Slavery and Its Atonement: The Jewish Obligation to Confront Slavery’s Legacy

Episode 4 · December 24th, 2019 · 42 mins 28 secs

About this Episode

Slavery has been described as America’s original sin. Abolished with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery still casts a shadow over American life. Today, many Americans are seeking to better understand, and respond to, this tortured history. Can Judaism offer some guidelines for how to do that? Do Jews have to atone for the sin of slavery, even though mass Jewish migration to the United States didn’t happen until decades after the Civil War? Rabbi Toba Spitzer answers yes to both questions. In this episode, the religious leader of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, a Reconstructionist congregation outside Boston, discusses ideas she first explored in a Yom Kippur sermon. Spitzer says that the ancient priests — who may have been among the Hebrew Bible’s editors — had ideas about communal sin that may offer a path toward societal acknowledgement and atonement for the sin of slavery. Rabbi Jacob Staub, Ph.D., who directs the Evolve project, sits in for this interview.

Theme song, “Ilu Finu” by Rabbi Miriam Margles. Her album This is the Day is available for purchase at CDBaby:

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Episode Links

  • Slavery and Its Atonement — On the impact of slavery and the white Jewish obligations to respond.
  • Deuteronomy 21:1-9 — Biblical text on communal responsibility referenced in this episode
  • Drew Gilpin Faust: Race and History in Virginia - The Atlantic — A historian looks back at the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in her home state.
  • The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates - The Atlantic — Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
  • Atonement: The Jewish case for black reparations – J. — Holocaust reparations marked an astonishing historic moment…“For the first time in the history of relations between people,” then-Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion said, “a precedent has been created by which a great state, as a result of moral pressure alone, takes it upon itself to pay compensation to the victims of the government that preceded it.” Today, it may be the closest model America has to reckon with one of the darkest times in its own history: 250 years of black enslavement, followed by a century of systematic housing, education and job discrimination that continues to affect people and communities today.
  • Beyond Erasure: A New Look at Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism — Jews and non-Jews have internalized varying degrees of antisemitism, including the insidious idea that Jews should "disappear."
  • Op-Ed: Germany paid Holocaust reparations. Will the U.S. do the same for slavery? - Los Angeles Times — It is easy to point to the differences between the Holocaust and the enslavement and abuse of millions of Africans. When examining possible responses to these crimes, however, striking similarities emerge.
  • What Holocaust Restitution Taught Me About Slavery Reparations - POLITICO Magazine — My experience negotiating restitution for Holocaust survivors has shown me how difficult and divisive a slavery reparations program would be to enact.
  • Reform Jews call for reparations for slavery - Religion News Service — Delegates to the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial meeting in Chicago on Friday (Dec. 13) voted overwhelmingly to advocate for the creation of a federal commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to African Americans for slavery.
  • Action Reconciliation Service for Peace — The appeal at the founding of Action Reconciliation starts with acknowledging Germany’s guilt for Nazi crimes…Convinced that the first step towards reconciliation had to be made by the perpetrators and their descendants, the founders of Action Reconciliation pledged that “the other nations, who suffered because of us, will allow us with our hands and with our means to do something good in their countries” as a sign of reconciliation and peace.
  • Whitney Plantation | Guided Tours of Whitney Plantation Museum — Whitney Plantation is the only plantation museum in Louisiana with an exclusive focus on the lives of enslaved people. Visit Whitney’s memorials and restored buildings to enter the world of a Louisiana sugar plantation and to remember those who built and worked this property. On your walking tour, your guide shows you through slave cabins, a freedmen’s church, detached kitchen and outbuildings, a 1790s owner’s house and memorials built to honor the enslaved.
  • The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Edward E. Baptist) — Americans tend to cast slavery as a pre-modern institution -- the nation's original sin, perhaps, but isolated in time and divorced from America's later success. But to do so robs the millions who suffered in bondage of their full legacy. As historian Edward E. Baptist reveals, the expansion of slavery in the first eight decades after American independence drove the evolution and modernization of the United States.
  • Nobody Knows My Name: James Baldwin et. al. — Told with Baldwin's characteristically unflinching honesty, this collection of illuminating, deeply felt essays examines topics ranging from race relations in the United States to the role of the writer in society, and offers personal accounts of Richard Wright, Norman Mailer and other writers.
  • The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings: James Baldwin