Disunion – A Jewish View of American Slavery

Yesterday’s Disunion in the New York Times has a noteworthy essay by Adam Goodheart on Morris J. Raphall, rabbi of New York City’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue during the Civil War era. In January 1861, Raphall had delivered and published an address entitled, “The Bible View of Slavery.” In it, Raphall reluctantly concluded the Torah justified slavery. Goodheart writes:

The learned sage delved deep into the Hebrew Bible – citing the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Job and even Exodus – before concluding that “slaveholding is not only recognized and sanctioned as an integral part of the social structure … [but] the property in slaves is placed under the same protection as any other species of lawful property.”

To be fair to Morris J. Raphall, while he justified slavery scripturally he affirmed the humanity of the slave. Goodheart relates:

To be sure, Raphall also found reason to chastise American slaveholders. According to the Bible, he said, “the slave is a person in whom the dignity of human nature is to be respected; he has rights. Whereas, the heathen view of slavery which prevailed at Rome, and which, I am sorry to say, is adopted in the South, reduces the slave to a thing, and a thing can have no rights.” Still, in the end, abolitionists who tried to meddle with slavery were opposing the Lord’s will.

Raphall’s address might have gone unnoticed but for the fact he was in 1861 one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in the United States. Morris J. Raphall had been the first non-Christian to give an opening prayer in the U.S. Congress. Not surprisingly then, he attracted criticism in the North with his defense of slavery. Goodheart explains:

Rabbi Raphall’s sermon . . . sparked a firestorm of controversy among Jews and Christians alike. Another Jewish scholar, Michael Heilprin, weighed in quickly with an erudite discourse attacking Raphall’s justification of slaveholding. The Hebrew word that Raphall had translated as “slave” actually meant “servant,” he said. And Heilprin noted that the servants in the Bible, far from being descendants of Ham, were racially similar to the Jews themselves – and therefore, if anything, God sanctioned “Semitic (not African) Slavery.”

Many critics – especially non-Jewish ones – pointed out the hypocrisy of a rabbi whose forebears had been slaves in Egypt but who endorsed slavery in America.

No doubt in the South, Christian clergymen like Joseph R. Wilson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Georgia, and Benjamin Morgan Palmer, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, who had and would deliver pro-slavery sermons, would have looked more favorably upon Raphall’s message. It also might have prompted the attack on using the Old Testament to defend slavery made the following month by Joseph Eldridge, pastor of the Congregational Church in Norfolk, Connecticut. In any case, in the highly religious America of the early 186os, as sectional conflict escalated during the secession winter, it is not surprising to see leaders of the faithful marshaling scripture for and against the institution at the heart of the disagreement.

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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