I Found It at the JCB

This month

July 2010


Slavery and a Rabbinic Response

Peri Ets Haim, Amsterdam, ca. 1700.
Original in the John Carter Brown Library.

Tradition and Innovation:
An Early Americas Responsum 
by Hilit Surowitz

One of the most exciting moments in archival research happens when you come across a document that you believe must have existed, though you had little evidence other than intuition to confirm this assumption.  For me, this text was a responsum concerning the ownership of the child of a slave-woman in the Caribbean.  Responsa are legal questions addressed to rabbinic authorities that often touch on the social realities of the day thereby providing historians with insights into the lived reality of the period.  Though this genre of literature has been present since the Talmudic period, finding a decision rendered in 1767, in Amsterdam concerning a particularly Americas problem, was thrilling!

I am a religious historian of the Atlantic World interested in the transatlantic construction of Jewish identity among Portuguese Jews during the early modern period, and I knew that the John Carter Brown Library would be filled with wonderful and rare documents. However, the morning that Dennis Landis shared with me this yet-to-be-catalogued acquisition, I realized that it was unlike anything I had ever seen, or seen referenced.  This responsum is from Peri Ets Haim, a Jewish periodical of halakhic responses, published from 1691 to 1807 in Amsterdam.  The questions and responses in these volumes reflect the engagement of Portuguese Jews with Jewish law and the setting of the Dutch world and its colonies.

The question posed and ruled upon concerns Reuben and Simeon, two generic names used in responsa literature. Reuben, a Caribbean resident, owns a “non-Jewish maidservant” who was his “purchased property” and “worth a great deal.”  Reuben decides to go to Amsterdam for business, and Simeon tells him that “in the city of Amsterdam they do not have permission to purchase or hold slaves” so he, Reuben, should leave the slave with him since if she goes with him she will likely be “cajoled into fleeing.”  Simeon offers Reuben to provide the slave with food in exchange for her labor, and upon Reuben’s return, the slave will be his. 

Reuben agrees, and two years later when he returns, he learns that his slave had borne a son with one of Simeon’s slaves.  However, Simeon wants to return only the slave-woman, and retain the child as his property.  Based on both biblical and rabbinic laws of slave ownership and parental rights, both Simeon and Reuben lay claim to the woman’s child.  Thus, the question being asked of the Amsterdam rabbis is to whom does the child belong: Reuben or Simeon?

The lengthy response is quite interesting as it highlights the complexity of the realities of the social order in the Americas, and the entanglement of religion, race and ethnicity for the Portuguese Jews of the early modern Atlantic world.  The rabbis begin by addressing the issue of the custody of a child borne out of wedlock, and of a non-Jewish mother. In this initial response, the slave-woman is placed in a general category of a non-Jewish woman.  Her race, and her enslavement are not mentioned and play no part in the argument.   On these grounds, the child belongs with his mother and should return with her to Reuben’s household.

More than midway through the response, there is an interesting twist—one that reflect the New World realities of chattel slavery, as the Amsterdam rabbis attempt to consider these new realities within existing legal and conceptual frameworks, shifting from an analysis that focuses on genealogy to one that focus on property rights and family law.  Here, the rabbis argue that if the child is considered as property, then the child belongs to Simeon, as the child was born in his home, and of his slave.

Having set forth arguments in favor of both Reuben and Simeon, David Meldola, son of Raphael Ledolah, the Amsterdam rabbi who wrote the responsum, ultimately rules in favor of the former.

This rich example reflects both the commercial and religious networks that spanned the Atlantic—the first illustrated by the travel of Reuben from the islands to Amsterdam, and the second reflected by the recognition of a center of religious authority in Amsterdam, as the question was submitted to Amsterdam rabbis for response. More deeply, this question demonstrates a particularly New World predicament, and the use of “traditional” Jewish structures to resolve it.  Like other New World European communities, Jews throughout the Americas during the early modern period, were trying to use established concepts to negotiate New World categories. Here the responsum is grappling with a new system of slavery; it first addresses the status of the slave woman and her child in terms of Jewish law concerning her status as a non-Jewish, unwed mother, but then shifts toward an analysis based on her status as property. This responsum highlights the dynamism of the Atlantic world—a place where the interplay between race, religion, and ethnicity intersect.

Hilit Surowitz, University of Florida, was a Truro National Heritage Trust Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library in the summer of 2010.


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