Simon Rocker

The blessing that was axed

Behind the widely-condemned remarks of Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi is a troubling passage from the Talmud

March 28, 2018 14:12

Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, drew widespread opprobrium last week after he likened a black person to a monkey and used the derogatory term kushi.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis did not hold back, condemning the comments as “deeply offensive and totally unacceptable”.

It is not the first time Rabbi Yosef has found himself in hot water. Last year, he suggested non-Jews should not be allowed to remain in Israel unless they signed up to the Noahide Laws, but Israel was not strong enough to enforce this. He subsequently tried to defuse the predictable outrage by explaining he was merely talking theoretically about messianic times.

His latest egregious remarks came during a discussion of a talmudic passage about when to recite the blessing meshaneh habriot, “who varies the forms of creatures”. According to one of the sages, it should be said on seeing a person with black, deeply red or very white skin, a hunchback or dwarf. Another suggestion was an amputee or a blind person. The sages agreed it could be said over elephants or monkeys.

Rabbi Yosef argued it should not be said in a place such the USA where it is common to see black people, using the term kushi, a biblical word for an African person (Moses married a “Cushite woman”) but which is now considered pejorative in contemporary idiom.

But, he suggested, it could be said if two white people had a black son. “You need a kushi with a father and mother who are white. If, you know, their son came out a monkey… then you’ll recite [the blessing] meshaneh briyot,” he said, according to a translation by the online American magazine, the Tablet.

Quite what was passing through Rabbi Yosef’s mind when he spoke those words only he knows since he has yet to venture an explanation and he was not directly quoting the Talmud passage. But however that passage is interpreted, it reflects a worldview that collides with  modern sensibilities.

The actual blessing meshaneh habriot has appeared in traditional prayerbooks. In the 1959 edition of the Authorised Daily Prayerbook, used by the United Synagogue, for example, it is listed as one of a number of blessings for special occasions, such as on seeing lightning or a monarch or smelling fragrant flowers. The rubric there says it should be recited on “seeing strangely formed persons, such as giants or dwarfs”.

By the time of Chief Rabbi Jakobovits, the revised edition of the United Synagogue’s Singers’ Siddur has cut mention of giants or dwarfs, but refers in general to “a strangely formed person”.

However, when the latest version of the Singers appeared under Chief Rabbi Sacks, meshaneh habriot has gone altogether. It has been dropped from the list of special blessings. And that seems the wisest course of all.

March 28, 2018 14:12

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