Thursday, February 15, 2007

Parshat Mishpatim

Here I recycle the very first substantive post on this blog, from February 2006.

"One of the main issues that the Torah deals with in this week's *parsha* is that of slavery."

So says Rabbi Berel Wein in his commentary:

Rather than try to add to what Rabbi Wein has written, I'd like to move to something more recent: The chattel slavery in the United States. It ought to be obvious to anyone that it didn't have a lot in common with the institution with the same name that was instituted in the Torah. Yet, amazingly, there was quite a bit of Jewish support for it -- much of it Orthodox.
Consider for example this essay by Rabbi Morris Raphall, of Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in Manhattan. (Back then, BJ was solidly Orthodox, as was its rabbi.)

In the preface to the essay he writes,


The capitals are those of the Rabbi, who brushes off the fact that slaveholding in a manner contrary to halachah is definitely a sin. Consider the haftarah that we would be reading this week if it were not Shabat Shekelim – the prophet Jeremiah tells Klal Yisrael that this particular sin will result in the first exile! Rabbi Raphall does accept that southern slaveholding is not in accordance with the Torah model, but isn’t particularly concerned about what the non-Jews are doing. Never mind the fact that there were some JEWS who were slaveowners.

Also note the use of Christian sources to justify his position. I found that bizarre.

On the very same day Orthodox Jews in Baltimore heard this from their rabbi, Issachar Ber Illowy:

“Who can blame our brethren of the South for seceding from a society whose government can not, or will not, protect the property rights and privileges of a great portion of the Union against the encroachments of a majority misguided by some influential, ambitious aspirants and selfish politicians who, under the color of religion and the disguise of philanthropy, have thrown the country into a general state of confusion, and millions into want and poverty?”

Property rights? At least Rabbi Raphall accepted that the “property” owned by the slaveowners had been treated as less than human.

“We have no right to exercise violence against the institutions of other states or countries, even if religious feelings and philanthropic sentiments bit us disapprove of them.”
Never mind that no shots would not be fired for three months – and that the secessionists would fire the first shot. And it seems Rabbi Illowy didn’t disapprove, given his next career move (see below).

Michael Heilprin, also Orthodox but not a Rabbi, takes Rabbi Raphall to task exactly one week later:

‘Have we not had enough of the "reproach of Egypt?" Must the stigma of Egyptian principles be fastened on the people of Israel by Israelitish lips themselves?’

He goes on to give the Rabbi a lecture on Hebrew vocabulary, citing Mendelssohn and Zunz! (Is it worse to cite heterodox or infidel views?) Later, he wonders if it is possible to condemn the then-current Mormon practice of plural marriage if one accepts Rabbi Raphall’s methodology:
‘should the people of Utah, before or after their admission into the Union as a sovereign State (on which occasion they would, no doubt, avail themselves of the precedent of the Cotton States, immediately to secede from the Union), establish certain peculiar domestic institutions of an incestuous character, "the eloquent preacher of Brooklyn" could not speak against it without incurring the guilt of blasphemy, Jacob having married two sisters, and our Rabbi being unable to discover "the precise time when" an act that was permitted to a patriarch and prohibited by Moses only to the Hebrews, "ceased to be permitted and became sinful" to all others.’

The most prominent Jew to oppose slavery was the Baltimore Reform Rabbi, David Einhorn.
Here is what he has to say on the matter:

“The question simply is: Is Slavery a moral evil or not? And it took Dr. Raphall, a Jewish preacher, to concoct the deplorable farce in the name of divine authority, to proclaim the justification, the moral blamelessness of servitude, and to lay down the law to Christian preachers of opposite convictions. The Jew, a descendant of the race that offers daily praises to God for deliverance out of the house of bondage in Egypt, and even today suffers under the yoke of slavery in most places of the old world, crying out to God, undertook to designate slavery as a perfectly sinless institution, sanctioned by God.”

Rabbi Einhorn’s essay has references to tanakh, Talmud, and rishonim in contrast to Rabbi Raphall’s bizarre references to Christian sources. Who is the Orthodox rabbi here, anyway? And

Rabbi Einhorn twists the knife:

“Dr. Raphall's demonstrations from the New Testament appear about as sound as those from the Mosaic Books. But in this sphere we will not compete with the orthodox Rabbi. It may be that Dr. Raphall possesses greater erudition in the Christian Scripture than he does in the Jewish…. Had a Christian clergyman in Europe delivered the Raphall address—the Jewish-orthodox as well as Jewish-reform press would have been set going to call the wrath of heaven and earth upon such falsehoods, to denounce such disgrace, and חלול השם.”

I'm Orthodox, but in this case it was the Reform Rabbi who got this one right. Both Illowy and Einhorn left Baltimore shortly after those words. Illowy went to New Orleans where the Orthodox Jews there approved of his support for slavery. Einhorn fled Baltimore for Philadelphia where his anti-slavery views caused less controversy. The Orthodox Rabbi there, Rabbi Sabato Morais, was also an opponent of slavery although possibly not as outspoken. Einhorn and Morais may have agreed on little else, but on that issue they were both on the correct side of the issue.

A large amount of primary source material from that time has been placed online at


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I certainly agree with you that the Reform rabbis had it right in this case (probably along with several other cases). To me, that illustrates that people are by nature subject to accepting ideas that in other eras are easily and appropriately seen as ludicrous. And the same way many people then couldn't see beyond the mores of their time, many people now that are terribly eager to condemn them similarly cannot see beyond the mores of their own era.

Ironical, in a way.

(And yes, I know that's not a word.)

- Moishe Potemkin

6:03 PM  
Blogger Ari Kinsberg said...

nice post. just a few quibbles:

1) heilprin was definately more well known among american than einhorn.

2) heilprin's father was an orthodox maskil who published anti-reform polemics. but i doubt heilprin himself was orthodox (for example, iirc he accepts biblical criticism in his "historical poetry of the ancient hebrews")

3) raphall may have been correct in "supporting" slavery because the abolitionists were not "good" for the jews. (i have no idea if this was his motive.)

for the attitudes of other rabbis (in america and europe), see korn's "american jewry and the civil war"

11:22 PM  

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