Should Jews take arms against slavery — or not


Exodus 13:17-20:23

Judges 4:4-5:31

Of the day that the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, when Egyptian charioteers drowned, the Torah observes: "On that day God saved Israel from the hand of Egypt" (Exodus 14:30). Until then, our ancestors had not yet escaped from Egypt, not entirely.

A day earlier, when the Egyptian cavalry threatened, the children of Israel had panicked (Ex. 14:9-12). Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra notes that the children of Israel beside the sea far outnumbered the Egyptian military expedition. True, the Egyptian sortie consisted of trained soldiers, but the Israelites had such numerical superiority that they could have contemplated military confrontation. They despaired, according to ibn Ezra, because, accustomed to the life of slaves, they could not imagine attacking their masters (commentary, Ex. 13:14). They still felt themselves under "the hand of Egypt."

Even when all their pursuers had died, the Israelites still longed for slavery whenever the going got tough. Slavery left an indelible mark – a terrible experience, though remembering it apparently has value, since many commandments come reinforced with "remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt" (Deut. 5:15, 15:15, 16:12, 24:22, 24:18).

Since the Torah effectively condemns slavery by showing its impact on our ancestors, you might expect the Torah to prohibit Jews from ever participating in slavery either as slaves or as masters. In fact, the Torah includes commandments regulating slavery, which by implication shows some degree of tolerance toward the institution.

In the time of the Civil War, when America thinkers debated the ethics of abolition of slavery, the most learned rabbis in the country drew contradictory conclusions from the Torah (a debate described in "American Jewry and the Civil War" by Bertram Korn).

Born in Moravia, Bernard Illowy earned rabbinic ordination from the famed Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressberg, later studied in the yeshiva of Padua in Italy, then earned a Ph.D. in languages in Hungary. On Jan. 4, 1861, Ilowy told his Baltimore congregation that "even if religious feelings and philanthropic sentiment bid us disapprove of" slavery, even though, "Moses was not in favor of slavery," still "we have no right to exercise violence against" what the Torah does not forbid. And the Torah nowhere requires "to take forcibly a slave away from his owner."

In Philadelphia, the scholarly Italian-born Rabbi Sabato Morais regularly delivered pro-Union sermons to Congregation Mikve Israel. He described the Emancipation Proclamation as an illustration of President Lincoln's adherence of the rule of Hillel the elder, "to forbear doing unto others what would displease us." (His translation of Talmud Shabbat 31a). Newspapers regularly carried the sermons of Morais, whom the New York Times called "the most eminent Rabbi in this country."

The elections of 1864 unexpectedly returned Lincoln to the presidency. Lincoln promised to pursue the war until the South surrendered, rejoined the Union and abandoned slavery. Morais responded with an approving Thanksgiving Day sermon. However, another election had just then brought a new board to his congregation, which disapproved of the rabbi's politics. It passed a resolution forbidding Morais from giving any lectures or discourses in English without "a particular request made by [the president] in writing." Apparently they did not mind anything that he might say in Italian or Hebrew.

On Feb. 5, 1865, the board received a petition from the members of the congregation, insisting that the rabbi preach on Shabbat and Festivals. The board reluctantly agreed, provided that the sermons have only religious topics, and that the president approve. The rabbi refused these limitations; the board proposed others. The issue came to a conclusion at a congregational meeting two months later, at which the membership defeated all the board resolutions and the rabbi was given permission to speak whenever he chose to do so.

A few days later, Morais eulogized the murdered President Lincoln.