A few years ago, my congregation spent a year exploring a book by Rabbi Arthur Green called “Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas.” On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I gave a sermon outlining the 10 ideas, and on the second day of Rosh Hashanah we asked people to divide into discussion groups based on which of these ideas they thought was most important. For me, the choice was absolutely clear — Judaism’s #1 best idea is teshuva. According to our sages, teshuva is one of the seven things that God created before creating the world. The message is that teshuva is part of the basic essence of the universe. Often translated as “atonement,” teshuva comes from the root meaning “to return” and expresses the Jewish belief that no matter what we have done, no matter who we have become, there is always the possibility of turning our lives around and repairing the harm we have done.
Teshuva is an important concept not only for individuals but for societies and nations. In the 19th century, the French political philosopher and historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” In many ways this has turned out to be true. Over the centuries, America has come closer to fulfilling its founding ideal that “all men are created equal.” Voting rights have extended beyond white male landowners, and significant advances have been achieved in equality for women, people of color, people with disabilities, and people with LGBTQ identities. Yet despite amendments to the Constitution and legislation enacted at the federal and local levels, America has yet to do teshuva fully for the wrong done to Africans who were kidnapped, sold, and enslaved in our country for 250 years, as well as the brutal history of violence, denial of human rights, and mass incarceration perpetrated on African-Americans since the end of slavery.
In a response to me in these pages, Max Kleinman wrote that “supporting the reparations that Ibram X. Kendi calls for is a bridge too far.” Mr. Kleinman wrote that his parents survived the horrors of the Holocaust and received reparations from Germany, but he and his siblings did not. He also wrote that Japanese Americans herded into internment camps during World War II received reparations, but their children did not. Therefore, providing reparations to descendants of slaves is unwarranted.
There is a gaping hole in this logic, which is that formerly enslaved people in the United States never received reparations.
During the Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which allotted parcels of land not to exceed 40 acres to some freed people. However, after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, President Andrew Johnson annulled the order. The land remained in the hands of former slave owners, with formerly enslaved people enduring a new form of economic bondage as sharecroppers. Further, when President Lincoln abolished slavery in Washington DC in 1862, slave owners were paid $300 for each slave, but the people who were emancipated received no compensation for the years of labor that enriched the slave owners.
Does this still matter 150 years later? Do descendants of enslaved people deserve reparations? The statistics suggest that they do. The history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education, housing, and employment have engendered a 10 to 1 wealth gap between whites and African-Americans in this country. Shockingly, the wealth gap has not decreased since 1968, despite the advances of the civil rights movement, suggesting that legislation to end discrimination has not succeeded in solving the problem of income and wealth inequality.
In the 2014 Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates analyzes the history of housing discrimination in Chicago. The article had a profound impact on me, because growing up in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s, I had seen firsthand the effects of hundreds of years of oppression and discrimination on Black communities. As a child, I did not understand — and none of the adults around me could explain — why there was such a gap in wealth and opportunity between whites and Blacks. The article in the Atlantic was the first time I began to grasp the factors that made homeownership and therefore accumulation of generational wealth out of reach for many African-Americans.
Coates’ article begins with a quote from Deuteronomy: “If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, they shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you should set them free. When you set them free, do not let them go empty-handed: furnish them out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which Adonai your God has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and Adonai your God redeemed you; therefore, I enjoin this commandment upon you today.”
Deuteronomy is not the first time the Torah introduces the concept of reparations. At the Burning Bush, God tells Moses that “when you go, you will not go empty-handed. Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor objects of silver and gold and clothing…” (Exodus 3:21-22). Then, on the eve of the Exodus, “the Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold and clothing” (Exodus 12:35).
In Torah discussions, many people express discomfort with this “borrowing” from the Egyptians. “Isn’t it stealing?” they often ask. However, this is neither borrowing nor stealing — this is reparations. The Israelites have served their Egyptian masters with unpaid labor for 400 years, and, as we are explicitly commanded in Deuteronomy, a slave must not go away empty-handed.
Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein, author of “The Torah Case for Reparations,” reminds us that the silver and gold taken from the Egyptians is later used to build the mishkan, so that God can dwell among the Israelites. Rabbi Bernstein asks us to consider whether our ability to experience God’s presence among us is dependent on reparations. Perhaps, we could help to bring God’s presence into our world by exploring how our country can provide reparations for descendants of the enslaved people in our country who we sent away empty-handed.
This exploration is the idea behind House Resolution 40, which the late congressman John Conyers introduced every year, beginning in 1986, until he left Congress in 2017. If passed, the bill would establish a commission to examine the impacts of slavery and other racist laws and practices and recommend proposals to provide reparations. Rep. Conyers chose the number 40 to symbolize the unfulfilled promise of 40 acres of land.
Since 2017, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has re-introduced HR 40. For 35 years, the House of Representatives has failed to pass this resolution, which does not mandate reparations but simply seeks to examine the ongoing effects of slavery and discrimination and make recommendations. Whether individual reparations are warranted or whether reparations would come in the form of initiatives such as college scholarships, low/no interest loans, or economic investment in black communities remains to be determined.
This year, when we gather for Passover, whether in person or on Zoom, the time has come to consider the Jewish case for reparations and to ask ourselves how America can do teshuva for the terrible wrongs done to African-Americans.
Our Torah is clear — when a slave is freed, he or she must not go away empty-handed. America failed to heed this moral imperative after Emancipation, but it is never too late to do teshuva.
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is now the president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding member of the council’s anti-racism committee.