The Torah Case for Reparations
It has been two-and-a-half years since Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations,” his Polk Award-winning masterpiece, in The Atlantic. The article makes a detailed and riveting case for the principled justice of reparations payments to Black Americans by the American government for the accrued, exacerbated, and lingering damage of slavery and subsequent manifestations of national plunder of Black Americans, such as Jim Crow laws in the South, and structural exploitation in housing and credit markets, in the North. Re-published this past fall in We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, a collection of Coates’s essays from The Atlantic during the Obama years, “The Case for Reparations” is a major document of recent American political thinking and is worthy of continued and renewed attention.
Reparations are not a new idea. Coates cites the 1783 case of Belinda Royall, kidnapped from what is today Ghana and held as in slavery for fifty years, who, newly freed when her captor fled to Britain during the war, successfully petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for reparations from her captor’s estate. Coates refers to scattered other early cases, as well, while acknowledging that for a long time, the very idea of reparations has been widely caricatured as fringe, quoting the lament of Nkechi Taifa, a founder of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA): “People who talk about reparations are considered left lunatics.”
Reparations have gained traction with the public as a serious idea in recent years, however, with works such as Michelle Alexander’s devastating The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and Coates’s writing vividly illustrating the systemic and structural plunder of Black people in the U.S. from chattel slavery to this day, through Jim Crow segregation, redlining, mass incarceration, and more. For example, Georgetown University, which owes its existence to the profits from the sale of 272 slaves in 1838, announced several steps it will be taking toward atonement. While these steps do not constitute reparations and have been criticized as frivolous, they point to momentum for the reparations cause. Reparations movements have similarly gained traction at Harvard and the University of Chicago, also financed in their early years by slavery. Reparations claims have advanced on the municipal level, too. Much attention was paid to the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, VA, and the ensuing white supremacist protest march at which counter-protester Heather Heyer was murdered. Many people missed, however, that in the lead-up to the statue removal, the Charlottesville city council approved a $4 million dollar reparations equity package for its Black residents. On the national level, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent released a report concluding that “past injustices and crimes against African Americans need to be addressed with reparatory justice.”
The case for reparations is compelling because it forces us to look at contemporary racism in terms of root causes and continuous, structural exploitation and to think about practical, real remedies. Attempts to quantify such a massive remedy can induce vertigo, making the entire enterprise seem futile. That same feeling, however, can underscore the urgency of the case, the enormity of the crime, and the improbability of the vertigo being eliminated without intervention. As Coates writes in his new introduction to “The Case for Reparations,” to believe that the reign of white supremacy could be ended without reparations is “to believe that a robbery spanning generations could somehow be ameliorated while never acknowledging the scope of the crime and never making recompense” (We Were Eight Years in Power, 159). The concept of reparations is remarkably basic and intuitive: when you steal, you must make restitution.
Furthermore, slavery and its aftermath sit at the heart of the mythic consciousness of any religion or culture that descends from the Hebrew Bible. I am Jewish, and I want my Jewish community engaged in this conversation, informed by our culturally specific lenses on the issue. Does Judaism have anything to contribute to a national consideration of reparations? I think it does. In the aftermath of Coates’s article, several Jewish responses were published. Emily Hauser, in the Forward, argued for Jewish support for reparations to Black Americans based on the general Jewish tradition of social justice. Donald Cutler argued concisely in Jewschool that Jewish support for Israel’s reparations from Germany undermines Jewish opposition to American reparations. Moriel Rothman-Zecher developed this idea more extensively in Religion Dispatches, focusing on Modern Jewish history, including the Shoah, its aftermath, and the condition of American Jews. A little later, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz began to point toward an argument for reparations from Jewish texts and this past Rosh HaShana, Rabbi Sharon Brous delivered a searing sermon, later condensed and published in the Los Angeles Times, calling for Jewish support for reparations to Black Americans, summoning 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.”
To my knowledge, though, we have not yet seen a thorough assessment of reparations as a foundational concept in the core narrative and legal texts of Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism. That is the purpose of this article. While we should exercise caution about drawing particular policy recommendations from ancient and complex texts authored in very different circumstances, we must mine our sacred texts for wisdom on crucial life questions. In the case of reparations, does our cultural inheritance, our “wisdom and insight before the nations” (Deut. 4:6), teach us anything about reparations?
We Took Reparations
Jews must support reparations in principle, because we took reparations for our slave labor, we were commanded by God to do so, and we were promised these reparations in the earliest Divine plan for our liberation. Let us review our Scriptures.
We took reparations for our slave labor. The Torah emphasizes that on the way out of Egypt, the Israelites emptied their Egyptian neighbors of their wealth:
29 And it happened, at midnight, that YHWH smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt…30 And Pharaoh rose up in the night…31 And he called for Moses and Aaron by night and said: “Get up, get out from among my people, both you and the children of Israel; and go, serve YHWH, as you have said. 32 Take both your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and go; and bless me also.” 33 And the Egyptians urged the people on, to rush to send them out of the land, for they said: “We will all be dead!” 34 And the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading-troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders. 35 And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they asked of the Egyptians silver items and gold items, and clothing. 36 And YHWH gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they gave them what they asked; so they emptied out the Egyptians.
שמות פרק יב
(כט) וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה וַיקֹוָק הִכָּה כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם…(ל) וַיָּקָם פַּרְעֹה לַיְלָה…(לא) וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן לַיְלָה וַיֹּאמֶר קוּמוּ צְּאוּ מִתּוֹךְ עַמִּי גַּם אַתֶּם גַּם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְכוּ עִבְדוּ אֶת יְקֹוָק כְּדַבֶּרְכֶם: (לב) גַּם צֹאנְכֶם גַּם בְּקַרְכֶם קְחוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתֶּם וָלֵכוּ וּבֵרַכְתֶּם גַּם אֹתִי: (לג) וַתֶּחֱזַק מִצְרַיִם עַל הָעָם לְמַהֵר לְשַׁלְּחָם מִן הָאָרֶץ כִּי אָמְרוּ כֻּלָּנוּ מֵתִים: (לד) וַיִּשָּׂא הָעָם אֶת בְּצֵקוֹ טֶרֶם יֶחְמָץ מִשְׁאֲרֹתָם צְרֻרֹת בְּשִׂמְלֹתָם עַל שִׁכְמָם: (לה) וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עָשׂוּ כִּדְבַר מֹשֶׁה וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת: (לו) וַיקֹוָק נָתַן אֶת חֵן הָעָם בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרַיִם וַיַּשְׁאִלוּם וַיְנַצְּלוּ אֶת מִצְרָיִם:
This taking of reparations was not castigated as dishonest plundering or sinful vindictiveness, nor even as an optional bonus, but rather as a required component of liberation: on the eve of the exodus, just before the slaying of the Egyptian first-born, God explicitly commanded the Israelites to take reparations.
1 And YHWH said to Moses: “One more plague will I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; afterwards he will send you out of here; when he sends you out, he will completely expel you from here. 2 Speak, please, in the ears of the people, that they ask, each man of his neighbor, and each woman of her neighbor, silver items and gold items.” 3 And YHWH gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants, and in the sight of the people.
שמות פרק יא
(א) וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה עוֹד נֶגַע אֶחָד אָבִיא עַל פַּרְעֹה וְעַל מִצְרַיִם אַחֲרֵי כֵן יְשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם מִזֶּה כְּשַׁלְּחוֹ כָּלָה גָּרֵשׁ יְגָרֵשׁ אֶתְכֶם מִזֶּה: (ב) דַּבֶּר נָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב: (ג) וַיִּתֵּן יְקֹוָק אֶת חֵן הָעָם בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם גַּם הָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה גָּדוֹל מְאֹד בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בְּעֵינֵי עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה וּבְעֵינֵי הָעָם:
This commandment was not the momentary seizing of an opportunity, but a core component of the exodus. When God first promised liberation to the Israelite slaves, speaking to Moses at the burning bush, that promise already explicitly included abundant reparations.
19 And I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go, except by a mighty hand. 20 And I will send My hand, and smite Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in its midst, and after that he will let you go. 21 And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that when you go, you will not go empty; 22 but every woman shall ask of her neighbor, and of the one lodging in her house silver items and gold items, and clothing; and you shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and you shall empty out the Egyptians.
שמות פרק ג
(יט) וַאֲנִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי לֹא יִתֵּן אֶתְכֶם מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם לַהֲלֹךְ וְלֹא בְּיָד חֲזָקָה: (כ) וְשָׁלַחְתִּי אֶת יָדִי וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת מִצְרַיִם בְּכֹל נִפְלְאֹתַי אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה בְּקִרְבּוֹ וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יְשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם: (כא) וְנָתַתִּי אֶת חֵן הָעָם הַזֶּה בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם וְהָיָה כִּי תֵלֵכוּן לֹא תֵלְכוּ רֵיקָם: (כב) וְשָׁאֲלָה אִשָּׁה מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת וְשַׂמְתֶּם עַל בְּנֵיכֶם וְעַל בְּנֹתֵיכֶם וְנִצַּלְתֶּם אֶת מִצְרָיִם:
The taking of reparations is at the very heart of the slavery story, even promised to Abram as part and parcel of the Bible’s first premonition of slavery and redemption, back at the Covenant between the Pieces. The first time the Torah’s core story — slavery and liberation — is revealed, essentially the entire content of that liberation is the future departure from Egypt with reparations.
13 And [God] said to Abram: “Know for sure that your seed shall be an alien in a land not their own, and shall serve them; and they shall abuse them four hundred years; 14 and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with significant property. 15 But you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And in the fourth generation they shall come back here; for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.”
בראשית פרק טו
(יג) וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה: (יד) וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל: (טו) וְאַתָּה תָּבוֹא אֶל אֲבֹתֶיךָ בְּשָׁלוֹם תִּקָּבֵר בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה: (טז) וְדוֹר רְבִיעִי יָשׁוּבוּ הֵנָּה כִּי לֹא שָׁלֵם עֲוֹן הָאֱמֹרִי עַד הֵנָּה:
We recite this ritually in our Passover seders to this day, annually reviewing that God’s faithfulness is expressed through a promise kept over hundreds of years, and that that promise was reparations for slavery:
Blessed is the One who keeps [God’s] promise to Israel, blessed be the One! For the Holy Blessed One calculated the end, in order to do as He had said to our father Abraham at the “Covenant between the Pieces”, as it is said: “And [God] said to Abram: ‘Know for sure that your seed shall be an alien in a land not their own, and shall serve them, and they shall abuse them — four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with significant property.’”
בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא! שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא חִשַּׁב אֶת הַקֵּץ, לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּמַה שֶּׁאָמַר לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ בִּבְרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: “וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם, יָדֹע תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה. וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.”
Taking the Bible seriously means that one cannot tell the story of Israel’s liberation from Egypt — Judaism’s central story — without emphasizing the significant property we took on our way to freedom.
Are these Really Reparations?
Perhaps I’m stacking the argument, hijacking one story for use in an unrelated other. The Torah never says explicitly that the riches that the Israelites cleaned out from the Egyptians were calculated reparations for their unpaid slave labor. That is, however, how the Rabbis understood them in a piquant story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) which imagines the Egyptians suing the Jews in the court of Alexander the Great, symbol of the international superpower par excellence:
Another time, Egyptians came for judgment with Israel before Alexander Macedon. They said to him: “It says, ‘And YHWH gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent them’ (Ex. 12:36): Give us the silver and gold that you took from us!”
The Egyptians learn their history and are mad that the Israelites made off with their wealth; they see the tricky Jews as having shaken them down and exploited them. What’s more, they are reminded of this offense by looking into our Torah, where the thieves have bragged of their crime! The gemara continues, introducing a Jewish non-Rabbi to the story:
Geviha ben Pesisa said to the Sages: “Give me permission and I will go and argue the case with them before Alexander; if they defeat me, say to them, ‘You defeated one of our civilians’, but if I defeat them, say to them, ‘The Torah of Moses our Rabbi has defeated you.’”
They gave him permission and he went and argued with them.
He said to them: “From where do you bring evidence?”
They said to him: “From the Torah.”
He said to them: I, too will bring you evidence only from the Torah, as is said, ‘And the Israelites’ residence, which they resided in Egypt was 430 years’ (Ex. 12:40): Give us payment for the labor of 600,000, whom you enslaved in Egypt for 430 years.”
Alexander Macedon said to them: “Give them an answer!”
They said to him: “Give us three days’ time.”
He gave them time, they investigated, and found no answer.
Immediately, they left their seeded fields and their planted vines and fled, and that year was a Sabbatical.
The Rabbis understood Egyptian spoils as reparations and imagined that this should be legally coherent and just in the eyes of the international community. Egypt exploited the Israelites for hundreds of years, stealing their labor; any Egyptian perception of prosperity was delusional. The wealth in their hands was not theirs. Judged by morality and Divine law, it was money owed to Israelite laborers, held in sloppy escrow. Egypt was wealthy only if theft is the law of the land. Egypt owed the Israelites generations of reparations, but was not about to pay them willingly or to acknowledge the depth of its wrongdoing. The Egyptians were barely willing even to release the Israelites from slavery and did so only out of desperate fear, perhaps only by failing to understanding that they were leaving forever and would not persist as their underclass. According to the Talmud and even the Torah itself, not only were reparations just, but taking them by any means necessary, even deception, was just and commanded by God.
The Sages also don’t want us to underestimate the value of these reparations. We took a lot — really, really, a lot. In the Talmud (Bekhorot 5b), Rabbi Hanina reports that Rabbi Eli‘ezer taught that every single Israelite left Egypt with “ninety Libyan donkeys laden with Egypt’s silver and gold,” and that this, in fact, is why we are commanded forevermore to redeem every firstborn donkey in offering to God (Exodus 13:13), who enabled our ancestors to receive this start-up wealth.
The Alexander story concludes with the literary fantasy of having the Egyptians turn over even more property to the Jews when they flee in humiliation, abandoning their agricultural holdings. A thousand years and many regimes after the exodus, Egypt still owed the Jews more reparations. Systemic injustices must be remedied even long after the end of official slavery.
By placing this event during a Sabbatical year, when Jews are prohibited from farming and therefore vulnerable to food shortage, the Rabbis add a happy ending literary flourish showing that this deserved windfall came in the nick of time, when they needed it, and in reward for performing a difficult commandment. It may say something more, though. Observing the sabbatical year disrupts anyone’s domination over land and people. The land is released to grow wild and debts are relieved. Temporary economic straits, then, cannot plunge a person into structural poverty and servitude. Just as the Torah contrasts Egyptian slavery with observance of the weekly sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:15), the prophet Jeremiah tells the people that God commanded the Sabbatical year laws “on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Jeremiah 34:13). For the Rabbis, Egyptian spoils were reparations, were massive in quantity, yet still insufficient compensation, and contributed to an economy set up as a foil to the exploitation of slavery.
The Torah’s Internalization of the Legal Implications
The Torah does not frame the Israelites’ taking of Egyptian reparations only as an important historical element to their past liberation, but as a core component of the Divine law moving forward, a lesson translated into practical economics. In the fifteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, as the Torah prepares the free Israelites for life in the Land of Israel as an independent and hegemonic nation in control of an economy, God warns them of the proper way to supervise vulnerable and dependent indentured servants, and the proper way to transition them to freedom. The value of indentured servants’ labor always exceeds the value of the debt they are repaying, as it is monetized in unfavorable conditions. Landowners are able to use that labor to generate not just income, but wealth. They are commanded, therefore, to endow freed servants with fruits of that labor that will enable them to escape the poverty that plunged them into servitude in the first place, and that will set them on the path of economic independence. The Torah insists that this pricey legal burden is a lesson and legacy of the redemption from Egyptian slavery.
12 If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years; and in the seventh year you send him free from you. 13 And when you send him free from you, do not send him empty. 14 Provide for him liberally from your flock, and from your threshing floor, and from your winepress; from that which YHWH your God has blessed you, give to him. 15 And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and YHWH your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today.
(יב) כִּי יִמָּכֵר לְךָ אָחִיךָ הָעִבְרִי אוֹ הָעִבְרִיָּה וַעֲבָדְךָ שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת תְּשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ חָפְשִׁי מֵעִמָּךְ: (יג) וְכִי תְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ חָפְשִׁי מֵעִמָּךְ לֹא תְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ רֵיקָם: (יד) הַעֲנֵיק תַּעֲנִיק לוֹ מִצֹּאנְךָ וּמִגָּרְנְךָ וּמִיִּקְבֶךָ אֲשֶׁר בֵּרַכְךָ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ תִּתֶּן לוֹ: (טו) וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וַיִּפְדְּךָ יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ עַל כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ אֶת הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה הַיּוֹם:
The Torah emphasizes a connection between releasing indentured servants responsibly and remembering that we were slaves in Egypt, liberated by God. What is the nature of that connection? The passage highlights this connection with an important literary allusion. Verse 13 says, “And when you send him free from you, do not send him empty.” This echoes God’s promise of reparations at the Burning Bush: “And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that when you go, you will not go empty” (Exodus 3:21). God redeemed us from slavery with reparations, resources to break the cycle of poverty and subordination. Accordingly, when we have economic security, we must never prop ourselves up with wealth exploited from those subordinated to us through financial misfortune. Rashi, following a midrash (Sifrei #120), sharpens the link between the liberation from Egyptian slavery and this commandment: “‘And remember that you were a slave’ and I provided for you and gave to you twice, from the spoils of Egypt and the spoils at the sea; so, too, you must provide for [your departing indentured servant] and give to him twice.” “וזכרת כי עבד היית — והענקתי ושניתי לך מביזת מצרים וביזת הים, אף אתה הענק ושנה לו.” Our ancestors were rescued from slavery with reparations bountiful enough to build long-term financial security, to kick-start their economy. Our free society is commanded to ensure the same for those plunged into economic privation and subordination, to ensure that temporary poor-ness never becomes structural poverty, that a society does not build itself as wealthy on a foundation of stolen beams. Coates understands the significance of this law from Deuteronomy, quoting it in full as the opening to “The Case for Reparations.”
Reparations: Nervous Laughter or Proud Pragmatism?
The justice of reparations remains unanimously uncontroversial among medieval Bible commentators. This does not mean that the story never gave them pause. Anxiety seeps through some of their comments on the method of the reparations grab. Understanding this discomfort may illuminate elements of the contemporary discourse on reparations.
Several medieval commentators insist that the Israelites’ linguistically ambiguous “asking” was not a deceptive request to borrow and make a run for it, but an actual request for full-fledged gifts. Rashbam, for example, in his comment on God’s words to Moses at the Burning Bush, says, “‘But every woman shall ask of her neighbor’ — for a complete and total gift,” adding, “this is the essential, contextual meaning, and a response to heretics.” It’s not too hard to imagine what those “heretics” — external or internal — might have been saying, accusing Israel and its God of theft, deceit, and moral bankruptcy for swindling other people out of their property, just as the Egyptians claimed in Alexander the Great’s court, in the Talmudic story.
The dispute hinges on the meaning of the word שאל/sha’al. The root most basically means “ask” and, by extension, “borrow”. In Exodus 12:35–36, did the Israelites ask the Egyptians for their loot and the Egyptians acceded to their request? Alternatively, did the Israelites borrow the loot from the Egyptians, tricking them into thinking that they were going only for a short journey and would soon return it, all the while intending to take the money and run? Likewise, does נצל/nitzel there mean, simply, “to empty out”, as after the Golden Calf sin, when “the children of Israel stripped themselves of their finery from Mt. Horeb” — “וַיִּתְנַצְּלוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־עֶדְיָם מֵהַר חוֹרֵב” (Exodus 33:6), or does the word carry a hint of deception, not just “empty out” but “shake down,” as in its modern Hebrew usage to mean “exploit”? The word first appears in the Torah when Jacob explains to Rachel and Leah how, by cutting a deal based on his insider knowledge of breeding secrets, he managed to acquire much of Laban’s wealth: “And God stripped your father’s flock and gave it to me” — “וַיַּצֵּל אֱלֹהִים אֶת־מִקְנֵה אֲבִיכֶם וַיִּתֶּן־לִי” (Genesis 31:9). By using these two words, perhaps the Torah intentionally telegraphs the ambiguity of the transaction when the Israelites received Egyptian wealth. Yes, the Israelites tricked the Egyptians, who didn’t fully understand what they were agreeing to. Yes, like their ancestor Jacob, the Israelites were justified because they occupied the weak end of a power imbalance, and those who had exploited them for years were not about to admit their wrongdoing and voluntarily part with their ill-begotten gains.
Rashbam’s interlocutors object that the Israelites lied. Rashbam and others could have rejected them with a full-throated justification of the Israelites’ apparent deception: ‘Of course God commanded them to take the loot! That property was rightfully ours and there was no other way to get it!’ Instead, they reject the “heretics” by protesting that really — no, really! — the Egyptians all totally gave it 100% freely as gifts. Really! He calls them heretics not because it’s obscene to object to an exploited group taking what is rightfully theirs, but because, in fact, the Israelites communicated in a fully transparent, truthful manner, always following Egyptian law, saying sir and ma’am, please and thank you.
It may seem that these combatants represent two sides of the same coin. Both the “heretics,” who castigate the Israelites for theft, and their Rabbinic interlocutors, who insist that it was one massive gift, share discomfort with the notion that formerly enslaved people should take what is theirs if it would not be restored to them through official channels. This should look familiar to us, as, for example, when the government of Spain blasted the Argentinian government for nationalizing oil, crying foul over the damage to Spanish oil companies that had done business there, with no reference to hundreds of years of colonial Spain plundering Argentina. The discourse in the U.S. is worse, when heretics defame victims of slavery and long-term segregation, stolen from systemically in the credit, housing, and criminal justice systems, slandering them as “welfare queens” and “sponging” off “government handouts” even though they have never taken or been allocated reparations, but simply receive a fraction of the basic, social welfare government assistance that all developed countries guarantee to all their citizens in need. Rashbam’s anxious apologetic may well reflect a respectability politics urgently promoted by those who momentarily are doing all right, a politics as intoxicating as it is delusionary.
A closer look, however, may complicate this understanding of Rashbam and those in his interpretive camp. They never question the justice of reparations, just the method. They affirm that it was totally appropriate for the Israelites to ask the Egyptians to hand over lots of property and for the Egyptians to do so. Rabbeinu Hannan’el (on 11:2), who, like Rashbam, explains that the Israelites “asked” for a full gift, adds, “and this is not deception, commanded by the Holy Blessed One, Heaven forbid, but it was permitted to them, since the work they had done was of inestimable worth, and the wages for their labor and their value were endless.” Toward this end, he cites Deuteronomy 15, teaching that from the Torah’s perspective, the Egyptians were required to load them up with riches: the Torah’s legal lesson from the story of reparations proves that reparations must be legally necessary. Similarly, Hizquni (3:22) calls the spoils they were to ask of the Egyptians “wages for the enslavement of crushing labor”: “‘בשכר שעבוד עבודת פרך.’” The 17th century Yemenite Kabbalist Rabbi Shalom Shabazi contributes a different twist to the reading of these spoils as reparations, astutely imagining likely real-life scenarios behind the Torah’s sparse story. After’s Pharaoh’s decree to murder Hebrew baby boys, Israelite women “bribed Pharaoh’s subjects with their jewelry,” to keep quiet as they saved some of their babies. “The Holy Blessed One, commanded ‘every woman shall ask of her neighbor…’ to return what they had given them, so there was no deception in this, only restitution of property to its owners” (Hemdat Yamim to Exodus 3:22). These rabbis understand that the Israelites were owed every Egyptian piece of gold and silver they received. They affirm the justice of former slaves claiming and receiving reparations.
The Egyptians had structural power, and the Israelites did not. There was no reparations claims committee and wasn’t going to be one. In the face of the enormous lie that is slavery and the total unwillingness of the enslavers’ “legal system” to acknowledge that lie, it would be farcical to take offense at enslaved people dishonestly recouping what they can of what is theirs when they have an opening. That a people plundered must receive reparations is obvious to all the Sages. Maybe Rashbam’s, Rabbeinu Hananel’s and Hizquni’s comments should actually not be read as moral balking or apologetics, but as a bold statement: plunderers are so obligated to pay reparations that if they don’t do so willingly, if they persist in their delusion that their wealth is their own, and the plundered find a way to wrest it away against their will, then, these Sages say, the law will regard the loot grab as legitimate restitution nonetheless. The Egyptians were fools drunk on their own criminality if they didn’t understand what was going on. The law will treat them as though they fully understood and gave reparation payments when the Israelites asked to “borrow” their stuff. If that bothers you as trickery, then you’d better make sure to establish that official, governmental reparations board right away, you heretic. What greater trickery is there than stealing a people’s labor and liberty for hundreds of years? The Egyptians didn’t understand the implications of the Israelites’ demand? Of course they did. About this core outrage there is total Rabbinic consensus: slave reparations from Egypt were mandated by God, collected by the Israelites, and formed a foundation of future Israelite life and Jewish, religious mythology to this day.
Reparations in Practice: The Resulting Spiritual Economy
We have seen that the Torah centered the taking of spoils as core to the experience of liberation and that the Rabbinic tradition understood these spoils to be reparations. They do not vanish from the narrative as soon as the Israelites depart Egypt, but remain integral to the subsequent Israelite story. From the Torah’s perspective, not only is the epic story of the exodus a story largely about reparations, but so is the desert aftermath, the highs and lows of the free nation’s religious life.
Thirteen chapters after the Israelites receive Egyptian gold, silver, and other bounty, and escape forever, God commands them to build a center for worship, the Mishkan, that will travel with them in the desert (Exodus 25:1–4):
And YHWH spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelites to take gifts for Me; from each person whose heart stirs with generosity take My gifts. And this is the gift you should take from them: gold, silver, copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair…
(א) וַיְדַבֵּר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: (ב) דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת תְּרוּמָתִי: (ג) וְזֹאת הַתְּרוּמָה אֲשֶׁר תִּקְחוּ מֵאִתָּם זָהָב וָכֶסֶף וּנְחֹשֶׁת: (ד) וּתְכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי וְשֵׁשׁ וְעִזִּים:
The Torah does not state explicitly where the desert-wandering Israelites are supposed to get these items and Rabbinic texts by and large say nothing about it. Innumerable modern commentators, including, for a fairly random sampling, Prof. Stephen Geller, Prof. Moshe Sokolow, and the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, take it as obvious that these materials came from Egyptian spoils, and therefore unnecessary for the Torah or Rabbinic texts to state explicitly. In this, they follow Medieval commentators, such as Midrash Tanhuma, Rashi and Ibn Ezra, who express bewilderment specifically about the source of the acacia wood, but seem to think that there is nothing to explain about the obvious source of the gold, silver, copper, and fabrics. One 11th century midrashic commentary (Lekah Tov Teruma 25:3) does state explicitly that the thirteen different gifts incumbent on the Israelites to bring to the Mishkan correspond to the thirteen types of spoils God enabled them to take out of Egypt, as spelled out in a poetic reference by the prophet Ezekiel (16:11–19). The Torah states that it is construction of the Mishkan which enabled God to dwell among the Israelites in the desert (Exodus 25:8). From the perspective of Exodus, then, intimacy with God for the Israelites was enabled by reparations.
The spoils of Egypt also feature at the center of the other religious construction of Exodus. Gold can be built into a Mishkan, but it can also be built into a Golden Calf. Strikingly, we will see that though the Rabbis link the sin of the Golden Calf to the spoils of Egypt, they do not consequently question the justice of those reparations, implying that not taking reparations would have been even worse than the sin of the Golden Calf.
The Talmud (Berakhot 32a) links the sin of the Golden Calf to the reparations:
From the School of Yannai, they said:
So said Moses to the Holy Blessed One: “Ruler of the Universe, [the sin of the Golden Calf] was because of the silver and gold that you loaded on Israel until they said, ‘Enough!’ THAT is what caused them to make the Calf.”
From the School of Yannai, they said: A lion does not roar from a box of straw, but only from a box of meat….
R. Hiyya bar Abba said that R. Yohanan said: This is a parable, to one person who had a son; he bathed and perfumed him, fed him food and drink, and hung a wallet from his neck, and dropped him off at the door of a brothel. What can this son do but to sin?!
Rashi and numerous other commentators incorporate this passage into their comments, especially to Deuteronomy 1:1. The Golden Calf stands out as as one of the epic catastrophes of the Bible, perhaps the Israelites’ greatest sin, which resulted in a God-sanctioned bloodbath. Saying that the Golden Calf was enabled by reparations might raise a question as to their propriety, suggesting that the Rabbis thought that reparations can lead to misconduct, as some contemporary naysayers argue. After all, the Rabbis even deflect some of the responsibility for the sin away from the Israelites onto God.
This would be a misreading of the passage. The argument that the spoils of Egypt inevitably led to sin doesn’t hinge on the spoils being reparations per se, but on their being money, specifically rapidly accrued money. The Rabbis never challenge the justice of reparations; it’s the method of reparations collection that is implicated as the cause of the negative consequences. Sure, if a large population snatches hundreds of years’ worth of reparations in one night, then runs to freedom, drunk on the cocktail of novel liberation, PTSD, migration stress, and the exhilarating terror of witnessing God split the sea and drown their oppressors, and then, weeks later, that same population is overwhelmed with the terror of that God appearing to them with smoke, lightning, and thunder at a mountain, we should expect some aspects of their emotional life to go haywire. It would have been better to have a reparations commission and a process for steady payment over years or generations, directed to rebuild the Israelite economy sustainably. There was no roadmap for that to happen. God insisted, even absent a sustainable procedure for reparations, that receiving reparations was essential, regardless of whether that context would produce a Golden Calf. That is how disastrous it is, from the Torah’s viewpoint, to deny reparations to people victimized by slavery. No Rabbinic source ever claims that the Golden Calf episode teaches that reparations were unwarranted. The lesson is that the justice of reparations is so clear that if they are not disbursed in an organized way, plundered people are urged by God to take them anyway, and if the ensuing chaos produces calamity, such as the Golden Calf, alongside great achievement, such as the Mishkan, then so be it; God shares the fault. When people talk about reparations today, they mean targeted programs, overseen by governmental commissions with long-term budgeting and management. Various models have been proposed and implemented in different places; they should be studied, selected, and implemented. Refusal to do so is irreconcilable with the Torah tradition.
Coates unpacks this point in his new introduction. The original article included a discussion of the reparations that Germany paid to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, which enabled Israel’s development of infrastructure, prosperity, and power. Responding to critics who objected to his approving reference Israel’s reparations history, given its subsequent policies toward the Palestinian people, Coates writes (We Were Eight Years in Power, 160):
In part I included it because that seeming paradox — that Israel was both worthy of reparations and used those reparations to advance policies that I thought were categorically wrong — did not seem to me to be a paradox at all. There is nothing ennobling about being a victim. The Irish so victimized by Cromwell escaped to America, where they swiftly joined in violence against African Americans. The Cherokee, warred against by white Americans, held blacks as slaves. And those blacks, emancipated after the Civil War, joined the war against the Plains Indians. The point here is that reparations are not reserved for the unimpeachably virtuous and cannot solve the problems of human morality, and this has never been, nor should it have been, the criterion for past reparation efforts.
Cautionary Note: Are Reparations only for the Morally Pure?
There’s an elephant on the page. While the sacred texts we have been discussing unambiguously highlight the centrality of reparations in the story of the Jewish people’s liberation, it is not clear that they point toward universal application. Some of the very texts that spotlight Israelite freedom and reparations in the same breath justify comparable Israelite plunder of other nations. Digesting this apparent incongruity can call into question the moral force of the reparations sources. We will see, though, that while those questions are illuminating, they do not destabilize the claim itself.
As we discussed above, Deuteronomy 15 applies the lessons from Israelite slavery and reparations into law, requiring that indentured servants be released with significant property. The Torah applies this law only to fellow Israelites, though: “If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years; and in the seventh year you send him free from you. And when you send him free from you, do not send him empty” (Deut. 15:12–13). Chattel slavery of foreigners remains permitted by the Torah, and while it legislates many regulations limiting the exploitation of foreigners held as slaves, including a prohibition against having them work on the sabbath (Deut. 5:12–15), it never stipulates that they should be released, much less with property. No freedom, no reparations. The Hebrew Bible, built on the story of liberation from slavery, allows enslaving people.
The message has tended to seep outside of these narrow confines, though. Recall that Rabbenu Hannan’el retrojected the law of Deuteronomy 15 back into Exodus 11 to explain why the Egyptians were required to give the Israelites their property as reparations. He obviously doesn’t mean to say that the Egyptians were meant to know the text of the Torah, which had not yet been given. He seems to be suggesting that the reasoning of Deuteronomy 15 is self-evident, a kind of natural law comprehensible enough that the Egyptians must have been expected to understand exactly the meaning of the “request” presented to them. The Torah limits the forced application of Deuteronomy 15 to intra-Israelite indentured servants. Rabbenu Hannan’el teases out, though, that the passage points more broadly.
Even one who rejects Rabbenu Hannan’el’s expansive reading, and reads Deuteronomy 15 as applying only to Israelites and not to foreigners, should acknowledge, though, that even this narrow reading would require reparations to be paid by the United States Government to Black Americans, who are Americans.
The structural supremacy allowed in the Torah’s vision for free Israelite life manifests not only individually, but nationally, as well. On the heels of the story of liberation and reparations, the Torah commands the Israelites to dispossess other nations living in the land of Cana‘an. Moreover, the Talmudic passage (Sanhedrin 91a) which frames the Egyptian spoils as reparations is sandwiched by two other stories mythologizing the same Geviha ben Pesisa winning disputes with foreign nations with similar argumentation. In those cases, Geviha successfully defeats these dispossessed nations’ claims to the Land of the Israel. North Africans sue for land from which the Israelites dispossessed their Can‘anite ancestors (Numbers 34:2), but Geviha disarms them with Noah’s chilling words, “Cursed be Cana‘an; slave to slaves shall he be to his siblings” (Genesis 9:25), rendering their ancestors’ possession of the Land of Israel void. Ishma‘elites sue claiming that they should share the Land of Israel with the Israelites since their respective ancestors, Isaac and Ishma‘el, were both sons of Abraham, but Geviha disarms them with the Torah’s claim that Abraham singled out Isaac for inheritance, merely giving Ishma‘el and his other children gifts (Genesis 25:5–6).
What should we make of this extended story, in which the Rabbis equate the justification of recovering that which was plundered from our ancestors with the justification of expansionist plundering of others? For one thing, minority peoples don’t always have the luxury of choosing their battles; this text responds to three accusations that historically “are the echo of the accusations against the Jews by pagan readers of the Bible at Alexandria” (Jewish Encyclopaedia, “Alexander the Great”). Against that backdrop, perhaps the text’s thrust is not the righteousness of the Jewish people’s political claims, but the crackerjack shrewdness of their rhetoric, as they could successfully defend themselves with whatever dialectics were necessary, outsmarting the highest, internationally recognized, levels of Gentile adjudication.
Nevertheless, the Talmud does seem to equate these three cases, not marking the reparations case as any different from the other two. It would thus seem that either all of them are tales of moral righteousness or all of them are tales of trickster hijinks. There are two unusual literary elements to this story series, though, which destabilize either straight genre assignment. First is the location of these stories in the court of Alexander the Great, 500–600 years before the Rabbinic heyday. For a Rabbinic class under political domination and polemical religious challenge, Alexander symbolizes international legitimacy. The source of that legitimacy, however, was not moral, intellectual, or divine, but military and political: he was the global conqueror par excellence. Setting this dispute before him, then, destabilizes the straight moral reading, exposing a cynical facet of the whole exercise. By situating Biblical claims to spoils and conquest before a conqueror, and not a philosopher, the authors may protect themselves from too much moral scrutiny: if Israelite conquest of Cana‘an was unjustified, what about Alexander’s? Still, they stage the conversation not before a leader of the Roman Empire, whom they deemed wicked and utterly corrupt, but Alexander the Great, whose Greek empire demanded intellectual respect. For their Rabbinic readers, the authors may be saying, ‘We are morally justified, but that justice may be fully coherent only in the messy world of conquered and conqueror.’
The other unusual feature of this story series is that the Talmud places the Scriptural argument not in the mouth of a proto-Rabbi, such as Simon the Righteous, but an obscure civilian, the first Jewish lawyer. Perhaps this amounts, simply to a moral confidence: our case is so right and true than even our civilians can defeat you. More likely, though, the Rabbis’ unusual placing of this argumentation in the mouth of a non-Rabbi suggests nervous laughter of some sort. This nervousness may have a political valence, reflecting the Rabbis’ uncomfortable grappling with the double-edged sword of relative powerlessness: they need to take risks to survive, but can’t afford to lose those same gambles. In the civilian Geviha, they conjure up plausible deniability, flexing their power while being able to call a do-over if they lose. It’s likely, though, that Geviha represents an additional kind of nervous laughter, regarding the substance of their claims: arguments to recover what was stolen can slide smoothly into arguments to dispossess others. The Rabbis are accustomed to speaking for the rule of law, but here, they hedge their bets: slavery reparations are just, but they expose hard realizations about human nature. Our enslavers were wrong to enslave us, yet we cannot say that we would have been much different had we been in their empowered shoes.
Opponents of reparations for African-Americans have proffered numerous arguments, mostly specious. One objection that surfaces persistently is that it was not only white Americans who enslaved Black people, but, as historians have documented, Africans and even free African Americans also enslaved fellow Black people. Conservative provocateur David Horowitz led with this contention in his infamous, anti-reparations, college newspaper advertisement during Black History Month of 2001. While Horowitz and others like him are writing cynically in support of white supremacy, versions of this argument have made their way into rejections of reparations by centrist Black writers, such as John McWhorter, in Authentically Black (pp. 76–77). This argument has traction, though, only to the extent that “plundered” is conflated with “perfectly righteous and sinless,” as though oppression is not real if any members of the oppressed group ever engaged in oppression. This conflation can be seductive. Coates writes of his early years at Howard University, reading African and African-American history voraciously in order to assemble a “national trophy case” of Black excellence, and of initially feeling it “physically painful and exhausting” as his professors helped him realize that this “search for myth was doomed,” precisely because Africans sometimes practiced slavery, too (Between the World and Me, 52–54). It’s seductive, but misleading. “There was no nobility in falling, in being bound, in living oppressed” (ibid., 54). As James Baldwin put it, “Oppression… does not imbue a people with wisdom or insight or sweet charity: it breeds in them instead a constant, blinding rage” (“The Harlem Ghetto,” Commentary, 1948). Rage is value neutral and can flow in any direction. None of this has any bearing on the justice of reparations to oppressed people for what was taken from them through their oppression. Robbers must make restitution to the people they robbed. If those robbed people, or their ancestors or descendants, ever robbed other parties, restitution should be made separately. The potency of the Talmud’s case for reparations is not diminished if adjacent to it is a weak or disturbing argument.
Reparations and the Jewish Mythic Story
Having addressed some potential objections, I want to conclude my analysis of sources with a positive formulation showing how central a role reparations continue to occupy in core Jewish rituals and mythic memory. Earlier in this article, I cited a midrash which connects the precious materials used to build the Mishkan with the spoils taken from Egypt. The midrash anchors that connection poetically in Ezekiel’s reference to jewels given to a redeemed Israel in a prophecy recounting God’s love for Israel in their national infancy (chapter 16). Jews to this day chant dramatically from this passage in the circumcision ceremony and in the Passover Haggadah, quoting the prophet’s depictions of Israel’s bloody, naked, and abandoned state when God intervened. In Ezekiel’s parable, God dressed us, committed to us, washed us, scrubbed off our blood, and anointed us with oil, capturing the fresh start of liberation from slavery. But that is not yet the stuff of secure, lasting, noble freedom. Such long-term freedom required wealth affirming the value of their labor and their lives and sustaining an empowered and dignified community:
“I dressed you with embroidery, shod you with sealskin, wound your head with fine linen, and covered you with silk. I decked you out with finery, and I put bracelets on your hands and a chain on your neck. And I put a ring on your nose, and earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head. You were decked in gold and silver; and your clothing was of fine linen, silk, and embroidery. Fine flour, honey, and oil you ate and you became so, so beautiful; you were fit for royalty. Your name went out among the nations for your beauty, for it was complete through the splendor which I placed upon you” (Ezekiel 16:10–14).
According to this prophecy, the Jewish people received dignity and a place in the community of nations on account of reparations. Liberation was complete only via reparations. We draw from this version of our story in our most widely practiced rituals, circumcision and the Passover seder, those rituals that most profoundly affirm the religious meaning of being part of the Jewish people today. When we recite the liturgy at a bris and a seder, we call attention to a national identity of freedom through reparations.
What are We Supposed to Do about it? (למאי נפקא מינא?)
It is beyond the scope of this article to propose a scheme, number, or mechanism for reparations to America’s victims of slavery. Rather, practical assessments — what, how, when, and to whom — should be assessed at the highest levels of civic authority. Fortunately, in this Congressional session, as in every one for over twenty-five years, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives a bill (H.R. 40), the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, with aim
“[t]o address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.”
In all these years, this bill, which is this year co-sponsored by 32 Representatives, has never been brought to the House floor. This reflects the status of reparations in broad, American discourse: they’re seen as a joke. The Torah covenant tells us differently: it is not that reparations are a joke, but that they are so serious and of such massive implication as to cause national vertigo. As Coates put it, “The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter” (We Were Eight Years in Power, 202).
As Jews, if we are to take seriously our Torah, our covenant, our faith, our bris ceremonies and Passover seders, our Kiddush blessings and every time we invoke the “memory of the exodus from Egypt” — זכר ליציאת מצרים — then we cannot participate in that fear or engage in that laughter. Without the justice of reparations, we have no liberation story. Although Rep. Conyers rightfully resigned from Congress recently for his misconduct, the bill must be championed and advanced. It should be a core issue of Jewish American politics to demand that H.R. 40 be brought to the House floor and passed, that reparations be studied by a Congressional Commission. We know that liberation from slavery without reparations is a woefully incomplete liberation. Whenever as Jews we recall the liberation, whenever we read about the Mishkan, and whenever we reflect back on the United States, we must echo Coates’s poignant words: “The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say — that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt… a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
Many thanks to Rebecca Ennen, Raphael Magarik, Moriel Rothman-Zecher, Lesley Williams, and Susan Boone for their helpful comments.