Disclaimer: The intention of this article is not to take a stance on the topic of reparations for American Blacks. It refrains from entering into that particular debate. Instead, its sole aim is to rectify certain significant misconceptions about Torah that should not have been presented in a prominent publication like the WSJ.
Gerard Leval, a top attorney who serves as the pro bono general counsel to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, on Thursday published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled, “What the Bible Says About Reparations for Slavery.”
I’ll skip the part where Leval gravely misunderstands Exodus 34:7, which says God Is “extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin—yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”
Leval tries to relate the above passage to the idea of a statute of limitation, and by extension solve the problem he presents in his opening, that “the case for paying reparations to descendants of slaves has been gaining momentum nationwide.”
Rashi explains the meaning of the somewhat convoluted text, saying “yet not remitting all punishment” means “He does not forgive the sin completely, but He makes them pay little by little, and those who repent are not punished while those who do not, would not be absolved.” And as to “visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children,” Rashi says: “When they hold on to the deed of their ancestors.”
It’s not about a statute of limitation on crimes, it’s about repenting and letting go of them.
Leval makes a cogent point in the final two paragraphs:
Jewish tradition offers a way to do so. Every spring Jews celebrate Passover, the holiday that commemorates the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. Passover emphasizes not vengeance or retribution but important teachings: gratitude to God for freeing the Jews and for the blessings of freedom, together with the divinely inspired injunction never to treat others as the Jews were treated. In our commemoration, we also remember the death and destruction of the Egyptians—not as an act of triumphalism but rather out of compassion for the suffering of fellow human beings.
This tradition is a template for addressing the consequences of slavery in America. The best and most equitable reparations lie not in cash payments but in remembering and teaching the lessons of slavery—of its terrible consequences and of the suffering of those who endured it. Such an approach is fundamentally just, constructive, and unlimited by time.
Interestingly, an admired jurist such as Gerard Leval chooses to completely ignore General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15 (series 1865) which is the foundation for the offspring of African slaves’ demands for reparations.
Sherman’s orders provided for the confiscation of 400,000 acres of land along the Atlantic coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and dividing them into parcels of not more than 40 acres on which were to be settled approximately 18,000 formerly enslaved families and other black people then living in the area.
No mules are mentioned in the orders, but they were popularly described as a promise for “forty acres and a mule” to the freed slaves.
I take issue with Leval because he also chooses to ignore the clear mention of Egyptian reparations to the freed Jewish slaves: “The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. And God had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians of their wealth (Exodus 12 35-36).”
We, with God’s help, took the Egyptians for all they had in return for our 210 years of slavery, and we repeat the story every Passover because although it’s nice to remember, as Leval suggests, cash is good, too. It says so in the Haggadah:
Had He killed their firstborn and didn’t give us their money, Dayenu (it would have been enough), If He had given us their money and did not split the sea for us, Dayenu.
And the song concludes: How much more so is the goodness that He did for us … since he took us out of Egypt, and judged them, and their gods, and killed their firstborn, and gave us their money, and split the Sea for us, etc.
Reparations are essential to resolve inequity, as Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, taught Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first post-war president. And the Germans were only too happy to pay up since their acceptance into the civilized world depended on it.
Finally, someone should have told Gerard Leval about Geviha ben Pesisa, a Tana who lived during the time of the Second Temple and was probably a hunchback. There’s a view that he was a Cohen, but served as the Temple’s guard, possibly because his disability disqualified him from offering the sacrifices.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin 91b relates: The people of Egypt came to judgment with the Jewish people before Alexander of Macedon. The Egyptian people said to Alexander: It says in the Torah: “And the Lord gave the people favor in the eyes of Egypt, and they lent them” (Exodus 12:36). Give us back the silver and gold that you took from us; you claimed that you were borrowing it and you never returned it.
Geviha ben Pesisa said to the Sages: Give me permission and I will go and argue with them before Alexander of Macedon. If they will defeat me, you can say to them: You have defeated an ordinary person from among us, and until you overcome our Sages, it is no victory. And if I will defeat them, say to them: The Torah of Moses, our teacher, defeated you, and attribute no significance to me. The Sages permitted him, and he went and argued with them.
Geviha ben Pesisa said to the Egyptians: From where are you citing the proof that you are entitled to the silver and gold? They said to him: From the Torah. Geviha ben Pesisa said to them: I too will cite proof to you only from the Torah, as it is said: “And the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years” (Exodus 12:40), during which they were enslaved to Egypt, engaged in hard manual labor. Give us the wages for the work performed by the 600,000 men above the age of twenty whom you enslaved in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years.
Alexander of Macedon said to the people of Egypt: Give Geviha ben Pesisa a response.
They said to him: Give us three days to consider the matter. Alexander gave them the added time and they did not find a response. Immediately, they abandoned their fields when they were sown and their vineyards when they were planted and fled.
The Gemara adds: And that year was a Shmitah Year, meaning the Jews could use the extra produce.
It sounds like the Jews got their forty acres and a mule.