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



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