Thursday, October 27, 2011

Noah’s Curse of Ham, Slavery, Anti-Black Racism & Understanding Midrash

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I cannot conceive of a God who condones the evil of racism. Still I find it impossible to argue that there are no sources in Judaism that seem to support any prejudicial ideas. One instance of this might be the opinion that blacks are cursed and condemned to slavery because of the actions of Ham the son of Noah. To explore this issue it is useful to understand the role of different types of sacred texts in Judaism and the broader guidance in the Torah on the issue of prejudice.

The Curse in the Torah Text
After the great flood we are told that Noah removed the cover of the Ark and he saw, behold the face of the earth was desolate[i]…Soon he plants a vineyard, then he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside… Noah awoke from his wine, and he knew what his small son had done to him. He said, "Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave of slaves to his brethren.[ii]"

“It’s the Muslims and Christians”
One Jewish article argued that the notion that blacks are cursed is from Islam and Christianity. “That the “sons of Ham” were taken to be Black is a misunderstanding that is first found in the 7th Christian century Christian and Islamic writing, while the very concept is not attested in any canonical Torah book[iii]. (I lack the knowledge to comment on other faiths and I know how easy it is for an outsider to get it wrong. I am saddened that the first spot on a Google search for “Jews and racism against blacks” is something on Radio Islam.)  I will limit by discussion to Jewish sources. While it is true that our most authoritative text, the Torah, does not state that blacks are cursed, the case of lesser texts such as the Midrash (which contains many additional details about Torah stories and other moral messages) and the other commentaries is less clear. Before we examine these texts, we must first clarify how they are to be understood.

The Authority and Place of Midrash
When I was growing up within the Chabad community, I took Midrash as factual. This view of Midrash is reflected in the following statement, ‘the Midrash, fills in the gaps behind the oft-times sketchy, skeletal narrative of the Torah. It adds meat to its bones, telling us things we otherwise would never know, mainly the dialogues between the Torah's figures and details of their lives. As such, the Midrash is a vital, true part of the Oral Torah[iv]’. I was very surprised by the assertion by Dr. Rabbi Pinchas Hayman of Bar Ilan University, ‘that anyone who takes Midrash as being literally factually true needs to have “their head read”[v].  He supported this proposition with the fact that Midrashim often contradict each other.

The case of “Ashur”
One example of this is the range of interpretations of the following verse (in Sidra of Noah). “From that land went Ashur, and he built Nineveh…[vi]. I found 6 different interpretations
1.      Ashur is Noah[vii]
2.      Ashur is Abraham[viii]
3.      Ashur was of the children of Shem[ix]
4.      Ashur was a son of Jafeth[x]
5.      Ashur was probably of the sons of Ham[xi].
6.      Ashur is actually a place, a city called Silak[xii], or Seleucia. It was located along the Tigris River near Babylon. The meaning of the verse is that “from that land Nimrod went to Ashur[xiii]. This fits with the fact that the verse preceding this one discusses Nimrod.  

Beyond the Factual
Chasidim say in the name of the Baal Shem Tov that any of the scholars up until the time of the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles 1555-1631) wrote their commentary with Ruach Hakodesh (the holy spirit). Surely this does not mean that it is factually and literally true in the physical world. Here is one way to explain it. “When studying the Torah, we are meant to go past "what happened" and view the stories as a means for G‑d to convey a lesson for our lives... For, beyond the storyline, each story in the Torah is a glimpse into a higher truth. For example, in our physical world, Moses may have been say, six feet tall. But in a certain world of drash (interpretation), he was 10 Amot (arms- lengths, about 15 feet) tall. A stature of 10 Amot implies that this person is complete in every way—since there are 10 aspects of the human character. That's who Moses really was—a whole and balanced person…[xiv] 

The difference between Midrash and Halacha
It is also important to note that Orthodox Jewish life is regulated by Halacha, Jewish law. Midrash is not about what we must do but is rather about enhancing our appreciation of Torah stories and drawing moral lessons. This context should especially be borne in mind when examining Midrashim that seem to legitimize behaviour that is ethically questionable, in light of other teachings.

General Guidance about Prejudice
Repeatedly in the Torah we are warned about loving the stranger, not mistreating the stranger etc. One reason given for this is that the stranger like the widow and the orphan lacks networks and human protectors and power, those with more power and warned not to abuse this power[xv]. This theme is thundered by the prophets most prominently in the Haftorah of Yom Kippur about those in power who fast but “with a clenched fist of wickedness[xvi]” to exploit the vulnerable. The Talmud states “therefore man was created alone (with a common ancestor, Adam) so that families will not fight to say my father is greater than your father[xvii]”. In our Parsha, in relation to murder, it states that “he spills a person’s blood, his blood will be spilt, because in the image of God, man was made[xviii]  Not white or black man, Not Jewish man, Gay or straight, all humans. We are told not to despise any man[xix]. After all this preliminary work, we can get to the guts of the topic, the curse of Ham.

Who is included in the Curse in Midrash & Commentary
In the Torah text it is Canaan, one of Ham’s four children is curse which could be understood to mean that the descendants of Ham’s other sons, Cush (Ethiopia), Mizraim (Egypt) and Put were not included. However, some commentaries see the curse as also including the other children of Ham[xx]. A midrash states that God said (to Ham) you disgraced your fathers nakedness, by your life, I will repay you, so will the king of Assyria lead the captives of Egypt and the Exiles of Ethiopia (Cush), young and old, naked and barefoot. This clearly assumes that the punishment is not limited to Canaan[xxi].

At alternative opinion reject the view “that the reason the Cushim (blacks) are slaves is because Noah cursed Ham but they forget that the first king after the flood was (descended) from Cush[xxii]” (referring to Nimrod, the son of Cush[xxiii]). This view is arguably be shared by other commentators[xxiv]

The Validity of the Curse
An argument is made in an essay on this topic that a curse is different to a command and can be seen as a challenge rather than guidance[xxv]. While I see the merit in the argument and the case made for it, I note a counter view in which the curse is used in a debate by Gviha Ben Pesusa to justify the Jewish conquest of Canaan because Canaan was a slave and therefore his property belongs to his master who descended from Shem[xxvi].    

Was Ham Black?  
The link between Ham and black skin comes from a view that Ham had castrated Noah to prevent him from having another child. The motive is as follows. The world was set to be inherited by Noah three children, but if Noah were to go ahead have a 4th child as he planned, Ham’s share of the world would decline by 8.3% (from 33.3% to 25%). When Noah realised what Ham had done. Noah said, you have prevented me from doing that which is done in the dark, therefore that man should be ugly and “Mefucham[xxvii]” (a variation of the word for “Soot”, the closest way to say this in English is He was “sooted”). At least one supra-commentary makes it clear that this means he would be black[xxviii].   

The changed skin is also attributed to another episode related to ban on Sexual relation while Noah and his family were in the ark because the world was in distress[xxix]. The Torah text tells us how the men and women leave the Ark, Noah and his sons, his wife and his sons wives with him[xxx]. This implies that the men and women continued to stay apart[xxxi] until they are blessed to be fruitful and multiply. A Midrash tells us that despite this requirement, Ham was intimate with his wife in the ark and this was the reason he became black.

If one takes either of these Midrashic statements at face value, it can be taken to mean that blackness is a punishment or ugly. It also positions the father of the black people as a flawed character and links blackness with sin which can further entrench anti-black prejudice. I am very uncomfortable with this admittedly plausible application of these teachings.

However, I hope that the proper understanding of the role of Midrash, will prevent people drawing these conclusions, instead focusing on the Midrahs’s intended messages about not being afraid to share one’s good fortune with prospective new comers, such as we see with some anti-immigration arguments. One should also focus on the message about the need for empathy even with the suffering of any human being even criminals and the destruction of animals and plants, all of which occurred during the flood which is why sexual activity was forbidden.

Ham’s motive
An interesting factor is the circumstances of Ham’s intimacy emerges in another Midrash that tells us that Shamchazael, a fallen angel had intercourse with Ham’s wife and she became pregnant with the giant Sichon who was actually born in the ark. It was for this reason that Ham had intercourse as to cover for his wife, so that she should not be embarrassed[xxxii]. It appears that Ham and his brother had only got married right before entering the Ark[xxxiii] and if not for Ham’s sin his wife would have been terribly humiliated. It appears that this is a case of doing the wrong thing for the right reason.  

I wonder if Ham’s trauma of having been touched by the shame of his wife’s compromise by Shamchazael influences his response to his father’s drunkenness and nakedness in the way that some victims of abuse might themselves one day perpetrate abuse on other. Regardless, I find the earlier story about Shmchazael, Ham’s wife and Ham illuminating.  

An alternative view of Black skin
Ibn Ezra & Abarbanel[xxxiv] In their respective commentaries about the wife of Moses who the Torah tells us was a Chushite, suggest that even though genealogically Zipporah might not have been a Cushite, the Torah still considered her as such because in appearance the Midianites resemble Cushites. They explain that since Cushites live in sunny areas, the power and heat of the sun cause their skin to darken. Skin color was not related to the curse of Noah's son, rather it was relative to one's geographical location and the power of the sun there. [xxxv]

The bottom line with all of this in my view is how people act and think in light of the various messages and interpretations of the Torah. When a black person came to my home and someone mumbled something about a curse, that person grasped a superficial aspect of a religious moral message about something else. I would argue that they are disgracing the Torah and disregarding its broader moral guidance. I am saddened and ashamed by this. On the other hand, when Jews fight for human rights regardless of colour or nationality they are drawing on the profound and demanding ethical teachings of Judaism. I cannot deny that I feel proud of those in Australia who stand with our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and those Jews in many places who have shown leadership on so many social justice causes. This is the choice for us, the way of blessing, or the way of the curse.

[i] Genesis 8:13, translation follows the interpretation of Abarbanel, Unkelus and others translate it as the earth was dry.
[ii] Genesis 9:21, 22, 24, 25
[v] Lecture by Rabbi Dr. P Hayman at the ZFA Education conference, Moriah College Sydney, July 1996
[vi] Genesis 10:11
[vii] Rabbi Elyakim, cited in Torah Shlaima, Genesis 10:11, note 37, p.499, Aruch, and Tosaphot Rid, cited on
[viii]  Cited in Torah Shlaima, Genesis 10:11, note 37, p.500
[ix] Ramban
[x] Ibn Ezra
[xi] Radak
[xii] Talmud Yoma 10a, as explained by DIKDUKEI SOFRIM and ARUCH, cited on
[xiii] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
[xiv] Cotlar, R. Yisroel, based on “Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz presents and discusses the classic views concerning the study of Midrash in Shnei Luchot Habrit, Torah Shebaal Peh, 17 (Klal Hadrushim). He refers there to the idealist perspective in Torah that he presents ibid, Toldot Adam, Bayit Acharon. The concept is based upon the words of Rabbi Menachem Azaria of Fano in Assara Maamarot, Maamar Chikur Din, 3:22”.
[xv] Ibn Ezra on Mishpatim
[xvi] Isaiah 58:4
[xvii] Talmud Sanhedrin 38a It is interesting that the Maharsha applies this to Jews. While this fits with the word “families”, it is hard to see how the creation of Adam who is the father of all humans can be a lesson about anything other than the entire human family.
[xviii] Genesis 9:6
[xix] Pirkey Avot, “At T’hi Baz Lchol Adam”
[xx] Daat Zekainim Mebaalei Hatosafot, Bchor Shor, interestingly, the proof for this interpretation is the first phrase in the 10 commandments “I am the Lord Your God who took you out of Egypt, from the house of slaves”. While the translation of Beit Avadim as house of slavery is less accurate than house of slaves, it is hard to see the reference to slaves in that verse as referring to the Egyptian taskmasters who are deemed slaves because of an ancient curse rather than the Jewish slaves.   
[xxi] Beresheet Rabba 36:9
[xxii] Ibn Ezra to Genesis 9:25
[xxiii] Genesis 10:8
[xxiv] Rashi, in 9:25, 26 and 27 repeatedly talks about Canaan alone.
[xxvi] Megilat Taanis chapter 3, brought in Kasher M (1992), Torat Shelaima, Noach 9, #146, page 489
[xxvii] Midrash Rabba 36:11
[xxviii] Matnat Kohanim
[xxix] Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 1:6,  
[xxx] Genesis 8:18
[xxxi] Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima, 8: 71, p 447
[xxxii] Midrash quoted in Rabbenu Bchai end of Chukat and Chemdat Hayamim cited in Torah Shlaima, notes to 8: 71, p 448
[xxxiii] Torah Shlaima based on Sefer Hayashar on Parsha Noah,
[xxxiv] Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) and Rabbi Don Yitzchok Abarbanel (1437-1508) In their respective commentaries to Numbers 12:1)
[xxxv] Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (1720-1797) (Eliyahu Rabbah to Negaim 2:1)


  1. I am truly happy that I found your blog. I am passionate about the issues of social justice in Judaism, and your rich in sources entries are great food for thought.
    I have quoted some of your writing on Cham, as I was just writing about the same issue (of excusing own racist prejudice with Torah). I am sorry that my blog is in Polish, but you are welcome anyway! Kol hakavod!

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  2. Thank you for the feedback. Wishing you the best with your blog in Polish. Zalman

  3. Well, lots of food for thought here, Rabbi :) I know that in Islaamic sources, there is a reference to black faces and white faces, implying that the black faces indicate a bad/sinful person. I will look for the reference, Insha Allaah.

  4. Here is a reference to what I was talking about:,6798A7942.html?PHPSESSID=dad304341d1b8d37e2adeb4d56f906e9.

  5. Thanks Safiyyah. I think it is useful for adherents of particular faiths to dig up this stuff and see how they can be worked with so that racism can be rejected even by those loyal to any particular tradition. It would be interesting to hear how Muslims view people with Black faces today and what interpretations are offered to these sources.

  6. Thanks, Rabbi. I am currently reading BIBLICAL SEDUCTIONS by Sandra Rapoport. On page 177, which talks a little bit about Noah and Ham, she seems to hint that Ham sexually abused Noah.

    I may be wrong about my interpretation.

    Is that what some of the Midrash says? Thanks a lot in advance.

    1. hi, sorry I missed your comment. Your interpretation is probably correct. One of the Midrashic understandings was that he sexually abused him, another is that he castrated Noah.

  7. I really wonder where did the hakhamim take all those terrifying conclusions from, if the Torah doesn't mention any of it strictly. I appreciate and respect the Midrash, but sometimes it seems to be the personal, not very objective nor moderate, view of another human being.
    Great blog and very interesting post. Thanks Rav.