Thursday, December 5, 2019

The Morning Benediction: Who has not made me a slave

שלא עשני עבד
The Morning Benediction: Who has not made me a slave

Thanksgiving- The Hebrew Bible as the source of the concept of human freedom:

It has long been understood that the American holiday of Thanksgiving has its roots in the Biblical Festival of Sukkoth, during which, thanks was made for the fall harvest. The Pilgrims, who were themselves religious dissidents fleeing the corruption of English civilization, saw themselves as a new Israel landing in a new Promised Land.

It is not often realized to what great extent the Hebrew Bible had in its shaping of the American mentality at its best and in its idealized potential.

Many years ago, when I was director of the Jewish Culture Foundation , New York University’s equivalent of Hillel, my  faculty sponsor and guide was the head of the Hebrew Department and later, President of Dropsie College for Hebrew. He was one of the first to bring to public attention the depth of influence of ancient Israel on the new land.

Cover page of the Book. Hebraic Foundations of American Democracy

Myself, in the white shirt, at NYU, speaking with NYPD about security during an event for Israel at Washington Square, back in those days!

What is now becoming clear is that the Hebrew Bible shaped not only the religious tradition of American polity, but the secular conception behind the US Constitution.

One of the greatest minds to influence  Jefferson, Madison, and the other intellects who set up our form of government was John Locke; he was likewise , a major shaper of  English Parliamentary democracy.  John Locke “dominates American political thought as no thinker anywhere dominates the political thought of a nation.(Louis Hartz) ” It is now coming to light the extent to which his political views were shaped by the stories of rebellions and restrictions on rulers of some tribes on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. This is now termed Political Hebraism.

Jeremy Waldron first drew attention to this question in his 2002 book God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke’s Political Thought, and explained it this way:
Anyone who reads the Two Treatises of Government, alert to their religious and theological character, will find it quite striking how much is made of Old Testament sources and how little of any teaching or doctrine from the Christian Gospels and Epistles . . . Jesus and St Paul may be there in the background of Locke’s theory of equality. Maybe. But they are well in the background, and their specific teachings are not appealed to at all . . . By contrast the Old Testament is all over the Two Treatises . ..

When we say “ Thanksgiving “ on Thanksgiving Day in America, we are, as American citizens, enjoying the benefits of political theory that our tent-dwelling forefathers( mothers) shaped and which our Mayflower sailing forefathers( mothers) attempted to emulate.

Move aside, Athens!

Let’s look at the siddur and see how one of the key elements of American political theory is phrased.

We start with what is a controversial statement for moderns:
Talmud Menahot 43b
It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Meir would say: A man is obligated to recite three blessings every day praising God for His kindnesses, and these blessings are: Who did not make me a gentile; Who did not make me a woman; and Who did not make me an ignoramus( Hebrew:boor).

I will postpone the problematic statement on “ gentile” and “ woman” in depth at this point. Suffice it to say that Rabbi Meir,(cmid-2nd century) the great shaper of Rabbinic teachings that will become the Mishna, is married to Beruriah, who is ranked as a Rabbinic authority in her own right.

Right now, look at the last statement: Who has not made me a “ boor”, an ignoramus.The Hebrew word “ boor” means the same as the English word “ boor”’ ironically, the Hebrew “boor” is used in tandem with “ Am Haaretz”, the famers, referring to those uneducated in religion,  just as “boor” in old English meant a farmer, who also lacked education in acceptable behavior.

For Rabbi Meir, like many scholars of his day, he was proud that he had the opportunity to cultivate his mind and with it, his understanding of the obligations of the Torah, as that is the goal of every Jew. In this, he was following in the teachings of Hillel, the Elder, who taught that “Ain Am Haaretz Chasid”, the ignorant can never achieve piety.

This now leads to a new discussion in the Talmud:

“Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov heard his son reciting the blessing: Who did not make me an ignoramus. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said to him: Is it in fact proper to go this far in reciting blessings? Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov’s son said to him: Rather, what blessing should one recite? If you will say that one should recite: Who did not make me a slave, that is the same as a woman; why should one recite two blessings about the same matter? Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov answered: Nevertheless, a slave  is more lowly than a woman, and therefore it is appropriate to recite an additional blessing on not having been born a slave.”( Translations from

 To understand this discussion, one must know the Rabbinic dictum:”Gadol Hamtzuveh veoseh” ,” One who carries out a commandment because he or she is obligated, is greater ( in spiritual virtue) than one who carries out a commandment who had no such obligation.” This is not a peculiarly Jewish concept. It is a precursor to the “ categorical imperative” of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.  

The ignorant Jew is still obliged to observe all the mitzvot, all the commandments, of the Torah, even if he doesn’t understand what he is doing. The woman, because of her obligations in caring for the family household ( especially in bearing and rearing children), could not physically observe all the commandments, and hence, was exempt from those that were “time-bound”, that needed to be performed at a certain time and place. She was otherwise bound to observe all the rest.

The slave, however, is not a free agent, in any sense, and therefore, could not be bound to any commitment of observance. That lack of obligation put the slave on the lowest level.

Where is this idea from?

Hear is the concept, in similar form, attributed to Plato, who at his deathbed, “lauded his guardian genius and Fortune because he had been born a man and not an irrational animal, because he was a Greek and not a Barbarian, and because his birth had fallen in the times of Socrates.”

What did Socrates teach ?

He used to say there were three blessings for which he was grateful to Fortune:” First, that I was born a human being and not one of the brutes; next, that I was born a man and not a woman; thirdly, a Greek and not a Barbarian.”

It’s not a European concept only; thus, in a -  Order by: relevance | pagesrelevance | pages-  ‹ Previous  Next ›  -  View allLoading… Zoroastrian prayer, “who has made his followers Iranian, children of the true faith, and free, not slaves.

The traditional texts of the prayer book have it formulated as” shelo asani goy(alt.:nochri),shelo asani aved, shelo asani isha (alt., for women: sheasani kiretzono).
Blessed are you… who has not made me a gentile (or alien),who has not made me a slave, who has not made me a woman( at for women: who has made me according to his will).

(This is the current liberal  formulation: she’asani b’tzalmo, , she’asani yisra’eil, , she’asani ben-horin ( masc.) bat-horin ( feminine).
Blessed are You… who has made me in His image, who has made me an Israelite, who has made me a free man/woman.)

I will discuss the other two at a later date; for now, I will focus on the “slave” and the Thanksgiving connection .

I bring below a painful discussion about this prayer that occurred during the Holocaust. It is recorded by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, who survived ghetto and camp in Lithuania. This is in his responsa,Min Hama'amakim, ( From Out of the Depths):

"And during the morning prayer, when the prayer leader, Avraham Yosef, May God avenge his death,  began to say the blessings of the dawn,  in trembling and sweat, and  who came to the Blessing of  "Not-Slave" , he exclaimed in a bitter voice to the Lord: How can I say the is blessing while we are under curfew and captivity? How can a slave bless the free-born’s blessing while the yoke of slavery is thrown on his neck and shackles of prison are on his body? How can a slave who is subjected to human degradation and disgrace, lacking his bread and water, and eating gall and wormwood, how can such a slave bless his creator to say 'who has not made me a slave.' Is this not laughter and mockery, like one crazy and twisted, with no mind and wisdom! And after all, there is the rule is that we should focus in prayer and blessing, and that our mouths and hearts will be attuned. How do I say this blessing when my heart is not in it? "

Rabbi Oshri, of blessed memory, replied that such a question had already been asked to our Rabbi Aboulafia, one of the great medieval Sages. In his reply, quoted in Avodrahum on the blessings of the dawn, it is said that the blessing of the "non-slave " is not about the physical work that the slave was forced to do, but about his spiritual status: a Canaanite slave does not obey the commandments, and we recite the blessing that God did not make us slaves and therefore, we were privileged to accept the Torah and the commandments.

After this answer, Rabbi Oshri elaborated:

The basis of this blessing was fixed not on the slavery of the body, but on the slavery of the soul, expressed  in the concept of a Canaanite slave who is not under the obligation  of the mitzvot and does not a part the community of Israel. A Jew, who is bound to the mitzvot, even when he is held captive, can fulfill the mitzvot. Even if he cannot fulfill them because of duress, the Merciful One absolves him, but even here, the principal of observance is still in effect and he is still a “son of the commandments”. Thus, it is good to recite this blessing even when under siege and captivity.

That is why I told my questioners that God forbid that they would cancel this blessing established by the ancient founders, our Sages of  blessed memory. On the contrary, it is precisely now that we are obliged to recite this blessing so that our enemies and their followers will recognize that although we are subject to their hands to do to us by their own evil will, nevertheless we consider ourselves to as a free people under siege and captivity  Our salvation is nigh  our redemption will be revealed.”

 What is the source of that existential freedom that inspired Rabbi Oshry?

·          And it says, “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). Read not haruth [‘graven’] but heruth [ ‘freedom’]. For there is no free man but one that occupies himself with the study of the Torah. And whoever regularly occupies himself with the study of the Torah he is surely exalted .( Pirke Avot 6:2)

Other topics on freedom: The economic freedom of the laborer

The right to quit , or to strike, is intrinsic to the status of the hired laborer, who is no one’s slave:

 Talmud Bava Metzia 10a. A discussion on where the laborer stands as an agent of the employer, and at what point, that agency stops:

Rav Naḥman said to him: As long as he does not retract his commitment, his hand is like the employer’s hand. When he does retract his commitment, he is able to do so. But this is not because matters are structured to the benefit of the laborer, but for a different reason, as it is written: “For to Me the children of Israel are slaves; they are My slaves whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 25:55), which indicates: They are My slaves, and not slaves of slaves, i.e., of other Jews.

Consequently, a Jew can never be enslaved to another Jew with a contract from which he cannot release himself whenever he wishes.

Freedom includes freedom of mobility and freedom of commerce, as expressed in the words on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, taken from Leviticus 25:10.

“You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release ( Liberty) throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you”

What is the liberty  which the makers of the bell had in mind?

Talmud Rosh Hashanah 9b

The Gemara asks: It is clear that according to everyone the term deror is a word meaning liberty. From where may this be inferred? The Gemara answers: As it is taught in a baraita: The word deror is a term meaning only liberty. Rabbi Yehuda said: What is the meaning of the word deror? It is like a man who dwells [medayyer] in any dwelling [dayyara] and moves merchandise around the entire country, i.e., he can live and do business wherever he wants.

It is the freedom of the sparrow ( Hebrew: Dror), free to fly high or low, right or left.

The individual is never a serf, bound to the lord’s manor. The individual is free to engage in his or her business without the restrictions that were imposed by kings and lords, because there is only One King and Lord..

John Locke, and his students, the rebels against the King of England, understood this very well.!

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