Adam Goodheart: Rabbi Morris J. Raphall and the Rebellion

Source: NYT, 3-7-11

New York, March 1861

The great national debate over slavery brought fame very suddenly to a certain owlish, bespectacled clergyman. Not long before, he had been almost unknown beyond the walls of his own synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun on Green Street in lower Manhattan. Now his name was in newspapers, and his sermon in bookshops from Boston to New Orleans. Like so many men of God – both then and now – he stepped out of obscurity when he stepped into politics, quoting ancient texts to answer modern questions.

“The Bible View of Slavery”: this was the title of the pamphlet that had brought Rabbi Morris J. Raphall such notoriety. He had first delivered the address on Jan. 4, 1861, on the occasion of the national “day of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer throughout the Union” proclaimed by President James Buchanan in response to the secession crisis. The learned sage delved deep into the Hebrew Bible – citing the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Job and even Exodus – before concluding that “slaveholding is not only recognized and sanctioned as an integral part of the social structure … [but] the property in slaves is placed under the same protection as any other species of lawful property.”

Rabbi Morris J. Raphall, 1860.Library of Congress Rabbi Morris J. Raphall, 1860.

An ardent Unionist, Rabbi Raphall proclaimed from the pulpit that he was “no friend to slavery in the abstract, and still less friendly to the practical working of slavery. But I stand here as a teacher in Israel; not to place before you my own feelings and opinions, but to propound to you the word of G-d, the Bible view of slavery.” The descendants of Noah’s son Ham – that is, Africans – had been cursed by God, he said, so that “in his own native home, and generally throughout the world, the unfortunate negro is indeed the meanest of slaves.”

To be sure, Raphall also found reason to chastise American slaveholders. According to the Bible, he said, “the slave is a person in whom the dignity of human nature is to be respected; he has rights. Whereas, the heathen view of slavery which prevailed at Rome, and which, I am sorry to say, is adopted in the South, reduces the slave to a thing, and a thing can have no rights.” Still, in the end, abolitionists who tried to meddle with slavery were opposing the Lord’s will…. READ MORE

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