The Image of the Black in Jewish Culture: A History of the Other

By Betty Sigler Rozen; Abraham Melamed | Go to book overview

4

IN THE LITERATURE OF THE SAGES

'Ugly and black'

I

In rabbinic literature the black appears for the first time in Jewish cultural history as not only other and different, but as a consequence, inferior too, and in this light the Bible texts about the black were expounded. For generations, these commentaries determined the image of the black in Jewish thought. The rabbinic viewpoint did not originate in Scripture, which, as we have shown, was generally neutral, sometimes amazed and in extreme cases ambiguous and enigmatic, but never totally negative.

The expressions that appeared for the first time in rabbinic writings deviated in two ways from those the Bible used. For one, while the Bible does not identify the cushi unambiguously as one whose skin is dark, in the rabbinic literature such an identification begins to take definite shape. From the accumulated textual data to be presented later, it becomes clear that the Sages identified the word cushi with one whose skin was especially dark relative to the accepted norm. In most instances the term is not explained, but the context makes it clear that it relates to the individual referred to as 'black' today: the few specific explanations, moreover, identify the term with one whose skin is qualitatively darker from what is perceived as the norm. We see this in Mishnah Negaim 2:1: 'An intensely bright [white] spot appears dull in a white person (germani), and dull [white spot appears] bright on a black person (cushi).' The 'German' is presented as the prototype of the light-skinned person, and the cushi as the antithesis, with particularly dark skin. Moreover, in the same Mishnah we have R. Ishmael's now familiar words on the ideal intermediate shade of the Jews who are 'neither too black (shehorim) nor too white (levanim) but of an intermediate [shade]'. The context makes it clear that 'white' refers to the German and 'black' to the cushi. At this early stage there is no negative value judgement of the kind found consistently in later times. Thus we find, with exemplary brevity in BT Bekhorot 45b, 'The cushi is black (in Aramaic: ucmah)', and in the Midrash on the sin of Ham and the punishment of Canaan in BT Moed Katan 16b: 'A cushi is distinguishable (meshuneh) by his skin.' He is linked to a specific skin colour, again qualitatively different from the norm. As a result Cush, which in the literal Bible text has only a territorial

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The Image of the Black in Jewish Culture: A History of the Other
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Note on the Translated Quotations viii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Dream and Interpretation 9
  • 2 - Sources of the Symbol 15
  • 3 - In the Bible 53
  • 4 - In the Literature of the Sages 60
  • 5 - In the Cultural World of Islam 122
  • 6 - In the Latin-Christian Cultural World 149
  • 7 - In the Wake of Exploration 196
  • Afterword 224
  • Notes 226
  • Bibliography 273
  • Index of Sources 285
  • Subject Index 289
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