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August 29, 2015 / 14 Elul, 5775
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On Racism, Its Costs And Its Causes


A third reason can be found in the selective reading and misappropriation of rabbinic texts. Many people “know” that all non-Jews hate all Jews. Chazal said so, as they comment on Esav’s seemingly loving reception of the brother who had fled from him decades before. One opinion tells us that it is a “halacha” and well-known that Esav hates Yaakov. At that moment, his mercy moved him to display compassion, but don’t expect that too often. Underscoring “halacha” means, to some people’s thinking, that this is a fixed, immutable rule about all non-Jews.

Just how Esav turned into all non-Jews, rather than just one group of them, is a bit of a mystery. In fact, I have a hard time figuring out how Esav the person turned into Esav the nation. Searching some Torah databases a few years ago, I could find no source before the end of the 19th century that took Esav (at least in this application) to mean a group of people, rather than Esav the biblical figure – who had good reason to hate Yaakov!

Moreover, it is not at all clear whether the word “halacha” belongs there. One source has “ha-lo” instead of halacha.

Even if we were certain that Chazal meant Esav the nation rather than Esav the man, would it mean all of his descendants, without exception? Could they ever change? To assume that Chazal meant an unchanging principle would pit our own experience (where we arguably have met up with some very determined philo-Semites) against their word, and force us to mistrust our own senses.

We would have to argue that despite what seems real to us, scratch the surface of every friendly non-Jew and you will find a latent anti-Semite. Further, we would have to ignore works from the likes of the Netziv and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, who speak of the reality of times in which Esav (the nation) is moved to compassionate behavior toward Klal Yisrael.

Is there really a compelling argument to assume the worst about all non-Jews?

More puzzling is the assumption by some of us that Genesis 9:25, 27 consigns all black people to perpetual servitude, which then becomes the basis of looking down upon them. The assumption is perplexing for a number of reasons. It is not at all clear whom Noach meant to curse. He could have meant Canaan, the person, or even Canaan and his descendants. This would still not include many/most black people. (Cush, who is sometimes taken as emblematic of all black people, was a brother of Canaan, not a descendant.)

Rav Saadia Gaon does assume that Canaan means his father, Cham, and his progeny. So does Radak. Ibn Ezra considers this and rejects it. He points out that the very first king mentioned in the Chumash after the Noach drinking episode – obviously not a slave – came from Cush. According to Tosafos (Sanhedrin 70a), the curse could not have been directed against Cham, because he had been previously blessed and curses are incompatible with blessings.

The Sages of the Talmud, at least in part, seem to extend the curse at least to Canaan’s descendants, since they see Eliezer as caught up in its net – but they see him escaping the curse through his own good deeds.

Even if we were to seize upon one approach as definitive (I have no way of understanding such a conclusion), we would have to ask the same question we asked above. Would it mean all black people, for all time? (Netziv explicitly denies this, pointing to slaves from other parts of Noach’s progeny, and very emancipated behavior among Canaan’s descendants.)

Most importantly, isn’t the entire approach antithetical to the way we approach biblical curses? When anesthesia was first made available to women in labor, some church groups resisted, claiming the curse of Eve demanded that women feel the pain of childbirth. I know of no such attitude in our responsa. If there was such a voice, it was drowned out by others, who apparently held that a curse is a challenge, not a description of reality.

Adam’s curse means we generally have to toil to make a living. An heir is under no obligation to force his brow to sweat to keep his part of the bargain; the rest of us are permitted to make working conditions easier for ourselves. Eve’s curse is not prescriptive. It does make it necessary for a woman approaching the end of pregnancy to deal with pain-management plans, but not to accept it.

About the Author: Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Affairs of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the Sydney M Irmas adjunct chair, Jewish Law and Ethics, Loyola Law School.


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