Real Questions on Jewish Thought Answered
An Occasional Series – 25
By Rabbi Chaim Ingram OAM
IS JUDAISM RACIST?
Dear Rabbi. The Torah tells us to wipe out the progeny of Amalek. Elsewhere we are commanded not to welcome Ammonites or Moabites into “the community of G-D” and to destroy or expel the Canaanite nations from Israel. In today’s parlance, would this not be termed ‘racist’? How do you, as a defender of the Torah, respond to this charge? Yours, K. B.
Dear K. B.
Firstly let’s define ‘racism’ according to the primary definition proffered by Professor Google who, we assume, belongs to all races equally! ☺ It is “prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed against a person or persons of a different race based upon the belief that one’s own race is superior”.
Based upon this definition, rest assured that Judaism is not racist and never has been.
In a very powerful statement to this effect, the Mishna declares: (Snahedrin 4:5): Why was Adam created singly? So that no-one would be able to say to another: My (racial) ancestor was greater than yours!
Our sages in the Midrash (Mekhilta Shemot 20:1) ask rhetorically why the Torah was given in the no-man’s land of a desert and not in the Land of Israel? They answer: so that no nation could complain that they did not have an opportunity to accept it.
A few paragraphs earlier in the same Midrash we are told that indeed, there in the desert, all the nations, one by one, beginning with Edom, Ammon,, Moab, and Ishmael, were explicitly offered the opportunity to accept the Torah. All refused because one or other of the mitsvot they were offered was not to their liking.
Whether or not this Midrash is to be taken literally, the message it conveys is plain: Every nation had potentially an equal opportunity to accept the Torah. Am Yisrael became G-D’s chosen nation not because of any racial superiority but because only they chose to accept the Torah unconditionally (Exodus 24:7). It is the Torah alone upon which Jewish distinctiveness is predicated.
Moreover, any individual of any nation may voluntarily accept the Torah (as indeed Jethro the priest of Midian pioneeringly did) and become Jewish. This includes the nations of Amalek, Ammon and Moab, and Canaan. The Talmud in two distinct places (Gittin 57b; Sanhedrin 96b) relates the extraordinary fact that the descendants of Haman, who was an Amalekite, taught Torah in Bnei Brak. In other words, they converted to Judaism! Parenthetically, in modern times, the son of a Nazi, Aharon She’ar-Yashuv has become a ger tsedek (righteous proselyte to Judaism).and according to an article by Tanya Gold printed in The Guardian (5 Aug 2008), the great-grandson of Hitler y.m’s half-brother, became a Jew and is a professor at an Israeli university. Apparently he swore the journalist to secrecy as to his identity.
Quite simply, when an Amalekite becomes a ger, or even if he merely accepts the seven universal (Noachide) laws of humanity, he ceases to be an Amalekite!
Regarding Ammon and Moab, they, like Amalek, no longer exist as national entities, but even when they did, they were not precluded from becoming Jewish, only from marrying into Am Yisrael. This is what is meant by “the community of G-D” (Deut 23:4). This was not due to any racist bias but because “they did not greet you with bread and water on the road when you left Egypt” (Deut 23:5) In other words, it was due to their base character. Even this restriction was confined to the males (Yevamot 8:3). The most famous of Biblical proselytes, Ruth, was a Moabitess by race – and she became the ancestress of King David from whose progeny Mashiakh will emerge!
As for the destruction of the Canaanites, that too was only if they would act as a ‘fifth column’ to destroy us either physically or spiritually through their dangerous, endemic, evil idolatry including the Molech cult of passing children through fire. (A worse form of child abuse could hardly be imagined.). Every opportunity was to be accorded to enemy nations to make peace (Deut 20:10). Both Rambam and Ramban aver that this included the seven Canaanite nations provided they agree to pay taxes, perform national service, renounce idolatry and accept the laws of basic morality. Moses sends a message of peace to Sihon king of the Emorites (Num. 21:21). Joshua sent three letters to the Canaanite nations inviting them to either leave voluntarily or make peace (Rambam: Laws of Kings 6:5). There was no slaying, expulsion or any discrimination whatsoever based upon race.
I still vividly remember entering Bet haTefutsot, the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv over forty years ago and gazing at portraits of many and varied different kind of Jews – Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Yemenite,, Baltic and Slavic, Arab-looking and Asian-looking, Indian and Ethiopian, white, brown and black, fair and swarthy, blond-haired, dark-haired, ginger-haired, indeed comprising almost every race under the sun – and all of them Jewish!
Let me leave the last word to R’ Aharon haLevi, revered 13th-century author of the famous rabbinic educational treatise on the 613 commandments, Sefer haChinukh (Book of Mitsva Education): If someone …..has set in his heart a firm hatred towards them [here he talks about the progeny of Edom descended from Esau but it is equally applicable to all nations] because they come from a different race, he violates [a] …prohibitive commandment [of the Torah] (Mitsva #563)
Judaism was already avowedly anti-racist millennia before “racism” ever became a word or a concept in the dictionaries of the world’s nations!
Conclusion: There is not and has never been a racist bone in Judaism’s body!