In the 1980s English football (soccer) stadiums were places which were frequently associated with racism; supporters of rival teams would frequently resort to racist chanting against members of the opposition. This led to the highly successful “kick it out” campaign, which sought to eliminate racism from the stands and to affirm the message that no footballer should be targeted because of the color of his skin or country of origin.
However, this season has seen racism rear it’s ugly head again, this time though it has been rival players who have stood accused of racist abuse against their opponents. Luis Suarez was banned for eight games after the FA found him guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra, and the former captain of England, John Terry is to stand trial for abusing another player, be was stripped of the captaincy with his trial pending. Racism has therefore been a hot topic again in the English media, as football has dragged it into the spotlight.
In one particularly eloquent response, John Barnes, a highly successful England and Liverpool footballer and a regular victim of racist abuse during his career suggested that: ‘Education about the history of racism is the key to changing racist attitudes’.
Towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, Moses returned from Mount Sinai carrying in his hands the second set of tablets containing the rewritten Ten Commandments. We read that ‘when he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone’ (Exodus 34:29). After standing in the divine presence, Moses looked different from everyone else, his appearance had changed.
The people were scared when they saw Moses’ new appearance and it says that ‘when Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to approach him’ (Exodus 34:30). It may be understandable that the people saw Moses’ modified visage and stepped back from him, but it is also symptomatic of that fact that often we are scared of people who look different from us.
This passage also led to a different racist assumption. The Hebrew word karan in verses 34:29 and 30 should be translated as shone or shining, but it was misread as the word keren, which was then translated as horns. In the Latin Vulgate it therefore read; ‘And Aaron and the children of Israel seeing the face of Moses horned, were afraid to come near’ (Exodus 34:30). As a result of this misreading, for generations it was thought that Jews had horns. Artistic evidence of this can even be seen, most famously in Michelangelo’s Moses, and the legacy of this mistranslation remains in some circles today.
It is striking that just a few verses earlier God said ‘every firstborn of the womb belongs to me, even every firstborn of your cattle that is a male, whether ox or sheep … you must redeem all the firstborn of your sons’ (Exodus 34:19-20). The passage does not distinguish on the basis of race or class, every firstborn male has to be redeemed. In the midst of this week’s Torah portion, this instruction appears; a reminder of the equality amongst all.
Before a verse which exposes our fear of people who look different, simultaneously a verse which led to racist assumptions held for generations; we have another verse, which reminds us that all of us are equal. We are all created in the image of God, and this quality surpasses any differences which we might see in the faces of one another.