Noah’s Curse: On the Eve of the Civil War, a Rabbi Declares Black Slavery Biblical
In the months preceding Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, the nation was paralyzed by extreme polarization over the place of slavery in the United States. The interpretation of biblical texts played a significant role in this controversy. As southern states seceded and the union’s survival appeared more and more in doubt, Rabbi Morris Raphall, the most prominent rabbi in America and leader of B’nai Jeshurun, New York’s foremost congregation, stood forward to offer a solution.
An Orthodox rabbi, Raphall was open to changes in education and aesthetics but not to traditional doctrine. Following study in Copenhagen, where he grew up, and then at the University of Giessen, he received a doctorate from the University of Erlangen, Germany. Raphall served as editor of Gal‘ed: The Hebrew Review and Magazine of Rabbinical Literature, a journal aimed at fostering the study of rabbinic literature in America, and translated the Mishnah into English.
Arriving in New York in 1849, his sermons drew large audiences; he became the first Jewish clergyman to deliver a prayer at an opening session of Congress. Like most American Jews of the antebellum era, Raphall was a conservative and hostile to “radical” abolitionists. At the request of supporters of the southern position on slavery, on January 4, 1861, he preached a sermon, “Bible View of Slavery,” that would reverberate across the nation.
Raphall’s Sermon: Bible View of Slavery
Raphall’s sermon commenced with a declaration that “God and his holy word,” namely the Bible, is the only monarch. Thus, to substitute either rational thought (modern biblical criticism) or the pursuit of wealth (cotton) for God’s word was blasphemous. Even the greatest of American documents, the Constitution of the United States, “must be set aside for a higher law.” Only a “theologian,” after careful study of the Bible, could respond to the question “whether slaveholding is a sin before God,” and settle the issue roiling the country.
Raphall first turns to Noah’s curse of his son Ham (father of Canaan) for seeing his drunk father naked:
בראשית ט:כד וַיִּיקֶץ נֹחַ מִיֵּינוֹ וַיֵּדַע אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לוֹ בְּנוֹ הַקָּטָן. ט:כה וַיֹּאמֶר אָרוּר כְּנָעַן עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים יִהְיֶה לְאֶחָיו.
Gen 9:24 When Noah woke up from his wine and learned what his youngest son had done to him, 9:25 he said, “Cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” (NJPS)
While the curse names Canaan, it is in response to the sin of his father Ham. Thus, the curse of Ham’s son Canaan may be understood as a synecdoche for all descendants of Ham. This would include Ham’s son Kush, i.e., the people of Nubia (modern day Sudan), and understood by Raphall (and others) as representing sub-Saharan Africans in general.
Because that curse “remains in full force to this day,” thousands of years later, “the unfortunate Negro is indeed the meanest of slaves.” While “you and I may regret” that perpetual black slavery emerged from “beneath the waters of wrath,”—i.e., Noah’s anger upon learning what Ham did—it was backed by the authority of Scripture; there was no higher source.
Raphall dismissed nineteenth-century biblical critics, “Rationalists,” who denied that Noah ever uttered the curse. If it were untrue, why has it remained in force for “four, or three or even two thousand years?” Furthermore, reflecting the widespread racism of nineteenth-century America, he noted that “much has been said respecting the inferiority of his [Blacks] intellectual powers, and that no man of his race had ever inscribed his name on the Pantheon of human excellence, either mental or moral.”
To those who found it unjust that an entire race was condemned for millennia for the words of an angry, drunken man, Raphall replied that he would not seek to “defend the moral government of Providence,” as Isaiah (55:8) cautioned:
ישעיה נה:ח כִּי לֹא מַחְשְׁבוֹתַי מַחְשְׁבוֹתֵיכֶם וְלֹא דַרְכֵיכֶם דְּרָכָי נְאֻם יְ־הוָה.
Isa 55:8 My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. (KJV)
It was hubris to believe that humans could understand the ways of God.
Slaves Are Property
Raphall’s second argument in favor of slavery was that the Bible treated the enslaved as “species of lawful property.” He noted that the Tenth Commandment placed bondsmen in the same category as an animal:
דברים ה:יז ...וְלֹא תִתְאַוֶּה בֵּית רֵעֶךָ שָׂדֵהוּ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ.
Deut 5:17 …Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s house or his field, or his male slave, or his female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or aught that belongeth to thy neighbor. (KJV)
Moreover, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Job, men who God “connects with his own most holy name,” all possessed slaves. Clearly ownership of slaves was no sin.
Chastising the Christian “divine” Henry Ward Beecher, a well-known Congregationalist clergyman who had condemned slaveholders as immoral, Raphall declared: “What right have you to insult and exasperate thousands of God-fearing, law-abiding citizens… whose purity of conscience and of life, are fully equal to your own?” American citizens must avoid “the mischief which this inventing a new sin, not known to the Bible, is causing.”
Hebrew Bondsman vs Heathen Slaves
Raphall’s final point concerned the difference between Hebrew bondsmen and heathen slaves. The former were not property, had to be well treated and were to be freed after seven or fifty years. His or her privileges as a “Hebrew citizen” could only be suspended. Thus, “between the Hebrew bondsmen and the southern slave there is no point of resemblance.”
Heathen slaves, were, however, “analogous” to southern slaves. Bound by the laws of Leviticus they were an “inheritance”:
ויקרא כה:מד וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ אֲשֶׁר יִהְיוּ לָךְ מֵאֵת הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתֵיכֶם מֵהֶם תִּקְנוּ עֶבֶד וְאָמָה.... כה:מו וְהִתְנַחֲלְתֶּם אֹתָם לִבְנֵיכֶם אַחֲרֵיכֶם לָרֶשֶׁת אֲחֻזָּה לְעֹלָם בָּהֶם תַּעֲבֹדוּ...
Lev 25:44 Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids….25:46 And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever….(KJV)
The owner’s property was “absolute.” He could inflict “chastisement short of injury to life and limb.”
Alluding to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the most detested law in the North, Raphall declared that as the laws of God demanded that a slave “who ran away from Dan to Beersheba had to be given up,” so too a runaway “from South Carolina has to be given up by Massachusetts.”
But Be Kind to Them
New York’s most prominent rabbi concluded that there were limits to the treatment of a heathen slave. This was in tension with his earlier statements that slaves were property like an ox or an ass and that a master may inflict chastisement short of injury to life and limb. Ostensibly basing himself on Maimonides, Raphall argued that a slave must be adequately fed and protected against excessive punishment because he “is a person in whom the dignity of human nature is to be respected; he has rights.”
Alas, Raphall bemoaned, many southern slave owners maltreated their bondsmen. If they were to adopt this biblical view of slavery, “God would see their works and that they turn from the evil of their ways.” Indeed, He would “avert the impending evil,” the dissolution of the union. (After objections from supporters of slaveholders he omitted this section at the second presentation.)
Reaction to the Sermon
This sermon was widely distributed and discussed, and the reaction in some quarters was electric. The New York Herald and the New York Daily News reprinted it in full while the New York Times published a detailed summary. Southerners and southern supporters distributed it throughout the nation. If the country’s most esteemed rabbi, a published scholar, pronounced southern slavery a legal institution, who could argue?
As a minister in East Salem, New York exclaimed: “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; … It is true almost as the word of God itself.” Two leading orthodox rabbis in America—Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia and Bernard Illowy of Baltimore—also approved of the message.
At the same time, a torrent of criticism greeted the publication of Raphall’s pamphlet. The nation’s foremost abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, wondered if “he has forgot the sorrow of thy race,” while Horace Greely, publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, recommended that Raphall endure “twenty four hours of the Spanish Inquisition” to open his eyes to the reality of slavery. Two prominent figures, Michael Heilprin and Rabbi David Einhorn, affiliated with the nascent Reform movement, responded in fury.
Michael Heilprin (1823–1888), a Polish-Jewish Hebraist, was a partisan in the 1848 Hungarian revolution under the movement led by Lajos Kossuth. He fled to France and the United States where he became active in the anti-slavery cause. Heilprin considered the Civil War and the Hungarian revolution one and the same. A polymath, he worked for years for "Appleton’s New American Encyclopedia, and he also published the two-volume The Historical Poetry of the Ancient Hebrews (New York, 1879–1880), a work that accepted the theories of modern biblical critics.
Heilprin’s rebuke was printed in the New York Daily Tribune, shortly after Raphall’s talk. He described Raphall’s sermon as part of “the flood of scum that is now turned up by the turbulent waves of this stormy time.” Unfortunately, since “his words are trumpeted through the land as if he were the messenger of a new salvation,” they must be refuted.
Deconstructing the Noah’s Curse Argument
Heilprin notes that Raphall’s analysis of Noah’s curse is both profane and absurd:
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 thousand generation and disparagement of crimes only to the fourth?... And all this uttered by a Jew whose very race was but of late generally believed to be cursed forever for one ancient crime! … What inspires your blasphemous assertions?
Heilprin accused Raphall of mistaken, even wicked, anthropology: “Alabama and Timbuctoo have more features of resemblance than the biblical Hamites and your Negroes.” Scholarship revealed that the descendants of Ham include Egyptians,
[The] builders of the most stupendous works of antiquity and teachers of the Chaldeans and Greeks, and the wives of several Israelite kings. The cursed son of Ham, Canaan, had nothing to do with the African race [as the boundaries of his descendants] did not extend beyond the limits of Syria, and even hardly beyond those of Palestine.
Not Slaves but Servants
Taking an apologetic approach previously trodden by the important Jewish scholars Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) and Leopold Zunz (1794–1886), both of whom he cites, Heilprin argued that Raphall had mistranslated the Hebrew word עֶבֶד (eved) to mean slave when its most common meaning was servant. Moreover, the word was used not only of servants and bondsmen but as officers of the court, royal ambassadors, and instruments of divinity such as Abraham.
As a refugee of the Central European revolution of 1848, Heilprin was himself a revolutionary, and his radical outlook is apparent in his argument that Raphall was wrong in claiming that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Job had slaves. Rather, these men were “nomadic patriarchs” who migrated from region to region with a few “voluntary followers, their pupils and friends,” all of whom possessed the privileges of free people, including to leave of their own free will.
Heilprin imagined Moses, despite his early princely standing, as ultimately a “great fugitive slave” who “inaugurated his divine mission as liberator of a people of slaves,” and who, at the end of his life, reminded the Israelites to: “forget not that you have been slaves in Egypt!”(Deut 16:12, 24:18). Could such a person be an apologist for chattel slavery?!
Rabbi David Einhorn, a leader of the Reform movement in central Europe, also a refugee from the revolution of 1848, responded to Raphall from his pulpit at Har Sinai Temple in Baltimore, in the slave state of Maryland, and published it in his journal Sinai (v. 6, pp. 2–22). (Two months after he gave his response, Einhorn fled Baltimore ahead an angry mob.)
Misreading the Tenth Commandment
Einhorn accused Raphall of purposely misreading the Ten Commandments when he argued that slaves were treated as “any other sort of lawful property.” When Raphall quoted the tenth commandment, he purposely omitted the phrase at the beginning: “thou shall not covet the wife of thy neighbor” because Raphall knew that a wife is not considered property like an ox or a house.
Furthermore, he argues, owners of non-Hebrew slaves were required to circumcise their bondsmen and to hold them responsible for observing the Sabbath. Were oxen and cattle circumcised? Were they punished for disobeying commandments? Obviously not. Raphall’s reasoning was “nonsensical” and a “farce.”
Morally Outdated Laws
Unlike Heilprin, Einhorn admitted that the Torah included laws about slavery, such as the passage in Leviticus 25 quoted above. He classified them in the same category as laws regarding “blood–vengeance and the marriage of a war–prisoner,” statutes that were “merely tolerated institutions because of once existing rooted social conditions, or – more correctly – evils….” These were never considered pleasing “in the sight of God.” So too in the case of slavery:
[T]he question exclusively to be decided, is whether Scripture merely tolerates this institution as an evil not to be disregarded and therefore infuses in this legislation a mild spirit gradually to lead to its dissolution, or whether it favors, approves of and justifies and sanctions it in its moral aspect.
The answer is clear: God’s word and will would be fulfilled when slavery was no more. Raphall had it backwards.
Einhorn points out that in his defense of the Fugitive Slave Act, Raphall claims that Israelites too would need to return fugitive slaves, ignoring the simple meaning of the Torah’s legislation:
דברים כג:טז לֹא תַסְגִּיר עֶבֶד אֶל אֲדֹנָיו אֲשֶׁר יִנָּצֵל אֵלֶיךָ מֵעִם אֲדֹנָיו. כג:יז עִמְּךָ יֵשֵׁב בְּקִרְבְּךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בַּטּוֹב לוֹ לֹא תּוֹנֶנּוּ.
Deut 23:16[*15] Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: 23:16[*15] He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him. (KJV)
Raphall, of course, knew this verse, and dismissed it as referring to heathen slaves, and instead found a creative precedent for what he claimed as the biblical requirement for returning slaves, which Einhorn unpacks with biting scorn:
Dr. Raphall proves the obligation to extradite native heathen slaves with reference to Deut. 22, 3, and on looking up the passage—what do we find? The decision that an ox or an ass gone astray, or a lost garment must be returned to the owner by the finder! This precious witticism surely did not emanate in Dr. Raphall's brain, and it appears peculiar that he forgot to mention its source, and thus appropriates the property of others, no matter how wretched, to himself, whilst quoting the law that even required that objects should be returned.
The Polygyny Precedent
Heilprin and Einhorn both pointed out that following Raphall’s logic, the United States government must desist from declaring polygamous marriage of a man to more than one woman illegal in Utah, as it is clearly condoned in the Bible. Yet few Americans, including Raphall, would take that route.
The Scriptures, Heilprin declared, are “pervaded by a divine spirit of truth justice and mercy” yet contain “much that may be called contradictory, unjust, and even barbarous.” The Rabbis understood 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.”
Both Heilprin and Einhorn express the belief of the nascent Reform movement, which was based on history and historical criticism, that Judaism was an evolving religion and its evolution moved toward a more mature, more civilized, and more spiritual sphere. The earliest manifestations of Judaism may reflect more primitive religious views.
Einhorn declared Raphall a dissembler for speaking of the humanity and rights of slaves when, in the last part of his talk, he criticized southern slaveholders for their treatment of slaves. He only did this “so as not to offend the other party [northerners] too deeply, … and would have the South swallow a few bitter pills in addition to the many compliments already paid.”
Given that Raphall has declared that a slave was property that might be bought and sold, these “bitter pills” that the south have to swallow were but patent medicine. Raphall’s speech defends slavery as an institution condoned by God. But, asked Einhorn, did Raphall believe “that God whilst granting human rights to the slave, would approve of depriving him against his will with inflexible force of the most sacred of human rights, that of disposing of himself”?
Rather than focus on Noah’s drunken words, Raphall ought to have looked to the story of creation: that God created man in His own image. A religion whose greatest commandment proclaimed: “I am the Lord, thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” could never “place [the] slavery of any human – being under divine sanction.” It would destroy Judaism.
A Boon to Anti-Semites
Einhorn concluded his sermon, by declaring that Raphall’s argument was a boon to anti-Semites who would portray Jews as hypocrites:
Such are the Jews! Where they are oppressed, they boast of the humanity of their religion; but where they are free, their Rabbis declare slavery to have been sanctioned by God, even mentioning the holy act of the Revelation on Sinai in defense of it.
If a Christian clergyman in Europe had given such an address, “the Jewish-orthodox as well as Jewish-reform press would have been set going to call the wrath of heaven and earth upon such falsehoods to denounce such disgrace.” Can American Jews ignore “this mischief by a Jewish preacher?” Only Jews, “who prize the dollar more highly than their God and their religion, can… approve of this!”
Raphall’s Attitude after the Civil War Began
After the Civil War broke out, Raphall condemned southerners as fomenting rebellion, “a sin before God.” He met personally with Lincoln, and his (Raphall’s) son enlisted and was badly wounded. However, as hostilities continued, month after month and then year after year, Raphall’s early patriotism towards the Union 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.”
In Raphall’s thinking, the Civil War was an unnecessary and tragic waste of lives and treasure. (Both the finances needed to support a war and the destruction that the war caused.) This was in sharp contrast to the opinion of his colleague/adversary, Reform rabbi Dr. Samuel Adler of Temple Emanu-El, who saw the conflict as an opportunity 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 of advocating “the eternal immutable principles of liberty and the inalienable rights of man.”
A Product of His Time
Raphall was a product of his time and place. Indeed, his political stance reflected that of the New York City Jewish community, a community that constituted a quarter of the American Jewish population. New York was the center of the cotton trade and as such was partial to the south and its interests.
Jews, many of whom worked in the garment trade, shared these feelings. They also feared that the fall of the Union would threaten the protections offered by the Constitution. Undoubtedly influenced by the pervasive racism of nineteenth-century America, they agreed with Rabbi Raphall that the plight of black slaves in America had no similarity to the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites. Consequently, they voted against Lincoln in both the 1860 and 1864 elections by large margins (70% to 30%).
The only sector of the Jewish community that supported Lincoln and the Republican Party were advocates of Reform, especially those associated with Temple Emanu-El. Receptive to modern biblical criticism, Reformists rejected the literalist interpretation of the Bible and had no qualms in condemning Raphall’s approach. Indeed, as we see from Heilprin and Einhorn, they were both contemptuous of and horrified by his notorious sermon.
Cementing the Catastrophe in America and for Himself
At the beginning of his sermon, Morris Raphall pictured himself as Jonah before Nineveh, hoping to avert catastrophe with warnings to repent. What he accomplished however, was to strengthen the South’s determination not to compromise. Was not God on its side?
History was not kind to Raphall. Though the most prominent Jewish clergyman in mid-19th century America, his name is hardly known today. Bnai Jeshurun, today one of the country’s most prominent synagogues, ignores him; their website’s history of the synagogue takes no notice of him.
Though the author of significant books, including a three-volume history of the post-biblical Jews, he is known almost only for his ill-fated sermon. Perhaps his traditionalism led him into a crabbed literalist interpretation, or perhaps his political ideology led him astray. In either case, it produced a bigoted discourse that caused great harm. A sad end to a productive life, but such are the judgments of history.
The Raphall controversy may have a message for our time. Those who seek to either limit or tear down the separation of church and state, a benchmark of American government for over two hundred years, are finding welcome audiences. When Raphall stated that for the sake of the nation “the authority of the Constitution is to be set aside for a higher Law,” the highest law of all, “the revealed Law and Word of God,” his words were ignored; at issue was the preservation of the union. Today, however, highly influential people are echoing his words. Those who advocate removing barriers between religion and government would do well to study this episode.
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Prof. Howard B. Rock is Professor (Emeritus) of American History at Florida International University, where he taught for 40 years. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from New York University, and a B.A. from Brandeis University. Rock is the author of Artisans of the New Republic: The Tradesmen of New York City in the Age of Jefferson (NYU 1979); The New York City Artisan, 1789-1825: A Documentary History (SUNY 1989); Keepers of the Revolution: New Yorkers at Work in the Early Republic (Cornell, 1992); The American Artisan: Crafting Social Identity (Johns Hopkins, 1995); and Cityscapes: A History of New York in Images (NYU 2001). His most recent book, Haven of Liberty: New York Jews in the New World, 1654–1865 (NYU 2012)—the first volume in a trilogy called City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York—was awarded the Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award (2013) by the National Jewish Book Council.
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