individuals who do not fit the stereotype.

But what of the peoples with which the Torah forbids intermarriage? What of the tribes that the Torah commands us to annihilate? Is this clear evidence that the Torah regards certain peoples as essentially, intrinsically different and even worthy of eradication?

These commandments are indeed troubling, and we are thankful to Sennacherib for mixing up all the peoples, leaving these mitzvot impracticable. It is not far-fetched to suggest that Hazal utilized the Assyrians’ population transfer tactics to remove these commandments from the realm of practice. Nevertheless, even if only on the theoretical level, the level of “study it, and receive reward,” we must ask whether the Torah espouses essentialist views.

It is interesting to note that the nations, peoples, and tribes that the Torah seeks to separate Israel from are specifically those peoples that have the most in common with Israel–that share blood, language, or land with Israel. The Torah’s foundational stories about Ammon, Moab, and Edom—three of the peoples that the Torah says explicitly may not enter God’s community—treats them as close relatives, members of Israel’s extended family.

The problem with these tribes is not the impurity of their blood, but the similarity of their blood to ours. The Torah’s concern is not with the other, but with those who are not-quite-other, the greatest threats to lead Israel astray from its mission and covenantal relationship with the Almighty.

This was also the challenge faced by Ezra during the Return to Zion: the peoples he encountered were an amalgam of Israelites, neighboring tribes, and peoples that had been relocated from distant lands. Judeans intermarried with them because they seemed so us-like, so not-other; and it was for that very reason that Ezra, attempting to constitute a commonwealth based on the Torah and Israel’s covenant with God, perceived those quasi-Israelite, quasi-monotheistic tribes as its greatest threat.

In this sense, I was troubled by Trachtman’s concerns about Jewish particularism, and especially his understanding that Jewish universalism and particularism are in tension with one another. In fact, Jewish particularism is a prerequisite for Jewish universalism. The notion that a particular group of people has been chosen by God to bear a universal message is both particularist and universalist.

It faces its greatest challenge not when encountering the groups that are most foreign and most distant, but specifically when facing groups that seem so close, so similar, yet that are nevertheless “off-message”. Jewish particularism is not, as Trachtman suggests, ethnocentric. On the contrary, it seeks to discriminate between those who are part of the covenantal community and those who are not within our particular ethnos.

This set of attitudes toward others can be discerned even today when we consider the positive encounters between Jews and Christians and compare them with the wall-to-wall agreement within the Jewish community that Messianic Judaism lies beyond its boundaries.

Trachtman’s article is predicated on the notion that Judaism’s particularism creates a tendency toward xenophobia and racism. The presence of xenophobia and racism in the Jewish community is undeniable, and indeed, such phenomena exist in any sufficiently close-knit community. Moreover, as Trachtman demonstrates, there is a strain of Jewish thought, running from Yehudah Ha-Levi through Maharal to Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, that essentializes difference. Nevertheless, it seems to me that our texts and traditions, on balance, can be read far more generously than Trachtman suggests.

Being a “kingdom of priests” is central to Israel’s mission, an integral part of the covenant established between God and Israel at Sinai. Implicit in this charge is that Israel must maintain the (particularist) integrity of its priestly status in order to fulfill its (universal) mission. As Rambam’s son, Rabbi Avraham, explains in his father’s name:

The priest of the flock is the leader that is most eminent and is its role model, who members of the flock follow and thereby find the straight path. Thus, it says: You shall be, through observance of My Torah, leaders of the world. You will be to them as the priest to his flock. The world will follow after you, imitating your actions and walking in your path. (Commentary to Shemot 19:6)

Elli Fischer
Elli Fischer is an independent writer, translator, and rabbi. Previously, he was the JLIC rabbi and campus educator at the University of Maryland. He holds BA and MS degrees from Yeshiva University, rabbinical ordination from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and is working toward a doctorate in Jewish History at Tel Aviv University. He is a founding editor of The Lehrhaus and has written for Jewish Review of Books, Mosaic, Forward, the Jewish Week and elsewhere. He is cofounder of HaMapah, a digital project to trace the "Rabbinic Republic of Letters". He is the translator of By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital and the editor of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha series in English. Originally from Baltimore, he currently resides in Modiin, Israel, with his wife and four children.