Following the exalting narrative of the divine revelation at Mount Sinai culminating in the Ten Commandments, the beginning of this week’s parashah begins with a topic that brings us back to the realities of a more primitive society. It is the institution of indentured servitude for fellow Jews. The good news is the bondage can last a maximum of six years: on the seventh year, the individual in bondage goes free. The bad news is that his rights to family are severely limited.
According to the biblical legislation, “If his master gave him a wife, and she bore him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone” (Exod. 21:4). Since he goes out to freedom without any payment for his servitude, and therefore has no possibility of redeeming his family, the only option of keeping his family together is to voluntarily proclaim that because of his love for master, wife and children, he chooses to remain in servitude. He is then subjected to a humiliating procedure, and remains a slave “for life” (Exod. 21:5–6). This arrangement is, to be sure, better than the status of the pagan slave in biblical times, and certainly than the slaves in the American South, but it is certainly not the most progressive of biblical laws.
The theme of slavery seems especially appropriate to Americans this year, because Friday, 12 February, is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. When I was growing up in the 1950s, New York and many other northern states observed two holidays in the month of February (not counting Valentine’s Day): February 12: Lincoln’s Birthday (never a national holiday), and February 22: George Washington’s birthday. Eventually, with the tendency to move holidays to the nearest Monday, and the addition of Martin Luther King’s birthday in January, the two presidential birthdays coalesced into one “Presidents Day”, on the third Monday of February, which always falls between the two actual dates.)
There is no question that Jewish leaders—Orthodox as well as Reform—saw in Lincoln someone with whom they could identify not only as a friend of Jews in his own lifetime, but with central Jewish values. The sermons preached by rabbis throughout the country on the National Day of Mourning following Lincoln’s assassination reveal a sustained effort to articulate the special qualities of Lincoln as human being and political leadersometimes using explicitly messianic rhetoric. A leading rabbi of the largest Reform synagogue in Toronto, born in 1901, was named “Abraham Lincoln Feinberg” (though he only used his middle initial).
There was a strong tendency in later years to apply invoke the memory of Lincoln and apply it to the contemporary challenges of the body politic. Leon Harrison, of St. Louis, devoting a March, 1914 sermon to Abraham Lincoln and contemporary politics made Lincoln into a spokesman for the current liberal agenda. Under the title “What Would Lincoln Do in the White House Now?”, he maintained that Lincoln would defend the small trader against the monopolist, promote reform in the selection of candidates and oppose the influence of the bosses, favor national legislation for the protection of women and for women’s suffrage, oppose child labour in New England and the South, endorse a law mandating compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes, honor international treaties, and foster peaceful union with all great Powers, including arbitration of issues not vital to national existence. In short, he concludes, Lincoln would have a profile very much like President Wilson.
Yet when we go back to the actual lifetime of Lincoln, it is clear that he was significantly more controversial and less popular than he became almost the moment after his assassination. In my book, Jewish Preaching in Times of War, 1800-2001, I included a sermon delivered in Richmond, Virginia on 27 March 1863, a day of national prayer for the Confederate States of America. Not surprisingly, it expresses total support for the southern cause. Here is a passage from the prayer with which the preacher concluded his sermon: “The man-servants and the maid-servants Thou hast given unto us, that we may be merciful to them in righteousness and bear rule over them, the enemy are attempting to seduce, that they too may turn against us, whom Thou hast appointed over them as instructors in Thy wise dispensation!” Here the Jewish preacher seems to identify completely with the southern slave-holder, using the biblical terminology “man-servants and maid-servants”, and invoking the argument, made by southern Christian clergy, that slavery served a providential function by civilizing part of the African population.
And who was this “enemy” attempting to seduce the slaves to revolt? It is a clear allusion to Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation”, issued less than 3 months earlier, on 1 January 1863, which proclaimed freedom for slaves, but only for those in the states that had seceded from the Union, not in the slave-holding border states fighting on the Union side. Since the Confederate states simply ignored the presidential proclamation, it had no practical implications for anyone: not a single slave was actually emancipated. It was widely believed at the time, not only in the American South, but also in Europe, that this proclamation was a cynical attempt to inspire an insurrection—or as the Times of London put it, a “stab in the back” by the slaves in the Confederate states.
Even in the North Lincoln was reviled in some circles because of the unprecedented Conscription Act that he had signed on 3 March 1863. This controversial and unpopular innovations of the Lincoln administration would provoke Draft Riots in New York a few months later. Many were suspicious of Lincoln’s wartime assumption of powers that appeared to be in tension with the American Constitution, and jeopardize treasured civil rights. One of the strongest supporters of the northern “Peace Democrats” favoring compromise with the South, in opposition to Lincoln, was Reform Judaism’s Isaac Mayer Wise. An unsigned article in a New York Jewish newspaper from early March 1863 states, “Daily our ears are filled with bitter denunciations of President and Cabinet for unconstitutional measures and violations of the rights of citizens. All this may be founded on a reasonable basis. . . .” And this is not even to mention Lincoln’s occasional expressions of racist language regarding the black population, and possibly exterminationist discourse regarding rebellious Indian populations, that are being used today to undermine image of “the Great Emancipator”.
My point is not simply to assert that Abraham Lincoln, with all his undeniable greatness, was not the Messiah, and was not a saint. That goes without saying. My point is rather that the murky complexities of the real world of political life, military conflict, and economic turmoil, back in 1863 required compromises with principles and values, compromises that were casually forgotten when the image of the man was refracted through the prism of an assassination and the profusion of elegiac sermons in its wake. Lincoln was a human being, as Moses was a human being. Both of them articulated lofty ideals that continue to inspire through the ages, but both of them were also products of the societies in which they lived, and they recognized that the highest ideals could not always be implemented immediately.
And this brings us back to our Torah passage. There are some who are totally committed to the belief that every word in the Torah is a record of God’s literal revelation, which cannot possibly fall short of the best modern sensibilities. Therefore, they often have to turn intellectual somersaults and stand on their heads in interpreting the biblical text. Thus Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz writes in his Chumash commentary that “the very first civil ordinance [in our parashah] secures the personal rights of the lowliest in the social scale, the bondman.” In defending the provision that the wife and children attained during bondage must remain with the master when the slave goes free, Hertz writes that the wife was a non-Israelite, and “If the Israelite had been permitted to take them into freedom with him, it would have impaired the purity of the race, and created a body of half-castes.” Is it not rather astonishing to find the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, writing in 1936, using the discourse of “purity of the race” and “half-castes”! That is the consequence of the Orthodox commitment to explain every detail of Torah law as God’s revelation, consistent with the highest contemporary moral values.
Our approach is different. Unlike polemicists such as Richard Dawkins, we appreciate and honour the passages in the Torah, including in our parashah, that represent a breakthrough of moral awareness. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 23:9). I doubt that there is any comparable example in ancient literature of this command for empathy: take the historical memory of your own suffering, use it to understand the suffering of others, and do what you can to alleviate it.
But not all of the Torah is on this level. There are also passages that reflect the age and the society from which they emerge, accepting the assumption of human bondage even in a people liberated from slavery by the power of God, and ordaining that a man who places love of his wife and children above even his own freedom is to be humiliated and condemned to perpetual servitude.
Though bondage and slavery have still not vanished from the earth in our own day, we have progressed beyond the biblical world-view to recognize that every form of legal subjugation is a violation of the image of God implanted within each human being. Our ideal is that verse from Leviticus, inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, an ideal that Abraham Lincoln would certainly have endorsed though he did not himself fulfil it: U-keratem deror ba-aretz le-khol yoshveha, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all its inhabitants (Lev. 25:10).
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.