Thursday, January 24, 2013

Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall

Like most of you, I’m sure, I watched the inauguration on Monday with the greatest interest. Particularly, I was impressed by the way the president managed wordlessly to suggest the exceptional symbolism of America’s first black president taking his oath of office on Martin Luther King Day in the month that marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by using in the ceremony both the Bible upon which Lincoln’s own hand rested as he took his oath of office in 1861 and a Bible that once belonged to the Reverend King. Some things you can only say clearly in images, I think, and it’s hard to think how the president could have found a clearer way to express himself regarding the importance of Monday’s ceremony than subtly, yet also fully publicly, to link himself to the legacies both of President Lincoln and of Martin Luther King, thus to indicate that he sees himself as their successor in the struggle for civil rights and justice in our country.
The rest of the Inauguration I liked too. I thought the First Lady’s dress at the Inaugural Ball was fabulous. (Other than the designers of the dresses she didn’t wear, who could not have?) I liked Richard Blanco’s poem, “One Today,” which I thought captured the spirit of the moment well and expressed just the right sense of reality-tinged optimism to suit the occasion. (I was actually surprised to learn that when Robert Frost read his poem, “The Gift Outright,” at President Kennedy’s  swearing-in ceremony in 1961, he was the first poet to be invited to read a poem at a presidential inauguration. I remember that day clearly, and I particularly remember how impressed I was both by the man and his poem. Only later did I hear the fuller story—that he had actually written a different poem for the occasion, one a bit blandly entitled “Dedication,” but found himself blinded by the bright sunlight reflecting off the snow that covered Washington that day and so on the spot decided instead to declaim by heart a poem he had first recited publicly twenty years earlier, but which he thought, as did I at age seven, captured the spirit of the day nicely.)
But I was especially interested in the president’s remarks. Inaugural addresses are interesting pieces of writing. They have to be relatively brief because they have generally been delivered outdoors in the middle of the winter. (Even the original date, March 4—the date on which the Constitution took effect in 1789—can be pretty chilly. The “new date,” January 20, which has been in effect since Franklin Roosevelt’s second term, however, is usually even colder. And the ceremony has only been moved indoors due to inclement weather twice, once for President Taft and once for President Reagan.)  They are not exactly State of the Union addresses, but neither are inaugural addresses expected to sound like campaign speeches. Few have reached the level of humility attained by Franklin Pierce, who opened his remarks in 1853 by observing that he felt only relief  “to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.” And few, surely, have reached (or ever will reach) the generosity of spirit attained in his Second Inaugural Address by Abraham Lincoln, who in fewer than 700 words attained a level of oratorical greatness to which all presidents surely aspire but which only the very fewest will ever attain. But even when considered against the other fifty-six attempts (of which only sixteen were second inaugural addresses, or eighteen if you define “second” as meaning “not first,” and thus include FDR’s third and fourth addresses in the count), I think President Obama spoke well. He certainly attained a level of oratory that exceeds the standard level of political discourse in this country. That is, admittedly, setting the bar a bit low. But on the whole I still think it was a fine address, one that I personally found stirring and inspiring.
I was especially interested in the paragraph about two-thirds of the way through the two-thousand-word speech in which the president said this:  “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”
There’s a lot embedded in those words. The observation that we are all created equal harks back, of course, to the words with which Thomas Jefferson tried to encapsulate the essence of the American democratic ideal in the Declaration of Independence. The irony that hovers over those words like an eminence grise is, of course, that Jefferson himself owned slaves, men and women whom he presumably did not consider to be his equals at all (including not when he fathered children on them). The words have a different ring to them, therefore, as they appear in the opening line of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, especially given Lincoln’s observation in the Second Inaugural Address that the root cause that led to the secession of the southern states was “to strengthen, perpetuate, and extend” slavery in our country…”even by war.” And, of course, those words are also forever linked to Martin Luther King, who declaimed in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech that he had a dream that our country would one day rise up and “live out the true meaning” of Jefferson’s deathless assertion that all men are created equal. The president delicately chose a less gender-specific version of the idea, but the way—if I’m not reading too much into this—the way he found to link himself specifically to Lincoln and King—and not to Jefferson—by choosing their Bibles for the ceremony suggested to me the way that the president understands the notion of equality to be absolute, not subject to the mores of a society that proclaims freedom to most but which reserves the right to exclude at least some Americans from the general principle.
The three examples the president gave are also interesting. Selma, we obviously all know about—it was in the spring of 1965 that the three Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches permanently changed the face of the civil rights movement by creating the public outcry that led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which act of Congress changed the landscape of Southern politics permanently. (In Selma itself, for example, the majority if citizens in 1965 were black, but only 1% were on the voter rolls because of policies that made it almost impossible for black people to register to vote. The Voting Rights Act required federal oversight of voter registration and is generally considered to have done more to enfranchise black voters in our country than any other piece of legislation in our nation’s history.)  And we all know about Stonewall as well, or we should: it is the name of the gay bar in the West Village that was the site of the riot in 1969 that has come to symbolize the refusal of gay people to be marginalized, discriminated against, or treated prejudicially by the police or the courts.  So those two references were clear enough. 
But, I asked myself embarrassedly, whatever happened at Seneca Falls?

Does everybody but me know? By now, of course, everybody does know, or anyone with access to the Internet does! I looked it up as well, and was surprised by what I found. Seneca Falls, it turns out, is a town in the Finger Lakes region near Geneva, New York, and was the site in the summer of 1848 of the first women’s rights convention to be organized by women in the United States. The meeting, organized by a number of local woman including Elizabeth Cady Stanton around a visit by Lucretia Mott, both of them well-known supporters of women’s suffrage, was most famous for producing the “Declaration of  Sentiments” that eventually became one of the foundational documents in the struggle for women’s rights in our country.  It was the beginning of a long struggle; when the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified in 1920, exactly one of the one hundred signatories to the Declaration was still alive and she, a woman named Charlotte Woodward, was too ill actually to vote. But it was, at least, a beginning, just as the Stonewall riot itself didn’t accomplish anything too tangible but is somehow nevertheless credited with putting the concept of gay rights on the table for consideration by people who earlier on might not even have acknowledged its existence.  Even the Selma march is far more important in terms of what it led to in terms of forcing a sea-change in public opinion than in terms of what it itself accomplished. So perhaps the president was right to consider the three, Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall, as each other’s equivalent respectively in the struggle for gender equity, racial equality, and gay rights.

How Jewish Americans figure into that equation is hard to say. In our struggle for full equality in this country, we have surely faced prejudice as diabolical as that any other group has had to overcome, yet it’s not that easy to say what event would be the Jewish equivalent to the three seminal moments in the struggle for equality the president mentioned. Have we never then had one? Or has the Jewish struggle for acceptance taken a different course, one that hasn’t led to legislation formally designed to end anti-Jewish prejudice or to riots intended by the rioters to call the attention of the public to the unfair way in which they were being treated by public officials whose job it was to make them safe and to guarantee their wellbeing? It does feel that way to me, but it’s hard to say exactly why things have played themselves out the way they have. Yet we too have made progress towards equality that our own great-grandparents would probably have found unimaginable, just as have black people, women, and gay citizens. Perhaps we have simply faced a different kind of enemy in those prejudiced against us, one in whose hands the usual weaponry of prejudice—marginalization, segregation, and denigration—have not worked as well as they have when aimed at other groups. Is it because, in the end, we have always looked with contempt on haters who direct their prejudice against us and have found in that contempt the ultimate weapon against the slings and arrows of bigotry? Even that doesn’t sound entirely right to me…and yet in these days since the president’s speech I have found myself wondering endlessly about the issue and still, as I write these words, uncertain why the Jewish experience in America has been so similar and so dissimilar to the experiences of other discriminated-against groups in this place.  It seemed odd to me that in the president’s mind, the struggle against anti-Semitism did not take its place alongside the other struggles for equality and fairness that he mentioned. But even I cannot say what I would have had him add to the troika of alliterative turning-points he did mention when he alluded to Stonewall, Selma, and Seneca Falls in his address.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Courtly Love on the Rebound

It’s interesting how rapidly, but also how subtly, things change in the world. It struck me the other day, for example, that I hadn’t been in my bank—or any bank—for weeks and weeks. There was, of course, a time when I went to the bank all the time. We all did, I think…but those days somehow vanished almost without me noticing. My salary is direct -deposited into my checking account. So is Joan’s. I pay all my bills on-line. I deposit checks by opening my bank’s app on the phone and then taking pictures of them with my phone’s camera. In fact, when I actually did go to the bank the other day, it was specifically to deposit a check drawn on a Canadian bank in U.S. dollars which, for some obscure reason, you’re not allowed to deposit through your phone. When there start to be fewer and fewer branches to visit, I’ll probably complain just a loudly as I did when I began to realize that there were no more music shops or, other than Barnes and Noble, bookstores on Long Island. That too was my fault, at least in the sense that I am one of those people who switched early on to buying both music and books almost exclusively in on-line stores, but it was somehow still something I at least partially regretted having been slightly responsible for long after it was far too late actually to do anything about.  I suppose that’s how the world morphs forward to new versions of itself: occasionally undergoing alteration by individuals who adopt grandiose schemes to change things in a big way (like the mayor of New York dramatically outlawing the Big Gulp), but mostly by regular people simply adopting new habits or novel ways of doing things and then, suddenly, the tipping point being reached at which the new way becomes the norm.
All these thoughts came to me the other day as I was reading, not so much the story about the bizarre way Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o—the most decorated college football player of all time—was duped by someone with whom he thought he had established a kind of on-line romance, but the comments that story engendered among the readers of the story who posted their responses in the Times’ on-line forum, readers whom I think it is reasonable to suppose represent a random cross-section of society.
The story itself you all probably know. Last September, Te’o announced that his girlfriend, a woman named Lennay Kekua, had died of leukemia. Compounding the tragedy, he also said, was the fact that his grandmother had also died that very same day. But now it turns out that Kekua not only didn’t die that or any day, but that she also never lived.  After the story surfaced on the internet, Notre Dame reported that its own private investigation had determined that Te’o had been duped, that someone had used a fictitious name “[to ingratiate] herself with Manti and then [to conspire] with others to lead him to believe that she had tragically died of leukemia.”  Te’o himself released a statement saying that he was the victim of “someone’s sick joke,” which he labeled as “painful and humiliating.”
I’m not much of a sports guy in general, but I am particularly uninterested in college football. But what did interest me was neither the discovery that there are creepy people out there who take some sort of perverse pleasure in making others look foolish (I certainly knew that already) nor the realization that love can make a fool out of anyone at all (I knew that too), but the comments that the story engendered. Basically, they fell into two categories: those who felt it was entirely reasonable for a young couple to pursue a romance that is exclusively on-line and those who held fast to the more traditional concept of romance involving physical nearness and actual, rather than virtual, contact.
This is not much like on-line banking.  Why would I want to have to drive to the bank to deposit my salary check when it can automatically appear in my account at 12:01 AM on payday without me having to go anywhere at all? I can’t think of a reason why I would, which is why I am pleased to have my pay direct-deposited into my account. But I can think of all sorts of reasons to want to pursue a romance in person rather than virtually! Has Facebook really engendered a generation of young people to whom relationships are virtual by their essential nature and only occasionally transcend their inherent etherealness actually to exist in physical space? Is physical nearness—which I would have thought to be the sine qua non of romance—only a stage to which relationships grow nowadays after they’ve been established in the ether by people who know each other solely through Facebook or who meet at some on-line, thus waterless, watering-hole? It seems to me that the answer to that question has to do with how moderns have come to understand the concept of friendship as much as it does with the way they understand romance.
When I was growing up, friendships were presumed to have natural lives. You liked your friends, shared experiences together, helped each other through life’s rough spots…but, with the exception of the handful of truly life-long friends you managed to acquire along the way, these relationships had shelf lives that rarely outlived the context in which they first materialized. I feel no specific reason to justify having lost contact, for example, with the boys I went to summer camp with as a child. I couldn’t have liked camp more, and I remember my bunkmates all very fondly as part of that larger picture. (The fact that I can still name almost all the other boys in my cabin at Camp Oakdale surprises even me, given that the last summer we all spent together was when I was twelve years old.) I’d even like to know what happened to all of them, partially out of residual affection and partially to see how well I really did know them, but I’d never refer to any of them today as my friends. Former friends, maybe. Ex-friends sounds too harsh. Inactive friends, too peculiar.  Defunct friends sounds to my ear worse than either. Simply put, we were friends when we were in close contact the course of some very formative years of our childhoods, then grew up and went our separate ways.  Without ongoing contact, our friendships moved into the near, then eventually the distant, past. Surely there’s nothing wrong with remembering former friends fondly. But I’m old enough to want the people I actually think of as my friends to be present in my actual life, not only within the realm of memory.
But that’s me. And most people my age too, I suspect. A younger generation, on the other hand, has come into existence that considers friendships to be untethered to ongoing reality, thus in a sense permanent, and that finds it entirely reasonable to have on your list of hundreds upon hundreds of virtual “friends” people you haven’t seen since junior high school (if they still had junior high schools, that is) or summer camp. And also that considers the fact that a given personality from the past has no physical reality in your life in the present is not anything like a good enough reason not to think of that person as your friend.
And so we move onto romance. Sex, you clearly have to have in person. (I heard that. Let’s move on.) But romance, in its guise as the most tender and affective version of friendship, can apparently exist in the minds of many fully virtually, thus entirely outside the context of physical proximity.  Clearly, even the most physically fit football players cannot move a romance to the stage of physical intimacy without physical proximity. But that the possibility exists of having a girlfriend you’ve never actually met…that idea would once have seemed far more unlikely than it seems to some today.
The long, complicated debate among the Times’ readers about whether it’s possible reasonably to think of as a girlfriend someone you’ve never actually met fascinated me. In some ways, it reminded me of the stories I read in the courses I took as an undergraduate in medieval French and German literature, stories featuring the concept of chivalrous love founded solely on unilateral affection and often focused on the beloved, always a woman, from a great distance by an admirer of whose very existence she was totally unaware.  That kind of unrequited yet fully emotionally realized love formed the basis for the chansons de geste that featured courtly love—always unrequited at first and only eventually, if ever, consummated in physical reality—that were the bread and butter of the troubadours of the High Middle Ages. The concept seemed so odd to me at the time that I remember wondering if people like the knights and dames in the stories ever really existed, but in retrospect I believe I found it all so interesting precisely because it seemed so romantic and attractive, yet also failed to correspond to any aspect of dating or courtship I recognized from the world in which I actually lived.

Who knew that if I only waited long enough people would end up debating the concept of the virtual girlfriend and arguing about the legitimacy of romance conducted solely from afar? I suppose most college football players date women they actually know personally and I can’t imagine Manti Te’o doesn’t regret the whole incident now that the whole world is in on its details. I’m sure I would too! But the more interesting part of the story to me is how many people who contributed to the on-line forum surrounding the story appeared to find it reasonable for romance to be pursued solely through the ether…and, in a day in which sexual intimacy seems to function more as the starting gate than the finishing line for most relationships, how many people seem more than willing to accept the reasonableness of dating someone one has never actually met. Could courtly love be poised for a come-back? Maybe the world really does need more troubadours!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Stone and Dung

Most Shelter Rockers will not know that there is a whole cottage industry out there producing books that purport to describe what life in ancient Israel in the time of Jesus was all about.  Why Christian readers would be interested in such books is obvious enough: each detail added to the background makes the story unfolding in the foreground feel that much more real, that much more believable. But the reason that these books seem continually to be coming out may be less obvious and has to do with the sources themselves on which authors and scholars rely when they attempt to describe what Jewish life was like in Roman Judea.

Rabbinic sources are rich, but there are no consequential surviving texts at all that were indisputably written in the first part of the first century CE in Roman Judea. The New Testament also contains no books or letters that were written by people living in Israel during Jesus’s lifetime. Flavius Josephus, the great Jewish author, did live in the right time and place, but he was more of a military historian than a social one and even The Antiquities of the Jews, his magnum opus, is far more about the author’s people’s past than the author’s personal present.  Other authors—especially Jewish Philo writing in Alexandria and any number of pagan authors who here and there mention details about Jews and Jewish life during the crucial years of the first century—add shading to the picture that emerges from the larger sources. But, in the end, there is no single surviving work focused solely on Jewish life in the first century that was written by a contemporary possessed of the background and education accurately to describe what life actually was like in that time and place.  Even the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, filled to overflowing with information about the seaside community at Qumran that produced (or at least preserved) them, are hard to use simply as sources of information because it is so difficult to know when they are describing life as their authors thought it ideally should be and when they were describing life as it actually was. Nor is it at all obvious which features of like at Qumran were intended to be distinctive and different from how things were elsewhere in ancient Israel and which were “just” parts of life as the ancients knew it to be.

Added to the literary sources is the testimony of archeology.  For most interested parties, though, archeological remains—silent, moot, and mostly crumbling—have a certain inscrutability that makes it difficult to know how to fit them into the larger picture. Nor is it easy to master the enormous amount of information, most of it about details as little fascinating as the handles of clay pots and the shape of foundation stones, that scholars have gathered over the years. But now I have read a book that uses literary sources—including, in a particularly intelligent, almost magisterial, way, the material from the Dead Sea Scrolls—to buttress the indisputably real (and suddenly fascinating) findings of archeologists in a way that I’ve never seen before. The book, called Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, was written by Jodi Magness, a professor of Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (The book was published in Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, England, by Eerdman’s Publishing in 2011.)  Reading it will be very worth your while.  And although the subtitle was no doubt phrased as it was to sell books to the enormous Christian market, Jewish readers will find in the book perhaps the very best description of first century Jewish life in ancient Israel—and particularly in the pivotal decades that preceded the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE—that I personally have read. I recommend the book, therefore, wholeheartedly to readers whose interest in the first century has far more to do with Hillel and Shammai than with Jesus and Paul.  Still, readers whose primary area of first century interest is earliest Christianity will also find the experience of reading Professor Magness’s book extremely rewarding.

What struck me the most is how different things were back then, but also how similar to how things are today they also were.  Some of the material in the book will strike readers as, to say the least, somewhere between alien and bizarre. Other details will seem picayune almost to the point of being laughably so. But just as the greatest, most impressive tapestry is created of single threads, so do all these minor, individually unimportant, details come together in the author’s masterful synthesis to present a picture of real life as it was actually lived.

The author devotes a few pages to the fascinating question of whether chickens were permitted to enter Jerusalem in ancient times. (I myself was curious if she would reference the obscure but tantalizing mishnaic reference to a Jerusalem chicken once being convicted of murder and consequently executed, and I wasn’t disappointed.) In a memorable chapter, the author discusses household pots and pans, distinguishing between those made of clay, glass, stone, and dried (but unfired) animal dung. Elsewhere readers are treated to a long discussion of comparative bathroom habits, featuring a very interesting description of the Temple toilet and a very learned disquisition on the no less arresting question of whether or not the Dead Sea community permitted defecation on Shabbat. (I remember reading John Gregory Bourke’s 1891 book, Scatological Rites of All Nations, years ago after I noticed somewhere that Freud himself wrote the introduction to the German-language edition, but who knew how much first-century Jewish material there was to add into the mix? Gross to consider or not, I found the material fully engaging. Speaking candidly, who wouldn’t?)

There’s a great section devoted solely to spit and spitting. (You’d be amazed how much there is to say.) Perhaps most important of all is the long final chapter about Jewish burial practices in the first century, the author’s detailed exposition of the evidence told against the background of the gospels’ account of Jesus’s death and burial. Catering to her audience, the author in this context discusses the so-called Talpiyot tomb considered by some—but not by the author, whose demurral is extremely convincing—as the family burial plot of Jesus’s family, and also devotes serious space to debunking the claim of some that an ossuary—a bone repository—found in Israel about a decade ago contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus. Another chapter that I actually read twice so as to absorb all its detail was the one about clothing and nudity in ancient Israel, including a great discussion regarding the fully obscure question of how and under what circumstances clothing could be considered impure.

Most of the details mentioned above will sound odd to moderns, even to the point of being slightly off-putting. But the author also paints a picture of Jewish life that will strike modern readers as exceedingly familiar. Citizens worrying about paying their taxes and trying to balance their obligations to the secular state and to the Temple and its staff. Sons and daughters worrying about their parents’ graves, and scrupling to make sure that families that live together in life find some way to stay together in death as well.  Men and women scrupling to maintain homes that conform to the Torah’s laws governing the preparation and presentation of food. Generally sturdy individuals dealing with unexpected stomach ailments or unanticipated urinary tract issues, or worrying purposefully about the healthy functioning of their bowels.  Working people attempting to convert their wages into currency that will retain its value regardless of market fluctuations in the price of silver or gold. Jewish people attempting to keep Shabbat properly, worrying about issues like cooking and carrying, and trying to decide if fasting should be permitted on Shabbat only when Yom Kippur falls on a Saturday or on other occasions as well.

In other words, it’s a world we all know as well as one that seems foreign and strange. At the end of the day, I suppose, everything changes and nothing changes. People dress differently and pay for their meals in restaurants differently and exercise differently (although apparently not that differently) and observe different kinds of courtship rituals (ditto).  But those are essentially cosmetic issues that affect the outer patina of daily life more than the day-to-day inner lives of actual people, while the “real” issues that people really do grapple with in the course of their lives—figuring out how best to get along with our spouses, trying to devise the best way to raise obedient children, struggling to earn a decent living, learning artfully how to juggle one set of responsibilities to our aging parents and another set to our own families, devising ways to retain a healthy sense of individuality while also finding a way to flourish as one of many in a larger community, worrying about health issues, fearing death, agonizing over the future of our families, praying that our children find suitable matches, hoping for grandchildren and even great-grandchildren—these kinds of issues endure from generation to generation, never really changing much as people experience the same frustrations and encounter the same roadblocks and develop analogous sets of strategies and hopes and fantasies and dreams as did their ancestors before them. And also as will, please God, their descendants after them.

Professor Magness has written a great book, one that will stress to readers just how much everything alters from millennium to millennium and just how little anything ever changes. Her book isn’t that long, but I found it rewarding and very satisfying to read. It inspired me to be curious about all sorts of things I’ve rarely paused to consider, but also to feel contentedly contextualized in terms of my own slightly obsessive need to worry about things I ought to know by now that I can’t fully control. I don’t believe I’ve ever worried about whether or not to recite a blessing when I wash my hands with undiluted wine and I certainly do not own any bowls or pots made of dung.  But the underlying issues the book references as permanent things that Jewish people apparently always have and surely still do obsess about—those are the things I actually do think about constantly. That in that I have horizontal company across space I obviously know perfectly well. But that I also have vertical company, so to speak, throughout the millennia—that truth I found very satisfying to contemplate indeed.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Emancipating America

This week marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of those pivotal historical documents far more widely referenced than actually ever read. Setting the Proclamation in its proper historical context so as truly to understand its importance, however, requires more than just a quick read-through. Understanding the backstory that led to its promulgation as official policy on January 1, 1863, in fact, requires understanding a complex story rooted as much in religion as in politics…and as much in the divide between agrarian and urban society that had developed in the course of the first ninety years of our country’s history as in the one that separated North from South. It is also possible to interpret the importance of this week’s anniversary not specifically in terms of the Proclamation and its immediate effect, but in terms of the way societies in general (and American society in particular) grow morally and slowly develop, if they do, into ever-finer iterations of their own earlier versions.

The question regarding the degree to which the Civil War was “about” slavery remains contentious. On the one hand, the slave trade itself was banned by Congress in 1807, more than half a century before the acts of secession that led to the Civil War. On the other, it was not the slave trade per se that was still being debated by Americans at mid-century, but the “peculiar institution” (as slavery was known) itself. And it is surely also relevant that the various attempts at compromise—the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850 (which included, among other provisions, the Fugitive Slave Act), and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 foremost among them—were all about slavery, which makes it feel reasonable to posit that it was precisely the failure of all of these efforts to reach a real accord between the states that led to secession.  Indeed, the famous “Cornerstone Speech” delivered by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens  in Savannah on March 21, 1861, took specific issue with Thomas Jefferson’s deathless assertion that the cornerstone of American society was to be the belief that all are created equal and instead asserted that the Confederacy was founded “upon exactly the opposite [idea]” and that its cornerstone would thus rest “upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” That being the case, it seems odd to argue that the war was “about” secession rather than being “about” slavery.  One cannot go to war against a house without also going to war against its foundation!

And so did President Lincoln announce on September 22, 1862, that he would—acting solely on the authority constitutionally vested in him as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the United States—go to war with the foundation as well as the house by emancipating all slaves in any state that had joined the Confederacy that failed to return to the Union by January 1, 1863. None did. And so, on the first day of January exactly 150 years ago last week, Lincoln made good on his promise (or rather, his threat) and formally granted all slaves living in the ten states that had seceded from the Union their freedom.  The importance of the proclamation cannot be gainsaid: even though fewer than 50,000 slaves were actually present in areas of the Confederacy under the control of Union forces on New Year’s Day in 1863, Lincoln’s proclamation promised freedom to 3.1 million of the four million slaves living at that time in the United States as the Union army advanced. (It is also worth noting that the almost 900,000 slaves living in slave states that were not in rebellion—Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, Tennessee, and in its own unique situation, West Virginia—were not affected at all by the Proclamation. Missouri, Maryland, and Tennessee abolished slavery on their own in the course of the war. West Virginia was admitted to the Union on the basis of its commitment to end slavery. The slaves of Kentucky and Delaware, about 40,000 in number, were only finally freed when Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.)

Slavery, of course, was an ancient institution. The Bible presumes its reasonableness at the same time it presents legislation intended to ameliorate its worst excesses. Rabbinic tradition wanders further down that path, attempting to create a more just society both for the free and the enslaved, but without ever declaring slavery to be morally reprehensible per se and thus forbidden, if not quite de jure, then at least de facto. Nor were the Jews of antiquity alone in their failure to recognize the odiousness of slavery and its consequent unacceptability: the New Testament too presumes the reasonableness of slavery in several passages, going so far in one as to recommend that slaves accept their status humbly rather than begrudgingly. Church leaders, including several popes, owned slaves. So did a dozen presidents of the United States, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. About a third of Southern families owned slaves, constituting about 8% of all American families. There were even black slave owners in the United States—almost four thousand of them owning about three times that many slaves in 1830, 80% of whom lived in Louisiana. So you could say that slavery was a pervasive feature of American life, if not a universal one. 

What interests me the most, though, is the ability of an idea to gain momentum and eventually to transform a society.  Things seem set. Everybody believes certain truths that appear indisputable. The status quo becomes identified with societal equilibrium, with the public weal. Rocking the boat feels wrong, or at least inimical to the smooth functioning of the world as it is. But there are always people who can rise up over that sense of wellbeing that conforming to the norm engenders in most. These were the irritating people who began to denounce slavery not merely as peculiar, but as wicked, as wrong. These people—people like William Wilberforce in the U.K. and William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass in the U.S., plus countless others—did not become popular. They were going against the simple meaning of biblical legislation. They were condemning people who were held in the highest repute. They appeared to be making shaky the foundation upon which the castle rests without caring exactly who might be hurt if this or that part of one turret or another fell to the ground.  Slowly, though, what seemed arbitrary became more the norm, more what “regular” people believed.  And so society ended up choosing a new course based not on the inevitability of moral growth, but on the willingness of those visionaries among us to speak up and to insist that they can see more clearly than many normally considered their betters.

There was a time when interracial marriage was forbidden at one time or another in forty-one of our fifty states. (When the Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in 1967, sixteen states still had such laws on their books.) There was a time when women were not permitted to vote in our country.  There was a time when discrimination against various minority groups was considered reasonable, when one of any citizen’s civil rights was widely understood to include the basic right to refuse service to black people or to Jews in a shop or a restaurant or a hotel. Or to women. Or to disabled people or to gay people or to the members of any disliked minority group. All of these practices, plus countless others I’ve left unmentioned, were normal features of daily life in these United States, the kind of things that the large majority of people hardly noticed, let alone protested, let alone protested vigorously. Some still are.  But there are always some among us who have the moral insight to look out at the world and to see not what is but what should be or what could be.  Most find such people irritating. When some first begin to ask challenging, game-changing questions, there are always others who feel personally under attack. The smooth functioning of society appears to many to rest on the willingness of its members to accept its rules without complaining too forcefully or too loudly. But, in the end, the natural path forward for societies is to grow, including intellectually, morally, and spiritually. And those who lead a society forward towards moral growth generally end up not as its wreckers but as its saviors.

The anti-slavery movement grew slowly in the United States. The first formal call for an end to slavery dates back to 1688, when a group of Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, created a petition calling for an end to human bondage in Pennsylvania. The first abolitionist society, the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, was founded in 1775 in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780. Strong voices slowly joined the cause, men like John Jay, Thomas Paine, and Henry Clay. Eventually most northern states followed suit, some very slowly. (New York State only freed its slaves in 1827.)  In 1833, William Lloyd Garrison and some other founded the American Anti-Slavery Society, which became a major abolitionist organization. Slowly, society began to see that what had once seemed a benign peculiarity that could be tolerated was actually a grotesque evil that had to be eradicated if a society founded on moral principles could endure in this place. Seen within context, the Emancipation Proclamation was a major step in a long parade forward, one that began in antiquity and will eventually forward to the abolition of slavery in all places and for all people. 

The struggle is hardly over, however. The State Department released a report in 2007 that suggested that there may be as many as 27 million people held in the world today as slaves, which figure includes one million children held against their will by international sex traffickers. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, these slaves originate in 127 different countries and live in 137 different ones. And this is despite the fact that every one of those countries has laws on its books prohibiting slavery. (If you are reading this electronically, click here to see these and other, even more upsetting, statistics regarding slavery in the world today. I also would like to recommend the essay on slavery in the modern world by Louis P. Masur, a professor of American history at Rutgers University, that the New York Times published on New Year’s Eve. If you can, click here to see Professor Masur’s essay.

The work that remains to be done notwithstanding, we should rightly celebrate this anniversary as an important milestone in the moral progress of American society. If we also resolve, as individuals and as a nation, to try to find slightly less irritating those among us who insist on imagining what none can yet see—that too would be a worthy way to acknowledge the anniversary of President Lincoln’s single greatest act of faith in his and our country and in its future.