The God Squad: Racism and the Bible
Q: Dear Rabbi Marc Gellman: I am an avid reader of your column on faith in Newsday, N.Y., and thank you for the teaching and unbiased clarification on many biblical subjects. My question today is: Is there a word in Hebrew for "Race" or equivalent. If yes, is this word used in the Hebrew or Old Testament bible? Thank you. (From L)
A: There is no word for race in the Hebrew Bible, however there is a recognition of different races and skin colors.
In Genesis chapter 10 the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japeth, are considered to be the progenitors of the different peoples but not exactly races. The use of race and racism is really a modern invention beginning in the 19th century and taking deep root in the Nazi racist propaganda of the 1930s. However, it is clear people were susceptible to racist prejudice from the beginning of time and there are several examples in the Bible.
We can begin with the creation of Adam. There is a rabbinic teaching that God made just one person, “So that in times to come, nobody would be able to say, ‘My ancestor was greater than your ancestor.’”
In Numbers 12:1 Moses’ sister Miriam and his brother Aaron speak in a derogatory way about Zipporah, Moses’ wife, “And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.” Cushites were Black Africans. To leave no doubt as to God’s attitude toward such racist bigotry, God strikes down Miriam with the plague of leprosy, which ironically turned her skin snow white with scales.
The prophet Amos wrote this decisive condemnation of racism, (Amos 9:7), “Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? saith the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?” What this passage is really saying can be easily missed but it is a devastating condemnation of racism. What the prophet Amos is saying is that although you may say racist things about the sub-Saharan Black African peoples, the truth of God is that your liberation from Egypt by God is just like their liberation by God from their oppressions.
All people are made in the image of God and so all people are equally holy and freedom is the gift of God to all peoples. Racism in any form is a sin against God’s greatest gifts to humankind.
Dear Rabbi Gellman: I go for a run every morning, and during this time on the road I pray. I end my time of prayer with The Lord’s Prayer. Not too long ago while saying The Lord’s Prayer I thought, Gee, these requests are a bit demanding; “Give us this day our daily bread”, “Forgive us our trespasses” and so on. I decided then and there to add thank you to the original prayer. I honestly feel better after I say, “Thank you for giving us this day our daily bread, and thank you for forgiving us our trespasses, and for teaching us how to forgive those who have trespassed against us.” After all my morning prayers are those of gratitude and thanksgiving. And thank you, Rabbi Gellman, for your wonderful weekly column. (From M)
Thank you, dear M, for perfectly integrating my favorite and oft quoted saying of the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, “If the only prayer you ever say is, ‘Thank You.’ It will be enough.” (From MG)
And still more stories about Tommy…
What a wonderful human being. There are so many stories. I first met Fr. Tom when my then-fiancé and I showed up at St James Church in Seaford to book our wedding. Fr. Tom was a young parish priest at the time. We took Pre Cana marriage counseling from him. He married us, celebrated renewal of our vows at our 25th anniversary, baptized our children and attended family wakes and my wife’s funeral. One occasion stands out for me. When my mother-in-law passed suddenly, the family was really down. Fr. Tom said the funeral mass at St. Raphael’s in East Meadow. In planning the funeral mass, he suggested that our (at the time) young children each bring a memory of their grandmother. They presented these items when the gifts were brought up and he talked with them about what these items meant to them. His homily was especially poignant. It was a very personal, spiritual celebration of her passing to her new life. We entered the church sad and somber and left feeling uplifted and joyous. That was just one small example of the gift to us that was Fr. Tom. God rest his beautiful soul. (From J)
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)
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