Friday, May 29, 2009

Something for Shavuot: Ancient Judaism and physical (racial) differences

Today is the holiday of Shavuot, the Jewish festival of the first harvest also called Bikurim, first harvest in Hebrew. It is also the commemoration of the day when the law of the Torah was given to people of Israel on Mount Sinai. Such a day is as good as any to bring some of that ancient Jewish wisdom to view and see how wise it truly is or not. This particular episode is more relevant to our times then to Shavuot.
In the Mishna, the precursor of the Talmud, at treatise Bekhorot (firstborn), chapter 45, section 72, Reish Lakish (also written Resh Lekesh in English), a rabbi from the late second centaury AD, says:
“A tall man shall not marry a tall woman or they might bring a mast, a dwarf man shall not marry a dwarf woman or they might bring a pinky. A white man shall not marry a white woman or they might bring a bohak (an ancient word for albino), a black man shall not marry a black woman or they might bring a tapiakh (a supposed opposite condition to albino).

Now what did the rabbi mean?
It is clear from his words that the physical differences we refer today, as racial differences did not exist 1900 years ago, but why should interracial couplings be favored over same race couplings?
Here are some possible answers, none of which are offered by mainstream Judaism since this story is largely forgotten.

1) He was a fool, there is no such thing as an opposite condition to albino, and there are black people that are albinos.

2) “Brown skin rules”, since the dominate shade of skin in the ancient civilized was brown and that’s a fact of history, maybe he was a brown supremacist, even though no such movement or philosophy is known.

3) He was an incurable romantic who truly and whole-heartedly believed in opposites attract.

4) There really is a Jewish conspiracy to have black man mate with white daughters and Reish Lakish is behind it all.

5) Good business and good politics, here is another historic fact, back then what we call today interracial marriage was good business and good politics, since tribes on both sides of the Mediterranean had accesses to resources and or various skills. This was the background to the rise of the Severan dynasty in Roman Empire, an Afro Phoenician Italian dynasty of emperors from the same time frame.

6) Metaphors, marriage as a metaphor for thinking differently, outside the box, outside ones own tribe. This is possible for several reasons; first, metaphors were vastly used by the rabbis of the era. Second, the rabbi’s nickname Reish Lakish indicates that his specialty was in challenging his pupils and listeners to think. Reish means head or top of.., Lakish is the one who presents a kushia, kushia is Aramaic for question, a question that challenge people to think even if they do not intend to answer, therefore Reish Lakish, was the top man of his era in challenging people to think. Forth, this is not a commandment or a verdict, god isn’t mention, and there are no references to verses from the bible or to verdict of previous rabbis, all mandatory in passing Jewish religious legislation then and now. Therefore the albino and its opposite condition are metaphors just like the mast and the pinky, metaphors for something silly; something silly that people become when they close their mind. Fifth his own biography shows that he was the kind of person who would know what it is like to “step out of the box” out of one life style and into another. Before been a rabbi he was a ruffian, maybe even a bandit, who made his living as a gladiator. The tragedy of his story is that he fell prey into the kind boxed thinking he advised against. While debating the issue of purity of weapons with his close friend and brother in law, Rabbi Yochanan, his friend burst at him saying “You would know” a familiar expression of intolerance and prejudice from our own era. Having something like this coming out of his best friend mouth, and may be even heart, broke his heart, and he fell ill and died.

Now, putting aside this tragic turn, each can choose his or hers idea of what is the more likely interpretation, I of course go for the last 2 options. There is always room for other ideas, on the comic side as well as the serious side. I just hope like Reish Lakish, it will challenge us to think.
And though Shavuot is nearing its end Happy Shavuot Everybody.

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