As white Jews are trying to challenge racism within the Jewish community and in wider American society, many are looking for guidance in traditional Jewish sources. However, there are not many places in the early rabbinic literature that can help us deconstruct such biases.
The Mishnaic tractate Negaim (“Blemishes”) offers one of the few insights into the rabbinic conceptions of race, or rather, distinct human skin colors. The tractate itself deals with various forms of tzara’at, a leprosy-like disease mentioned in the Torah portions Tazria and Metzora. In this context, Negaim 2:1 explains that “the bright [tzara’at] spot in a germani appears as dull white, and the dull white spot in a kushi appears as bright white. Rabbi Ishmael says the children of Israel … are like boxwood, neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.”
On one level, this mishnah deals with a purely clinical challenge — how to diagnose tzara’at on various shades of skin. Yet it can also help us better understand our ancestors’ relationship to the modern concept of “race,” a category they didn’t share.
The specific terms in this passage are interesting. The mishnah states that a Jews’ skin is unlike that of the germani. This term is probably a loanword from the Latin Germanus and refers to a member of a Germanic tribe. The word occurs in the Mishnah only in the above-cited paragraph. In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is a mention of a germani where it stands for a white person who was enslaved by Rabbi Yodan, a sage who lived in the first half of the fourth century in the Land of Israel (Yoma 41b). Apparently, slavery at this point in Jewish history was not based on race. The rabbinic sages seemed to have followed the Roman model of slavery that did not base slavery on race either. Actually, most of those enslaved by the Romans were white, members of Germanic and Slavic tribes: the word “Slavic” itself was borrowed from the Greek sklábos, “slave.” The midrashic literature also acknowledges the existence of white and Black slaves alike. (Bereishit Rabbah 86:3) This de-coupling of the skin color from social hierarchy supports the claim that Mediterranean people of late antiquity did have a different concept of race than we do, if they had any at all. This evidence also indicates that the fusion of skin color and social hierarchies is socially constructed and subject to change.
But the Mishnah does not only differentiate Jews from members of the Germanic tribes. It also states that a Jew’s skin is unlike that of a kushi. This word denotes a person from Kush, a kingdom that centered along the Nile Valley in present-day Sudan, to the south of Egypt. The two civilizations were engaged in warfare, trade and cultural exchange for centuries. Kush existed between c. 1070 BCE until 350 C.E. — that is, including the period of the Mishnah. Later on, the Hebrew word kushi came to refer other Black African peoples, too. For instance, when the original Judeo-Arabic script of the 12th-century philosophical work the Kuzari (1:2) mentions the Habesha peoples, the Hebrew version of the text introduces them as kushi, even though “Habesha” and “Kushitic” are different markers of identity. The Greeks called Kush “Aethiopia,” which means literally “burnt-face.” Due to Greek cultural dominance, many, including Jewish translators, would later translate kushi as Ethiopian.
Thus, as the Mishnah states, Jews are neither like the germani, nor like the kushi. Instead, the Jews’ skin has, according to the Mishnah, an “intermediate shade.” This rabbinic perception of the Jews’ skin color as brown follows those Egyptian papyri that stated that Jews were “honey-colored.” The Mishnaic observation also reflects the self-description of other Mediterranean peoples, such as Greeks and Romans, who would describe their skin color as “medius inter nigrum et pallidum” — that is, “halfway between black and pale” (De Physiognomonia liber 88).
To illustrate the Jews’ “intermediate shade,” the Mishnah uses the metaphor of the “boxwood.” The genus of the boxwood is native to many parts of the world, including the Middle East. In other parts of the Mishna and in the Babylonian Talmud, this word is referenced only as a material that people made furniture out of (e.g., Yoma 3:9, Bava Batra 89b). Interestingly enough, boxwood is associated with Jews also in non-Jewish civilizations: in the Islamic hadith literature, there is a teaching that boxwood — in Arabic: gharqad — is “a tree of the Jews” (Sahih Muslim 2922). Until today, Muslim extremists refer to the boxwood as a traitor among the trees that will protect Jews from God’s and/or the Muslims’ wrath, as seen for example in the 1988 Hamas Charter.
But even if our ancestors identified as “boxwood-skinned” and distanced themselves from the whiteness of the germani, this should not change 21st-century white American Jews self-identification as white. Even if antisemitism in the United States is as violent as probably never before, white Jews do benefit from white privilege. Nevertheless, learning about our ancestors’ self-identification as Jews of color might help to challenge the widespread assumption among American Jews that being white is the Jewish norm. Since Jewish congregations in the United States are dominated by white Jews, white Jews have often trouble with perceiving Jews of Color as if they were genuine part of the community. Even if white Jews acknowledge that some Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are people of color, that does not change the widespread attitude that whiteness is the Jewish norm. This hegemonial whiteness can manifest itself also among well-intended white Jews who seek to support Jews of Color, arguing that “we were strangers in Egypt and know the soul of the stranger.” But Jews of Color are no strangers, they are no visitors. White Jews do not own Judaism.
Today, of course, there are not only Jews who are “boxwood-skinned,” but also Jews who are white like the germani or Black as the kushi. The rabbinic sages’ self-identification as people of color can help dismantle the current white normative approach to Judaism. While white Jews might take for granted that ancient Jews looked like them, the evidence is otherwise. We can assume that it was not only the authors of the Mishnah who identified as Jews of Color, but also the authors of other traditional Jewish texts. Whether we are using an Ashkenazi or non-Ashkenazi siddur, we are reading prayers that were mostly compiled by Jews of Color. Abraham, Sarah and the other ancestors mentioned in our daily prayers were not white either. Every time we read the Torah or other books of the Hebrew Bible, we are reading works written and edited by Jews of Color. Reflecting on our “boxwood-skinned” heritage might help white Jews recognize that being white is not the Jewish norm.
Armin Langer is a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He is the author of the book Ein Jude in Neukölln: Mein Weg zum Miteinander der Religionen(A Jew in Neukölln: My Path to the Coexistence of Religions) and the editor of the anthology Fremdgemacht and Reorientiert: Jüdisch-Muslimische Verflechtungen (Foreign and Reoriented: Jewish-Muslim Entanglements). He is currently completing his Ph.D. in sociology at Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany.