Racism and Religious Particularism: A Corrective Antidote

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Chaim Trachtman



Despite enormous progress over the last fifty years, racism continues to be a leading item in the news. Reactions to the massive forced migration into Europe triggered by civil war in the Middle East confirm that this is not just an American problem. Religious beliefs have often been implicated in racist systems. Judaism is also characterized by particularist ideas that can foster prejudicial notions and xenophobia. In this essay, I aim to examine particularism in Jewish thought and offer a proposal to limit its racist tendencies.

Origins of Racism

No one knows when racism first entered mankind’s story. However, it is not a modern phenomenon. In his search for the origins of Inquisition culture, the historian Benzion Netanyahu claimed that antisemitism was already an established worldview of the pharaohs of Egypt. The Spanish persecuted the Marranos who converted to Christianity for racial considerations (purity of blood) rather than religious reasons. For Netanyahu, the bloodline-based bigotry served as a model for later racial theories, particularly for the Nazis.

Where, though, did racism start? Most likely, racism emerged as soon as one group of humans confronted another group and saw difference rather than similarity. Instead of viewing this observation as a welcome fact of biological diversity, each group concluded that their members were better than those in the other group. Modern genetics has documented that intra-group genetic diversity far exceeds inter-group differences. But the “other” is not encountered as a four-legged molecule of DNA with complete gene sequencing. The difference is at eye level. We immediately perceive the physical features that define humans—height and weight, complexion, hair color and texture, eye shape, the sound of their voice, and gait—all of which point towards difference rather than similarity.

The particularity of people fosters placement of individuals along a spectrum for each characteristic. This leads to grade systems for physical features on a scale from good to bad, prejudging those deemed bad, taking steps to limit their influence, and finally adopting full-fledged racist notions towards them.

There is another dimension along which people are categorized: by what they think and the social practices they adopt. This is how religion enters into the picture. Unfortunately, religion has been a major contributor to conceptions of mankind that have led to the ethnocentric and racist ideas. This demonization of the other has often provided cover for persecution and extermination.

Racism in Jewish Thought

Jewish tradition grapples with this, as well. The Torah offers and the Midrash (Tanhuma 15; Genesis Rabbah 36:6) elucidates the well-known Curse of Ham, the progenitor of the dark-skinned people who migrated southward to Africa. After the flood when Noah begins to repopulate the world again, he discovers what happens when grapes are processed into wine. His sons discover him in a drunken stupor. They act to protect his dignity but, for reasons that are mysterious in the text, when he recovers, Noah curses Ham.

This would remain an obscure episode were it not for the subsequent Midrashic identification of Ham with African nations. This curse has provided religious sanction for the persecution of blacks in the Western world including the American pre-Civil War South. Jews are not immune to this belief. In a series of letters (Iggerot Hara’yah nos. 89-91) that Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook wrote in 1904, he replied to a question from Rabbi Moshe Seidel about his views on the institution of slavery and the place of black people in the contemporary world. Rav Kook wrote that slavery is a natural phenomenon. In the descendants of Cana’an and the children of Ham, “baser qualities grew great while spiritual qualities dwindled.” They would never achieve stability as an independent people. Therefore, servitude might be the best fate for these nations because it fits with their divinely preordained status as cursed inferior groups.

It’s not just Ham. The Torah singles out Amalek as a people who should be utterly destroyed—man, woman, and child. The Torah portrays the seven nations who occupied Cana’an prior to the conquest of the land by Joshua as incorrigible idolaters who must be completely eradicated to prevent their pagan ideas from contaminating the minds of the Jewish people and defiling the land of Israel.

Yehudah Ha-Levi considered Jews to be a singular nation, a special subset of humanity. They were separated and blessed by God who distinguished them from all other nations. His essentialist views conferred an intrinsic superiority on the Jewish people. They were the heart of humanity as opposed to the gentile body, an idea which translated into a willingness to mistreat all other nations and religious groups. For the Maharal of Prague, non-Jews have a diminished conception of God and are metaphysically inferior to Jews. Conversion to Judaism became an almost impossible proposition because it implied a change in species.

Potential Solutions to the Problem

Knowing the profound destruction unleashed by racism throughout history and in our day, how does one understand our religious tradition? This has been a source of consternation for Jewish thinkers from Sinai onward. A number of strategies have been offered to minimize the potential damage that these views can unleash. One can limit the essentialism to the group in the aggregate but see each member of the group as a divine entity worthy of respect and dignity. Alternatively, one can intellectualize the definitions of nationhood and assert that they do not refer to actual people but rather to ideas that represent a threat to human flourishing. Finally, we might assert that the conditions of the biblical text no longer apply or that the groups identified in the text no longer exist. Political upheavals, national migrations, and social change have blurred beyond recognition the boundaries between biblical peoples.

The Meiri follows this final approach when he characterizes Christians living in the Middle Ages as monotheists who no longer are liable for extermination as polytheistic idolaters The Rambam makes this type of claim when he writes that because of the Assyrian ethnic cleansing and assimilation of the Amalekites and the seven nations into the global population, we can no longer identify these tribes with certainty. Therefore, the requirement to annihilate them is no longer feasible and applicable.

Still, none of these approaches represents a principled stand against racism nor do they take the full sting out of the extreme particularistic texts in the Tanakh. They only cordon off the damage and prevent the application to specific individuals and groups. Moreover, the racist ideas remain in the intellectual gene pool ready to be reactivated.

This has happened recently in Israel with the publication of the book, Torat Ha-melekh, written by Rabbis Yitzchak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur. This work is a halakhic attempt to link modern day Palestinians with the condemned groups described in the Tanach and to provide legal justification and sanction for preemptive killing of members of the “cursed” group.

Particularism Versus Universalism in Judaism

Stepping back, it is important to recognize that Judaism is a particularist religion. Chosenness is a key feature of the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people. As Michael Wyschogrod wrote, God loves the Jewish people. Abraham and his descendants had unique features that warranted divine selection.

The Jews are a nation that dwells alone. Our legal code and mores are designed to maintain social distinctness and prevent full integration into the surrounding society. This has enabled the Jewish people to survive and maintain their age-old connection to the Torah and the land of Israel.  It is important to note that chosenness was not meant to indicate privilege but rather an obligation to promote an ethical life. Moreover, alongside these particularist ideas, Judaism has incorporated universalistic elements that act as a counterweight to the ethnocentric pull of particularism.

Malka Simkovich has demonstrated that these ideas date back to the Tanakh and rabbinic literature. Universalism as a theological concept articulates doctrines like the seven Noachide laws that are applicable to all people, regardless of race or ethnicity. It is a belief that there is substantive commonality among nations and shared features of humanity that would preclude exclusionary attitudes or discriminatory policies. Like the interpretive approaches outlined above to diminish the force of racist texts in the Tanakh, the universalistic ideas in Judaism have not prevented outbreaks of extreme xenophobia among Jews.

One potential explanation is that experience in the exile has not been kind to proponents of universalism. Another, as pointed out by Menachem Kellner, is that universalism is not synonymous with pluralism where the latter indicates the recognition of multiple views and acceptance of multiple truths. Although Jews may acknowledge a commonality with fellow humans, according to the prophetic tradition, there is the expectation that at the end of the day non-Jews will accept the world and law of the one true God, the Jewish God.

It is unclear if this will occur by mass conversion or by virtue of individual intellectual enlightenment.

Kellner has pacified the Maimonidean push toward a singular approach to God by focusing on the Rambam’s ultimate theological goal for humanity in this world, namely a state of political stability that will enable men and women to contemplate the divine presence in the world.  Kellner argues that such a rational, peaceful end cannot by its very nature be achieved by violent means, which should serve as a protection against racist particularism. Moreover, people being who they are and the inherent sociability that promotes group identification, the Maimonidean view of universalism does not address the human inclination to rank everything and place one’s own life and thought at the top of the list. And to take up arms against those who think and act differently.

Toward a Solution

An alternative approach to limiting the dangers of particularism and racism may emerge from the law of hokhe’ah tokhi’ah, rebuking your neighbor. This is the command to correct someone if they are doing the wrong thing. This is a socially difficult mitzvah to fulfill, placing psychological stress on both parties. The responsa literature is extensive about how and when this mitzvah applies.

There are opinions that the imperative only pertains to a person who will listen to the rebuke, who is aware that he/she is sinning and acknowledges that it is not the right thing to do, and who is violating a Torah law. The consensus is that the requirement to rebuke is not applicable to one who does not accept the oral law and by implication the validity of halakhah.

There is one specific word in the text of this commandment, li-amitekha, that is germane to the issue of racism. Racism is rebuke and criticism of the other taken to its extreme. It represents overwhelming critique of the other to the point when they are no longer considered to have value as human beings. This rationalizes and sets the stage for physical and emotional degradation of others.

The law of hokhe’ah tokhi’ah only applies li-amitekha, to your kinsmen, fellow Jews. All other people are outside the sphere of your influence. Knowing that the parameters of rebuking are limited even among fellow Jews, prudence and good sense would indicate that greater restrictions and caution should apply to members of other religious faith groups and ethnicities. They are not legitimate objects of your worldview and have no obligation to abide by your standards of living and values.

There can be and there have been nasty internecine fights within the Jewish nation about identity, politics, and religious destiny. There have even been civil wars. But what emerges from this law of hokhe’ah tokhi’ahis an acceptance that all of the “others,” all of the non-Jews, can live their lives as they choose provided they do not threaten the welfare of the Jewish people. This does not undermine the prophetic or Maimonidean hope that Torah theology and ethics will ultimately prevail and that there will be a universal embrace of the Jewish God. It does not even promote respect for the lives of others.

But it enables tolerance and peaceful coexistence to emerge. It seems like a weak reed to combat the forces of racism. But by delicately balancing the human need for justification of one’s values against the danger of imposing them on others, this proposal may point the way to achieve lives filled with meaning and purpose, to avoid moral relativism, and to prevent the descent into racist barbarism.