Friday, February 29, 2008

Judaism and Intermarriage: Part 3 Race

If you haven't already read the previous posts you will need to do so before reading this section.

Judaism and Intermarriage Introduction

Judaism and Intermarriage Post 1

Judaism and Intermarriage Post 2

One of the biggest misconceptions I once encountered, concerning the Bible, was one involving race. When I graduated from high school I spent a summer working at MCI Telecommunications in Kansas City, MO. During one of my job assignments I had to work with 3 gentlemen who came off as nothing more than rednecks. During one my conversations with them, one of them boldly stated that the Bible stated that the races were not supposed to mix. He tried to use passages of the Bible that, in his mind, suggesting some element of racial separation. Essentially, he was incorrect because he had no real concept of what the Bible is and what it says.

It has always been interesting to me how people can come to such wild conclusions, when they are not reading the ORIGINAL Bible i.e. in Hebrew, to begin with and when they are doing so without a historical and cultural context. A person reading a translation can in no way claim that they somehow have the ability to make authoritative statements about a text that they cannot read in its original form. Also, when a person reads a text without a connection to the culture that the text comes from they can in no way perceive the true intent of said text. These kinds of misconceptions, based on ignorance of history and culture, can also be found amongst certain Jews as well.

What Does the Bible Say About Race?

The answer to the above question, the Bible has nothing at all say about race, in the modern sense. In the modern sense race often takes on illogical and often biased realities, i.e. skin color, that did not exist in many parts of the ancient world. In order to understand the answer to the question you have to understand, where the Bible came from and who preserved it.

The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), has been preserved by Jews since ancient times. So if the Bible is to be understood it MUST be understood within a Jewish context text. The reason is as simple as the fact that for thousands of years Jews have lived by the Tanakh, died to preserve the Tanakh, spent vast amounts of times studying the Tanakh and the languages associated with it (Hebrew and Aramaic), and Jews have impressed upon their children to do the same. So the Bible can never be understood outside of a traditional and historical Jewish context, or using translations as the first line of understanding.

Now getting back to the issue of race within that context, the Bible makes no distinction between black people and white people, or any other denomination of skin color characters in the way that they are used modernly. The Bible's distinction of humanity follows the same path, as I mentioned concerning Judaism, it deals with religious, national, and social alliances. So for example when the Bible talks about ethnic groups such as the Moabites it does not do so in terms of what their skin color they were, but instead based on their religious, national, and social norms and values. The same goes for the Canaanites, the Phillestines, etc.

Many of the prohibitions in the Bible concerning marriage do not even concern the majority of humanity, but instead is directed towards the Israelites i.e. Jews. What this means is that about 90% of the does and don'ts found in Bible are commands that God directed towards Jews, not the world in general. There are of course areas of the Bible that are geared towards mankind in general, but when you look at the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy the recipients of the commands of God were the Israelites, the Gerim (converts), and non-Israelites who chose to LIVE amongst the Israelites by believing in the God of Israel, but not specifically converting to Judaism.

The redneck gentlemen I noted earlier were not even remotely Jewish so they were wrong in acting as if those Biblical prohibitions somehow relate to them, or even have anything to do with race. In reality some of the prohibitions in terms of marriage, mentioned in the Bible were self imposed by the Hebrews, the Israelites, the Jews, and their descendants while others were divinely imposed.

A Few Examples

Within the first two books of the Bible there is much about the culture that the ancient Hebrews and later Israelites had concerning who they would and wouldn't marry. Taking into account that ancient Hebrews and Israelites were already a mix of Middle Eastern and East African peoples, we can take on a more accurate understanding of what the real issues were concerning their marriages.
  1. The biblical patriarch Abraham sent his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac. He requires that the woman not come from the Canaanites, but from his family in Mesopotamia.
  2. The biblical matriarch Rebbecca requires that her son Jacob find a wife from her family, also from Mesopotamia.
  3. Israelites who are from the priestly family are required to marry only certain types of Israelite/Jewish women. They were not allowed to marry female converts to Judaism, but could marry the daughters of converts.
  4. There exists within the Israelite tribes non-Israelites who had joined themselves to those tribes i.e. converted to Judaism.
  5. Ruth, a foreigner from Moab is exemplary for her faithfulness to her Israelite in-laws, even after the death of her husband. Ruth became a Gioret (Female convert) and married an Israelite man named Boaz. One of their descendants King David went on to become the greatest of the Israelite warrior kings.
  6. Solomon married hundreds of wives from many nations in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and East Africa for the purposes of political expediency and ultimately falls from grace by engaging in pagan forms of worship which they have introduced 1 Kings 11. In Solomon's case the problem wasn't that he married non-Israelite women. The problem was that he married women who either didn't fully convert to the Israelite faith or who continued to latch onto their former pagan religions and cultures. This in turn caused Solomon to take on some of their pagan practices, something forbidden in the Israelite and Jewish faith.
It is also important to note that according to the book of Genesis some of the sons of Jacob married into the various ethnic communities in the regions, which they dwelled. In Genesis 46:19 it is stated that Yoseph (Joseph) married an Egyptian woman, Asnath daughter of Poti-phera who was a priest of the Egyptian deity On. We are further told in Genesis 46:10 and Exodus 6:15 that Jacob’s son Shimon (Simeon) had a son, Sha’ul, from a Canaanite woman. In later times Moses married Tziporah the daughter of Yithro a priest of Midyon (Exodus 2:21), and in Numbers 12:1 it is mentioned that Moses married a Kushite woman. With all of these cases the non-Israelites whom they married were required to accept the Israelite faith.


Even within the Israelite tribes there were marriages that were forbidden on moral and social grounds. For example, mothers could not marry sons. Brothers could not marry sisters, etc. For some time after their entry into the Land of Israel, the 12 tribes did not intermarry between tribes. Also, the tribe of Levi had additional marriage restrictions placed on them due to the fact that they were the Israelite priest tribe.

No where in the Torah is there found a reference to skin color, the modern code of race, as a qualifier for marriage. The issue with Abraham was find a wife for his son who had a particular moral outlook that he knew could not be found amongst the Canaanites. He had been promised by God that his descendants would receive a certain blessing that required moral character. The same issue existed for Rebecca towards Jacob, etc. Jewish exigist literature shows that the concern for the moral outlook of future generations was so strong amongst Abraham and his descedents that many of them learned their moral outlooks from two of Abrahams ancestors named Shem and Ever. According to the Midrash the Sefer Ha-Yashar Shem and Ever taught those who came to study about the ways of God. Isaac and Jacob were two of Abraham's descendants who learned from Shem and Ever.

Modernly, one can look at Jews and discern that there had been in some ancient time a mix of Jews with local Gerim (converts) who originated from different places all over the world. That is why many Jews from India look similar to non-Jewish Indians. The same as Jews from southern Arabia look similar to Arabs from Arabia. The same way that Jews from Poland look similar to non-Jews from Poland. In my next and last post about Judaism and Intermarriage I will discuss the issue of Jewish Genealogy and how marriage to local Gerim (converts) has shaped the physical features of Jews from all over the world, and how it affects Jewish culture.


Mes Deux Cents said...

Hi Ehav,

I find this really interesting. What I find most interesting is the biblebeing taken out of context.

As you know the Bible has been used to justify many evils and this continues to be the case.

I hope you will do a post about the Bible and how people use it as a weapon against people such as gay people, people of other religions, people of different races, etc.

Thanks for writing this.

rivkayael said...

re: Rut, I think the correct term is "gioret". I think it is an aramacism, since "gerah" does not exist in Tanakh but "gioret/gyoret/whatever transliteration system you use" appears in the gemara several times.

Anonymous said...

You remind me again of the anthology "Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction" edited by Jack Dann.

At least one of the stories was about alien Jews, shaped like blue pillows, who insisted that they were descended from Jews from Earth. It's a humorous story--try it if you have never run into it. It's by one of SF's many Jewish writers.

Ehav Ever said...

MDC -Most of the time, when the Bible is taken out of context it is by people who don't have what in Hebrew is called a Mesorah. A Mesorah is a trustworthy transmission of tradition and understanding of what the Bible says. So for example, if a Jew wants to claim that the Bible says ABCD they would have to prove it to other Jews based on a Mesorah, and not just because they say so. This is especially true in the presence of Jews who can read Hebrew and Aramaic. So there are cases where some non-Jews, who have no connection to a Mesorah, have made statements about the Bible, based on what they want it to say, and not what can be tracked back through history, language, and culture. I do plan on doing some posts about other topics and the Bible a little later.

Rivkayael -Thanks for the correction. I kind of put this together on the fly. There were a few other corrections I had to make.

Makeda42 -Thanks for the information on the book. I will have to look into it.