On December 14, 1860, the outgoing President of the United States, James Buchanan, called for a national day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, to be observed on January 4, 1861. South Carolina had already seceded from the Union, and with Abraham Lincoln about to ascend to the presidency, it seemed clear that the fragile unity of the United States was nearing collapse. This day of fasting was intended to pray for God's help in staving off the impending calamity.
In observance of this day of fasting, sermons were offered by leading rabbis across the United States. One, which caught the attention of much of the country, was delivered by Rabbi Morris Raphall, the Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun of New York. In the sermon, Raphall expressed his personal distaste for slavery, but said that it is impossible to deny that the Bible supports slavery. He proclaimed: "I stand here as a teacher in Israel; not to place before you my own feelings and opinions, but to propound to you the word of God, the Bible view of slavery. With a due sense of my responsibility, I must state to you the truth and nothing but the truth, however unpalatable or unpopular that truth may be."
This view was echoed by his rabbinic colleague, Rabbi Bernard Illowy. Illowy was a student of the famed Chatam Sofer, and was the preeminent rabbinic scholar in the United States at the time. Illowy also mentioned his own dislike of slavery, but said that it would be “holier than thou” for anyone to oppose it. He wrote:
"Why did not Moses...command the judges in Israel to interfere with the institutions of those nations who lived under their jurisdiction, and make their slaves free, or to take forcibly away a slave from a master as soon as he treads the free soil of their country? …Where was ever a greater philanthropist than Abraham, and why did he not set free the slaves which the king of Egypt made him a present of?"
These sermons circulated widely throughout the United States, with Raphall's sermon making the front page of several major newspapers. But this view of slavery was sharply disputed. Rabbi David Einhorn, of Baltimore, offered a biting and erudite response to Raphall. In Europe, Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch condemned American slavery and wrote about this in their commentaries to the Torah (Malbim, Deuteronomy 24:7, Hirsch, Exodus 12:44).
Yet the question remains: How can we account for the Torah's approval of an institution that is ethically offensive?
There have been several responses to this question in the last century. Perhaps the best one is offered by Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, a brilliant scholar and author who was the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, in his book "L'Nevukhei HaTekufah.”. These responses rest on three points:
● The institution of slavery, as outlined in the Bible, was ethically far superior to the type of slavery practiced by other nations at the time.
● Slavery was only accepted by the Bible as a concession to social reality, because the Torah was given at a time when slavery was universally accepted.
● The true teaching of the Torah is to abolish slavery, and humanity is meant to progress in that direction.
The rights given to slaves in this week's Torah reading were certainly exceptional in their own time, and far exceeded those granted to slaves in the American South. The Torah imposed the death penalty for murdering a slave. Even if the death was the outcome of a disciplinary beating, the master would still get the death penalty if the slave died within 24 hours. A slave goes free if while being beaten by their master, they lose a tooth or any limb. And a slave is given the Sabbath as a day of rest, and their master may not send them out to work. (Rabbi Elchanan Samet has an excellent essay discussing the purpose of the Biblical law of slavery on the Virtual Beit Midrash website.) With its intense regulation of slavery, the Torah shows deep discomfort with that institution.
Rabbi Amiel highlights how the Torah emphasizes the equality of man. The initial creation is of one man alone; the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) explains that this occurred so that no human being can say, "My father is greater than your father." Man is created in the image of God, which means that any disrespect to man is a disrespect to God. Judaism is meant to inculcate the virtues of kindness and generosity, and the cruelty practiced by slave masters is anathema. (Maimonides admonishes the slave master to exceed the legal requirements of the Torah and treat one's slaves with decency and dignity.) And most important is that the foundational story of Judaism is a battle against slavery! Undoubtedly, the value system of the Torah stands in opposition to slavery.
So why allow slavery at all, if it is antithetical to Judaism? Here, it is a question of political expediency. Had the Torah chosen to outlaw slavery, its rules might have been ignored. Instead, it offered a concession to social norms by recognizing what was a universal institution at the time, while also carefully regulating it and diminishing its moral harm.
This idea of an "imperfect law" is not radical. The Talmud makes a similar comment, when it says the law regulating Jewish soldiers who marry a captive woman was a case of "the Torah conceding to man's evil nature." Intense idealism can end up as a social and political failure; it is better to try to accomplish what is doable. Maimonides takes this idea a step further, saying that some laws of the Torah were merely intended as temporary stepping stones, and meant to be supplanted.
This idea is found in other areas of contemporary practice. Polygamy is allowed in the Bible, and yet it has been universally banned in the Jewish community. The Chizkuni notes that the narrative of Adam and Eve indicates that monogamy is the ideal, with the first couple being created as two parts of one whole. Polygamy was a concession to the practices of the time, but that was not meant to last. Monogamy became standard Jewish practice over a thousand years ago.
And so it is with slavery. Rashi (Avodah Zarah 17b, s.v. "avdach") makes a comment that indicates he considered it to be Jewish practice to avoid slavery. This idea should not be controversial; it is a shame that in 1861 there were too many Rabbis who missed this lesson.
A century later, there was a different spirit among American Jews. When it came time to stand up for the civil rights of African Americans, Rabbis Joachim Prinz and Abraham Joshua Heschel played leading roles. In the Orthodox community, the National Council of Young Israel came out in support of the Civil Rights Movement in 1962, followed by the Orthodox Union and the RCA in 1964.
Rabbi Saul Berman has spoken at KJ about his own experiences when he marched in Selma in 1965. On Friday afternoon, he was arrested with a large group of civil rights activists, and held in a police station. On Shabbat morning, they were set to be released. Buses arrived to bring the activists back to the other side of Selma. Rabbi Berman was not going to take the bus; it was Shabbat. One of the marchers heard about this, and spoke to the leaders of the group. In a moving show of solidarity, all of the activists decided to walk with Rabbi Berman, so he would not walk alone.
The Shabbat is a reminder of the Exodus, and the powerful message of human dignity and human freedom it carries. And on that Shabbat in 1965, 250 people walked through the streets of Selma declaring that every human being deserves their own dignity, and that slavery must be banished, now and forever.