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.
Responding to Reverend Henry Ward Beecher’s assertion that the Bible actually opposed slavery, Raphall proclaimed: “How dare you, in the face and sanction and protection afforded to slave property in the Ten Commandments, how dare you denounce slaveholding as a sin?” What right “do you have to insult and exasperate thousands of God-fearing, law-abiding citizens,” he said, equating a citizen of the South with the status of a murderer. While he cautioned southerners to guard their bondsman from sexual aggression, hunger, and excess demands of their labor, Raphall emphatically contended that the biblical sanction of slave property remained relevant in 1861.
His words created a sensation. Three New York newspapers printed the complete sermon, and the New York Times published lengthy excerpts. The Rev. Hugh Brown of East Salem, N.Y., observed, “the impressions on the minds of some is, that he must know the Hebrew of the Bible so profoundly that it is absolutely impossible for him to be mistaken on the subject of slavery; and that what he affirms respecting it is as true almost as the world of God itself.”
Two weeks later, Raphall gave his sermon as a speech before members of the Democratic Party and the pro-South American Society for Promotion of National Unity. In attendance were advocates of national reconciliation in harmony with southern demands, including the banker August Belmont, and prominent pro-slavery Jews from Richmond, Montgomery, and New Orleans. The artist and inventor Samuel B. Morse presided. Dr. Bernard Ilowy of Baltimore, highly respected for his biblical expertise, endorsed Raphall’s position. Rabbi Simon Tuska of Mobile, Ala., stated that his sermon contained “the most forceful arguments in justification of the slavery of the African race.” Southern sympathizers dispersed the discourse throughout the nation.
In his opinion on Lincoln and the issue of slavery, Raphall was not alone among Jewish leaders. Diplomat, playwright, and journalist Mordecai M. Noah, the “most important Jew in America” during the 1830s and 1840s, according to his biographer Jonathan D. Sarna, wrote that blacks were “anatomically and mentally inferior to the white” and could find contentment only in servile labor. Noah dreaded the thought of a slave revolt and viciously condemned abolitionists. Emmanuel Hart, the first Jewish congressman from New York in the 1850s, was a leader of the conservative “hunker” Democrats, a faction that opposed any agitation against slavery and worked to uphold the interests of the slaveholding states. Editor Robert Lyon of the Asmonean, a self-described progressive who hired Reform Judaism’s leading proponent, Isaac Mayer Wise, as his literary editor, endorsed James Buchanan in 1856 as a “progressionist,” defended the Fugitive Slave Act, and called abolitionists “the foul Fiend which stalks among us.” Lyon included among the abolitionists both “Frederick Douglass the nigger,” and a “heterogeneous stew of fanatics and imposters.” The notion of black suffrage was, he said, “preposterous.”
Still, many in the North were outraged by Raphall’s view. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison published a poem that asked Raphall “Has thou forgot the sorrows of thy race.” Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, recommended that Raphall endure “twenty-four hours of the Spanish inquisition” to “materially open his eyes” to the realities of slavery. And a significant minority of Republican Jews hazarded their careers to take on the Democratic establishment. Many, though not all, were centered at Manhattan’s Reform synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, whose beliefs no longer required either a literalist or rabbinic interpretation of Jewish scripture. Michael Heilprin of Brooklyn, a biblical scholar versed in the new biblical criticism central to the Reform movement, expressed regret that Raphall’s “sacrilegious” ideas had not vanished among the “scum.” Heilprin termed the morals of slavery’s defenders “depraved” and the minds of their “mammon–worshiping followers … debauched.” Citing German Jewish scholars, Heilprin challenged the literalist, ahistorical approach to Jewish texts behind Raphall’s reasoning. Raphall, he contended, misconstrued even the biblical word for servant. (The word Raphall translated as slave also designated court officers and royal ambassadors.) B’nai Jeshurun’s rabbi also overlooked Moses’ words to the Israelites: “Forget not that ye have been slaves in Egypt.”
But Heilprin represented a minority outlook. Raphall’s sermon reflected the interests of a majority of New York Jewry’s interests: New York’s booming economy, the cause of the recent wealth of many of the city’s most prominent Jewish citizens, including many members of B’nai Jeshurun, was tied to the southern trade; a civil war threatened personal catastrophe. Moreover, many Jews were in the garment industry, a trade directly attached to the South. Jews also resented the seemingly ever-present Protestant missionaries bent on converting the Jews. Strong-willed Protestantism and the Republican Party were seen as deeply conjoined. Furthermore, Jews feared that their political liberty, greater in America than any other part of the world, would be threatened if the Constitution, which they identified with the Union, were to fall. Compromise was the better solution, even if it meant giving in to Southern demands. Thus, along with the rest of New York City, Jews in 1860 voted more than two to one against Lincoln and the Republican Party.
After war broke out, Raphall strongly condemned rebellious southerners as committing “a sin before God.” He met personally with Lincoln, and his son enlisted and was badly wounded. However, as hostilities continued, month after month and then year after year, Raphall’s early patriotism turned to blame for both sides: “Demagogues, fanatics and a party press” of North and South had, he said, mired the republic in “the third year of a destructive but needless sectional war which has armed brother against brother and consigned hundreds of thousands to an untimely grave.”
There was no great meaning to the conflict, according to Raphall, only a tragic failure of American politics. This was far different the viewpoint of Dr. Samuel Adler of Temple Emanu-El, who considered the combat not a failure of the Constitution, but an opportunity to fashion a grand transformation, to purge the nation of its greatest sin, to “discover the root of our national malady [slavery] and, having found it, tear it from the body.” In crushing the “unholy rebellion,” Jews shared in the responsibility to advocate “the eternal immutable principles of liberty and the inalienable rights of man.”
Following the death of Rabbi Raphall in 1868, B’nai Jeshurun began a move toward reform, joining the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and its politics began to shift. Today, it is unaffiliated, and it is famously charitable, having helped the mass immigration of hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews.
Morris Raphall clearly does not represent B’nai Jeshurun in the 20th or 21st century. His views on race and women’s place in society are the opposite of those embraced by today’s members. Yet in omitting from its website its first eminent leader, a rabbi-scholar who arguably became the nation’s most prominent Jew of the 1850s and 1860s, B’nai Jeshurun gives an incomplete picture of both its evolution—and that of the American Jewish community as a whole.
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