What the Torah Says About ‘40 Acres and a Mule’

Updated: Mar 1

Near the end of the Civil War, as Union General William T. Sherman ravaged through the Confederacy on his “March to the Sea,” about 25,000 freed slaves joined the march with no idea of where their newfound freedom would lead them. Unfortunately, Sherman and the Union Army hadn’t exactly accounted for doubling the size of their march, or what the next step for freed slaves would be. So, General Sherman gathered around twenty African-American religious leaders in Savannah, Georgia to open a discussion regarding how to best help freed slaves create a new life. According to Sherman’s memoirs, he asked the question: “In what manner do you think you can take care of yourselves, and how can you best assist the government in maintaining your freedom?” This group chose Reverend Garrison Frazier to speak on their behalf. Frasier was 67 years old at the time and had spent his entire life in slavery until he purchased his freedom in 1857. The Reverend responds to Frasier: “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor.” Just four days later, General Sherman issued Special Order 15, and set aside 400,000 acres of land confiscated from the Confederacy for freed slaves and their families, as well as a surplus mule. And there it was - 40 acres and a mule.

Following Lincoln’s assasination just a few months later, President Johnson immediately reversed Sherman’s Special Order 15, and gave almost all of the 400,000 acres back to the Confederacy. It’s as if they went back in time; I mean, what good does freedom do if you have virtually no means of applying it? In one gut punch, African Americans were stripped of the prospects of developing their own land, and establishing their own self-sufficient communities - let alone the ability to develop generational wealth to be passed onto future generations. They became sharecroppers. They may have been freed from chattel slavery, but after ninety years of Jim Crow, sixty years of separate but equal, and thirty-five years of racist housing policies, we are still witnessing the multitude of ways by which Black Americans have yet to recieve justice for the hundreds of years of oppression they endured at the hands of the United States government. As Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein says, “Liberation from slavery without reparations, is simply put, woefully incomplete liberation.”

So, why bring a Rabbi into this, and more importantly, why is it important that American Jews understand the significance of this? Well, they too, have a similar history - slavery to freedom - everything in Jewish tradition revolves around this central story. In the Torah, it says 36 times, “you shall love the stranger.” The Torah also tells us that as the Israelites were fleeing Egypt, God commanded them to empty out the Egyptians of their wealth; they took gold, silver, clothing, and valuable raw materials from their Egyptian neighbors. For 430 years, the Israelites were enslaved; they lost an unimaginable amount of wealth, but some might suggest, they got their 40 acres and a mule. The Rabbis of the Talmud viewed the wealth taken by the Israelites as slavery reparations. After all, this wealth was not amassed by Egyptians in the first place; it was a result of 430 years of Israelite labor. According to the Talmudic Rabbis of the Sanhedrin, as well as the Torah, reparations were just, and should be taken by any means necessary as commanded by God. This is not the only time that the Jewish people have received reparations. Without going into too much detail, Germany has paid $70 Billion in reparations to Jews and the State of Israel (called “Wiedergutmachung” - “making good again”) since West Germany signed a reparations agreement with Israel in 1952, 87 years after the American Civil War ended. This act of reparations cannot just be limited to the Jewish people. Jewish tradition teaches that no one is free until all are free. In modern American politics, the concept of reparations for African Americans has yet to grow legs, and will remain a fringe idea until our country’s leaders take it seriously. Change does not come without changing people’s mindset. There needs to be a fundamental shift in how American Jews, and Americans in general, think about the Black community in the United States. This is not limited to Jews, but it is the responsibility of the Jewish people to start the conversation that is reparations for African Americans due to the shared experiences of the two communities. Jewish people were once slaves too, and can never forget that.

By: Samuel Hausman-Weiss

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