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New York’s Pro-Slavery Rabbi

Congregants gathering at the famously liberal B’nai Jeshurun may not know about a dark chapter in its past

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo of B’nai Jeshurun Jono David; pamphlet cover Library of Congress; Raphall portrait from A Century of Judaism in New York by Israel Goldstein [B’nai Jeshurun, 1930])

Next week, thousands of people will crowd into Congregation B’nai Jeshurun at 88th Street in Manhattan for Kol Nidre services. It’s a safe bet that the rabbis at one of the country’s most politically progressive synagogues will sermonize about social justice, the stagnant Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or the upcoming presidential election: After all, this is a congregation that hung an anti-torture banner in the sanctuary during the Bush Administration.

B’nai Jeshurun is justly proud of its liberal pedigree—and a look at the synagogue’s website indicates that it has always been on the right side of history. The synagogue was formed in 1824-25 when a group of Ashkenazi members of Shearith Israel, which had been New York’s only synagogue for nearly 100 years, split off to create a fully egalitarian community by drastically lowering required contributions and instituting an executive committee whose membership rotated every three months. Rabbi Israel Goldstein carried that mantle in the first half of the 20th century, and later the synagogue hosted Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

But missing from this history is the congregation’s first prominent spiritual leader: Rabbi Morris Raphall. A celebrated biblical and rabbinic scholar, during the mid-1800s Raphall was the leading rabbi not only in New York—then the home of a quarter of the nation’s Jews—but in the country. He lectured extensively across the United States and was the only rabbi prior to the Civil War to be invited to make a congressional benediction. So, why has B’nai Jeshurun all but forgotten him?

Perhaps because Raphall was an outspoken proponent of slavery.

I encountered Raphall and his many sermons, lectures, and toasts—he seemed to appear at every religious and fraternal Jewish event—in researching the early history of New York Jewry for a new book. So, I was intrigued with his near disappearance from American Jewish history, and from the history of such an important synagogue. To understand this historical gap, we must return to Jan. 4, 1861, a bitterly cold day in New York City.


That evening, the chill outside only highlighted the contrast with the nation’s sizzling political temperature. South Carolina had already seceded, and six more states were poised to do so in the following weeks. President Buchanan’s efforts at preservation of the Union were weak and unavailing, while President-Elect Lincoln would not budge from his position against the extension of slavery into the American territories. The nation was beginning to unravel.

Into this breach stepped Raphall. Perhaps fearing what national disunion would do to America’s Jewish community, Raphall stood in his sanctuary on that blustery Friday evening and delivered a sermon that would resound throughout the United States. Addressing his congregants on the issue of the Bible and slavery, Raphall stated that while he was no “friend to slavery in the abstract” and even less “to the practical working of slavery,” his personal feelings were not germane. Slavery, he argued, was the oldest form of social relationship aside from family ties.

Raphall’s position on the subject wasn’t surprising in the context of his overall conservative bent. He opposed the nascent women’s rights movement, publicly encouraging women to “meekly rest content with [the] humble lot” that God chose for them. Though a follower of Moses Mendelssohn’s belief in the Jewish enlightenment—a doctrine that allowed Jews to participate in modern society within a traditional framework—he vehemently preached that the Reform movement, which in the early 1850s was headquartered in New York, posed a mortal threat to the survival of Judaism.

And his politics very likely reflected the views of his congregants. From its modest beginnings as a congregation of a few hundred Jews, the congregation grew larger and wealthier over time. By 1850 it had moved to Greene Street in the fashionable Washington Square neighborhood, where its members raised $50,000 (churches in that day generally cost less than $20,000 to build) to erect a sanctuary with a 56-foot-high dome featuring windows with ornamented paintings. By 1861, a community founded under the aura of Jewish Jeffersonian republicanism had been replaced by an affluent, conservative membership—one that was able to pay Raphall the princely salary of $2,000 per year.

It was in that domed sanctuary that Raphall delivered his notorious sermon. After his opening disclaimer, he turned to Jewish scripture, declaring that the biblical verse where God commands an owner to give Sabbath rest to “thy male slave and thy female slave,” clearly condoned slavery. He also stated that the Bible differentiated between Hebrew bondsmen, whose servitude was limited, and non-Hebrew slaves and their progeny, who were to remain bondsmen during the lives of their master, his children, and his children’s children. Non-Hebrew slaves, he argued, could be compared to black slaves in the American South. Hebraic law permitted masters to discipline their slaves, short of murder or disfigurement, and required that a slave absconding from South Carolina to New York must be a restored to his owner as would a slave who had fled from Dan to Beersheba. The Jewish law that forbade Hebrews from returning an escaped slave, by Raphall’s lights, only referred to slaves fleeing from foreign lands.

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Interesting. I simply would call this Rabbi a racist today.Seems you one can find any answer thy wish if we “interpret” the bible. The 10 commandments is really all we need to follow to be a good jew. The rest is dressing.
And when are we jews going to accept that given where we originally came from we were people of color?

Pam Green says:

Did we really need this right now? Couldn’t this really negative piece have waited for a less volatile moment? Y’know, a moment when anti-Jewish fervor was back to its normal unbearable levels? Or, if the purpose of this article is to promote Rock’s book, couldn’t another chapter have been highlighted instead? I’m sure there must have been some positive, uplifting contribution made by New York Jews to America from 1654 to 1865.

Rabbi Raphall’s opinions and sermons at B’nai Jeshurun form part of a chapter in the wonderful novel “All Other Nights” by Dara Horn. The book focuses on the story of Jacob Rappaport, a fictional spy during the Civil War — an assignment he carries out easily because of his extended family on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

Horn’s other novels, “In the Image” and “The World to Come,” both also based on Jewish lives and Jewish ideas, are also highly recommended.

sydney pfeiffer says:

no, we don’t need this right now (or any time). If the Forward would be a historical academic publication, maybe. The point of the article is to show that the early days of KJ had certain political/religious leanings that may be distasteful in today’s context but were a reflection of the congregants who were leaning to the Democratic Party.
If you read the article carefully, it would appear that Republicans in NY were anti-slavery. Curious that it was also reflected in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War.
In the context of the High Holidays, it shows how people can change their ways and way of thinking–it’s called Teshuva. To remind people of their prior indiscretions at this time of year is wrong.

sharinite says:

Pray tell, rebbi8, what “people of color” do you refer to? As to the 10 commandments, they were the base rules by which to live if you were a Jew in those ancient days…then along comes Jesus and by sacrificing his life, freed us all to live as human beings…the “human” is the part that get sticky for so many in this world. It is on me how my life affects others not some old words in a “bible” written for one group of people struggling to become “human in the fullness of that term”…not creating idols of gold and worshiping same as Moses was at the top of the mountain! Why would anyone think that just because you have a certain belief, whatever it may be, all must adhere? That is Islam, that is progressivism, that is totalitarianism, socialism….all of which have been tried over and over again throughout history and failed. It is the nature of man to try and control those around him for “their own good”….And, Pam Green, what planet to you live on? Anti-Jewish fervor is the same as it always has been, just not as widely reported by that media that 98% progressive, by their own admission!!

What has your jesus have to do with this? Your comments on progressivism, socialism, etc. is odd and incorrect. You seem happy to tie multiple issues in a response, but it does not clarify your point.

sleeprunning says:

He was human. Understandable. As a spokesman for elite views he
merely articulated the natural human post hoc ideology/justification
about hierarchy as based on very superficial physical characteristics.
The trope is: Those lower on the social ladder deserve to be their
because of easily perceived differences.

This is human nature.
Of course, all minorities are subject to it. There are only so many
ways to dehumanize and demonize the “others.” Why should people of any
ethnic clan be immune? “Identification with the aggressor” research
suggest victims may be more likely to adopt these strategies.

sleeprunning says:

Why is the truth negative? Isn’t that the scam of evil doers everywhere?

sleeprunning says:

Well the Old Testament does endorse all sorts of horrific and bloody behaviors, for the worship of Yahweh — as was typical at the time. Why deny?

Joel A. Levitt says:

This seemingly not-so-significant piece of history carries an important lesson. We have long evolved past Rabbi Raphall and his contemporaries, and keeping Jewish evolution going is critical. It follows that we should keep authoritarian institutions that are doctrinally opposed to change in check.

Pam Green says:

So, let me see if I understand your position. You say that Jesus came along to free “us” from “some old words in a ‘bible’” so that “we” can live as human beings. Then you say “it’s on me”, trusting yourself as a moral authority above the Ten Commandments. What planet do YOU live on, sharinite? (Or should I say, sharia-nite?) Obviously, not the planet that codified most of the Commandments into secular law because they were wholesome and good. But according to you, being forced to obey American laws is equivalent to life under Islam-totalitarianism-socialism! Finally, you say that anti-Semitism is as bad as ever but we don’t know it because it’s not reported by progressives! Have you checked out any ‘progressive’ websites? They’re the worst offenders! Maybe you should try to resolve some of the inconsistencies in your thinking.

Pam Green says:

I didn’t know that “to remind people of their prior indiscretions at this time of year is wrong.” So, thank you for that.

The problem is, how many anti-Semites will read the article carefully?

Pam Green says:


Bent Curini says:

All Obama voters, the negroes, the fake Jews should be re-enslaved or sent to Liberia. They are criminals, destroying the USA and they should pay the price. There is nothing wrong with slavery as long as the slaves are held under Torah law practice. The Africans were offered a way out of their starving broken-up societies and they took it. It would have been better had the South won and slaves gradually liberated over generations as was their plan. Now we have a peanut-brained mulatto shxitting all over the white house and country…

TomSolomon says:

Somehow B-J’s ability to re-write, in this case, exclude, a certain, untoward part of their history is not surprising. A liberal tendency is to ignore an inconvenient truth.

sydney pfeiffer says:


Pam Green says:

Anyone who disagrees with Obama’s policies is accused by Obama followers of being a racist. Now you come along to prove their point and give them ammunition. You’re probably an Obama voter in disguise.

Pam Green says:

Care to be specific?

Adam Levado says:

Doesn’t anyone out there read the New York Times? Adam Goodheart wrote an excellent article entitled The Rabbi and the Rebellion, which was about Rabbi Raphall and which appeared in the Disunion series in the Times on March 7, 2011. The article recounted the rabbi’s positions and the various reactions to them.

Don’t know if he is an Obama voter in disguise, but he certainly is a troll.

We were Swarthy Middle-Easterers. Like Arabs. It is true that I know several Arabs who ran afoul of Jim Crow, but I do not think they actually count as People of Color, under most definitions.

He’s a Christian Missionary. He doesn’t have to make sense.

This is not a “negative piece.” It is an article about one man and his opinions. And this is part of American history. I’d much rather have an honest reckoning of our past as Jews and as Americans than the kind of intellectually dishonest hagiography which too often passes for Jewish history. As for how this will be used by anti-Semites, I’m more worried about the malfeasance of my contemporary co-religionists than I am about rabbinic speeches from a century and a half ago.

Pam Green says:

Let’s see…malfeasance is illegal activity on the part of a public official. That’s a pretty serious accusation to be throwing around about unnamed Jews. What exactly are you referring to, and who?

As for “intellectually dishonest hagiography that too often passes for Jewish history”, that’s another grandiose statement without substantiation. Care to reveal what exactly you’re complaining about?

If you don’t happen to care how selectively history is used to skew perceptions and current events, then you don’t care about history. As for Jewish American history, I think Jews have contributed quite a lot to this country, don’t you?

Actually, malfeasance is not necessarily by a public official, it is simply misconduct, wrongdoing, bad behavior, and so on. I think there is no shortage of contemporary malfeasance on the part of Jews. You want specifics, we can start with Bernie Madoff and work our way down. As someone who doesn’t want to give fuel to the antisemitn, I presume you don’t really want an exhaustive list of Jews who engage in wrongdoing. If you do, I will provide one, or simply provide you with a link to assorted antisemitic websites that do it on a regular basis (for that matter, I could simply provide you with links to the NYC newspapers, since, given the population, there’s not a week that goes by without some member of the tribe doing something malfeasant)

As for the intellectually dishonest hagiography, as someone who’s been teaching Jewish history at Jewish high schools in NYC for fourteen years and who has a Master’s in Jewish History, I think I know something or another about historiography, and I certainly care about about history. Take a trip to a Jewish history museum (If you want specifics, you can try the one in Philly or the the one on the Upper East Side), and see if there’s anything truly thought provoking, or if its simply a celebration of Jewish accomplishments. Of course Jews have contributed quite a lot to this country, and I don’t think anything I said suggested otherwise. But that’s what an “honest reckoning” is all about, examining both the bad and the good.

Consider, for example, the question of Jews and African-Americans. the customary Jewish historiography on this is a celebratory one, touting Jews as allies in the quest for civil rights. And certainly, that’s part of the story, but only part of it. So is Morris Raphall. And so is the story of Jews in the original KKK (like Bernard Baruch’s father), and so are all the Southern Jews who were quite satisfied with Jim Crow, and so were Northern Jews who were happy to protest segregation in the South, but less thrilled with integration in their own neighborhood. That too is part of the story of the Jews in America.

This should not be a controversial position. What kind of Jewish history would it be if we learned that Jews made movies, but not of the stories–often unpleasant–of how those Jewish moguls managed to create the film industry? What if we learned about the labor movement, without any reference to the Jewish factory owners whose abuses those heroes of labor were protesting. This is absurd. Sam Zemurray, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, ran the United Fruit Company–how should he be remembered, as “Sam Zemurray, banana peddler?”

Procopius, the Byzantine historian, wrote two histories of his patron, Justinian. the official one hailed him as a saint, the “Secret History” reviled him as a monster. Neither one is an accurate portrayal, because neither one has any balance or nuance. It is because I care about history that I believe it should strive to tell the whole story, and not merely the parts that I find ideologically convenient.

If after over 350 years in North America, the Jewish place in America is so fragile that we can’t handle the story of Morris Raphall, then I’d say we haven’t contributed as much to this country as you think.

And g’mar kasiva v’chasima tova (you should be written and inscribed for a good year, in case you don’t know).

Pam Green says:

Thank you. I could use a good year! And thanks for explaining your impressive background. I see your point, and frankly agree that there are a lot of Jews in America who fit the negative stereotypes and, by so doing, give ammunition to anti-Semites. But your conclusion that “If after over 350 years the Jewish place in America is so fragile…then we haven’t contributed as much…as you think” isn’t logical. Our place is fragile, everywhere! It always has been! And the solution has nothing to do with contributing more, or, as a group, leading morally upstanding lives. What didn’t the Jews contribute to Spain, for centuries, before the Inquisition? Germany, ditto. So, to see the same irrational hatred growing in America is extremely alarming.


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New York’s Pro-Slavery Rabbi

Congregants gathering at the famously liberal B’nai Jeshurun may not know about a dark chapter in its past