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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick


It might surprise you to learn that one of America’s leading progressive synagogues was at one time led by a supporter of slavery.

From 1850-1866, New York’s B’nai Jeshuron, which is also one of the older congregations in the country, was led by Rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall. He was also the first Jew to lead Congress in prayer.

It was in 1861, when the United States was more divided than it is today (so far), that Rabbi Raphall delivered a sermon called “Bible View of Slavery.” In an article posted at the website (which specializes in the academic study of Jewish texts), Prof. Howard B. Rock writes:

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.

Raphall’s full commentary is based on the Torah’s description of Noah’s son Ham who may or may not have done something sexual to his drunken father. Whatever it was that the Torah obliquely refers to, Noah cursed him, saying, “Cursed be Canaan (Ham’s son); the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” Traditionally, both Jewish and Christian theologians associated Ham’s family with Black Africans.

To be sure, Raphall was in the minority of his colleagues. Yet he was far from alone and his point of view was taken seriously enough that he took his sermon on the road. He had no southern ties (he was a new immigrant) but was embraced by fervent supporters of slavery.

If there was ever a time when America was more divided than today, it was certainly in the years leading to the Civil War. And with eerie similarities to those days, Jews found themselves on both sides of the divide, their leaders providing plenty of biblical and other Jewish justifications for their beliefs.

Like the synagogue that Raphall served, today most American Jews are generally on the side of social justice and human dignity. But most is not all. There is no way to get to “all” because Jews are simply too diverse in belief and temperament. Today Jews can’t even unanimously agree on what is antisemitic, much less what is morally and ethically correct. (See Under: Trump’s tweet that Jews “need to get their act together” on Israel “before it’s too late.”)

Whatever else it means to be a part of our extended Jewish family, agreeing on major issues is not one of them. We can’t even agree on the basic lessons of our own recent history. (See Under: Anything related to the State of Israel.)

As New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin – an active member of a Reform temple – said in last week’s Forward:

The Jewish people aren’t monolithic … It’s really important for everyone to understand that when we’re communicating with Jewish voters that there are different priorities, different values, different backgrounds and different party affiliations and what might resonate with some might not resonate with others.

I’m pretty sure that Zeldin and I disagree on many things, but on this he is absolutely correct.

Of all the reasons that I choose Humanistic Judaism, it is this basic reality. Judaism is an amazing culture and I’m proud to be a part of the Jewish family. Yet in my decades of service to the Jewish community and more decades of being a Jew, I’ve never made decisions about what is right or wrong based on the Torah or any other Jewish text or tradition. I don’t care any more about what the Torah says about abortion than I care what it says about the sons of Ham. And while I’m very happy that the majority of Jews and of my rabbinical colleagues are on the same page as me when it comes, for example, to reproductive rights, it would not change my mind one whit if they were not. As a humanist, I am guided by my own conscience and informed by the collective reason of our world-wide humanist community.

Certainly, humanists do not agree on every single issue. Not by a long shot. But as the two largest camps in our country now consist of the deluded and the evidence-based, humanists fearful of the rise of Christian Nationalism and dangers to democracy have been creating a movement that is bolder about our values.

One great example of this is a widely-praised curriculum provided by the American Humanist Association called The Ten Commitments (a poster about them hangs in our lobby). Over the next few weeks, our Spinoza students will be exploring them, comparing them to religious codes, especially the Big Ten that so many believe should rule our society.

Rabbi Wine taught that ideological competition is good for the Jews, more valuable than the “mushy pluralism” that avoids confrontation and glosses over our differences. To take a note from queer activism, we Humanistic Jews need to be “loud and proud” about our commitments and what they offer to Jews and the whole world.

It is, in our founder’s words, nothing less than a life of reason and dignity.


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