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The Torah featured P.V. Viswanath in "Black People in Jewish Tradition: Eliminating Racism Requires Honesty"

06/29/2020

The Torah featured P.V. Viswanath in "Black People in Jewish Tradition: Eliminating Racism Requires Honesty"

Black People in Jewish Tradition: Eliminating Racism Requires Honesty

Like many traditions with a long historical pedigree, Judaism has inherited its share of texts with racial bias. Failure to acknowledge this is one reason for prevalent conscious and subconscious racist views that can be found in the American Orthodox Jewish community—the community of which I am a part—which sometimes reveal themselves in overt statements and actions.

The Image of God

Judaism’s core text, the Torah, begins with the lofty claim that all people derive from the people God created on day six, and as such, all human are created in the image of God:

בראשית א:כז וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.

Gen 1:27 And God created humanity in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.[1]

In the next creation story (Gen 2:4b–3:24), we hear that all human beings descend from Adam and Eve, the first couple. In dealing with the very touchy subject of racism in Jewish society, it is easy to point to the lofty sentiment of the first story and the mytho-historic claims of the second as evidence that prejudice against any group of human beings on any basis, including the basis of color or ethnicity, has no place in Judaism. If all human beings are created in God’s image, and all of us are descended from the same primordial couple, how can the idea that one group of humans is inherently superior to another even be considered?

While this argument is true in theory, in practice religions are complex, and the reality is that Judaism has its share of traditions and texts that express negative views about certain groups, including black people. This is in spite of the fact that Jews themselves, over the centuries, have experienced racism and been the target of racial stereotyping. This connects to the recent trend among many Jews over the past half century or so, in particular American Jews, to see themselves as racially white, not realizing that their (partial and tentative) acceptance as white is a recent phenomenon.[2]

This self-identification with the majority culture seems to have intensified negative attitudes towards people of color. As a non-white South Asian Jew (with, nevertheless, a relatively privileged background), I am sensitive to explicit and implicit racism in our core texts – where other mainstream Jews may overlook it.

Read the full Torah article.