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
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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