About that stolen beam…

Trying to learn a few lines of Jewish text, about a “stolen beam,” I find myself completely confused about the basic idea of ownership. The studies are part of Svara’s Elul Extravaganza, “learning as a deep spiritual practice in service of teshuva and transformation leading up to the Days of AWE-some.” The underlying, or overarching, topic is reparations.

The text, from Gitten 55a, speaks about a “stolen beam” and what measures should be taken to compensate the owner, if the beam has been already built into a large structure. It seems pretty clear from what we’ve deciphered so far that the rabbis of the Talmud assume the beam had a legitimate owner and was taken, illegitimately, from them.

But I found myself stymied by the idea, proposed by Beit Shammai, of returning the beam to it’s “baalav” — which seems to mean, on the face of it, the beam’s “(true) owners.” But a “baal habayit” is a landlord, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that some shady landlord was somehow benefiting from a loophole in the law…as too many of our big ones here in DC are wont to do…and had, by vague analogy, no right to that beam in the first place.


Encampments and Luxury Dwellings

I recently interviewed advocates for the “Vacant to Virus Reduction” (V2VR), campaign. One of the arguments of this campaign is that WE, District taxpayers, have already paid dearly for luxury housing — through tax incentives and other perfectly legal means — and so should be able to claim some of that benefit now, in this crisis involving health and housing.

Here in the District of Columbia, we have thousands of housing insecure people and several tent encampments, like these under the train tracks —

from a recent video, shared on Facebook, by Serve Your City DC
from the same video

The tent encampment shown in these two photos lines an underpass not far from the nation’s Capitol Buildings. Just around the corner, meanwhile, we see luxury developments, like this shiny new one pictured below… some of which have vacancies that the V2VR campaign would like filled by those who are currently unhoused in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

rendering is from the website of DC area developer Douglas Jemal

The DC government regularly removes and destroys the belongings and shelters of neighbors in the encampments, insisting that they have no right to live where they do. The same DC government regularly supports the building of luxury dwellings with all kinds of incentives which come from taxpayers’ pockets.


The Root of the Trouble

Svara method in Talmud study emphasizes looking up each word encountered, even if the study partners think they already know it. We learned that the Hebrew word “baal,” which is usually translated as “owner” or “master,” is based on a two-letter root, bet-ayin. And that root can mean to search out, lay bare, or ransack.

And, while I confess to some bias here before I opened the dictionary, finding this root really spoke to one of the many issues bothering me about the idea of returning the beam to its baalav. I cannot argue that either Beit Shammai or Beit Hillel (whose position we will discuss next week) thought property ownership was a form of ransacking. But I will argue that people in DC — and probably in many other locales — need to be thinking about how many of our beams were obtained, what it would mean to extract them or their value, and whether someone who took a beam — or chose to shelter under one that does not technically belong to them — is really the culprit.

None of this even begins to consider the issue of reparations for the Atlantic Slave Trade, for this country’s genocide and massive theft from indigenous people, or for the more recent, ongoing displacement of Black people in DC and elsewhere. But it has caused me to ponder some aspects of the work ahead…into the high holidays and far beyond.



TEXT

The lines we’re learning are from the Talmud, Gitten 55a.

Here are the two lines we have explored so far:

NOTE: Attempting to cut and paste Hebrew/Aramaic text turns it backwards here, so sharing an image; here’s a link to full text at Sefaria. And here is a translation based loosely on what’s at Sefaria and our Svara class:

And about a stolen beam that was built into a large [maybe multi-residential] building [bira], remove the value, due to an ordinance instituted for the penitent….Beit Shammai say: He must destroy the entire building and return the beam to its owners [l’baalav]

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Fugitive Slave Act and Deuteronomy

You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master.
He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.
לֹא-תַסְגִּיר עֶבֶד, אֶל-אֲדֹנָיו, אֲשֶׁר-יִנָּצֵל אֵלֶיךָ, מֵעִם אֲדֹנָיו.
עִמְּךָ יֵשֵׁב בְּקִרְבְּךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ–בַּטּוֹב לוֹ; לֹא, תּוֹנֶנּוּ.
— Deuteronomy 23:16-17 (Christian Bible number differs here*)

…any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them, from arresting such a fugitive from service or labor, . . . or shall harbor or conceal such fugitive, . . . shall be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months….
–Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (full text scroll down to “AN ACT TO AMEND…’An Act Respecting Fugitives from Justice…'”; see also Zinn Education Project)

September 18 marked the signing into law of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring the capture and return of people who had escaped from slavery. This law meant additional danger for people who had escaped from slavery, as well as for free black people who were often misidentified, sometimes deliberately, as escapees. It also endangered those who had been aiding enslaved persons escaping to free states. Many historians note, however, that this law made it harder for people in Free States to remain “neutral” or silent in the face of mass, state-sanctioned enslavement. Forcing more citizens to recognize their complicity helped precipitate the Civil War and a formal end to legal slavery in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Jewish calendar just prompted reading of Deut. 23:16-17 last week (Parashat Ki Teitzei, 9/14/19). So this seems a good time to reflect on these verses and what they teach about our history and our future.

Scripture and Fugitive Slaves

In opposition to the Fugitive Slave Laws, Christian abolitionists regularly referenced the verses in Deuteronomy forbidding the return to slavery of someone who had escaped (a few citations).

Pro-slavery Christians argued, to the contrary: “…the immorality attributed to the fugitive slave law resolves itself into the assumed immorality of slaveholding. No man would object to restoring an apprentice to his master;…” (see Cotton is King cited below).

Some 19th Century Christians interpreted the “fugitive slave” scriptures as referencing very limited circumstances inapplicable to then-contemporary situations. Their arguments, even when sources are not cited, suggest familiarity with traditional Jewish commentary on these verses. Many Jewish teachings, from ancient times to the present, support humane treatment of all people, call on Jews to “remember you were once slaves in Egypt,” and were interpreted in ways supportive of Abolition. These particular verses, however, appear to have been interpreted in very narrow ways, none of which would be helpful to an abolitionist.

A brief review of Jewish discourse before and during the U.S. Civil War — see, e.g., this Yeshiva University site and these brief related video histories — finds that Jews in the public sphere focused on universal human rights, rather than arguing scripture with the Christian majorities.

Jews in the Public Sphere

It is worth noting, in the context of how Jews spoke publicly, that what is now considered “American Judaism” — or, perhaps more accurately: American Judaisms — did not yet exist at the close of the Civil War. There were no major Jewish organizations in the United States until the latter part of the 19th Century:

  • the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) was founded in 1873, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1889;
  • the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary was established in 1886 and the associated Rabbinical Assembly in 1901; and
  • the Orthodox Union was founded in 1898;

Other organizations, such as the immigrant aid society (HIAS), were founded decades after the Civil War was over. Most organizations that help create a public Jewish voice are far newer. The time seems overdue, however, for gathering collective Jewish energies, beginning with sacred text and its interpretations, to consider current implications of Deut 23:16-17:

You shall not turn over to his master
a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master.
He shall live with you in any place he may choose
among the settlements in your midst,
wherever he pleases;
you must not ill-treat him.

Does Deut 23:16 have implications regarding policing today?
What might Deut 23:17 mean for Reparations?

We’ve got text to study and work to do…






NOTE:
*Deuteronomy Chapter 22 has 29 verses in the Hebrew Bible, while Christian bibles have 30 verses. As a result, the same verses that Jews identify as Deut 23:16-17 are numbered 23:15-16 in Christian bibles.

Here is Fox’s translation, known for its attempt to reproduce rhythm and word-choices of the Hebrew original, to aid in discussion:

16) You are not to hand over a serf to his lord
who has sought-rescue by you from his lord.
17) Beside you let him dwell, among you,
in the place that he chooses, within one of your gates (that)
seems good for him;
you are not to maltreat him!


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Some Christian References

1836. Extracts from remarks on Dr. Channing’s Slavery, with comments, by an abolitionist. Boston. Published D.K. Hitchcock 1836 (available through archive.org). More on Channing’s Slavery by William Ellery Channing (1780-1842).

1850.A sermon on Moses’ fugitive slave bill” William Makepeace Thayer (1820-1898). Sermon.

1851. “The Duty of Disobedience to Wicked Laws: A Sermon on the Fugitive Slave Law” by Charles Beecher. Newark, NJ. (free ebook).

1855. Letter from Anthony Burns to the Baptist Church

1859. The Sin of Sending Back Fugitives from Slavery. The Oberlin Evangelist

And: Black Prophets of Justice: Activist Clergy Before the Civil War
By David E. Swift (Louisiana State Univ Press, 1989).

BUT ALSO: 1860. Cotton is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments; comprising the writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, and Cartwright, on this important subject, by E. N. Elliott… (free ebook)

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Jewish Commentary

When the Talmud (compiled by around 500 CE, including many far older traditions) discusses Deut 23:16, one interpretation is that the verse is speaking of someone who buys a slave in order to emancipate them; another is that it refers to a slave who escaped from outside the Land and sought refuge in Eretz Yisrael (Yeb 93b and Gittin 45a). Elaborations over the centuries add the assumption that the latter is meant to keep someone who sough refuge from a heath environment from being returned there.

Another thread of commentary suggests that, given the surrounding context in Deuteronomy, the verses originally referenced war-time, when slaves might use the confusion to escape (e.g., Chizkuni, 13th Century CE).

Ramban (Nahmanides), 1194-1270 Spain, combines above interpretations and then adds both a “moral” and a “practical” sense:

An escaped slave. During a siege of an enemy city, it is common for slaves and prisoners to try and escape to the “liberators.” The Torah commands Israel that such escapees must be give their freedom and permitted to settle wherever they wish in Eretz Yisrael. In the moral sense, for the nation that maintains the holiness of its camp — as required by the above passage — to send a man seeking his freedom back to a life of idolatry would be most unseemly. In the practical sense, people seeking asylum often become important allies of the invaders, because they reveal valuable information that will help in the conquest.

The only responsa on the fugitive slave law which I could find is actually the Reform Movement arguing that Deut. 23:16-17 “permits the reception of proselytes.” American Reform Responsa: Collected Responsa of the Central Conference of American Rabbis 1889-1893.
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