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The Curse of Ham

The commentary on this week’s parsha created a mythical racial ideology that continues to lurk in the shadows of Judaism

October 15, 2015

One of the things I find most infuriating is the oxymoronic double standard in which white Jews will say that they’re not white, but will regard Jews of Color—particularly black ones—suspiciously because said Jews, simply put, are not white. But that part about black Jews makes sense, though, because of the Curse of Ham, the good ol’ “Hamitic myth.”

Capable of uniting Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the narrative of the curse of Ham not only the logic employed by “religious” European Christians and Middle Eastern Muslims as justification for the enslavement of Africans, but it also remains a central ideology behind the subversive culture of racism and oft-unspoken condescension lurking in the shadows of Judaism.

Found in the commentary on this week’s parsha, the story goes like this: While aboard Noah’s Ark, God bans any marital relations between spouses. Everyone complies with this command except the dog, the raven, and Ham, Noah’s son. The dog and raven receive punishments, but Ham, according to the most prevalent interpretations, has his skin turned black, and all of his descendants therefore are forever black-skinned.

Subsequently, as related in Genesis chapter 9, when Noah and family leave the ark, Noah plants a vineyard, gets plastered, and passes out naked. Later, Ham passes by and proceeds to violate his father by (according to some interpretations) sodomizing him or castrating him or sleeping with his wife, which is incest. Anyway, when Noah wakes up and learns what has happened, he curses Ham’s son (and his own grandson) Canaan, to forever be a slave to his brothers. And that’s why, according to this interpretation of the bible, it’s OK to make black people slaves.

The main problem with this story is that it’s false. Nowhere in the biblical passage, or any other related sources, does it actually state outright that Ham and his descendants are cursed both to be black and in slavery. Instead, this myth is the work of set of ambiguous Talmudic statements, translated by later medieval European and Middle Eastern commentators who, upon viewing through the lens of their society, applied the burgeoning creed of anti-Black racism where it was not originally intended or implied. The chief and earliest evidence of the myth can be found in Sanhedrin (108b):

Three copulated in the ark, and they were all punished — the dog, the raven, and Ham… Ham was smitten in his skin.

Note that there is no mention of skin color here. Based on Biblical precedent, this line could conceivably mean that the aforementioned “smiting” might’ve just as easily been leprosy given that leprosy seems to be God’s modus operandi for “skin smiting”-type punishment (see Pharaoh (Gen 12.17, Arachin 16a), Moses (Ex 4.6), Miriam (Num 12.10), Gehazi (2 Kings 5.27), Uzziah (2 Chron 26.19), etc.) Similarly, Leprosy is one of the punishments for sexual immorality (Arachin 16a).

There is no substantiation for the assumption that Ham was cursed to be black, until you apply the 11th century commentary of Rashi who explained the Sanhedrin line as:

…smitten in his skin…i.e., from him descended Cush (the negro) who is black-skinned.

In 18th century Spain, Me’am Loez, states that Ham received five punishments. Here are three relevant ones: First, “his eyes became red, always appearing bloodshot.” Second, “his lips were made thick and gross like that of a Negro.” Third, “the hair of his head and beard became kinky.”

However, Me’am Loez’s initial source, Tanchuma (from the 6th century) doesn’t exactly state this:

Ham’s eyes turned red…his lips became crooked…the hair of his head and beard became singed…

See the difference?

This anti-black sentiment began to take hold in Medieval Europe. Once it did, European and Middle Eastern Jewry did little to fight it; in fact, they embraced it. Rabbis such as Nathaniel ibn Yeshaya and Zechariah ben Solomon ha-Rofe began incorporating the Hamitic myth into their writings. And by the 18th century (as illustrated above by the Me-am Loez) the 6th century sources were being translated with a definitively anti-Black skew that has continued to be taught to this very day.

However, in their respective commentaries on Genesis 9.25 in which it states, “Cursed be Canaan; He shall be a slave to his brothers,” 12th century medieval Spanish rabbis Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides took pains to point out that Ham’s blackness and Canaan’s curse of eternal slavery were not linked, nor did they affect anyone except the two people explicitly named. Ibn Ezra writes:

There are those who think that the Black people are slaves because of Noah’s curse. But they have forgotten that the very first king in the Torah after the Flood was from Cush…but obviously a king cannot be a slave.

Ibn Ezra further expounds on this in his discussion of Canaan being a slave, “to his brothers—i.e., to Cush, Mitzrayim, and Put.”

In other words, Cush is the master, not the slave.

Similarly, Ibn Ezra provides commentary on Genesis 9.22, in which it is written: “Ham, the father of Canaan.” Ezra interprets that verse to be written in that way so as to highlight that Ham’s actions directly affected the destiny of that particular son, i.e. “it says Canaan and not Cush because Canaan is the one who will be cursed.”

During all those centuries, in which so much energy was spent validating racial injustice, I wish that Jews and humanity as a whole could have seen this passage from Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 24) and have been just as pervasive in the common consciousness:

He blessed Noah and his sons—as it says: ‘And Gd blessed them,’…He blessed Shem and his sons [making them] black and comely…He blessed Ham and his sons [making them] black as the raven… He blessed Japheth and his sons [making] all of them white and beautiful…

Interesting. Not only is Ham’s blackness termed as a blessing, but hey, look at that—it says that Shem and his descendants were blessed to be black and comely. Y’know, Shem, ancestor of Abraham, ancestor of the Jewish People. Interesting indeed.

A version of this post previously appeared on JN Magazine.

MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.