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There’s No Hebrew Word For Race

November 7, 2021 | by Tzvi Gluckin

In Jewish thought, skin color has nothing to do with who you are as a person.

Is Judaism racist? 

Not at all. Great Jews come in all colors.

Classical Hebrew, which is the language of the Bible and many traditional texts – as well as Talmudic Aramaic – doesn’t even have words for racism or race. Modern Hebrew does – geza means race and gezanut is racism – but those are new terms adapted for modern usage. In biblical Hebrew, the concept doesn’t exist.

That’s not to say that skin color is never discussed; it is. For example, the Talmud, when talking about rashes and other dermatological problems, mentions that Jewish people back then were not white like Germans, or dark like Ethiopians, but somewhere in between, similar to many people from today’s Middle East. In the Bible, Moses’ wife, Zipporah, was said to be dark-skinned or Ethiopian. Queen Esther had an olive complexion, and many rabbinical sources note that Sarah, from the Book of Genesis, was particularly fair.

But the common thread in these cases is that skin color – similar to how tall or hairy you are – is just another physical attribute. It’s descriptive. It’s not an identity.

And therein lies the rub.

Basing your identity on a seemingly arbitrary physical attribute, like skin color, is not a Jewish way of seeing the world. In Jewish thought, when talking about your identity or self-worth, skin color isn’t a factor. It simply isn’t relevant. That’s not to invalidate how that concept evolved or how people identify today. It’s to note that Judaism doesn’t look at people that way.

In Judaism, your identity is based on a single criterion: How well are you fulfilling your potential?

To paraphrase Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: focus on the content of your character, not the color of your skin. In Judaism, your identity is based on a single criterion: How well are you fulfilling your potential? That’s it. Life is a journey. Each person is on a spiritual mission. Some people succeed. Some people fail. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

And none of us are in a position to judge.

But the Torah does categorize peoples by nation. Doesn’t that make room for racism?

Not really. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that those categories delineate familial, linguistic, and geographic relationships. Nations are referred to as “families,” so, for example, Jews are called the Children of Israel; and many people believe that today’s Arabs are the biblical children of Ismael. However, for the most part, those distinctions – due to assimilation, wars of conquest, and ever-shifting national borders – are no longer relevant, and haven’t been since biblical times.

Yes, you will meet the occasional Jew who is a horrible racist. Every group has a few bad apples – some groups have more than a few – and Jews are no exception.

But that doesn’t mean Judaism is racist, or that most Jews are racist. Although we do have a word for people who make those kinds of sweeping generalizations… 😉

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