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
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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