How Teshuvah Can Inform Our Thinking on Slavery and Reparations

A d’var Torah for Bo (Ex.10:1-13:16) by Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari. 

Over winter break, I went to visit some family in Washington, D.C. While there, I spent an afternoon at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Now mind you, I don’t consider myself naive about the realities of this country’s founding economy. And yet, since my visit, I find myself asking just about anyone who will listen, “Did you know the White House was built by slaves?” More than any individual exhibit, what has stayed in my bones since that visit is the intentional juxtaposition of everything the museum reveals and represents, located right on the National Mall with a view of Capitol Hill. For me, this embodies where I feel we are as a democracy. We are in a period of collective reckoning, painful truth-telling that has the power to change our founding myths. 

In his 2018 article “The Torah Case for Reparations,” Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein eloquently writes, “Slavery and its aftermath sit at the heart of the mythic consciousness of any religion or culture that descends from the Hebrew Bible.” Which is to say, just as we cannot talk about Torah without talking about slavery, we cannot talk about democracy in this Christian country without talking about slavery. Bernstein goes on to summarize the contemporary Jewish voices making a case for reparations. Most compelling, in my opinion, is the Rosh Hashanah 5778 sermon by Rabbi Sharon Brous, later condensed and published in the Los Angeles Times, calling for Jewish support for reparations to Black Americans. In it, she summons a famous, early Talmudic teaching in which the Schools of Hillel and Shammai dispute the method of making restitution when a stolen beam is built into the foundation of a house but agree that restitution must be made (Talmud Bavli Gittin 55a). “Our country was built on a stolen beam,” preached Rabbi Brous. “Except it was several million stolen beams. And they weren’t beams; they were human beings.”

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For some, the Jewish vision of reparations begins in this week’s parshah. Parshat Bo includes the final three devastating plagues — locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn — which finally lead Pharaoh to insist the Israelites must go. But there is a brief but important interlude between the ninth and tenth plague. God says to Moses: 

“Tell the people to request (v’yishalu), each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” (Exodus 11:2) 

And they did just that. So that when it was time to go, 

“The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed (v’yishalu) from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing…And they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians.” (Exodus 12:35-6)

I find this to be insufficient evidence that the Israelites took reparations for their servitude (which had built an entire empire, not so different from ours!). In this case, the use of the Hebrew root sha’al, often translated as “request,” “ask,” or “borrow,” conveys tentative permanence and is uncertain in its willfulness. The very concept of reparations as described by the Movement for Black Lives asserts: “The government, responsible corporations and other institutions that have profited off of the harm they have inflicted on Black people — from colonialism to slavery through food and housing redlining, mass incarceration, and surveillance — must repair the harm done.”

In this demand I see an essential aspect of the nature of reparations. Those who have profited are responsible for the process of repair. In Jewish tradition, we would call this teshuvah — a process of reparations and restorative justice. However, what we see in the parshah is the Israelites reclaiming — some might even say stealing back — wealth they feel was due to them. While this might have allowed them to leave Egypt with something of value, it did nothing to actually restore the humanity of the slaves or slave owners. Which is what I feel is at stake when we talk about reparations in the United States. 

Find more commentaries on Parshat Bo

The National Museum of African American History & Culture and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Alabama are forcing us to reckon with the stolen beams in the foundation of our democracy. And we have the opportunity to look deeply into Jewish tradition to find wisdom that can guide us towards a more just world. What we know is that the concept of teshuvah, the possibility of restorative justice, is woven into the fabric of the universe. The world cannot exist without it. So too with democracy. Teshuvah is an essential element of democracy. It honors that democracies are made up of human beings who miss the mark, often in egregious, violent ways. According to Maimonides, the first step in teshuvah is to stop causing harm. This is actually where we find ourselves as a democracy. 

In the words of Bryan Stevenson, “I don’t believe slavery ended in 1865, I believe it just evolved.” We must end slavery in every context it exists, including in prisons. Then we must acknowledge, take responsibility for, and repair the harm we have caused. This will require radical imagination. Whatever we imagine as real democracy, real teshuvah must be part of it. The Movement for Black Lives is calling for reparations for African Americans. I think it is upon each of us to wonder what role we can play in our congregations, our neighborhoods, our cities, and beyond. I am personally on a learning journey, along with my congregation, to understand our relationship to reparations, and I invite you to join us. At the end of the first chapter of Just Mercy, Stevenson compassionately says, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” I also believe this democracy can be more than the worst things it has perpetrated. A real process of teshuvah and reparations is essential to living into that potential. 

Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari is the rabbi at Kol Tzedek Synagogue in West Philadelphia. He is a White, queer, trans person, of Ashkenazi and Italian descent (he eats baked ziti on Rosh Hashanah!). He was ordained from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and has worked as a Jewish educator and prison chaplain.