SLAVERY IN THE TANAKH (Jewish Bible)

During the last few months our country has seen a number of protests by tens of thousands of women and men marching against the murder of unarmed innocent men and women of color killed by members of our police force. Acts of such egregious discrimination against folk of color bring back memories of the past and the ethical inequities and horrors of American slavery. As far as I know, the question of how to dispose of the many post-civil war monuments celebrating confederate personalities who owned slaves imported like cattle from Africa and sold to slaveholders in this country, has not been solved so far.

This said, the sad and regrettable historical chapter of American slavery has once again been exposed center stage. Once again the unjust treatment of people of color in this country points to a criminal justice system that stands in need of thorough reform. Sadly, these racist events point to the fact that Dr. Martin Luther Jr.’s great “dream” of racial equality in the US, after all these years following his assassination, still waits and cries for fulfillment.

Slavery is an ugly word and concept. It is especially so to those of us who once were slaves ourselves. You must understand that as a biblical scholar and because of my past existential involvement in slavery as a victim of the Holocaust, I thought it meaningful to explore what place it occupied in ancient Israelite history and how past ancient slave systems may have influenced the American experience.

Biblical Palestine, for a period of thousands of years was economically and socially an integral part of the ancient Near Eastern world. Slavery was an economic institution there. In order to evaluate biblical slavery in its proper perspective, we must take a quick look at slavery as it existed in neighboring parts of the Fertile Crescent, the crescent-like geographical area stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia.

There is extant literature on the subject of slavery in the ancient Near East. This literature contains a number of law codes, the names of which are generally unknown to non-professionals. This documentation covers a period stretching from about 2050 B.C.E (Before the Common Era), the Ur-Namu Code of Sumer to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, ca. 1700 B.C.E. and on down to court documents from Babylonia and Assyria from the 14th to the 12th cent BCE.

All these codes contain legislation dealing with slavery. This being the case, it is not surprising that our Torah, whose written reminiscences, historical and pseudo-historical, fall into the latter part of the above period of documentation, also contains legislation covering the phenomenon of slavery.

Before continuing with this inquiry, a word of caution. The biblical Hebrew term for a male slave is eved, for a female slave shifchah. In dealing with these terms, it is important to pay attention to the literary context in which they occur, because eved, slave, can also mean servant, bondsman, serf while the word’s female counterpart shifchah, female slave, can also mean maidservant.

This said, what comes to mind is the question: was the ancient Near Eastern and Israelite slave system racist and therefore similar to the American system, begun here in 1619 when the first slave ship, the White Lion, arrived at Point Comfort in the English settlement that would become Virginia, and when after landing, the ship’s captain immediately proceeded to sell the Africans kidnapped from their villages in what is now Angola. Regarding the above date, it should be mentioned that documentation exists that African Blacks had been imported as slaves in the English colony of Bermuda already before 1619.

Before we try to respond to the questions as to whether the biblical Israelite slave system was based on racist ideology, let us define race and racism. Race. Britannica. com: “Contemporary scientists hold that human physical variations, especially in those traits that are normally used to classify people racially – skin color, hair texture, facial features, and to some extent bodily structure – must be understood in terms of evolution processes and the long-range adaptation of human groups… Racism, according to the Oxford English dictionary is “the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race; belief in the superiority of a particular race.”

These preliminary remarks having been presented, let us now go to one of the more important biblical texts that deals with slavery.

“Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bear him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.”

Exodus 21:1-6

This ordinance is one of great many legal references to slavery in Israel. Notice that this ordinance deals with Hebrew slaves explicitly. This explicitness is not found in many legislative texts dealing with slavery where the slave is designated by the term eved. Given this problem, scholars disagree in their interpretation with regard to which slave is meant: Jewish or foreign. Furthermore, slavery is a broad concept that must be broken down into a number of categories: captives of war; Israelite or foreign slaves; minors sold into slavery; people’s self-sale into slavery; insolvency caused slavery; female slavery; marriage between free men and slaves; manumission; Temple slavery; and the important economic role of slavery.

Obviously, it is impossible to deal here with all the references to slaves enumerated above. What can be said, however, is that while the Bible considers slaves to be a chattel of their master, there are regulations which the master must respect. Here is one such text. Deut. 21.10-14: “When you go out to war against your enemies and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.”      

There are many other similar legislative stipulations in the Bible. Lev. 25:44 allows the people of Israel to buy and sell slaves; Ex. 21:16 and Deut. 24:7 legislates against kidnapping, stealing and selling a person which carries the death penalty. In Israel, the master/owner was not allowed to harm his slaves. In case this happened, the slave had to be set free (Ex.21:26-27). On the other hand, Ex.21:20-21 seems to me contradictory: “And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he died under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.”

Clearly, the Israelite law, based on Torah and thus considered to have come from God, is not all that clear about master-slave relationship. To me it is puzzling that nowhere in the Torah God, the master legislator, forbids slavery. Interestingly, this holds true for the New Testament and thus also for Jesus of Nazareth. What can be stated with certainty, on the other hand, is that in the Hebrew Bible the slave has certain rights that protect him from being abused, maltreated, injured or killed. The slave is not hated. He is, rather like a useful machine, to be kept in a good workable state.

While the biblical concept of slavery is nothing to be praised it is a system of slavery seen fit for the economy then in place. Sadly, there is no voice raised, not even that of God, condemning it. It is curious to me that none of the great prophets of Israel, staunch advocates for justice, have anything to say about it. Slavery is a concept accepted and used in the Ancient Middle East and thus Israel accepted it and seemingly also practiced it.

My writing the word “seemingly” above in bold suggests that considering the history of ancient Israel I have a problem accepting the fact that slavery was actually in use there. Why so?

Israel as a geopolitical entity begins with King David, if we accept the biblical Davidic kingship stories as historically accurate. Seen from an archaeological viewpoint questions about the grandiose narratives concerning King David and the Davidic empire leaves many questions unanswered.

It is highly probable that if slavery in ancient Israel existed, the slaves were not prisoners of war but rather fellow Israelites. This is substantiated in I K 5:27-32 where we read that “King Solomon [David’s son] raised a levy of forced labor (Hebrew mas) out of all Israel and the level numbered thirty thousand men. The so-called United Kingdom of David (ca. 1,000 BCE) fell apart with the fiasco of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, against whom the ten northern tribes revolted under the leadership of one Jeroboam in protest against the harsh treatment of the people by Solomon (931 BCE) and Rehoboam’s boasting that his future leadership would be even harsher. This led to the subsequent breakup of the United Kingdom into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The northern kingdom ended in 722 BCE when Sargon II, king of Assyria, defeated the ten northern tribes. Judah in the south fell to Babylonia in 586 BCE when Zedekiah, its last king, was defeated.        From then on the geopolitical state of Israel no longer existed. A relatively short resurrection of Israel occurred under Hasmonean/Maccabean rule from 165 BCE to 63 BCE at which time the land became a Roman province. Summarizing the above we conclude that an independent Israel existed for a total of 512 years. After the fall of Israel to Rome, 1,085 years went by with Israel being dispersed and without a homeland until 1948 when Israel was resurrected again and became Eretz Yisrael, the modern state of Israel.

Given the relatively short periods of Israel’s independent existence it is highly unlikely that slavery ever played an important role in Israel. This said, I wonder whether the biblical slavery legislation is little more than wishful thinking of what slavery should look like in a future reconstructed kingdom of Israel, which once again will have become a geopolitical independent entity. Whatever the actual reality of ancient Israel’s approach to slavery was, lived or optimistically envisioned for the future, it seems certain that Israel’s legislation provided rules of law regulating the slave owner- slave relationship. In most cases, these rules provided the slave protection against slave owners’ possible cruelty. There is no display of hatred for slaves to be found in Israel’s slavery legislation. The biblical picture of slavery is not founded on racist ideology.

Remains to be shown where certain Americans, primarily southern clergy and their followers, found justification for slavery in the Bible.

The biblical story of Noah and the Flood is well known to all of us. After Noah’s family survived the worldwide flood in the famous floating ark, Noah planted a vineyard. The story tells how Noah overindulged in his wine and fell fast asleep in his tent in the nude.

Noah had three sons named Shem, Ham and Japheth (Gen.9:18-19, 27). A literal interpretation of this Genesis story suggests that the population of the world descended from these three sons and their wives.

The story has it that Ham, the father of Canaan, entered the tent, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers about it. These two, Shem and Japheth, entered the tent and covered their father walking backwards so that they did not see his nakedness. When Noah found out what Ham, his son, had done, he curses Canaan, Ham’s son and his progeny to the effect that Canaan and his progeny will be servants to Shem and Japheth. In the popular version of this bizarre story, known as “the curse of Ham,” Canaan, Ham’s son, disappears and Ham was made black and his descendants, all black, were Africans. This is how the perversion took place.

The Canaanites, throughout Israel’s biblical history, were demonized and their land, Canaan, was occupied under the leadership of Joshua and the Judges and became the “homeland” of the People Israel.

Finally, where does God’s curse of blackness of the people come from? Nothing in the biblical story suggests or refers to the world populations’ skin colors! In Genesis chapter 10, the sequel to the Flood Story, we read, “These are the generations of the sons of Noah,…” with enumerations of their populations and lands. In Genesis 10:6 this reads, “The sons of Ham: Kush, Egypt, Put …” (Don’t be confused by the fact that countries and populations were named after Ham’s sons.) Ham, the perpetrator of the sin of having seen his father’s nakedness is here identified with Kush, the area south of Egypt, today known as the Sudan and Ethiopia, in which the population has pitch black skin color. Also Egypt, the archenemy of ancient Israel falls under God’s curse of Ham.

To the white southern slaveholders it was clear that Ham must have been black and thus right along with him all black skinned people had been cursed by God and destined to serve Shem’s and Japheth’s people who in the southern preachers’ opinion were white.

Here then we find the birth of white supremacism. Interestingly, the human skin color scheme is nowhere mentioned in the Bible story.

Such are the vagaries of biblical interpretation. This one served as the justification for the slavery of about 600,000 American slaves or 5% of the 12 million slaves hunted down and taken from Africa. This, in turn, resulted between 1882 and 1968 in 4,743 documented lynchings with 3,446 of these done to Black People in America.

Clearly, racism and white supremacism are not found in the Bible. What can be found there is religious supremacism which is regrettable. More about that some other time.        Let me end this mini-study of slavery in the Bible with a reminder. One of the Haggadah’s texts we sing at the Pesach (Passover) seder begins with the words avadim hayiynu… or “we were slaves.” Let us never forget our people’s sufferings as slaves in Egypt and the Holocaust and our liberation to become an am chofshi, “a free people.” May these lived experiences of our people, the Jewish people, provide for us the spiritual compass and mandate to stand with all people of color who continue to be threatened by white racists and supremacists.


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How fast, we Jews, forget!

The shameful treatment of would be immigrants to our country continues. While I have no high opinion of Trump, an understatement, it is beyond my understanding why he nurtures this venomous hatred against these people who flee to preserve their lives and the lives of their children. Is it all in the name of his white supremacist attitude, best expressed in the slogan of “Make America White Again?”

As a Holocaust survivor, I cannot help but compare Trump’s racism to that of Hitler’s who, in similar manner, sized up the threat of Judaism as a threat not only to Germany but to the world. One of his more famous antisemitic mentors, Richard Wagner, the great composer, expressed the threat of Judaism and the Jewish people by coining a new word: Verjudung, meaning something like “jewishing” the otherwise pure world…I hate to think what a totally white America would look, feel and act like!

Because of Jewish ethics and more particularly because of our past history in which we came to experience and hopefully to learn what rejection for ethnic reasons feels like and produces, Jews must not and cannot turn their back to migrants fleeing for life.

I am disappointed that on the local, national and international level few Jewish voices have been heard to condemn our governments’ treatment of these poor refugees at our southern gates. Have we forgotten what rejection feels like?

Here then are reminders:

Back in 1938 the plight of the Jews in Germany had become known. Rumors had it that Jews in Germany were sent to concentration camps. Auschwitz had not been built yet and so the worst had not yet happened. There was much talk about the necessity of creating safe havens for the Jews but talk did not suffice. There was need for action.

It was on President Roosevelt ‘s initiative that an international meeting was convened in July 1938 in Evian-les-Bains, France, to request commitments from the assembled nations to accept Jewish refugees from Germany.

And so 32 nations came together joined by 24 voluntary organi-zations that participated as observers. Also 200 journalists attended. Hitler endorsed the conference and even allegedly promised to help the Jews leave his country. It was reported that he said, “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [the Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

The conference ended in failure. With the exception of the tiny Dominican Republic which offered help, none of the other participating nations made a commitment about accepting Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. For Hitler this was a victory as it seemed to demonstrate that no one desired an influx of Jews to their country. Useful propaganda!

Two months after Evian – the Sudeten was given to Hitler by British prime minister Chamberlain. 120,000 formerly Czech Jews became stateless. In March 1939 Czechoslovakia was occupied and 180,000 more Jews came under Hitler’s rule. Then came Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. On September 1, 1939 WW II broke out. Holocaust and 6 million Jewish dead followed. Have we, Jews, learned anything from Evian? Do we not remember?

Our treatment of the refugees at our southern border is a test of American humaneness and civilization and we are flunking it.

The story of the Saint Louis Ship should be an other reminder for us Jews of our history of a people fleeing from destruction and being refused to be given a haven of safety and a secure life.

During WW II the ship, the St. Louis, owned by the German Hapag (Hamburg-America Line) was a German luxury ocean liner that carried over 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in 1939 trying to escape the Holocaust. The ship’s destination was Cuba in the hope that the refugees would debark and settle there. Having arrived there, the ship docked in Havana’s harbor but the refugees, with the exception of some Spaniards, Cubans and US citizens with Cuban visas, were not allowed to disembark. US government officials interceded with Cuba but to no avail. What now?

The ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, a seemingly very decent human being, now took the ship to the US and to Canada, trying to find a nation that would accept these Jewish refugees fleeing for their life. Both nations refused the ship’s landing in their respective harbors.

In view of these refusals, no alternative was left for the captain but to return to Europe. The UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and France accepted a few of the ships’ refugees. Unfortunately, the Nazis in their lightning fast war caught up with these Jewish refugees who thought they had escaped the clutches of Hitler. Statistics show that 254 of those who were forced to return to Europe were murdered during the Holocaust in Auschwitz and Sobibor. The rest died in various slave labor camps, in hiding or in attempts to evade the Nazis.

Let me end this blog by reminding ourselves that we Jews, too, were once on the run from death. Should not our empathy for these folks at our southern border motivate us to speak out loudly against their mistreatment?

I do not understand that Melania Trump, a mother herself, has not been willing or able to speak out for a more humane treatment of these suffering folk. Jared and Ivanka Kushner, both allegedly Jews, have remained silent. I do not understand that the fathers and mothers, employed by ICE, lend themselves to such inhuman treatment as separating children from their parents.

America, where are we headed?!

Forcing family breakup: the new American way?

The 18th century great Jewish German poet Heinrich Heine once wrote, Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, da bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht. This translates into English as, “Whenever I think of Germany by night, I can no longer sleep.” A prophetic utterance of one who lived some 200 +years before the Holocaust took place.

I feel the same way when, during the last one and a half years, I have been considering what has been happening to my country, the United States of America. By “making America great again,” Donald Trump’s slogan prior and after his election to the presidency, the president has actually “made America great-ly” impoverished and reduced in morality, generosity and spirit, a deep concern which often deprives me of my sleep.

Just about after every lecture dealing with my experiences during the Holocaust, someone in the audience asks me which of these experiences I consider to have been the most horrific. Hard to say when the entire three years were a veritable hell. “Were you afraid of death?” – another person inquires. Every daily roll call may have sent me into the gas of Auschwitz or the shooting wall at Gross Rosen where prisoners no longer able to work were machine gunned and cremated. With our increasing dehumanization and deterioration in body and spirit, fear of death was replaced by hunger. This was an ongoing process, eventually leading to destruction of us who had become non-thinking zombies..

So was there a most terrifying moment in my life? The answer is Yes.

The date was June 29, 1942 when our family was torn apart. Driven from the ghetto into a junkyard by the SS, we were forced to hand over any valuables still in our possession. Gold necklaces, coins, wedding rings, watches, – all these were confiscated. There was intimidation by shouted threats and beatings. For a boy of fifteen that I was this was terribly scary.

But then came something even worse: separation. Women and men were separated into groups. My Mom was ripped from my Dad’s side. And I was ripped away from both my parents and my older sister. Never had I been – had I lived apart from my beloved parents who, from the day of my birth, had taken care of me, nurtured me with unending expressions of love. Words cannot express the feeling of abandonment and lostness and – yes, of fear, I experienced in that moment.

If I feel so terribly hurt to this day, even in retrospect, I cannot even imagine what my parents felt and went through on that acursed day. As my thoughts return to that utterly obscene event, I can still see my Mom weeping. with a face distorted with anguish, running behind me and calling to me, “Walti, Walti, do not leave us!” An SS soldier barring her way toward me, hit her on the head with his leather whip shouting, “Enough of that! Back to your group!” A rough shove did the rest. No longer were we together as a family. All four of us must have realized that a big question mark would from now on hang over our existence. Would we ever see each other again?

Daily, the question of illegal immigration is played out before our eyes these days. It seems that president Trump and his acolyte Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, are consumed with hatred for undocumented immigrants. For months we have been hearing unending litanies concerning the threat undocumented refugee immigration represents for our country and population.

Doctors Without Borders, the fabulous worldwide medical organization whom I admire and support, announced yesterday that new Asylum Restrictions issued by Mr. Sessions, the Attorney General and head of the Justice Department, are a death sentence for Central Americans fleeing deadly violence in their countries. Citizens of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador will from now on no longer be able to use domestic or gang violence as acceptable justification for seeking asylum in the US.

We, a country consisting entirely of immigrants, with the exception of America’s Native Nations, are closing the gates to refugees fleeing for their lives hoping to find a safe haven in our country . Having come to our southern border and seeking asylum, they will be turned away.

Since last October,700 children of parents who came here many years ago as undocumented immigrants have been forcibly separated from their parents who were deported to their country of origin and we are told that 1,500 children, thus separated under duress from their parents and sent “somewhere,” cannot be found.

I hope you see the connection between my story above and what has been happening here. Have our legislators become non-thinking and non-feeling men and women? Do they not have children? Do they not love their children? If threatened by conditions of death, would they not seek asylum in a neighboring country?

What is happening to us Americans? Can we still claim to be “the Land of the free and the home of the brave?” after this kind of sham perpetrated by our government? Have we become great under Trump or have we, thanks to him, become great-ly diminished as compassionate human beings?

Concern for our country and where we are headed under this government, keeps me awake during many a night.

A 10th grader responds.

After one of my recent Holocaust-related talks at UNC-A for a large group of Middle School through College students, I received from a 10th grader the following essay which I thought was worth sharing with you.

“My heart is pounding, and I am on the edge on my seat. I can feel the energy around me as I graciously listen to his words. Seventy-eight years have passed, yet he is telling his story as if he is the same thirteen-year-old boy living in treacherous misery. His name is Dr. Walter Ziffer, and he is a Holocaust survivor. Dr. Ziffer speaks of many hardships that morning, and I am clinging on to every word. The pain, the fear, the agony, that he must have gone through, alone. He was just barely a teenager when the Nazi soldiers brought down their wrath, murdering six million of his brothers and sisters.

I had heard of the Holocaust, but I did not know what it was until I was about 12 years old. I remember sitting there in that history class thinking, “A person really did that? A person really tried to eliminate an entire race? Why would he do that?” Here I am, years later, thinking the same thing. Before now, I had read stories and memoirs, and I have even watched a couple of interviews. But there is something so incredibly breathtaking about being in that auditorium, hearing that sorrow in his voice, feeling the passion in his soul growing louder and louder. Dr. Ziffer explains that it hurts him, even now, to recall his past and speak about it. But, he says, he must. He must let young people like me know what really happened, and he must bring awareness to the topic. In that auditorium, there are kids as young as 11 and 12. And Dr. Ziffer doesn’t sugar coat anything either. He speaks of being ripped away from his family, of men and women being raped and killed, of being worked nearly to death at the camps, of all the murder that surrounded him. Everyone is touched by his words. As nothing but humans, our differences seem irrelevant now as we listen to him speak.

Here’s what I think. Without a doubt, I am more than in awe of people like Dr. Ziffer. I am beyond thankful for Elie Wiesel, Samuel Bak, Primo Levi. In Elie Wiesel’s “The Perils of Indifference” speech, he inspires members of the twenty-first century to never show indifference to others, and to always possess compassion. This is key. These survivors have witnessed and experienced things that most people only have nightmares about. They use that to inform young people about this monstrosity. Adolf Hitler, former chancellor of Germany, responsible for the death of over 6 million people. But here we are today, united as a people at least on the opinion that the Holocaust was simply evil. It was inhumane and wrong. We have to learn to effectively communicate, especially when we disagree. The is precisely why Dr. Ziffer’s story needs to be told.  In America, we are fighting about politics, religion, civil rights … everything. But we can all join together on this, and never let it happen again.”