Last week, Harvard University released a report titled “Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery,” part of a wide-ranging initiative aimed at redressing past wrongs. In examining the report, Ira Stoll discovered that “the first Jew at Harvard was a slaveholder.” Examining the life and scholarship of Judah Monis—a Hebrew instructor who converted to Christianity shortly before joining Harvard’s faculty—Stoll concludes that some of the lessons Monis taught helped “create, in America, a story of freedom that surely ranks with the Bible as one of the great slavery-toppling narratives of all time.” (Subscription required)
Doubtless some will see this as additional evidence that the whole enterprise—18th-century Harvard, the American Revolution, the Bible—was rotten to the core. But there is an alternative reading.
If the future American revolutionaries were diligent students of the Hebrew Monis taught, they would have been able to parse with some care the text of Exodus. At Sinai, after God identifies Himself as having “brought you out of Egypt, the house of slavery,” He issues the commandment that the children of Israel obey the Sabbath in part by not having their own slaves work on the seventh day.
In experiencing the irreconcilable contradiction between the reality of slave ownership and the ideal of freedom, in other words, the American revolutionaries weren’t unlike the children of Israel. They were following in their footsteps.