The Torah of Reparations for Slavery
Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein
[We are in the midst of an extraordinary event in American history: a multiracial nation-wide uprising against deeply dug-in racism. It started with rejection of the use of racist violence by some among police forces. That was a profoundly wise response, since our whole society has assigned the police the American monopoly on the legitimate use of violence inside our country. If they use that license in racist ways, the whole society is responsible to change course.
[This movement has broadened, to look at other aspects of institutionalized racism that have been the long long shadow of enslavement. One question that has arisen is whether some form of reparations is due from America to the Black community. For Jews, this question has special importance. For we and the Japanese-American community are the only segments of American society that have in fact received reparations -- Jews from Germany, for the almost unfathomable violence against the Jewish people in the Holocaust; and Japanese-Americans from the US government, for their imprisonment in detention camps and loss of property during World War II. So the Jewish community may have some special insight into the ethical issues involved in reparations.
[In addition, our deepest spiritual and religious roots – the biblical story of the Exodus – are intertwined with a story of reparations to the whole people for having been enslaved by Pharaoh, the embodiment of Mitzrayyim – the Hebrew word for Egypt, which means “the tight and narrow place.” So The Shalom Center will bring our members and readers a series of articles from various standpoints – religious, historical, and personal -- on the question of reparations. The following is the first in a series of such essays. It is a much-abbreviated version of Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein’s extraordinary 2018 article, “The Torah Case for Reparations,” which you can read in full at this link. The author prepared this shortened version especially for The Shalom Center. -- AW, ed.]
The Torah of Reparations for Slavery
Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein
In the last several years, cultural and political winds have moved the demand for reparations to Black Americans from the fringe into the mainstream of American politics. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s magisterial 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations”, deserves much of the credit for this shift. Slavery and its aftermath sit at the heart of the mythic consciousness of Judaism. Does Judaism have anything to contribute to a national consideration of reparations? I think it does.
We Took Reparations
Jews must support reparations in principle, because we took reparations for our slave labor, we were commanded by God to do so, and we were promised these reparations in the earliest Divine plan for our liberation. The Torah emphasizes that on the way out of Egypt, the Israelites emptied their Egyptian neighbors of their wealth (Exodus 12:35-36).
This taking of reparations was not castigated as dishonest plundering or sinful vindictiveness, nor even as an optional bonus, but was a required component of liberation, as God had explicitly commanded the day before (Exodus 11:2). Receiving reparations was a core component of the Exodus. God’s first promise to liberate the Israelite slaves, spoken to Moses at the burning bush, already explicitly included abundant reparations (Exodus 3:21-22). The taking of reparations is at the very heart of the slavery story, even promised to Abram as part and parcel of the Bible’s first premonition of slavery and redemption.
The first time the Torah’s core story — slavery and liberation — is revealed, the entire content of that liberation is the future departure from Egypt with reparations: “Know for sure that your seed shall be an alien in a land not their own, and shall serve them; and they shall abuse them -- four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with significant property” (Genesis 15:13-14). We recite this passage ritually in our Passover seders to this day, annually reviewing that God’s faithfulness is expressed through a promise kept over hundreds of years, and that that promise was reparations for slavery.
Are these Really Reparations?
The Rabbis of the Talmud understood the wealth taken by the Israelites as slavery reparations, as shown in a piquant story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) which imagines the Egyptians suing the Jews in the court of Alexander the Great to return the wealth they took on the way out of Egypt. A non-rabbi named Geviha ben Pesisa serves as defense attorney for the Jews and countersues: “I, too will bring you evidence only from the Torah, as is said, ‘And the Israelites’ residence, which they resided in Egypt was 430 years’ (Ex. 12:40): Give us payment for the labor of 600,000, whom you enslaved in Egypt for 430 years.”
The Egyptians offer no response and drop their case. Egypt had exploited the Israelites for hundreds of years, stealing their labor. Egypt owed the Israelites generations of reparations, but was not about to pay them willingly or to acknowledge the depth of its wrongdoing. According to the Talmud and even the Torah itself, not only were reparations just, but taking them by any means necessary, even deception, was just and commanded by God and should be intelligible to the international community.
The Rabbis place this (fictional) lawsuit during a Sabbatical year, when Jews are prohibited from farming. Observing the sabbatical year disrupts anyone’s domination over land and people. The land is released to grow wild and debts are relieved. Temporary economic straits, then, cannot plunge a person into structural poverty and servitude.
Just as the Torah contrasts Egyptian slavery with observance of the weekly sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:15), the prophet Jeremiah tells the people that God commanded the Sabbatical year laws “on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Jeremiah 34:13). For the Rabbis, Egyptian spoils were reparations, were massive in quantity, yet still insufficient compensation, and contributed to an economy set up as a challenge to the exploitation of slavery.
The Torah’s Internalization of the Legal Implications
The Torah does not frame the Israelites’ taking of Egyptian reparations only as an important historical element to their past liberation, but as a core component of the Divine law moving forward. As the Torah prepares the Israelites for life in the Land of Israel as an independent nation, God warns them of the proper way to transition vulnerable and dependent indentured servants to freedom (Deuteronomy 15:12-15).
Landowners, having used their servants’ labor to generate not just income, but wealth, are commanded to endow freed servants with wealth that will enable them to escape the poverty that plunged them into servitude in the first place. This legal burden is a lesson of the redemption from Egyptian slavery. Our ancestors were rescued from slavery with reparations bountiful enough to build long-term financial security. Our free society is commanded to ensure the same for those plunged into economic subordination, so that temporary poor-ness never becomes structural poverty.
Reparations in Practice: The Resulting Spiritual Economy
Not only is the epic story of the exodus a story largely about reparations, but so is the desert aftermath, the highs and lows of the free nation’s religious life. God commands the people to contribute gold, silver, copper, and fine fabrics toward the construction of the Mishkan. The Torah states that it is the construction of the Mishkan, which enabled God to dwell among the Israelites in the desert (Exodus 25:8). From the perspective of Exodus, then, intimacy with God for the Israelites was enabled by reparations.
The spoils of Egypt also feature at the center of the other “religious” construction of Exodus, the Golden Calf. Though the Rabbis link the sin of the Golden Calf to the spoils of Egypt, they do not question the justice of those reparations, implying that not taking reparations would have been even worse than the sin of the Golden Calf (Talmud Bavli Berakhot 32a). The justice of reparations is so clear that if they are not disbursed in an organized way, plundered people are urged by God to take them anyway, and if the ensuing chaos produces calamity, so be it.
When people talk about reparations today, they mean targeted programs, overseen by governmental commissions. Various models have been proposed and implemented in different places; they should be studied, selected, and implemented. Refusal to do so is irreconcilable with the Torah tradition.
What are We Supposed to Do about it?
In this Congressional session, as in every one for over twenty-five years, a bill (H.R. 40) has been introduced to the U.S. Congress, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. As Jews, if we take our Torah tradition seriously, we should make it a core issue of Jewish American politics to demand that H.R. 40 be brought to the House floor and passed. We know that liberation from slavery without reparations is a woefully incomplete liberation.
To continue your learning at greater depth, read the full article, “The Torah Case for Reparations”, at this link.