Thoughts on Judaism

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Anti-Slavery founding Fathers?

I'll take the account, since it holds no punches, and it covers the main points that others bring up.

"Is there a history tutor in the house? 'Cause Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-MN, needs one bad. The Tea Party fave said that "the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States....Men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country."

True, J.Q. Adams didn't rest before slavery ended...he died. Or maybe he was just taking a dirt nap.

As for a few other points from the rest of Bachmann's Bizarro U.S. History Class, Thomas Jefferson -- who wrote that all men are created equal -- owned slaves. And perhaps did more than own them. George "Father of the Country" Washington owned human property, too.

Oh, yeah, and that Constitution that Bachmann waves around, it established that a slave counted as 3/5ths of a human being. The provision was inserted into the document as a political compromise -- except it compromised human dignity."

I do no usually involve my blog in politics, but my sense of history is a little miffed about this. I want to make this perfectly clear. Rep. Bachmann was 100% CORRECT in her statements here. The proofs against what she said seem damning, but they show a remarkable lack of real historical knowledge and logic on the part of those who propose them. (And for the record, I generally support the original tea party concept of limiting taxation, but I am not a supporter of the tea party in its current iteration, nor do I have a particular interest in Rep. Bachmann's agenda.)

Point one: The founders did not rest until slavery was extinguished.

Did the founders rest until slavery was extinguished? No. In fact, four score and seven years later, the matter came to an unthinkable war between the states, and the government prosecuted that war vigorously, against huge existential threats to the US. An though one may argue that war did not start to end slavery, it certainly was that to many people, the war to free the slaves, by the end. No, they did not rest and did not give in until slavery was abolished.

Bachmann pointed to John "Quincy" Adams, Jr., a man whose unassailable abolition creds include devoting pro bono services to a slave revolt AFTER he had been president, and both he and Adams Sr., a founder by any definition were stark anti-slavery stompers. But were there others? Perhaps, she might have found better examples. Dr. Benjamin Franklin, founder of PA Society for the Abolition of Slavery, comes to mind. Anyway, all she said was that Adams would not rest until slavery was abolished, not that he completed that task. He died trying. Her statement is correct.

Point two: Many founders were slaveholders.

Didn't Jefferson, Madison, all the Virginian presidents in fact own slaves, even the revered George Washington? Of course they did. And they, as well as Mason, Wythe and many others OPPOSED (you read right, OPPOSED) slavery on moral grounds and worked toward its abolition. While later Calvinists promoted an increasingly radical, "not one more minute" solution for slavery, many professional politicians saw this as no gift to the uneducated slaves and a society that might get a dangerous open revolt were they to accept. They advocated liberalizing slavery and moving toward ultimate integration or returning the slaves to Africa, and slave welfare was a concern. There is a reason that Liberia's capital is called MONROVIA after slave-holding president Monroe. Jefferson called slavery "iniquity" and suggested that it be abolished in the Declaration. He very nearly lost the Carolinas and sacrificed abolition to get independence. Freeing slaves was against the law, owing to fears of mass insurrection, but nonetheless, Washington freed his slaves in his will. He had been the chief executive officer of the laws of the US. Jefferson intended to free his slaves in his will, but his creditors were able to foil it. He likely de-facto married Sally Hemmings, though it was illegal, even as he served as president. Most accounts have it that he loved her all of his life, and fought off his daughters in favoring her. Many plans were proposed to moderate and ultimately phase out slavery, though they were shot down by the desperate advocates until war was necessary to remove it. Even into the time of the civil war, in Virginia, slavery was not very popular in intellectual or educated circles, even among land owners. CSA General James Longstreet famously suggested that they should have made clear that this was not issue by freeing the slaves before attacking Fort Sumter. The only real fans that slavery had were majorities in North and South Carolina, and president Jackson (who came from Tennessee, then part of North Carolina), who came up as populist, rather than a professional or intellectual. Bottom line: the founders and most of the educated gentry opposed slavery vigorously on moral grounds, and even slaveholders wanted it abolished, albeit gradually.

Point three: The constitution considers salves to be 3/5ths of a person.

But didn't the Jefferson - Madison constitution count a slave as 3/5ths of a human being? No, of course not. It counted a slave as 3/5ths of a census tick. The purpose was solely to get ratification in plantation states by allowing slaves to count for census, and thus for Congressional representation. At one time, slaves may have been 35% of the population in those states. It was not a statement of their humanity. The slavery advocates wanted them counted as a full human being, and the abolitionists wanted them not to count at all. Ipcha mistabra as we say in the Talmud. Why did the writer of article even bring this up. Was he saying that the constitution was not worth defending? Is that the position he expects Rep. Bachmann to hold? What about President Obama who swore to defend that Constitution, and whose position depends on that paper she waved around?

You do not like Bachmann's "Bizarro" history class, or suggest as did Seth Myers on Saturday Night Live that she was "looking off to the right of the blackboard" during history class? I'd suggest you take a refresher. She passes history based on the facts she presented, albeit too briefly to be thorough. And the writer of the article in, SNL and dozens of others, do pay attention this time.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

The disappearing vav

In parshas T'rumah, Rashi explains the vav in "v'ait kol asher atzeveh et bnei yisroel" that it is extra and that it does not mean that G-d promised to speak and then command something additional. The speaking is the commanding.

However, when one looks at the text, there is no such vav. Rashi has a vav in his sefer Torah and we do not. So was his sefer wrong or is ours? Or are both of them legitimate versions of the text? (Fundamentalists hold that there is one and only one correct version of the Torah, so they may be disturbed by considering this possibility.) Fortunately, there is a fairly easy way to solve the question. We should look at references to the verse before and after Rashi and see if they show one or both versions on a regular basis, across geographic and philosophical lines.

And the winner is ...
Sorry, but I have not done enough research to answer conclusively, but I have a preliminary feel for an answer. The Targum Onkolos and Targum Yonatan that we have before us both omit the vav. While these were attributed as being previous to Rashi, I would have to say that Rashi also had access to them and that the missing letter would have at least merited a comment or forced to him to do some research, so it is hard to say that Rashi just missed this. Other mikraot gedolot commentaries do reference this verse, nor did I find reference in Torat Aharon that might link us to a Gemora. This implies to me that the sefarim before them showed a single version. And I have little choice, given the versions of the Targumim in front of us, but to say that they had our version, without the vav. So, by this incomplete research, Rashi has the wrong version and he has evidence to suspect that his version is wrong. I will add that druing rashi's time, there was no mass printing technology, and no way that one might check multiple sources easily. Books were expensive and hard to come by, and geographic distances between the sources made research prohibitive, a circumstance that it is hard for us to fathom in our times when we can look up any source, anywhere, and easily obtain multiple copies, to compare potential version differences. There was also a greater probability of version differences entering their world, as all written sources were manuscript copies, rather than set machine printing. This even goes for the chumash. Now, we have multiple copies of the chumash for sofrim to copy, even though the sefer Torah itself is a manuscript copy. In Rashi's time, the manuscript copies were, in fact, copies of copies of copies, a lot of room for error to creep in. A bad Torah in Troyes would have raised no eyebrows, but it might have given birth to several other bad Torahs.

However, given no other evidence, Rashi saw his Torah, with the vav, saw the targumim without it, decided that they agreed with him that the vav was actually there, but they had intentionally left it out of the Targumim, and darshaned the pshat from the pasuk itself that the vav indeed was extra, that it had no Targum and that it does not belong, and he was correct by our sefer Torah. Of course, this is only speculation, as Rashi does not mention the Targum Onkolos, as he often does, but I might not expect it, since the Targum is not darshaning anything here directly. I also do not know what Rashi has in his version of the Targumim, but I have no reason to conclude that they were different from ours, so that's that. Rashi interprets as we do, even given a misleading textual error in his sefer Torah.

Now, what did they read on Shabbos Trumah in Rashi's shul? Can of Worms Alert!!!!!