Does Jewish Law Forbid Racism?



Neither Jewish law, lore nor history addresses race in any way that can be construed as problematic. In fact, the ancestor of the Jewish people, Shem son of Noah, is described by the midrash as having been black (Pirka D'Rebbe Eliezei; beginning of Chapter 24). The most fundamental teachings of Judaism clearly dismiss racism altogether, such as "You shall love the stranger like yourself (Leviticus 19:34), or the reminder in Genesis that all of us--regardless of race, color or belief system--were born of the same mom and dad: Adam and Eve. "Why did God create swarms of bees, prides of lions, herds of deer, schools of fish, and flocks of birds, and only one human couple? So that no one can say to another 'My ancestry is superior to yours'" (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5).

Rabbi Gershon Winkler

Walking Stick Foundation Fontana, CA


The question of Jewish law and racism cannot be separated from that of anti-Semitism. Distrust and hatred of Jews played an important role in the attitudes that Jews formed about others. With our history of suffering, we should not be surprised that our literature (law and lore) records feelings of animosity toward others and even outsized claims of Jewish superiority. Even so, any expressions of hostility sit right alongside higher moral expectations. The Torah repeatedly urges us to engage our empathy, commanding us 36 times to show our concern for strangers among us. Our creation myths and midrash remind us of the common origin of all human beings.

Jewish tradition is old and broad enough to include contradictory teachings; some condone bigotry and racism, others promote solicitude for all people. As Humanistic Jews, we are always delighted to encounter the more enlightened passages and practices. Yet they are not the source of our beliefs. A commitment to furthering human dignity and universal human rights stands at the center of our ethical concerns irrespective of Jewish attitudes from the past.

Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism Farmington Hills, Ml


I don't think racism is a term recognized in Jewish law, although a few remarks in Jewish tradition about people of color have been understood in disparaging ways. More essentially, the Torah insists that we treat both neighbors and strangers with ahavah, love--a recognition that we are in relationship with one another. Jewish law forbids reminding converts to Judaism of their earlier background; we might extrapolate from that to a prohibition on, for example, asking Jews of color in shul whether they are actually Jewish, which seems to go on all the time.

The larger question is how Jewish tradition bids us view the relationship between Jews and...

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