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Where Jews Stood on Slavery

The Civil War divded more than just North and South

Marc Tracy
March 09, 2011
Rabbi David Einhorn.(Wikipedia)
Rabbi David Einhorn.(Wikipedia)

Next month will see the 150th anniversary of the bombing of Fort Sumter, and the following four years will have many commemorations besides. As part of its DISUNION series, which essentially blogs the Civil War 150 years to the days afters its events occur, the New York Times‘s Opinionator blog published a fascinating entry on Jewish response to secession.

Many American Jews found themselves between a rock and several hard places: In the north, they were Unionist; the Torah arguably sanctions slavery; southern Jews such as future Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin were staunch members of the slave-holding elite; and, to top it all off, northern abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison were mainly evangelical Christians who regularly trafficked in standard anti-Semitism. Take, for example, one anti-slavery Ohio senator, who called Benjamin “an Israelite with Egyptian principles.”

And yet, didn’t the Jew-baiting Ohioan also have a point?

Among Jews then, the most influential voice was Rabbi Morris J. Raphall of lower Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun (the ancestor of the modern-day non-denominational synagogue on the Upper West Side), who argued that the story of Noah’s son Ham provided license for slavery, but that Southern slavery—which treated the slaves not as humans but as things, he argued—was, shall we say, unkosher. Jewish scholar Michael Heilprin countered by arguing that the crucial word in Ham’s story is properly translated not as “slave” but as “servant,” which would make all slavery, Southern or otherwise, verboten.

The true hero, however, is the Bavaria-born Reform Baltimore rabbi David Einhorn. “Jews for thousands of years consciously or unconsciously were fighting for freedom of conscience,” he wrote. Raphall’s arguments were “deplorable;” slavery was “immoral and must be abolished.”

Incidentally, Jonathan Sarna is at work on a Nextbook Press book about then-General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous expulsion of the Jews from the war zone.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.