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Michael Heilprin's Anti-Slavery Editorial


The Rev. Rabbi Raphall, on the 4th of this month, preached a sermon on Slavery and the Bible, "having been requested, by prominent citizens of other denominations, that he should on that day examine the Bible view of Slavery, as the religious mind of the country requires to be enlightened on this subject." I have perused it, and find that the Rabbi arrives at the conclusion that Slavery is not sinful in the eyes of the God of Israel, the God of Moses and the Prophets. It is true, he is "no friend to Slavery in the abstract, and still less friendly to the practical working of Slavery." He is "sorry to find that" he is "delivering a pro-Slavery discourse." He distinguishes between Slavery as practised by the Hebrews, which was "confined within certain limits," and according to which a "slave was a person in whom the dignity of human nature was to be respected," and "who had rights," and the heathen system of Slavery, "which," he is "sorry to say, is adopted in the South," "which reduces the slave to a thing," and makes him a prey to "two of the worst passions of human nature, lust and cruelty." Still, "after humbly praying to the Father of Truth and of Mercy," he regards it as his duty to proclaim from the pulpit that it is a sinto preach against Slavery in the South! I had read similar nonsense hundreds of times before; I knew that the Father of Truth and Mercy was daily invoked in hundreds of pulpits in this country for a Divine sanction of falsehood and barbarism; still, being a Jew myself, I felt exceedingly humbled, I may say outraged, by the sacrilegious words of the Rabbi. Have we not had enough of the "reproach of Egypt?" Must the stigma of Egyptian principles be fastened on the people of Israel by Israelitish lips themselves? Shall the enlightened and humane of this country ask each other, "Are these the people of God, who have come from his land?" I hoped, however, that, amid the flood of scum that is now turned up by the turbulent waves of this stormy time, the words of the Rabbi would soon disappear, like so many other bubbles, and the blasphemous teachings of a synagogue find no longer echoes than those of Christian Churches. But I am grievously mistaken. Day after day brings hosannahs to the Hebrew defamer of the law of his nation; and his words are trumpeted through the land as if he were the messenger of a new salvation. So depraved is the moral sense of our Pro-Slavery demagogues, so debauched the mind of their mammon-worshiping followers, so dense the Egyptian darkness which covers their horizon, that, all other false lights being exhausted, a spark of Hebrew Pro-Slavery rhetoric is hailed as a new lightning from Sinai, as a new light from Zion, sent to guide the people of the United States safely through the dark tempests that threaten to destroy their ship of State. Down with conscience, humanity, reason, experience! just listen to the angelic Hebrew sounds of the God-sent Rabbi! He has scrutinized the Hebrew Scriptures and their commentaries, the Mishna, the Gemara, the mediaeval Rabbis, perhaps also the Cabalists. If he has not discovered truth, nobody will. And what a stupendous knowledge of profane history, from antediluvian times down to the day when the Rev. H. W. Beecher last preached in Plymouth Church! All this, I trust, will convert few rational Jews or Christians to the infamous doctrines of Slavery, but, on the other hand, it may induce many people to believe that the God of the Jews was or, is, after all, a God of Slavery. Allow me, therefore, to show both Christian and Jewish readers of The Tribune the real value of the Rabbi's biblical scholarship and, if space permits, also of his logic. "Because of Zion I will not be silent."

Of course, he commences with Noah, and tells us how it came that that man, who first planted a grapevine, &c., &c., was acquainted with the condition of an ‘ebed (or ngebed, as the Rabbi spells it), which he translates by "slave," and not like the English version, by "servant," and arrives "at the conclusion that, next to the domestic relation of husband and wife, parents and children, the oldest relation of society with which we are acquainted is that of master and slave." A fine discovery, which must have been charming to the ears of the Southern part of his hearers! The peculiar domestic institution almost as old as the fratricide of Cain, and certainly as old as the time when the earth was full of violence, and the Lord, repenting that he had made man, determined to destroy him from the face of the earth (Gen. vi.) I Thus biblical criticism, a blessed instrument in the hands of a competent scholar, traces everything to its origin, and naturally links together the brother of Abel with the late Preston S. Brooks, Lamech with Rhett, and perhaps even sister Carolina's going out of the Union, with mother Eve's going out of Paradise! Who the serpent was, has long long been discussed. It remains only to be proved that the tree of knowledge was the first full grown palmetto.

But let us go back to Noah, whose utterances, after having tasted the juice of the vine, are believed to contain the true solution of the great problem now before the statesmen and people of America. Now, by my Jewish brethren, I am sorry to say, the first planter of the grape vine has never been regarded as a saint, and distinguished Rabbis have been bold enough to explain the word bedorothav (in his generation), which is attached to the enumeration of his virtues, to his disparagement, meaning that he was eminently pious only as compared with others at a time when the earth was all corrupt, full of violence, and deserving of destruction. Our learned Rabbi knows this well enough, but he prefers to canonize Noah because of his curse on Ham, and he also prefers, the word "slave" as translation of the Hebrew ‘ebed, which Noah used on that occasion, to the "servant" of the English version. Our people's appreciation of Noah's personal merits, of course, can have but little historical or practical value, but the word ‘ebed is a point upon which the information of a Hebrew is of decisive importance.

Now, being a Hebrew myself, and pretending to an equal knowledge of the beautiful tongue of my ancestors with the Rev. gentleman, I must tell you, statesmen of these United States, that if you undertake to reconstruct the shattered Constitution of your Great Republic on the basis of the learned Rabbi's translation of that word, you will find yourselves woefully mistaken. I doubt if there be one Jewish authority in favor of the Rabbi's preference, but certainly for everyone there are ten against him. Moses Mendelssohn in his celebrated German translation of the Pentateuch has Knecht (servant), and not Sklave; Dr. Zunz's German Bible, the most favorably received Jewish version of our age, has Knecht! Rabbi Raphall prefers the "meanest of slaves" for 'ebed 'abadim to "the servant of servants" of the English version; Mendelssohn renders it: ein Knecht wie alle Knechte, and Zunz's Bible: ein Knecht der Knechte! Now let me also tell the same gentlemen and all others concerned, challenging a refutation, that the word is used in so many places and with so manifold meanings in the Hebrew Scriptures, that it would certainly be no less a task to make the great lights of biblical criticism and theology agree upon a harmonious translation of it in all passages, than to bring about a similar harmony regarding the construction of the United States Constitution in all its parts, between Senators Seward and Bigler, Wade and Iverson, Summer and Davis, Wilson and Toombs, &c. The word which is believed to bear freedom and slavery, peace and civil war, union and disruption in its mysterious significance, the Hebrew 'ebed (pl. 'abadim, spelled by Rabbi Raphall ngabadim), a derivative of the verb 'abod, which signifies to work, to toil, to cultivate, to serve, to administer, to officiate, to worship, &c., is used not only of servants, subjects, serfs, bondsmen, slaves, hirelings, and soldiers, but also of officers of the court (those of Pharaoh, for instance), of satraps (those of the great King of Assyria), of royal ambassadors (that of David to the Court of Ammon), of worshipers, messengers, and other instruments of the Divinity, including patriarchs, prophets, kings, and nations. Abraham is called the 'ebed of God; so are Moses, job, Isaiah, Cyrus, and Jacob or Israel, as a nation! 'Abadai kannebiim is frequently used of the prophets collectively. Now for Noah's blessings and curse.

The Rabbi tells us sundry things about Shem and Japheth, destined to strengthen the belief of his hearers in prophecy, which I may be allowed to pass by without scrutiny (observing by the by, that the only interesting part, that concerning the Arabs, is taken from the Hebrew writings of the late Italian scholar Reggio), our principal object here being the third son of Noah, the cursed one, the darling of Pro-Slavery theologians, Ham, the negro in the Bible! "There are three predictions," says our Rabbi, "which seem intended for all times, and accordingly remain in force to this present day. The first of these is the doom of Ham's descendants, the African race, pronounced upward of four thousand years ago." A few words, but full of falsehood, nonsense, and blasphemy!

The doom of the descendants of Ham, of the Hamites, in the predictions? Where? Ham's fourth son, Canaan, alone is mentioned. Where is the slightest authority for the doom of his other sons, or his race? Noah, awakening from his drunkenness, curses, in punishment of an insult, a son of the offender, and a race is to be "doomed for all times!" Doomed by whom, "preacher in Israel?" By the God whom you teach our people to worship, the God of Mercy, whom our lawgiver proclaims to extend his rewards to the thousandth generation, and his punishment of crimes only to the fourth? Doomed to be punished for the crime of their antediluvian progenitor for all times by the rod of man, whom our law, the law of Moses, prohibits from inflicting any punishment on a son for the crime even of a father? And all this uttered by a Jew whose very race was but of late generally believed to be cursed forever for one ancient crime! And what inspires your blasphemous assertions? Teacher in Israel, is it the trivial, vulgar notion of your Pro-Slavery patrons, or the text of the Scriptures? Open your book! Where is there a word confirming your absurdities? Noah cursed, but did God? History shows it, you say. Compare, Ham, the African race, and our negro! What a strange mixture! Where is the identity? South Carolina and Dahomey, Alabama and Timbuctoo, have more features of resemblance than the biblical Hamites and your negroes.

Ham, the "meanest of slaves" in biblical history? No, preacher in Israel; on the contrary, the conquering race par excellence! Whom do you find among the descendants of Ham in Genesis (x.)? There is Cush, or the Ethiopians, with their Meroe, which by many distinguished scholars is still believed to have been the cradle of all civilization this side of India. There is Misraim, or the Egyptians (the Ham proper of the Scriptures), of whose wisdom and power the Scriptures are full, the teachers of Chaldea and Greece, the builders of the most stupendous works of antiquity, the enslavers of our Semitic ancestors, the conquerors at many times of Western Asia, the circumnavigators of Africa. There is Nimrod, the founder of Babylon, the learned and profligate mistress of the Asian world, whose iron rod, so long endured by our Semitic ancestors, appears broken only on the last pages of our Scriptural history. There is Ashur, or the Assyrians of Nineveh, the powerful rival of the city on the Euphrates, whose conquering sword scattered over the world and nationally destroyed ten of the twelve tribes of Semitic Israel. There is Sheba, or the Sabaeans, the masters of the gold and spice region of Arabia Felix, whose queen came to Jerusalem to vie in wisdom with our King Solomon. There is Caphtor, supposed by the best critics to mean the Cretans, whose Minos was as renowned for power as for wisdom and justice, the constructors of the Cnossian labyrinth, the masters of the Grecian seas, to whom the city of Minerva was tributary. There are the Philistines, who so long disputed with our Semitic ancestors the possession of the land which the Greeks finally named after them. There is Sidon, and other Phoenician tribes, whose glorious cities and unrivaled commerce, over sea and land, with all the nations of the ancient globe, are described in such glowing words by our prophet Ezekiel. There are Dedan and Raama, Seba, and Havilah, tribes, like Sheba, settled on the shores of the Arabian seas, and rich by their traffic in gold, spices, and other precious things with the equally Hamitic Tyre (Ezekiel xxvii.). There are the Ludim and other Libyans, masters of the northern margins of Africa, but of Caucasian race. There are some few others, of whom we must say with Josephus (Ant. Book 1, Chap. 6): "We know nothing of them beside their names," and among whom I allow you, learned Rabbi, to look for your negro. But where is the Hamites' doom to be the "meanest of slaves" confirmed in biblical history? King Solomon married Hamite women (Egyptian, Sidonian, &c.). Other kings of Israel did the same. But they were wicked, you say. Our lawgiver, Moses himself, married a Hamite (Cushite) woman (Num. xii.), and his brother and sister, who gainsayed it, were reprimanded for so doing. The cursed son of Ham, Canaan, had nothing to do with the African race. The ethnological chapter of Genesis (x.) fixes the boundaries of the abode of his descendants, which did not extend beyond the limits of Syria, and even hardly beyond those of Palestine.

The same historical accuracy is evinced by our Rabbi in regard to later periods. In one sweeping passage he makes "Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job"—"the men with whom the Almighty communed, with whose names he emphatically connects his most holy name"—all slaveholders! Teacher in Israel, speaking thus before the descendants of those men, in a temple dedicated to that God, on a day of prayer and humiliation destined to avert the horrors of a civil war from this once glorious Republic, but now threatened to become reputed like the United States of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboim, under the dictates of a slave-breeding, slave-trading, slave-hunting faction—"does it not strike you that you are guilty of something very little short of blasphemy?" And of what absurdity I Peaceable, unwarlike, nomadic patriarchs, "migrating from people to people, and from land to land," with their wives, children, and Rocks, and a few attendants, mostly through halfsettled regions, and beyond the borders of other societies, in order to escape the contagion of heathen iniquities, continually surrounded by dangers and enemies, unable to defend the honor here of a wife, there of a child, robbed here of a well, and there concluding a treaty under oath about another-are represented to have been slaveholders! How did they guard their slaves, wise Rabbi, on their grazing places between Haran and the River of Egypt, in the valley of the lower or upper Jordan, in the surroundings of Hebron, Shechem, Gomorrah, or Gerar? Had they concluded anti-fugitive slave treaties with the Hittites, Amorites, and other Hamites of Canaan, with the roving and slave-trading Midianites, or with the strictly law-observing magistrates of Sodom? just think of Abraham hastening with his trained men to the rescue of his friends from the invasion of the Kings of Elam, Shinar, &c., and leaving his Sarah and Hagar (by the by, also a Hamitic woman) under the protection of his slaves! Or that younger slaveholder, Jacob, stealing away from the regulation of his father-in-law, Laban, with his wives, children, flocks, and slaves! Did the slaves carry the children, or the children guard the slaves, on their flight from Haran in Mesopotamia, across the Euphrates, to that hill in Gilead, where they erected a monument? just imagine the Hon. Robert Toombs running away with his chattels before the vengeance of a reactionary mob in the Republic of Georgia, and first breathing freely when calling the roll of his slaves on Bunker Hill, at the foot of the monument! And while speaking of that monument which Jacob called Gal'ed, could not the learned Rabbi tell us who were the "brethren" of that patriarch, who gathered stones for him (Gen. 31:46) ? "Brethren?" Yes, ehav, "his brethren," and he had but one brother, who was absent. "Brethren," Rabbi, is another term for the 'abadim of Jacob! And "the eldest of his house (zekan betho), who ruled over all he had," is another designation of an 'ebed of Abraham (Gen. xxiv., 2). Whether acquired by persuasion, according to the explanation of the word 'asu (Gen. xii., 5) by the Rabbis, or hired (sakhir) as Jacob was by Laban, or bought (miknath kesef), either from themselves, or from their parents, as wives were at that time, in order to make the mutual agreement morally more binding, the attendants and servants of the patriarchs, whom our Rabbi persists in calling slaves, were but their voluntary followers, their pupils and friends, enjoying all the privileges of free persons, the advantages of mutual protection and assistance, and the blessings of a wise rule.

Or does the learned Rabbi mean to say that they were bought from pirates or slave-traders, as were Joseph, Plato, Cervantes, and Arago, and that he who denounces the slave-trade is also "guilty of something little short of blasphemy?" And does he mean to say that the female followers of the patriarchs were bound to serve in their harems (the concubines of Abraham are mentioned in Gen. xxv. 6) whether they agreed or not, and that a denunciation of similar relations in Louisiana or Mississippi would be blasphemy?

For, if the Rabbi proves anything, he proves strange things. He proves bigamy, polygamy, concubinage, Semitic (not African) Slavery, the traffic in Semitic flesh—all these and many similar things to be protected forever by the sanction of a divine law. I say Semitic and not African, because the passage which he quotes as allowing the Hebrews to buy slaves from the heathens distinctly designates those that were round about, or in the land of Israel (Lev. xxv. 44), where, as the Rabbi well knows, no negroes dwelt or sojourned, while some of the principal next neighbors of the Hebrews were not only Semites, as the Syrians (Aram) of Damascus, to whom, also, Abraham's 'ebed Eliezer belonged, but Semites of the same branch with the Hebrews, as the Ammonites and Moabites, and even descendants of Abraham himself, as the Edomites and Ishmaelites.

If Moses allowed the buying of slaves, he distinctly excluded the negroes, believing, perhaps, with our Rabbi, that "the unfortunate negro is the meanest of slaves"; or knowing something of what "has been said respecting the inferiority of his intellectual powers." Accordingly, the people of Hayti could not be gainsayed for the importation of Hebrew slaves, from Morocco, for instance, who might contribute to the amelioration of the moral condition of their country, while the people of the Cotton States could be denounced without incurring the guilt of blasphemy for Africanizing their region by their unsanctioned practices, and for dooming their posterity to the fate of the whites of St. Domingo.

Again, according to the Rabbi, should the people of Utah, before or after their admission into the Union as a sovereign State (on which occasion they would, no doubt, avail themselves of the precedent of the Cotton States, immediately to secede from the Union), establish certain peculiar domestic institutions of an incestuous character, "the eloquent preacher of Brooklyn" could not speak against it without incurring the guilt of blasphemy, Jacob having married two sisters, and our Rabbi being unable to discover "the precise time when" an act that was permitted to a patriarch and prohibited by Moses only to the Hebrews, "ceased to be permitted and became sinful" to all others.

"But after all, the Rabbi may say, "have I not proved, by numerous quotations, that Moses allowed Slavery to our people?" Not at all, Rabbi; firstly, because you substitute "slave" for "servant" or "bondman" without authority; secondly, because one of your quotations (Deut. 22:3) is obviously fallacious; thirdly, because two others, those from the Ten Commandments, are as ridiculous as they are sacrilegious; fourthly, because the strongest of all (Lev. 25:44-46) can prove no more than the so rigorously limited allowance of buying the life-long service of a free person, and the right of inheriting the claims to the same personal service, as the word le'olam, which you render "forever," is admitted by yourself to mean "for life" in another passage on the same subject (Exod. xxi. 6); and lastly, because if there be anything apparently favoring your view in these or other passages, that would not be sufficient to fasten "the reproach of Egypt" (herpath Mitzraim) on the law of the great fugitive slave, who inaugurated his divine mission as liberator of a people of slaves by slaying one of their overseers, and who, to the end of his career repeated, and over again repeated: "Forget not that ye have been slaves in Egypt!" "An eye for an eye" is written in the plainest words in the same law; still you hold with all the Talmudists, that this is not to be understood literally.

For those Rabbis wisely understood that there are numerous things to be explained, or explained away in our Scriptures, which, though pervaded by a divine spirit of truth, justice, and mercy, they found to contain much that may be called contradictory, unjust, and even barbarous. And they also knew that much was yielded by the law of Moses to the stubborn passions of man, of his people of freed slaves, and of his time. You know the Talmudical: Lo dibberah torah keneged yetzer hara'—"the law does not ignore the evil instinct." There is a passage to be explained away even in the very text of your sermon, which you preferred to that passage of Isaiah (lviii. 6), which is read on the great fast day of atonement in all the Synagogues of Israel, and which was obviously most appropriate for the occasion: "Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?" Are not those words in your text (Jonah iii. 10): "And God repented of the evil," &c., as well as those others: "And the Lord repented that he had made Saul king over Israel" (1 Sam. xv. 35), in flagrant contradiction with another passage contained in the same chapter with the preceding, "the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for He is not a man, that He should repent? " And as regards concessions in the Mosaic law, does it not allow and sanction in Deuteronomy (17:14-20) what Samuel, in the name of God, repeatedly declares to be the greatest of sins (I Sam. 8, 10 and 12.), I mean the desire to have a king? Rabbi, do you, know the precise time when it had become sinful?

But I almost forgot our above-mentioned friend job, the noblest conception of Hebrew poetry (at least according to the Talmudical: Iyob lo hayah velo nibra, "Job never existed"), whom you also stigmatize as a slaveholder, him, who utters those noble words—speaking of his God (31:15), "Did not He that made me in the womb make him? and did not One fashion us in the womb?" If your assertion needs a refutation you can find it in the concluding passages of the Book of job, in which you will find how the martyr was rewarded for his constancy, all his former possessions being restored double, his sheep, his camels, his oxen, and his she asses—but is there a word of slaves? So much for your proofs from passages of the Scriptures.

Another ample and general refutation of our Rabbi's view can be found in the history of the Hebrews as a nation, a history of fifteen centuries, full of wars, revolutions', civil strifes, and catastrophes, but without a mention of a single slave rising, or a single similar event. And how often do the Helots figure in Spartan history! how often slaves in the history of Rome! The history of this country, alas I has scarcely a page on which is not written the black word "Slavery." Shall its history be so continued? Answer, statesmen and people of America!

And you, Rev. Rabbi Raphall, make your Bible, by some process of reasoning, to be pure, just, and humane, if you want to have it regarded as divine; or reject it as full of human frailty, if you dare! Shalom!

New York, Jan. 11, 1861.