Friday, 24 January 2014

Slavery - 12 Years a Slave and the Hebrew Slave

Went to see 12 years a slave, last weekend.

Actually – seem to have been spotted at the cinema by a significant proportion of the Synagogue – and appropriately so.

From a Jewish perspective a deeply important one.

From a human perspective a deeply humbling one.


In America they are commemorating Martin Luther King this week

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rabbi who marched to Selma on King’s right, spoke at a conference on Religion and Race in 1963 – he introduced Martin Luther King with these words


At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go?

The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.


Few of us [Heschel continued] seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking. You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse.


I don’t want to suggest that no Jew ever partook in the American slave trade – to my shame as a Jew I know I can’t make that claim.

I don’t want to suggest that Jews have always looked at slavery as the horror it truly is.

But Judaism – as a religion – as a call on our hearts and on our actions, has always been clear – slavery is an abomination.

Indeed the clarity of Judaism’s approach to slavery is rendered perfectly clear in the opening of this week’s parasha.


There is a passage about servitude – the eved ivri at the opening of this week’s parasha

An eved ivri is not a human, created in the image of God, who by dint of skin colour or some other peripheral aesthetic mark is different from the surrounding society.

The eved ivri is a person who falls on hard economic times and is forced to sell themselves into servitude to pay off their debts, or someone caught thieving, or similarly – and has to pay off their criminality.

The Torah commands that they can work up to the Sabbatical year – then they go free hinam – devoid of any debt.

Don’t accustom yourself to the notion of commanding another human being, commands the Torah.

Know that even if you are in the fortunate business of having servants to look after your every need, these are human beings, and human beings should be free and must ultimately always come into freedom.

Don’t get too used to being in control of other humans.


And then comes the line in the Torah that perhaps, even more than any part of the Exodus narrative, carries the sense of Judaism’s absolute rejection of slavery.


And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free; Then his master shall bring him to the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or to the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him forever.


The Talmud insightfully explains the symbolism this strange command embodies;


Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said ‘Ozen zot sheshama al har Sinai ki li bnei yisrael avadim - for the Children of Israel shall serve me – says God’ and you go off and become attached to another master – let that ear be pierced.

And Rabbi Shimon said,

And that door or doorpost behind which the Children of Israel crouched in Egypt when I passed over the door to bring you freedom ...

And you chose another master’s door to crouch behind – let the ear be pierced into that door.


The point isn’t that this should happen.

The point is that the nature of the piercing should ensure no human being should ever turn to slavery – no human being should prefer the simplicity of a life enslaved above the hardship of a life lived free with the responsibilities and burdens freedom entails.


It’s a powerful insight – the insight that a person might prefer to shelter behind another door, rather than walk through to freedom

Every movement which has sought to free some oppressed people has been hampered by those slaves who would rather remain enslaved.


But a Jewish slavery would demand something more than simply feeling slavery is a bad things and how good it is we no longer have the sort of persecution of humanity that was a marker of slavery in nineteenth Century America,


An article by the Times’ Ben Macintyre drew my attention to an extraordinary letter written by a former slave to his former master.

In 1865 Colonel PH Anderson wrote to his former slave, Jourdon asking if he would come back to serve for him in Big Spring Tenessee.

Anderson offered to treat his former slave ‘better than anyone else.’

But Jourdan’s  letter in response shows how profoundly he understood the warning not to halash after slaver. Had Jourdan been a Hebrew slave, he would never have offered his ear up for piercing.


Sir: [the letter opens] I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. 


Jourdan goes on to suggest that he wants to check that the offer to treat him and his family well is genuine. He continues


we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future.  I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to.


It’s a terrific document, well worth reading in full. One more extract;


We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

[that, by the way, is a reference to another Biblical verse – Leviticus 19:13

Lo talin p’ulat s’chir ]

Say howdy to George Carter, [Jourdan concludes] and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,



What’s the point of sharing this long story?


Slavery isn’t just about freedom and the right to work for whoever and however one wants.

Slavery leaves a terrible economic ruin in lives for generations beyond emancipation.

End of 12 years a slave, and this isn’t to spoil the ending – get the true story of what happened to Solmon Northup after his 12 years – receives not a penny in reparations or for any of the wrongs did to him.

Remains a painful issue in contemporary American politics, certainly among those who trace their ancestors back to slaves, and I suppose slave owners.

In America average inheritance for whites - $90,000, for blacks - $18,000.


To be horrified by slavery.

To have a Jewish attitude to slavery isn’t simply to believe that everyone should be released from whatever injustice enslaves them.

It’s an economic imperative, to understand that the wages of work should be fairly handed over.

It’s a commercial imperative to purchase, as much as possible goods produced fairly.

It’s a commercial imperative to turn away, as much as possible, from those economic producers who do not sufficiently care for their staff and ensure they are employed at a level that allows them to earn a living wage.

Ah, these are complex and challenging economic arguments, but arguments, I absolutely believe that are connected to these issues of slavery and freedom.

Perhaps to end with the same piece of Torah I ended my words at the 50th year celebrations of New London at the Civic Service last week.

Lo Alecha Hamlecha ligmor, v’lo atah ben horin lhivatel mimena

You don’t have to finish the work, but neither are you a free person to desist from it

Lo atah ben horin

You are not free person until you have ensured the freedom of others.


Shabbat shalom



Thursday, 23 January 2014

On Nachas

I’ve been reflecting on the Hebrew verb – nachat – probably more familiar as the Yiddish term – nachas. The archetypal experience of shepping nachas (incidentally one scheps nachas and schlepps a heavy weight) is the delight a parent feels when experiencing the successes of one’s children. Despite our instinctive sense of what nachas is, and how it operates, it’s a complex entity, folded in on itself as it reaches in entirely contradictory directions.


On the one hand nachas is vicarious. I did not schlep, as it were, myself. But my disconnect from the true hero of the moment is not complete. I retain a connection; in the case of the nachas shepping mother umbilically  - even many years after my initial disentanglement from primary responsibility. Nachas requires both a step back and a continued sense of accountability; in some limited sense I retain a sense I am somehow, at least partially, responsible. This explains why the realm of those who shep nachas extends far beyond parents, any level of a partial sense of accountability works to drive the nachas engine. I’m reminded of the lovely epigram, ‘success has many parents, it’s only failure that is an orphan.’


Nachas contains a further internally contradictory dynamic.  The happier I am for the other, the more pleasure I take. Nachas, perhaps like adult love, requires something to be given before it can be received. And the more one gives away, the more nachas one receives. Nachas is indeed a holy and most archetypically human emotion.


The prompt for all this reflection is the Civic Service and Induction of Cantor Jason that took place at New London last Sunday. I didn’t do the schlepping – and thanks are due to those who worked so hard to make the event a success (I want particularly to acknowledge the efforts or David Futterman, Jo Velleman and the professional team), but I feel a certain pride that I am, somehow, at least partially responsible, as indeed we all are.


The more applause I offered Cantor Jason and the contributions of, among others, Julian Dawes, the New London Singers and the Cheder – wonderfully led by Angela Gluck and Ezra Burke, the more delight I felt in the whole event.


If money makes the world go round, nachas is the driving force of a good Synagogue. The closer we feel to the heart of the community, the more nachas we experience in its successes even as those successes are not, strictly speaking, our own. Actually, forget about money making the world go round – at least for this Shabbat – and see if we can make nachas turn the entire globe. It celebrates and encourages growth beyond the direct impact of our own hands and the more we give away, the more of it there is to go round.


Thank you to everyone who played parts large or small in the success of last Sunday – and the fifty years of hard work that resulted in us having something so special to celebrate.


Friday, 17 January 2014

In Honour of the 50th Birthday of New London Synagogue

From ‘We Have Reason to Believe’

Retrospective written for the 2004 Fifth Edition (40th Year of New London Synagogue, aged 84)


The thesis of the book, for which it was attacked from left and right, is that modern knowledge and scholarship have made it impossible to accept the traditional view that God ‘dictated’ to Moses, word for word and letter by letter, the whole of the Pentateuch. My argument runs that, while such a doctrine of verbal inspiration is now untenable, the traditional doctrine that Torah is from Heaven can and should still be maintained. To put this in different words, God is the author of the Torah (conceived of as the sum total not of the Pentateuch alone, but of religious thought through the ages). He cooperated with His creatures in producing the Torah, through human beings reaching out to Him. There is thus a human element, as well as a divine element, in what we call the Torah.


That the notion of direct divine communication, for all its hallowed history, has to be abandoned is demanded by our present-day knowledge. The findings of geology, astronomy, archaeology, biblical criticism and modern research into the sources of Judaism all go to show that Judaism (‘the Torah’) has undergone development as Jews came into contact with and were influenced by societies and cultures different from their own.


Reform and Liberal theologians have been largely puzzled that all this is in any way a source of offence. ‘So what else is new?’ they exclaim. Human beings have known that for centuries, as Galileo said after his recantation, ‘The earth still moves.’ My reply has been that I have never tried to present as new the findings of science. I have only tried to put forward the view that Jewish practice, the Halakhah, is still binding because this is the will of God, provided, of course that the Torah is seen, as it often is in the tradition itself, in dynamic terms of trial and error, falsehood gradually yielding to truth. Nor do I claim any originality for such a view, which has been held by Jewish traditionalists from the early nineteenth century. But I now admit that I was wrong in imagining that such views are compatible with Orthodoxy as this is now understood in fundamentalist terms (I use ‘fundamentalism’ not in a pejorative sense but only to denote the attitude of those who are either indifferent of antagonistic to all modern critical scholarship).


So much for theory. On practical note my views may have been considered to be heretical, but I know from personal contact through the years that many of the Modern Orthodox and even a few of the Charedim have shown sufficient interest in my view to whisper in my ear ‘There is something in what you are saying.’ In Anglo-Jewry however the Orthodox establishment and the Chief Rabbi have dubbed me a heretic. The Chief Rabbi has never responded to my critique ... More than once I have urged that Chief Rabbi to declare that basically his views differ only slightly from mine, but he has not bothered to reply. And there is the odd matter of the London Beth Din issuing a ruling to the effect that while I am welcome to any United Synagogue I cannot be called up to the Torah because, granted my beliefs I cannot honestly recite the benediction ‘Who has given us His Torah.’ If, as a result of the above, I find myself over forty years after the publication of We Have Reason To Believe, in something of a limbo, belonging neither to the Orthodox, nor to the Reform, nor, in a sense, fully to the Masorti. I do not complain. I suppose I asked for it. I have consoled myself by quoting a Hasidic saying which runs, ‘One who has no place anywhere has a place everywhere.’


For going over old ground I must apologise by repeating a story I have often told. An old Jew was observed in a railway carriage muttering to himself and waving his hands in dismissive gestures from time to time. ‘What are you doing?’ he was asked. I was bored with the long journey and was telling myself Jewish jokes to while away the time.’ ‘And why did you wave your hands?’ ‘I have heard them all before.’


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